Media-wise historians and scientists dominate list of Britain's 100 most influential intellectuals

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The Independent Online

The new generation of British big thinkers is middle aged, media-savvy and capable of "taking on big issues in good prose", a list of Britain's 100 most influential intellectuals reveals.

The new generation of British big thinkers is middle aged, media-savvy and capable of "taking on big issues in good prose", a list of Britain's 100 most influential intellectuals reveals.

But among the scientists, authors and commentators one group is heavily under represented - the humble politician. Only the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, makes an appearance from the Government's ranks in the list compiled by the philosophical magazine Prospect and even his position is called into doubt by the publication's accompanying commentary.

Prospect, which is inviting the nation to decide on its top five intellectuals, has also found just one Tory - David Willets, the shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, although on the grounds of his intellectual pronouncements over the past five years his position is considered far more convincing.

The list is surprisingly bereft of emigre intellectuals such as Isaiah Berlin, Boek Wittgenstein and Eric Hobsbawm, who would have dominated the list 50 years ago, and barely half a dozen philosophers feature - despite the current debate on genetics and euthanasia.

The dominant groups are the scientists and historians who have used television and newspapers to such powerful effect, triggering a dramatic rise in the popularity of their subjects since the late 1980s. Niall Ferguson, Simon Schama and David Starkey all appear for the impact, as much as for their intellectual range.

So, too, do the social and political essayists: Michael Ignatieff, Timothy Garton Ash, John Gray, AC Grayling, Christopher Hitchens and Ian Buruma. The magazine's commentary, by the writer and broadcaster David Herman, describes them as "Orwell's children, taking on big issues in good prose", all sharing a sense of political morality and internationalism.

By contrast, politicians have been confined in recent years to the "language of policy, rather than big rhetoric, piecemeal social reform rather than the big theory". Mr Brown's inclusion is questionable "on the basis of his public utterances", Mr Herman concludes.

The non-appearance of politicians is borne of the risks that come with bold public statements, according to Prospect's editor David Goodhart, who consulted widely before pulling together the long list from an even longer list of 500. "Forty years ago, the elite could just get on with ruling [but now] through the media and its many forms the democratic mandate extends into the private corners of power," he said yesterday. "They can't get away with two-hour speeches."

And, although the medium for today's intellectual heavyweights is popular television programmes - compared with the BBC's intellectual Third Programme and the fledgling New Statesman 50 years ago - the intellectuals are by no means dumbing down, Mr Goodhart insisted. The delusion about dumbing down stems from "a reticence about broadening out" and a nostalgia for media which provided much smaller audiences, he said.

The list, published in the magazine's July issue, coincides with its own 100th edition. Key criteria for inclusion are "distinction in intellectual or cultural endeavour" coupled with an ability to communicate it to general audiences, over the past five to 10 years. The importance of communication means those on the list are not necessarily the cleverest or most rigorous thinkers. Candidates need not necessarily be British, although they must make their most significant impact here.

There are few of Asian extraction on the list - novelist Salman Rushdie, political theorist Bhikhu Parekh and political campaigner Tariq Ali to name three - and very few under-45s.

But the importance of communication is demonstrated by the presence of broadcaster and writer Melvyn Bragg, who through the BBC's Start the Week and In Our Time has provided a vast new audience for intellectual culture.

As ever, the omissions will cause much debate and concern. Consequently Prospect is providing what it calls its "bonus ball" competition - the chance to add a single name to the list. Prospects include Will Self, Stephen Hawking, Francis Wheen and Robert Conquest, all narrowly edged off the list.

For details of the full list in the July issue of Prospect go to A selection of some of the magazine's best writing will feature in Saturday's Independent.


Susan Greenfield, pharmacologist and Royal Institution director

In 1998 she became the first woman director of the Royal Institution. Her scientific work involving the study of communication in the brain has propelled her into the role of author and 'TV scientist'.

Matthew D'Ancona, journalist and writer

Choosing journalists has been a vexed task, full of subjective interpretations, but D'Ancona, 36, The Sunday Telegraph's deputy editor, makes it for the originality of his work, allied to a formidable sideline in biblical scholarship.

Niall Ferguson, historian

Along with David Starkey and Simon Schama, one of a number of historians on the list who have used TV to powerful effect in recent years. Ferguson's range - from social to literary historian - is impressive and his delivery second to none.

David Willetts, Conservative politician

The politics of the new right (and new left) are almost non-existent on this list, but the shadow Work and Pensions Secretary (nickname: "Two Brains")idares to say things and has contributed much to the "solidarity v diversity" debate.

David Hare, playwright

A consistent intellectual heavyweight, he engages the public year in, year out, and more than the list's other two playwrights, Michael Frayn and Tom Paulin. He provides a strong voice for left-wing political theatre.

Melanie Phillips, 'Daily Mail' columnist

Might seem a controversial entry, but she makes the list ahead of writers such as The Guardian's Polly Toynbee for the trajectories of thought she has delivered. No one has embraced, then turned away from, the 1960s philosophy in quite the same way.

Philip Pullman, children's author

The description hardly does justice to his intellectual contribution. His trilogy, His Dark Materials, has triggered a huge public debate on humanism and religion, as well as proving a literary phenomenon and box-office hit.

Jeanette Winterson, novelist

Not thought of as a public intellectual, but a writer attempting to bring ideas into her more recent novels in a way that Ian McEwan, another list entry, has always done. She is articulate and refreshing in talking about the art of being a writer.

Salman Rushdie, writer

Would probably have fallen off the list on "out of time" grounds had it not been for the 11 September attacks. One of the few people who delivers ethnicity to the list, he has been at the fulcrum of the philosophical debate emanating from the attacks.

Quentin Skinner, historian

In a list characterised by people who are good on TV, Professor Skinner is one of the comparative recluses. For the uninitiated, he is Regius Professor of History at Cambridge University, a formidable political scientist and historian of ideas.