Sunday March 18, 2007
Who's doing the thinking these days? Well, there's Matthew Taylor, former chief policy adviser at Number 10 and now head of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, who has much to say on citizenship. Unfortunately, it extrudes from his laptop, falling with the lightness of touch, clarity and elegance of mind found in a manual for a domestic boiler.
'One of the tasks of the RSA's pro-social project will be to explore a model of how individual behaviour is shaped and - as a consequence - social outcomes are achieved. Such a model needs to be nuanced and dynamic.'
There are hundreds of sentences like this in Taylor's work. The stuff on citizenship just pours from him and also from the Department for Constitutional Affairs. It is dangerous, befuddled and dreary and can be read as a penance during Lent.
Today, it passes for new thinking, the leading edge of commentary that is propelled by unquestioned civic rectitude, yet when you've plunged through the thickets of prose, you realise it is simply a description of our obligations to the ultra-inquisitive and demanding state of the future.
So, think-tanks are doing the thinking, and people like Matthew Taylor seek to advance themselves with this hectic and verbose attempt to remake us into 'pro-social citizens'. It is not independent thinking, however, because it is all part of the Westminster set-up and is calculated to alter or inspire policy, which means it must attract one lot of politicians or the other.
There's nothing wrong with these chaps showing a bit of leg, but it is hardly the sort of clear-headed commentary which, in the words of film-maker Adam Curtis, 'grapples with the new complexities of power and makes sense of them'. Something more is needed - sharper eyes and braver minds. If you had asked me a couple of years ago who provided this service, I would have named our public intellectuals - Richard Dawkins, Germaine Greer, Melvyn Bragg, AC Grayling, Robert Winston, Karl Miller, Timothy Garton Ash, Susan Greenfield - and added a list of writers - Pinter, Rushdie, Amis, McEwan, AS Byatt etc.
There was never any shortage of serious criticism to be had. It was a part of British life that you didn't have to worry about; each generation threw up a Muggeridge or new varieties of Amis and Toynbee.
But last year, I began to notice that it wasn't writers or public intellectuals who had the most interesting things to say but lawyers, who are routinely accused of being grasping and out of touch. Lord Steyn, Lord Lloyd, Lord Bingham and Baroness Kennedy all made speeches that were more thoughtful and trenchant about what Labour had done to the law and the ordinary person's rights than any other available analysis. These are hardly radical figures, but they're the only intellectual opposition this government has outside Parliament and the entertainment-obsessed media. Public intellectuals just aren't cutting it any more and writers who could have been so important in this role have taken themselves on an extended book tour.
This may seem harsh, but where are the novelists with their indictments of government and society? Where are exposés of some unregarded part of the termite heap? Where are the dramatists who can barely speak for their anger? Harold Pinter opposed the war vociferously and David Hare wrote a terrific play about it called Stuff Happens, but there has been very little thinking outside that which isn't either controlled by or seeks the approval of the political parties.
I don't think that there has been any conscious landgrab by the politicians: it's just that artists have absented themselves from the floor since Labour came into power. We are much the worse off for it because we desperately need the moral force of an independent-minded writer training his or her guns on a target that journalists may not have seen and politicians may not want us to see.
Think of the contributions made by Charles Dickens and George Orwell in Britain, Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in the USSR, Nadine Gordimer in South Africa or Orhan Pamuk in Turkey.
Our creative writers won't be inspired by the same things because we live in utterly different circumstances. This is not to say that writers should go on forced missions of social realism, give up their stylistic experiments or stop writing about themselves. We don't need organised relevance, but we do need the engagement you see in the TV drama of Paul Abbott or in the argument fielded by Adam Curtis's current three-part BBC series, The Trap. We need a better class of what American philosopher Ronald Dworkin has called the civic discourse. Writers are essential to that process.
Last week, a literary impresario made the point to me that I could no more expect writers to influence politics than journalists to contribute to current styles of ballet. That is true if you think writers only have a duty to themselves. But writers are sometimes better off if saved from personal deliberations. Nowadays, there seem to be an awful lot of middle-aged blokes dragging their tortured souls around the literary circuit, fretting about their display in Waterstone's.
It hasn't always been like this. During the Thatcher years, writers and various public intellectuals such as Melvyn Bragg, Germaine Greer and Mary Warnock were much more keen to attack an administration that derided education, culture and the very idea of society. In 1987, the June 20 Group was formed at the Campden Hill Square home of Lady Antonia Fraser and Harold Pinter. The group included David Hare, Ian McEwan, Michael Holroyd, John Mortimer, Harold Pinter, Salman Rushdie, Germaine Greer and Anthony Howard.
When they were ridiculed in the Conservative press, Pinter issued a statement: 'We have a precise agenda and we're going to meet again and again until they break all the windows and drag us out.' David Hare later recalled: 'There was something preposterously enjoyable about the notion of Mr Mortimer's portly frame, or Lady Antonia's gracious person, being squeezed through the windows of Campden Hill Square. Pinter, master of the absurd, is splendidly unaware of it in himself - one of the things his friends love him for.'
In the end, it became clear that writers do not make good political groups because they are by nature solitary and used to having things their own way. Still, the agitation of the Eighties, however ridiculous, is much preferable to the desiccated solipsism of today.
What has happened is partly due to the politicisation of thinking in the last 10 years, but there must also be something in the fact that about 90 per cent of writers and public intellectuals voted Labour in 1997. With Tony Blair's victory, they eased back. The new Prime Minister seemed to be so completely the product of their own values and at one with their view of society that there was no longer any need to concentrate.
It is a terrible shame, because there is so much material out there, so much that requires the urgent attention of a writer's sensibility: for instance, the widening gap between poor and rich, the seething anger of the underclass, the steady attack on the rights of those who cannot protect themselves, the war in Iraq, the regular deaths of British soldiers in Helmand province, Afghanistan, Guantanamo, rendition. George Orwell would have found much to write and think about. Why not the writers of our own time?
Henry Porter writes commentary for the Observer. He was born in 1953 and has published four novels with Orion, Remembrance Day, A Spy's Life, Empire State and Brandenburg. The last won the Ian Fleming Crime Writers’ Association Steel Dagger as the best thriller of 2005. It is set in the eight weeks before the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, and was published in paperback in February 2006. He has also written one non-fiction title, Lies Damned Lies, a study of truthfulness in British journalism. He has written for the Sunday Times, Guardian, Daily and Sunday Telegraphs and the London Evening Standard. He is the London editor of Vanity Fair magazine and is also a keen painter, walker and amateur bird watcher. His two favourite spots in the world are the French Pyrenees and the Highlands and islands of Scotland. But he makes do with London.