Show Hide image

The battlefield of ideas

In earlier decades, the atmosphere in the universities was
optimistic, heady even, stimulated by c

Politics, it is often held, is no more than a struggle for power. Yet even the most power-hungry politicians rely, whether they know it or not, on ideas - though the ideas may be, as Keynes pointed out, those of long-dead scribblers. A group of French aristocrats, so it is said, were seen chuckling over the first edition of Rousseau's Du contrat social. The second edition was bound with their skins.

Ideas are as important on the right as on the left. "A gun is certainly powerful," Keith Joseph, Margaret Thatcher's guru, told the Tory party conference in 1976, "but who controls the man with the gun? A man with an idea." Sir Keith was fond of quoting a now forgotten poet, Alfred O'Shaughnessy:

One man with a dream, at pleasure
Shall go forth and conquer a crown,
And three with a new song's measure
Can trample a kingdom down.

Joseph certainly helped to trample a kingdom down - the kingdom of statism inherited from the war years - and, for the Conservatives at least, he also conquered a crown, by helping to create a society based on the tenets of economic liberalism.

Until Joseph, British Conservatism had prided itself on being void of ideas, on being based on what the philosopher Michael Oakeshott called "intimations", vague hints and divagations that were difficult to spell out to the multitude. Indeed, if one had to ask what the intimations meant, it was clear that one did not really belong. British Conservatism had been, in David Marquand's words, a mood rather than a doctrine. Joseph provided the Conservatives with something they had not enjoyed since the days of Joe Chamberlain - intellectual self-confidence, a conviction that the left could be defeated on its own territory, the battleground of ideas.

The left has never sought to deny the importance of ideas, of intellectual ballast. On the Continent, it was the Marxists who provided this ballast; in Britain, it was the Fabians.

Old and new certainties

The Fabians shared with the Marxists the view that history was moving in their direction, the direction of socialism. But whereas, for Marxists, the motivating force of history was the class struggle, for Fabians it was simply the development of democracy. In a democracy, they believed, the needs of the many were bound to overcome the special interests of the few. The Fabians were perhaps somewhat naive about the realities of power. George Bernard Shaw went so far as to argue that when the rich appreciated the social damage caused by unearned rent, they would voluntarily hand over their winnings to the state. Nevertheless, the triumph of socialism was guaranteed through what Sidney Webb called "the inevitability of gradualness". The financial collapse of 1931, however, which put paid to the second Labour government, also put paid to gradualism and showed that there was nothing inevitable about the coming of socialism. Faced with what seemed the imminent collapse of capitalism, Labour turned tail and fled.

During the war years, however, socialism had a second innings. The writings of the Left Book Club and of sages such as Victor Gollancz and Harold Laski laid the intellectual groundwork for the victory of 1945. Then, under Harold Wilson, the old certainties of the Fabians came to be replaced by the new certainties of the social sciences, which seemed to provide a different sort of guarantee of the coming of socialism. The social sciences appeared to show that economic and social problems, and even personal dilemmas, could be easily resolved through the application of one simple word: "more". More money would yield a better society, more sex would remove the barriers to individual self-realisation. Onward and upward - th­at was to be the leitmotif of the 1960s.

Much of the euphoria that greeted Wilson's election victory in 1964 was based on the feeling that Labour was once more in tune with the nature of things, with historical destiny. The universities played a prominent part in spreading this illusion, as it was there that the new ideas of the social sciences found their home.

Oxford, in particular, pressed the conventional wisdom on Labour ministers with great fervour. The atmosphere in the universities was optimistic, heady even, stimulated by close relationships with Westminster and Whitehall. Talking to the economists, it was easy to believe that they had discovered the secret of steady, uninterrupted economic growth. Talking to the sociologists, it was easy to believe that crime and other social problems could be cured by a government prepared to be generous in spending money. Nor were the political scientists left behind. They, too, had reforms to advocate. Stronger leadership from No 10 through a prime minister's policy unit, the introduction of select committees in the House of Commons, larger and therefore (it was assumed) more efficient local authorities, and a more managerial civil service - all this would professionalise government, and so provide the institutional underpinnings for the brave new world of social democracy. The social sciences offered the key to a new nirvana. All the politicians had to do was to unlock the door.

The fall into disrepute

The euphoria was shortlived. By the end of the 1960s, many were beginning to ask where it had all gone wrong. One of the fellows of Nuffield College, Oxford, where the then chancellor James Callaghan had been a regular visitor, confessed that they had clearly failed to teach him economics. Perhaps they could now teach him politics instead. Callaghan's later career showed how successful they were in that regard. Yet perhaps something deeper was amiss. During the 1960s and 1970s, so it appeared, almost every instrument of social democracy had been tried in order to regulate society and the economy. Most had proved of little use. The theories of social democracy had, it seemed, been tested to destruction. The postwar settlement brought to fruition by the Attlee government had reached the end of its useful life.

By the end of the first decade of the 21st century, the social sciences had fallen into even more disrepute. They had, as the Queen pointed out at the London School of Economics, failed to predict the credit crunch; they had also failed to predict the collapse of European communism or the revival of religion, not only in the Muslim world, but also in the United States.

Social scientists seemed unable to escape the subconscious assumptions of the age in which they lived. They appeared critical of everything except their own unarticulated preconceptions. Paradoxically, politicians as different as Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair appeared much more open to new ideas and more willing to challenge the conventional wisdom - for good or ill - than supposedly open-minded academics. The social sciences were to remain a stronghold of old Labour and of the postwar consensus long after that consensus had been discredited.

The danger of scholasticism

The ideas of Keith Joseph and the Tories fared, in the end, no better than those of Labour. Thatcherism proved but the last of the ideologies that had promised to regenerate Britain in the 20th century. That it had manifestly failed to do. Indeed, since Thatcher's exit from Downing Street in 1990, Conservative leaders have been competing with each other as to who can best humanise her legacy. The Conservatives have now tacitly repudiated much of the Thatcherite agenda, while Labour, under Blair, was quite explicit in repudiating old-style socialism when it removed Clause Four from the party's constitution in 1995. The British people, politicians seemed to believe, had had enough of ideological crusades.

Yet a politics without ideas is unlikely to engage the public. Perhaps the ideological vacuum that lies at the heart of British politics is in part responsible for disengagement from politics, particularly among the young - a disengagement manifested in low turnouts, falling membership of political parties and falling party identification.

Where, then, are the ideas to come from? Why is it that the think tanks have been so successful in usurping the role of the universities in providing ideas for the next generation of politicians? The close relationship that existed in the past between politicians and the universities seems to have gone. Many academics would lay the blame for this on the philistinism of politicians. But perhaps the universities are equally to blame for having so little to say to those in government.

In the 1960s, the social sciences were dominated by empiricism, albeit a somewhat optimistic empiricism. Today, the great danger is scholasticism. Political science, in particular, has gone too far in the direction of behaviouralism and rational choice, theories preached with the same dogmatic fervour that Marxism once attracted. In seeking mistakenly to emulate the natural sciences, the social sciences have forsaken history and with it that richness of understanding of human nature which the greatest historians have been able to command. Without history, the social sciences are always in danger of degenerating into a priori theorising of little relevance to the real world of politics.

The scholasticism of the modern social sciences is in part the fault of government. It is a natural outcome of the methods by which governments judge research quality, which put a premium on the rapid publication of results. All too often that means conformity with dominant intellectual trends. New ideas are suspect. Neither Isaiah Berlin - most of whose publications are in the form of scattered essays unsuitable for peer-reviewed journals - nor H L A Hart - the founder of the modern study of jurisprudence who did not produce his great work, The Concept of Law, until he was 54 - would be likely to get research grants today. Indeed, they probably would not gain tenure at a major university, because they would not be publishing enough in the right journals.

The universities cannot escape blame for the sad position in which they now find themselves, nor for their isolation from the world of politics. They have not done enough to resist fashionable trends. Nor have they fought hard enough against the bureaucratisation of the education system. Academics should have been able to rely upon their vice-chancellors to defend them against the depredations of government. But the vice-chancellors prefer to be nice to those in power. They have absorbed so much of the managerialist ethos that they have lost contact with the needs of academic life. Too many of them have been co-opted into the orbit of government. Instead of speaking for the universities to government, they see their role as that of messengers, relaying the dictates of government to the universities.

Bulwark of academic freedom

The managerial philosophy that has so damaged the civil service and the National Health Service is, sadly, enveloping the universities as well. Governments are coming to treat the universities as if they are nationalised industries, telling them how many students they can take and what they are allowed to charge them. They are now beginning to tell them how students should be selected, and now even what research they should be doing. But the universities, if they are to fulfil their function, must remain self-governing bodies. They cannot become part of the managed public sector in the way that the NHS, for example, is. The independence of the universities is a vital bulwark of academic freedom, the freedom to produce ideas. This freedom is too precious a value to become dependent upon on the goodwill of governments.

The end result is satisfactory neither to the politicians nor to the universities. Politicians, perhaps anachronistically, still look to the universities for ideas. The universities brood on why it is that they are so unloved. Government and the universities are like a warring couple locked together in a loveless marriage. The answer lies in divorce. The more the universities are left alone, the more creative they will become, the better able to resume the role they once had as powerhouses of ideas. Paradoxically, if the universities wish to become more influential in government, they must first become more independent of it.

Vernon Bogdanor is professor of government at Oxford University. His book "The New British Constitution" was published earlier this year by Hart.

This article first appeared in the 02 November 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Mob rule