Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Too clever by half: intellectuals and politics

Although the definition of politics as the ‘art of the possible’ was attributed to RAB Butler in 1971, it was in fact originally made by Otto von Bismarck in 1867.  Yet it and Harold Wilson’s much vaunted aphorism that ‘ a week is a long time in politics’ in many ways characterise the ways in which politicians construe politics in Britain.  Walter Bagehot in his essay on Sir Robert Peel published in 1856 was more explicit in his view of politicians: ‘a constitutional statesman is in general a man of common opinions and uncommon abilities….[with] the powers of a first-rate man and the creed of a second-rate man…His intellect, admirable in administrative routines…was not of the class which creates, or which readily even believes an absolutely new idea…’   Scepticism towards intellectuals and ideas in politics has a long pedigree and there is a certain irony in the fact that Arthur Balfour, arguably Britain’s only intellectual as prime minister, wrote on the question of philosophical scepticism. 

The English view of intellectuals in politics, the view of very different in Scotland where Enlightenment ideas established a long tradition of the intellectual in politics, is far different from perspectives on the Continent and, to some degree, in the United States where being called an intellectual is seen less as a term of derision than a recognition of the political ideas individuals express.  In France, it can even be a career choice.  This is not to say that English politicians do not have ideas, and on occasions original ones but reflects that very English trait that intellectuals are ‘too clever by half’, a sort of inverse intellectual snobbery.  While we value wit and satire, we do not have a real affinity for intellectuals; they are regarded as aloof, impractical and often politically naive.  Politics is about being pragmatic and politicians with intellectual aspirations save them for their autobiographies and even there they often have little significance.  Politicians enter politics for different reasons but a common theme is a desire to make society ‘better’ (no politician would want to make it worse), though there is rarely any attempt to define what ‘better’ actually means.  What the public crave is a politics that delivers what they want, whether that be economic prosperity, political stability or in the past the vote, and they are little interested in the philosophical route politicians take to reach those ends.  The intellectual divide separating conservatism, liberalism and socialism that resulted in vibrant debates not simply about means but ends has been gradually eroded in the past three decades to such an extent that all three major political parties can now be seen as supporting the idea of social democracy, though again without really defining what social democracy actually means, and seeking electoral control of the increasingly unintellectual ‘middle ground’ leaving debates about ideas to the extremes on left and right.  Vision is something politicians talk about when they are in opposition but once in power vision is rarely seen as having any real resonance in the need to find practical and pragmatic solutions to political problems in a 24/7 media age.  Reacting to circumstances has always been an important feature of any form of politics but reacting to situations in an intellectual vacuum makes politics less the art of the possible and more the craft of the administrative detail.

No comments: