Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Culture
26 November 2013

“What makes a great political thinker?“ asks the Daily Politics

Andrew Neil's BBC politics show is currently profiling the lives of influential figures such as like Ayn Rand, Karl Marx, Thomas Paine and Mary Wollstonecraft.

By Giles Dilnot

In the world of politics, everything is essentially an argument over ideas. But just because a politician has a number of ideas, it doesn’t make them a philosopher.

Indeed, making a series for BBC Two’s Daily Politics programme called “Great Political Thinkers” has revealed two immediate surprises. First, many of those who made our list were never politicians and second, it’s fair to say that many of them were not exactly fans of politics and government in the sense that we understand it.

We drew up an initial shortlist and asked a number of our regular guest commentators to add their suggestions. We whittled our list down to ten, although we haven’t ruled out another list in the future.

Some of those who have made our final list are obvious choices. The men (for it is mainly men — a sign of their times) who laid the foundations of ideas we now take for granted: Thomas Paine, Edmund Burke, John Stuart Mill and Mary Wollstonecraft.

Then there are those whose names are controversial but cannot be ignored; Karl Marx, whose reputation for some will always be tainted by the Soviet era that claimed his name, or Ayn Rand, the woman who inspired millions but seemed to dislike pretty much everyone.

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

Finally there are the unexpected choices like Guy De Bord, chosen by Will Self, and E F Schumacher, the father of Sustainability, who is championed by impressionist Alistair McGowan.

Content from our partners
Transport is the core of levelling up
The forgotten crisis: How businesses can boost biodiversity
Small businesses can be the backbone of our national recovery

In fact it’s been as interesting learning about our Political philosophers as it has been learning about the people who chose to talk about them.

Conservative MP Jesse Norman made an obvious choice in Burke as Norman had just written a book about him.

Labour MP Gloria de Peiro had selected 18th Century campaigner for women’s rights and education, Mary Wollstonecraft, weeks before her party selected her as a spokeswomen for just such issues.

Alistair McGowan may have given us his frighteningly accurate William Hague and Boris Johnson impressions but in his own voice he was passionate about the work of Fritz Schumacher and the environment and sustainability, not least digging beetroot on my own allotment!

What’s helped us understand the ideas these thinkers expounded is not just their champions but also the contribution of Dr Elizabeth Frazer, reader in politics at Oxford University, who has worked with us on each film. She has managed to wonderfully encapsulate the main thrust of the political thinkers’ arguments, the criticisms levelled at them, how their reputation has fared since and what modern politics has absorbed from their work. She is most passionate explaining how Thomas Paine, Enlightenment author of The Rights of Man, is the architect of our modern concept of Human Rights, how Mary Wollstonecraft is the pioneer of feminism, that some Economists still argue Friedrich Hayek’s ideas are the key to modern economic success, and how John Stuart Mill frames our modern ideas of liberty in the face of the State.

But don’t panic if philosophy isn’t your thing. We’ve learned plenty of things that might be deemed “curiosities”. Who knew that Thomas Paine has a beer named after him, that Karl Marx liked getting drunk and running from policemen, that Alistair McGowan doesn’t like beetroot, that a portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft has been spray painted on the side of a London church (and they like it) and Ayn Rand’s book Atlas Shrugged is the only one of our philosophical works that’s been made into a Hollywood movie.