Wednesday, April 04, 2007


Politicians and Brain Power in US and UK

We like to think that our politicians, despite their inadequacies, are intellectually a cut above American ones. Because our prime ministers are chosen by their peers within the parties after several years of close assessment, and not by the more superficial and populist US process, this is probably true on balance, though there are many exceptions e.g. Roosevelt, Kennedy, Clinton.

A former editor of the New York Times today suggests that the recent trend for low brain wattage 'conviction politicians' set in with Reagan-elected 1980- who had a few powerfully held beliefs which luckily

'meshed in almost perfectly with a moment of opportunity to remake cold war geopolitics'.

He sees the younger Bush as the apotheosis of this trend and quotes Arthur Schlesinger's judgement that this is 'the worst president ever'. Looking forward to the next presidential contest Raines opines that:

What is striking about this presidential cycle is that for the first time in a long time, there are a number of plausible candidates in both parties who seem, at a minimum, informed enough for the top job.

The list includes Al Gore, Hilary Clinton, John Edwards and Barack Obama while on the other side John McCain, Chuck Hagel, Mitt Romney and Giuliani are all brighter than the average Republican. While sincerely hoping he is right, I got to wonder how we currently compare? One only had to see Blair and Bush doing joint press conferences to clearly see how much more nimble of brain our boy is than theirs, yet, by our standards, Tony is not thought to be that bright: he was never the equal of his wife, Cherie, as a lawyer and Roy Jenkins- perhaps patronisingly- never rated him intellectually higher than a 'b'. Looking across the divide I'm yet to be convinced Cameron has any real depth- more 'Blair-lite' I'd say and few of his front bench impress either though Osborne might prove to have hidden qualities.

Maybe the calibre of our politicians has declined since the days of Wilson, Jenkins, Healey, Macmillan, Lawson and Biffen but, it has to be said on this topic, that there is one man this side of the 'pond' who currently impresses as intellectually distinguished, hugely knowledgeable of the government machine and able to manipulate it to achieve given objectives. Who, then, is that? Why, none other than the Chancellor of the Exchequer, James Gordon Brown.

I wonder what criteria of "brain power" you are using. Certainly there are different manifestations, and these manifestations can co-exist with some pretty light-weight (or, to put it another way, "media savvy") actions - just look at Wilson and Clinton. Cameron's former tutor at Oxford, Vernon Bodganor, has described Mr Cameron as "one of the ablest" students he has taught. One can ride with huskies for the cameras and maintain some cleverness.

But academic cleverness doesn't imply political cleverness. Jenkins' snobbery is in this sense misplaced. He may have got a first to Blair's second; he may have been an award-winning biographer and become chancellor of Oxford, but, for all that, he failed where Blair succeeded: becoming prime minister. For all his academic musings beforehand, Jenkins could never quite sieze the moment - but Blair did, time after time. And that takes some nouse.
Also meant to say that there's a danger with clever politicians, just as there's a danger with the Bushs of this world. Too much cleverness and you begin to think you can manage everything. The post-WWII academic-politicians fell into this trap - people like Atlee, Macmillan, Wilson, Crossman, Jenkins, Crosland, and Healey. And it's an accusation currently being levelled at Brown. I wonder whether he'll have more nouse than his academically clever predecessors and realise that devolving power is the only sure way of achieving success.
You are quite right re cleverness being no guarantee of political competence. For all his brilliance Clinton was ruined by the silliest and most basic of mistakes.

But on Jenkins V Blair I think the latter has had one magic ingredient Roy didn't: luck. Blair has used his razor sharp opportunistic sense to take his chances; and ride his luck which , right from the time when he was at the last minute nominated for Sedgefield, seems to have run for him.

It ran out when he decided to join Bush in Iraq- the silliest thing he ever did and something very few of his predecessors would have done.
Wanted to add that being clever does not mean one is wise. Rather stupid people can have very good judgement as to what is the best course of action and in politics this can be invaluable. Why some people have good judgement and others not is something about which I am completely in the dark...Maybe it's a gift one is born with or the ability to assimilate all the relevant factors very quickly, perhaps automatically and reach a judgement that way...?
It's odd isn't it that so many intellectual politicians fail to make the top job: Jenkins, Crossland, Crossman, Shirley Williams, Michael Foot, Denis Healey. Of these Foot made party leader, but he is an exemplar of the point you both make about "cleverness" not being the same as good judgement. Kinnock was probably the dimmest party leader in modern times, excelling even IDS. Thatcher when asked what she was currently reading notoriously said she was re-reading one of Fredrick Forsyth's thrillers (a book one might read on the beach on holiday but not, I think, re-read). It is true that Thatcher aparently read Hayek and Friedman, but I suspect she did so in a Readers Digest sort of way. She didn't really have any curiosity about anything: she knew all the answers. That probably helped her as a politician. Wilson had a double first in PPE but Jenkins etc snobbishly put that down to hard work rather than natural ability. Academic cleverness is not the quality one most needs in a PM; but I still wish I could believe that the current crop read the odd book.
I agree academic cleverness is not the essential ingredient but you probably agree with me that it sure helps a bit. For example, someone well versed in history- as Bush and Blair are not- would surely not have made the mistake of invading Iraq, or Afghanistan for that matter.
I agree completely, Skipper. Blair studied law, and apparently has no interest in the past (the thrust of his "modernising" seemed to be that nothing could be learned from the past), and is ill-informed even vis-a-vis Labour history (Robin Cook commented on this in his diary); and not only that but he had no experience of serving in Government before becoming PM. He had never seen a government fail from inside. He was the least experienced of post-war Prime Ministers. Perhaps his most cringeworthy sound bite was his "i feel the hand of history on my shoulder"; might have helped if he had turned around a spent a bit of time looking at it.
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