Philosopher Kings

‘Don’t put yourself on the (political) stage, Mr Ignatieff,’ to paraphrase an old song.

Democracy comes many forms. In many Western European countries the old liberal political establishments are under threat from a populist right. The radical left used to be there as a counter-poise but no more. Putin and Erdogun are two populist leaders much in the news, appealing to nationalist sentiment. At the other extreme we’ve the rare instances of eminent men, known for their wisdom, philosopher kings, parachuted in but, as the experience of Michael Ignatieff in Canada and Mario Monti in Italy shows, street-fighting capability is a more useful attribute than wisdom.

Called from Harvard by Canadian Liberal Party leaders as a potential leader of the Canadian Liberal Party, Ignatieff fought the 2011 election as leader and came a mighty cropper. His book Fire and Ashes bring all his professorial wisdom to bear on what was a searing experience.

What role does wisdom have in politics? UN reports on climate change are scorned as biased, likewise balanced appraisals of Europe and immigration. And when science and appraisal are scorned as tools of the ‘establishment’, and when scorn itself becomes a weapon, we have one of the key issues Ignatieff highlights in his book.

Paul Wilson’s review (NY Review of Books April 2014) of Fire and Ashes helps us here:

‘No, the regret one feels is for the gradual death of civility in politic which his book so vividly chronicles. Ignatieff was right when he called [that] civility ‘fragile’. Of all political systems, democracy is the easiest to pervert, because it depends far less on rules than on mutual respect between players.’

When respect fails, Wilson argues, so does good governance. Witness the USA, and increasingly the UK. He ends by quoting Orwell holding up ‘common decency’ as a bulwark against ‘smelly little orthodoxies’.

Just who those smelly orthodoxies might be today is a subject for another time.


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