A talent for politics? Academics, failure, and emotion
Matthew Flinders writes on the Oxford University Press blog:
Sometimes a fragment of a book manages to lodge itself in the back of your mind. An idea, a description, a phrase…just something, and often completely unrelated to the core story, attaches itself to your mind like an intellectual itch you can’t quite scratch. My ‘itch’ stems from a passing comment towards the end of Michael Ignatieff’s Fire and Ashes (2013) in which he suggests a certain incompatibility between politics ‘as theory’ and politics ‘as practice’ which effectively ensures that successful academics (or political theorists as Ignatieff more precisely argues) rarely make successful politicians. Cicero, Machiavelli, Edmund Burke, James Madison, de Tocqueville, John Stuart Mill, Max Weber all demonstrated huge capacity for writing on the theory and nature of politics, but their forays into the political arena themselves were marred in failure or defined by dissatisfaction. ‘Why theoretical acumen is so frequently combined with political failure’ Ignatieff suggests ‘throws light on what is distinctive about a talent for politics.’
The candour, rigour, willingness to follow a thought wherever is leads, the penetrating search for originality – all these are virtues in theoretical pursuits but active liabilities in politics, where discretion and dissimulation are essential for success. This would suggest that these theorists failed because they couldn’t keep their mouths shut when flattery or partisan discipline required it of them. Equally, however, theorists may have lacked those supreme virtues that separate successful politicians from failures: adaptability, cunning, rapid-fire recognition of Fortuna (Fire and Ashes, p.170-71)
This emphasis on ‘adaptability’, ‘cunning’ and ‘rapid-fire recognition of Fortuna’ – what might be termed the ‘great scholar, poor politician thesis’ – suddenly took on added resonance in the wake of the United Kingdom’s referendum decision to leave the European Union. Not only had the Leave campaign been founded on the explicit rejection of expert advice, but at a more specific level it had also exposed a gap between academics and the broader public. Writing in the THES David Matthews suggested that ‘the referendum result revealed that there was amongst universities and those who work in them a profound sense of dislocation from broader society.’ James Wilsdon, Director of Policy, Impact, and Engagement at the University of Sheffield suggested that ‘we do need to ask ourselves some searching questions about how that [gap between the academy and the public] has grown up.’
To some extent the basic argument that a gap has emerged is open to challenge. The simple fact that most British academics are left leaning and pro-European and therefore generally campaigned in favour of ‘Remain’ is, surveys would suggest, broadly accurate. It is also factually correct to state that 51.9% of those members of the British electorate that voted were in favour of ‘Leave’. But to infer from these facts that the academy therefore ‘failed’ is to adopt a rather simplistic line of argument. The role of the social and political sciences is to help promote a balanced, accurate, and wherever-possible evidence-based debate but if the public decide to dismiss that scholarship then that is not ‘failure’, but the simple price we pay for living in a democracy.
And yet Ignatieff’s naughty ‘great scholar, poor politician thesis’ keeps nagging at my mind. By anyone’s reckoning the debate about the UK’s membership of the European Union had to be an opportunity if not to convince the public of the benefits of continued membership, then at the very least to showcase the relevance and value of the social and political sciences. All the aftermath rhetoric of ‘soul searching’ and ‘identity crisis’ and the need for experts (including academics) ‘to reassert their value to society’ left me feeling that maybe, just maybe, we had failed to display exactly the adaptability, cunning, rapid-fire recognition of Fortuna that Ignatieff highlighted. Indeed, if expert research can be so easily disregarded in relation to an issue as important as membership of the European Union then why bother to fund the social and political sciences?
To make things worse, surveys conducted in the wake of the referendum suggested that . .