Skip to Content

Matthew Parris

Is there any hope in politics for pointy-headed intellectuals?

When the Alabama governor George Wallace described intellectuals as ‘pointy-heads who couldn’t ride a bicycle straight’, he coupled two insults.

14 May 2011

12:00 AM

14 May 2011

12:00 AM

When the Alabama governor George Wallace described intellectuals as ‘pointy-heads who couldn’t ride a bicycle straight’, he coupled two insults.

When the Alabama governor George Wallace described intellectuals as ‘pointy-heads who couldn’t ride a bicycle straight’, he coupled two insults. The first — ‘pointy-heads’ — went straight into the legend and remains there, though I’d always thought intellectuals had domed heads.

Less remembered is the second barrel of Wallace’s revolver. But in five words it contains a potent argument. ‘Couldn’t ride a bicycle straight’ is a subtle insult for it suggests that what intellect needs as an accompaniment — and ‘intellectuals’ may lack — is instinct. To balance on a bike you don’t have to think: indeed, think too hard and you fall off. Almost everyone can ride a bike; few could say could how we do, except that it isn’t by taking thought, but by animal instinct: the gymnastic version of what in the field of decision-making we would call ‘common sense’.

I thought about Wallace and his bicycle when I read last week of the failure of one of the decade’s most significant intellectuals in politics: Michael Ignatieff. Hugely and deservedly respected, the recipient of 11 honorary degrees, author of 14 books, a prominent and longstanding champion of human rights, an arts broadcaster in Britain and a professor at Harvard, Ignatieff was ranked by Prospect magazine as the world’s 37th most important public intellectual. ‘Canada’s sexiest cerebral man,’ said another journal. When he became leader of the country’s Liberal party there were high hopes that a marriage of high intellect with low politics would be fruitful. Arriving from the United States he declared: ‘Down there, being a liberal is a burden. Up here, it is a badge of honour.’

Alas, no. He took the Liberals to the worst defeat in their history, and resigned last week. Canadian readers will be better placed than me to assess the reasons for his failure, but the accusations were familiar ones: ‘aloof’, ‘out of touch’, ‘no feel for the ordinary Canadian’ — he couldn’t, in short, ride a bike straight.

What is it about intellectuals and politics? What’s the problem? Must they fail? Do they always?

The easy answer runs something like this: the public distrusts intellect, or at least intellectualism, suspecting (often rightly) that an intellectual will prioritise theory and relegate practice, ignoring evidence and important truths about the way people are (as opposed to the way they should be) and preferring ideology. He will not thrive in an environment where the day’s news trumps his decade-long projections. Intellectuals gave us Marxism. Theorisers are fantasisers. Phrases beloved of voters — ‘feet on the ground’, ‘down to earth’, ‘what works’ — suggest as much. ‘Head in the clouds’ and ‘high-fallutin’ indicate what we think of intellectuals. An intellectual may lack common humanity, too. We think of Robespierre, Lenin or Trotsky, and of Gabriel García Márquez’s admiration for Fidel Castro.

To this one might add that the intellectual will often perform poorly as a mass communicator, overestimating the patience (and interest) of his audience, and underestimating the importance of emotional intelligence.

He will tend to resort to dangerous irony, to reductios ad absurdum where his audience will misunderstand the reductio and hear only the absurdum, or to pushing ideas to their logical conclusion to test the underlying reasoning. Asked if he has complete confidence in some scandal-threatened minister, the intellectual leader will say ‘Complete confidence? Which of us has that, ever? Why, I haven’t got complete confidence even in my own mother.’ The media will report this as ‘Prime Minister lacks confidence in his mother.’

Finally, we may quote famous failures, like the right-wing Nobel Prize-winning South American author Mario Vargas Llosa in Peru, where the rascally but effective Alberto Fujimori beat him to the presidency; we may even hint that the Miliband brothers are perhaps too intellectual for political leadership.

To all of which I say ‘up to a point’. But in my political experience I’ve always wanted to believe there’s a place near the top for intellectuals; and often enough observed this to be true.

It was ‘the mad monk’ Keith Joseph (who once mistook me for a lift attendant, but quizzed me nevertheless on the future of East-West relations) who brought me and many into politics: reading his speeches as a student made me believe that ideas could make headway in opposition or government. Without Keith (and Hayek), would Margaret Thatcher (no intellectual) have found the force she did? Enoch Powell (undoubtedly a scholar, and something, at least, of an intellectual) had a huge impact on politics, and his legacy still does. Michael Foot’s example, it’s true, isn’t a great argument for intellectualism in politics; but Denis Healey (read My Secret Planet) points the other way. We could argue about Anthony Crosland; but Michael Gove and David Willetts haven’t yet been destroyed by their own intellects. David Cameron (whose high intelligence is of a different kind) and George Osborne (more intellectual) make a good political coupling. Boris Johnson manages both to parade and deprecate his own intellect, and people like that.

I believe the ordinary voter does respect intellect, while retaining a certain wariness. We are flattered when cleverer people find arguments of logic and high principle for the things we wanted to believe in the first place. We know that serious arguments matter, but are not always sure what to make of them, or how to separate the wheat from the chaff.

So to the intellectual with British political ambitions I’d suggest one or both of two strategies. Hide, camouflage or deprecate the intellect – while hinting it’s there; examples: Healey, Osborne, Boris Johnson. Or carve yourself a position as intellectual powerhouse to an unintellectual leadership: Joseph, Andrew Adonis, Crosland, David Owen.

Above all, don’t despair. Systematic thought matters. Ideological frameworks are vital to human progress. Mount that bike with confidence, pedal with energy — but don’t forget to steer.

Show comments