Where are our intellectuals when we need them?
OH NO, not another list. Those top hundred league tables of the rich and famous have become so familiar that it is hard to remember life without them.
This one, however, is different. Prospect Magazine has listed Britain’s top 100 intellectuals. They range from Tariq Ali, the ageing voice of protest, to Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, playwrights like Michael Frayn and Tom Stoppard, historians Niall Ferguson and Simon Schama, writers Martin Amis, AS Byatt, and Philip Pullman, scientific theorists, Richard Dawkins and Matt Ridley, a sprinkling of philosophers, a very few journalists.
Now, even defining an intellectual these days is tough enough, and the whole point of a list like this is to quarrel with it. Prospect suggests its own definition: someone who has achieved distinction in his or her field, who explores original ideas, and has the ability to communicate them to a wider public.
The bigger question is whether we think intellectuals have any significant role to play in public life today, and whether they influence society. This is not a country with a strong intellectual tradition. Unlike France, Britain has preferred men of action, pragmatists, doers rather than thinkers. These days, we tend to worship celebrities, not scholars, people who can communicate with the widest possible audience rather than those exploring esoteric ideas, however vital.
This is particularly disappointing in Scotland, where once intellectual and public life were synonymous. Looking back, we can list men and women who not only played key roles in changing the way we thought and behaved, but were very much embedded in the society of which they were part. The philosopher David Hume, the geologist James Hutton, the economist Adam Smith, were far from being ivory tower academics, they were wholly involved in Scottish life. Elsie Inglis not only wrote about social reform, she played a direct role in improving the living conditions of ordinary people. Naomi Mitchison was more than just a novelist and a serious intellectual, her commitment to Scotland was total.
Can we say the same today? With the birth of devolution there was much talk about the way political change might usher in a wave of new ideas. Think tanks were created, a cultural strategy drawn up, there were more conferences and seminars than you could shake a thesis at. But how much did all this impact on Scottish life and thinking? Who are the great Scots intellectuals of our day and how much influence do they have?
There is not much encouragement to be found in the Prospect list. This is a very metropolitan crowd. The handful of Scottish names - Gordon Brown, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Tom Nairn, the writer, the above-named Niall Ferguson, Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum - have made their reputations furth of Scotland rather than at home. Others based here - Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, the composer, Bernard Crick, the political theorist, Charles Jencks, creator of the Landform garden at the Gallery of Modern Art - are not immediately familiar to the average Scot.
But this is not intended as a Scottish whinge. It is inevitable that, post-devolution, we should be caught up in our own agenda, of which London knows little. That does not mean the ideas or those exploring them are less important. It is a fact of life that someone writing or broadcasting in London will be noticed by the UK media in a way that someone pursuing equally interesting ideas in Edinburgh, Dundee or Glasgow will not. There is another twist - if those ideas involve national identity or philosophy, they will have an impact in Scotland, but not necessarily elsewhere. That does not make them less worthwhile.
My own list would include: Edwin Morgan, our national bard, a brilliant and humane thinker; Alasdair Gray, whose novel Lanark is a post-war icon; Ian Wilmut, creator of Dolly the Sheep, now expanding the genetic horizons yet further; Professor Peter Higgs, physicist, who gave his name to the Higgs-Boson Particle, the most original scientific theory of our time; Richard Holloway, exploring the problems of faith in the modern age; Allan Massie, author and critic; Professor Christopher Smout, Historiographer Royal; Tom Devine, historian, who has redefined Scotland’s place in the world; Dame Muriel Spark, novelist; James Macmillan, composer and Catholic protagonist; Ian Hamilton Finlay, artist, thinker, creator of the most original garden/work of art in Britain.
But do these names resonate across our society as once they might have? The sad answer is no. We do not engage publicly in debating the kind of ideas that might mould our society. Academic life impinges on us only too rarely. Our political leaders are resolutely anti-intellectual. I cannot think of one MSP I would include on the list, with the exception perhaps of Wendy Alexander. Our national radio station, with the exception of The Arts Show, is resolutely down-market. There has been a gradual dumbing down of the national press.
Should we care? Yes. What can we do about it? Well, we should encourage debate, foster ideas, and cherish rather than sideline those who explore the world of the mind, and who seek to change our lives for the better.
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Saturday 25 May 2013
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