Michael Ignatieff has not learned much from his spectacular political failureby Stefan Collini / November 14, 2013 / Leave a comment
In late 2005, Michael Ignatieff was a 58-year-old professor at Harvard. His career up to that point had been spent in academia and journalism, largely in Britain and the United States. Though Canadian by birth, he had spent all but two of his adult years living abroad and he had no first-hand experience of politics at any level. And yet, within little more than a year he had become, extraordinarily, a member of the Canadian parliament and deputy leader of the Liberal Party. Some two years later, he became the party’s leader. In Spring 2011 he precipitated a general election, in an attempt to unseat the ruling Conservative Party. The outcome was catastrophic for the Liberals, who were reduced to third place and a rump of only 34 seats. It was the worst result in the history of the Liberal Party, the worst result in Canadian history for an incumbent official opposition party, and the first time since Confederation in 1867 that the Liberals had failed to finish first or second. Ignatieff lost his own seat, and immediately resigned as leader. Since then he has resumed his academic career in Harvard and Toronto.
These bare facts suggest a remarkable story that might be interpreted in several ways. Ignatieff has chosen to write a personal memoir of the experience which aspires to double as a set of reflections about the nature of politics. The model of Machiavelli, dismissed from office but still donning his robes to turn his experience into the knowing maxims of The Prince, is never far from the well-stocked mind of this long-time teacher of political theory. Fire and Ashes is scarcely longer than Machiavelli’s classic, and its subtitle indicates a similar aspiration to use the ashes of defeat to fertilise some evergreen thoughts about the timeless nature of politics itself. The book is stylishly written, as one would expect of an author who is a novelist and journalist as well as a widely-published academic. The phenomenology of the experience, what it felt like to be there in the middle of things, is engagingly rendered. But as it moves into more general reflections we start to have the unnerving feeling that the author may not, even now, have gauged the true significance of the remarkable story he has to tell.
Before his political adventure began, Ignatieff was…