Too clever for this world


Fortunately I rang the ‘Today Programme’ this morning to check they still wanted me for a package on why intellectuals are bad at politics. ‘Oops’ said the nice lady ‘we did leave a message on your voice mail saying we’d dropped it’.  Either my Blackberry is playing up or Lord Matthew Taylor, the former Liberal Democrat MP, is trying to work out why he has a message from the BBC saying ‘sorry, we don’t need you any more’. I hope he doesn’t read too much into it.

The prompt for the item (or, as it turned out, non-item) was the disastrous performance of renowned public intellectual Michael Ignatieff in the recent Canadian General Election; his Liberal Party forced an early election, performed disastrously, and Ignatieff immediately resigned.  

If I had appeared on ‘Today’ I would have said that intellectuals can succeed in politics but only if they change the way they communicate. This is partly down to a strong strand of anti-intellectualism in popular culture. But it is also because the way intellectuals think and talk about the world and the ways requried of politicians are very different.

Politicians will say ‘the country is going to the dogs, my policies will transform it, then our country will be great again and everyone will be happy’. An intellectual will say ‘the country is a complex mix of characteristics, many of which defy simple explanation. Our policies may make a difference at the margin but it would take years even to be able reasonably to claim they had done so. Our country’s destiny is largely a matter of forces beyond our control and, anyway, whatever we do we can never escape the fundamental pathos of human existence’

Intellectuals can try to dumb down and adapt to the doggerel of party politics but they often lack conviction. Same of Labour’s best thinkers – Graham Allen, Tony Wright, and Frank Field – were failures in the ministerial stakes. Listening to his thoughtfulness and candour, I often wonder whether my friend Jesse Norman MP could ever adapt to the thin gruel of ministerial speeches and Party ‘lines to take’.

The worst side of this is when intellectuals try and fail to be populist and in doing so come across as unbearably phoney; which brings me, circuitously, to the AV Referendum.

I don’t have particularly strong opinions on electoral reform, and it is certainly not the place of the RSA to have an official view (indeed we are holding an entirely balanced debate on voting reform this very lunchtime).  However,  a few months ago a couple of people working on the ‘yes’ campaign asked me privately for my professional opinion of the kind of campaign they might run.

My view was simple. The strongest argument for AV is that it makes more voters matter. So, the campaign should find three real people each of whom should combine a winning personality with a proper job, say a taxi driver, a shopkeeper and a nurse. The taxi driver would be a Labour voter in Surrey; the nurse would be a Tory in Barnsley and the shop keeper a Liberal Democrat in South Wales. The whole campaign would be about Fred, Ahmed and Rita and why they would continue to be ignored by all the parties as long as first past the post persists.

In every debate the ‘yes’ side would simply demand from the ‘no’ side what they would say to Fred, Ahmed and Rita who had never been canvassed, never got a leaflet and never voted for a winning General Election candidate.

This is a populist campaign but it is based on a genuine argument. Instead the ‘yes’ campaign made the disastrous decision to make MP accountability the core issue, suggesting without any real foundation that AV would make MPs behave better and reduce the chances of future expenses scandals. This campaign lacks credibility, it has alienated many MPs and has meant – in the face of even more ludicrous claims by the ‘no’ campaign – that impartial commentators have tended to condemn the whole debate as bogus.

I suspect this is a classic example of clever people – the yes campaign planners – trying to appeal to the public basest instinct (knee jerk hostility to politicians) and making a complete hash of it.

Complicated ideas often must be simplified for public consumption. You can - as advertisers say - sell the sizzle not the sausage. Ministers have to be disciplined and stay broadly on message. But this is not the same as saying things you know to be nonsense. Many intellectuals find public opinion either mystifying or depressing and so when they try to appeal to it get it terribly wrong, looking shifty and cynical into the bargain.

As the embarrassing pictures of Michael Ignatieff posing in an ice hockey shirt testify, if there is one thing worse than an intellectual in politics, it is an intellectual who is trying to be a populist.

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