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  1. Long reads
27 September 1999

Late score: Pluralists 3, Populists 0

Or was neither on the pitch? Charlotte Raven was none the wiser after a public debate

By Charlotte Raven

A couple of weeks ago, I attended a Prospect event, the exact nature of which remains mysterious. My friend Derek Draper had told me it was a debate and yet, on the £6 ticket, it was billed rather confusingly as an “essential conversation”. I’ve been to any number of old-school slanging-matches, but never an “essential conversation”.

In my ignorance, I thought that David Goodhart, Prospect‘s editor and a man who knows the power of words, would hardly have used the term without first being sure of the global/historical import of his wares. My presumption was that an “essential conversation” – as distinct from an exchange on EastEnders or my chats with my chiropractor – is one that the world could not have done without. I imagined Margaret Thatcher and Keith Joseph discussing Hayek late into the night.

Prospect is one of several publications or discussion groups that organise public events. These are meant to be “intelligent” – a cut above the nicotine-driven gore-fests that I used to attend in my teens – and aimed at a “non partisan” audience who, instead of shouting “shame” when they disagree with someone’s point, will simply nod less emphatically.

There was a great deal of nodding going on at Goodhart’s event. The auditorium, at the London School of Economics, was filled with people high on assent. No one seemed to care in the slightest that the question being discussed by the panel of five academics and politicos had simply been plucked more or less at random from the pages of the magazine. Distilled from a headline that was, in the first instance, a misrepresentation of the meaning of a perfectly sensible piece by David Marquand, the title of the “conversation” was supposed to be “Populism v Pluralism”. As Marquand defines these terms, the new Labour government is populist because it takes its political cues from public opinion. But pluralists “rejoice in variety”, where focus groups are replaced by “smaller collectivities” and genuine participation.

At some point in his opening comments, Goodhart explained how the title had been changed “to make it sound more enticing”. I’m not sure what a focus group would have made of Goodhart’s concession to the Prospect event’s target market, but I’ll wager the words “what” and “is he on about” might have figured.

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The wording on the new, improved tickets read: “Stupid politics, clever people? Politics v pluralism in Britain today.” Politics v pluralism? Like religion v Christianity? Apparently this particular knot of confusion was due to a printing error. The subtitle should still have read “populism v pluralism”. Like commercialism v transubstantiation. Or egalitarianism v haddock.

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I could think of many ways to describe the sight of some of Britain’s finest minds reduced to incoherence in their efforts to apply themselves to a question which wasn’t a question, in the hope that the answer which wasn’t an answer might cast some light on the founding proposition which – in truth – was not a proposition so much as a fleshy offcut of analysis which neither the author of the piece nor David Goodhart, in the chair, were able to tame or contain as it flopped and flapped about the table, crying to be put back into context – but “essential” would not be one of them.

According to Goodhart, populism and pluralism are just two of the “new divisions” around which we will soon organise. As he spoke, I imagined an army of pluralists engaged in a bitter struggle in the cause of more constructive debate. People would be galvanised by their message and some might march down Whitehall singing: “What do we want? More intermediate institutions between the individual and the state! When do we want them? Never!” Their position – that modern government should be prevented from simply reflecting the people’s whims – might well get in the way of their aims. If Tony Blair said “OK, then”, they’d be honour-bound to warn him that they wouldn’t accept any “populist” concessions.

Goodhart had been hoping that the panel would be split into teams – populists v pluralists, like on the telly. Sadly, “no one fell neatly into categories” – which has to be the understatement of the decade, since none of the panel could begin to relate to either of the terms. The wiser ones simply ignored the question altogether. Draper and Michael Ignatieff both made rational contributions to whatever debate was happening in their heads. Ben Pimlott avoided the issue by speaking like that man on The Fast Show who only pronounces two words in every 50. My notes read: “Blank blank blank seismic shifts blank blank blank things are all happening at the same time blank blank blank eerie apathy.” Only Deborah Mattinson, who works for Philip Gould, the new Labour former adviser, was game enough to take the Goodhart challenge. She declared herself an unashamed populist and proceeded to outline the positive benefits of citizen’s juries – as long as they have “some authority”.

According to David Marquand this made Mattinson a pluralist. It seems she was just pretending – for the sake of argument if you will – to have populist inclinations, hoping thereby to distinguish her plea for diversity from all the other pleas for diversity. I was reminded of the bar-room drunk whose desire for a more noisy debate overtakes his ability to manufacture the conditions.

You could call him a grass-roots pluralist. For him, the content of a dispute is irrelevant – all that matters is what Marquand calls the “clash and clang of argument”. He will take up any position, play the devil’s advocate, falsely accuse his best friend of shagging his wife – all in the name of debate.

As I left the auditorium, I thought I heard David Goodhart shout: “D’you wanna make something of it?” But maybe it was just the acoustics.