In praise of intellectuals

Robin Shepherd argues ("Why Plato can't run the republic", 9 July) that intellectuals should stick to being "eccentric misfits", "brilliant at telling us how to run our countries, but not well suited to doing the job themselves", using the experience of Czechoslovakia (and subsequently, by implication, the Czech Republic) and Vaclav Havel in particular as his example.

I am not so sure. The task facing politicians in Prague (and all over central and eastern Europe) in 1989 was formidable. The business of running a country is not just about pragmatics, about getting the economy going, it is a "hearts and minds" job. Hatred of political parties was, and is, profound. This is because the very concept of "party" is an insult to dignity for many people in the post-communist world. "Party" means compromising and being compromised by friends and family on a huge scale. Practical politicians are the people who betray, and are seen in the popular imagination as inevitably corrupt.

It is poignant that there is still a strong dissident tradition - every year in the Czech Republic, new groups form to protest at the way the country is being run. But there is deep distaste for forming or joining a political party to further the cause, so these groups rise and fall, ineffectual and usually defeated within a few months, having failed to find a way of articulating their message. It is tragic.

Yet Havel has survived and been a persistent stabilising influence, while some of the wilder ideas of the "men in grey" have been revealed as empty, self-seeking and dangerous. The Czech Republic is in Nato, and it will join the EU. This is solid progress along a difficult path to stability. There have been times when Havel has had to stand firmly behind the values that inform this progress, when practical politicians have wished otherwise. Czechs have been wise to keep voting for him.

The anti-intellectual traditions of the west and our obsession with pragmatic solutions, often at the cost of core values in politics, make it easy for us to see this radically different history and draw conclusions that seem to resonate with our own experience - and to get it wrong. I would welcome some central European intellectualism in the British political debate, where the search for practical solutions seems to have become delinked from underlying theory. Stopping to think about things is not necessarily a sign of ineffectuality.

Mary Tetlow
London E1

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2001 issue of the New Statesman, How long have we got?