On Britain’s relationship with its intelligentsia

“What the British seem to like are television historians and naturalists, not public intellectuals. You can’t help feeling that’s because one supplies narrative and the other supplies facts, and the British are traditionally empiricists so they/we have a resistance to theory and to theoreticians playing too prominent a role in public life.

“Intellectuals do exist in this country and have existed. If you think of the Foucaults and Derridas in France, we have our Terry Eagletons and Colin MacCabes. People such as Niall Ferguson and Simon Schama: think of them what you will, but they’re not lightweights – though they’re not necessarily high-order theoreticians.

“I think the French example is instructive, and those of us who used to smoke Disque Bleus and wear rollneck pullovers rather relished the Rive Gauche atmosphere of public intellectualism. But you also have the odious spectacle of Bernard-Henri Lévy urging Sarko on to bomb Libya. Or André Malraux for that matter. There’s a flip side to having prominent public intellectuals, which is that they start meddling in politics and often with quite disastrous results. So there is something to be said for our more low-key intellectuals – someone exemplary such as Mary Warnock, who’s not only a very punctilious and thoughtful moral philosopher but I think has been very positively influential in a number of areas of public policy without ever needing to have that kind of cachet.”

Read the rest of the Observer’s New Review article here