Tracts for the Times

Karl Miller

  • Intellectuals by Paul Johnson
    Weidenfeld, 385 pp, £14.95, October 1988, ISBN 0 297 79395 0
  • CounterBlasts No 1: God, Man and Mrs Thatcher by Jonathan Raban
    Chatto, 72 pp, £2.99, June 1989, ISBN 0 7011 3470 4

There can’t be all that many people who are willing, in the presence of others, to call themselves intellectuals. There may even be those for whom intellectuals are a fiction, like fairies. But most people would struggle to their feet to attest to their existence. ‘Intellectual’ is a word which is hard to use without irony or reproof; often, it is a slur, and it has often seemed to invite the qualification ‘so-called’ or ‘supposed’. An intellectual need not be intelligent, and may be a fool. We think of him as someone who has no religion, as someone who is concerned with ideas but unable to commit himself to any, or to do anything with them. There are intellectuals who have wished to change the world, and a very few who have managed to do so: but some intellectuals have been thought to have difficulty in changing their socks. Bertrand Russell, Paul Johnson reports, was unable to make himself a cup of tea. The term came to currency with the classifications employed in the Marxist system, and has been used to deplore the scarcity in this country of a certain someone supposedly thick on the European ground.

In Britain, over the past ten years, it has acquired a further meaning. It can now mean someone who is opposed to Mrs Thatcher’s politics, and has been exposed to redundancy by her success. She is seen to have made them failures, or to have driven them off to higher salaries in America, and to have encouraged them to be snobs. Intellectuals are people who call her common or suburban, who disparage her for growing up in a grocer’s shop and in a Methodist household. Such things have indeed been said, by some of those whom the cap would generally be reckoned to fit. Mrs Thatcher has shared the fate of her enemy Heath – of being sneered at, by politicians and by intellectuals, for her antecedents in trade.

Paul Johnson was once a socialist intellectual, and an editor of the New Statesman, but has long since changed his political allegiance. I’ve never had the impression, having worked with him on that paper then, that anything much happened on the road to Damascus to bring about the change: his socialism was youthful and ephemeral, a response to what was going on at the time, and perhaps, in particular, to developments on the left in France and to the career of Mendès-France. The temperament and many of the opinions that are apparent in this new book, in which intellectuals are shown to be scoundrels, were apparent then, on the part of the Bevanite puritan with a distaste for the working class. But it also has to be said that the new book looks very like a response to what is going on now, in Thatcher’s Britain. The scorn which it directs at intellectuals is in tune with the scorn which has been directed by the Government at sections of the community where, if anywhere, intellectuals are understood to be located: the media, schools, universities. If intellectuals exist, there must be somewhere for them to be. But I doubt whether there can be many university teachers who are, or are anxious to be thought, intellectuals.

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