Editorial: From taboo to Tolstoy

Bronwen Maddox introduces the latest issue of Prospect
October 19, 2011

This month, the human population passes seven billion. The cover of Prospect asks “Too many people?” and the answer I have given is that there probably will be, if governments don’t do more than they have in the past two decades.

I am not, as I have said in that argument, naturally inclined to the view that people will be overwhelmed by trends they have set in motion, and I’d give the species credit for ingenuity in devising solutions. Nor is pessimism the tone of Nick Carn’s argument at the start of our special report, on how investors might take account of the rising numbers. But as Professor Malcolm Potts and others argue persuasively, governments’ unwillingness to address the problem means that the projections are higher than they need be, at the expense of the environment and some of the world’s poorest people. As one former minister said to me: “Population is the one subject that just never comes up.”

It didn’t come up, either, in the outstanding entries for the 11th year of Prospect’s Think Tank Awards, although those otherwise reflected a period of exceptionally dramatic news, and difficult economic conditions, raising some of the most challenging intellectual questions for a decade. In our awards, we have complimented not just originality of ideas, but energy in advocacy. The best work took government to task—in Britain and abroad—for its handling of the economy and for public sector reforms, or lack of them.

The tone of many entries reflected the tension between governments and their critics in tough times. In Britain, that is present in concentrated form in the Leveson inquiry into media standards. Geoffrey Robertson, in a phrase that should be emblazoned on the walls of the inquiry into media standards, describes journalism as “the exercise, by occupation, of every citizen’s right to free expression.” Those 11 words are the only rebuff that should be necessary to the calls for licensing of the press ahead of the hearings. They won’t be enough, of course; given the pressure that has followed phone hacking. But as Robertson writes, many of those pushing for the inquiry have not a clue about how the constraints for which they have reflexively called would actually work.

At least Britain’s failings on this front, which he rightly catalogues, do not live up to those conjured up by the Russian literati, in Ed Docx’s glorious account of the gathering of Tolstoy acolytes. Docx finds himself “taking quite a beating on behalf of Dame Stella Rimington and Britain in general,” in explaining why the Man Booker judging panel is chaired by a former intelligence chief. He failed to puncture their hilarity at their vision of a land in which spies run the top literary prizes—not a charge which even the most critical think tank has yet made.