Roy Jenkins, while serving as president of the European Commission, used to spend his mornings writing. The heads of state who visited him were often keener to speak about his biographies of Asquith or Gladstone than about new legislation. This integration of politics, scholarship and the media was once a feature of British intellectual life, from AJP Taylor to CP Snow, but today the space to think and work has become ever more constrained. It is difficult to imagine Ursula von der Leyen, the current president of the European Commission, blocking out chunks of her diary for an unfinished novel.
As our universities and political institutions bow to the pressures of specialisation and professionalisation, where do today’s public intellectuals reside? The answer, often, is on Substack – a platform that allows its authors to monetise content and easily engage with its users. But it is a cut-throat world, and one that requires continual self-promotion. Reliant on crowdfunding, and on relatively closed conversations with like-minded individuals, how healthy is it really for intellectual life?
In this essay, originally published on newstatesman.com on 20 October 2022, the Cambridge history professor Chris Bickerton examines the decline of the public intellectual. You can read the original text here.
Read by Adrian Bradley.
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