What has a philosopher got to do with a politician? One can't do and the other can't think. Time for a third wayby Adam Swift / August 20, 2001 / Leave a comment
Tony blair says that he regrets not having studied political philosophy at university. He is said to be influenced by the communitarian Christian socialism of John MacMurray. He has made some intriguing remarks about utilitarianism (which he used to find attractive) and natural law theory (which he now prefers). He has stressed the continuities between New Labour and the New Liberalism of the early 20th century. Accused of opportunism and pragmatism, he counters that, while not conforming to traditional political stereotypes, he is none the less radical and principled. “We are not crypto-Thatcherites. We are not old-style socialists. We are what we believe in. We are meritocrats… We have started to put this philosophy into practice in government…”
It’s easy to be cynical about all this. Politicians like to think that they are intellectually serious, but not as much as they like others to think it. It can be hard to tell how much of what they say has been supplied by minions paid to construct ad hoc intellectual scaffolding. A few years ago, an ex-student of mine, then working in No 10, rang to say that the prime minister was thinking about the way in which New Labour drew on ideas from the liberal tradition. Could I suggest anything that they might read? I mentioned the first couple of books that came into my head. A week or so later, I was amused to wake up to a radio report of a speech by Blair which seemed to owe quite a bit to my rather arbitrary recommendations. I still don’t know what to think about this episode. Was this as it should be-judicious consultation of the academic in quest of theoretical clarity? Or the opportunistic pursuit of intellectual window-dressing?
I have felt the same misgivings on other occasions. At seminars bringing together philosophers and politicians, it’s hard to resist the suspicion that the politicians are there not to think but to cherry-pick whichever phrases suit their current purposes. You can see their eyes glazing over until someone says something that sounds like something they already believe. Having spent a morning at a seminar discussing the relation between the individual and the community, it was depressing to hear a participant, now a Labour minister, conclude: “so, it’s just what we’ve been saying. It’s all about individuals in communities.” An Oxford gathering organised by Nexus ended bizarrely with us going round…