Philip Hensher: Politics, even in Canada, is a noble calling

Michael Ignatieff's potential political career represents a phenomenon which ought to be more common
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The Independent Online

Sometimes, an easily overlooked piece of news is quite enough to lift your spirits all day. Many readers will have wondered, from time to time, quite what happened to Mr Michael Ignatieff, who, in years gone by, was an habitué of the capital's more fashionable salons. No gathering of 1980s intellectuals drawn together to express shock and horror at Mrs Thatcher's supposedly oppressive regime was complete without Mr Ignatieff's presence.

And then all at once he disappeared, after having written a book or two which everyone talked about and nobody one ever met actually read. From time to time, one wondered about his fate, as one wondered about, say, what would have happened to Germany had the Emperor Frederick lived, without any great urgency.

Actually, Mr Ignatieff, now 58 and apparently hell-bent on retaining his claim to be a promising young intellectual to the brink of the grave, has for the past five years been pursuing a career at an American university. But the amusing and cheering news reported yesterday is that he is, apparently, on the verge of a new career which, to us, will present the appearance of still more blessed oblivion. He is going into Canadian politics.

Five years ago, we are told, Mr Ignatieff was addressing a conference in Toronto on the subject of human rights in Canada - stay awake at the back there - when an audience member asked "why, if he cared so much about Canadian politics, he didn't participate in it. And Mr Ignatieff thought 'Indeed.'"

That single word I find howlingly funny, but apparently nobody else does. A safe Liberal seat has been found for him in Toronto, and before he sets foot in the Canadian legislature, people are excitedly talking about him as the next leader of the party. The excitement, for most of us, may be qualified by the fact that you may not be entirely sure whether you have heard of the man Mr Ignatieff is supposed to be succeeding, one Paul Martin.

Mr Ignatieff's political career, or potential political career, surely represents a phenomenon which ought to be much more common than it is. Geoffrey Wheatcroft's brilliantly witty and truthful new book, The Strange Death of Tory England, takes a serious look at those leftist salons of the 1980s; how the participants indulged in a bizarre fantasy of underground resistance to a Thatcherite regime, and propagating an entire discourse of snobbish insults to the prime minister and many of her ministers.

In Wheatcroft's view, completely convincingly, these insults and sneers took root to such a degree that they made it difficult, by the mid-1990s, for people even to admit that they had voted for the Conservative party. One hilarious detail: an opinion poll taken in 1994 demonstrated not only that the Labour party would definitely win the next election, as they indeed did, but they had decisively won the last one, too. Wheatcroft has a wonderful name for the wavering mass who signed up to the casual assumption of Tory Evil: the lumpenintelligentsia.

It was a clearly defined phenomenon at the time, and it did form a definite political movement. From beginning to end, it was quite separate from the revival of the Labour Party, although certainly contributing to that revival. There is, however, a very peculiar feature of the movement. However politically engaged they declared themselves to be, few of them went, subsequently, into democratic politics; I think Mr Ignatieff may very well be the first. Some were given peerages; most remained exactly where they were, making television programmes and writing more manifestos.

Looking at the new, or newish Labour MPs, I think very few of them could be described, in Wheatcroft's terms, as lumpenintelligentsia; they all seem like hard-nosed number-crunchers or amiable local businessmen, but hardly one of them has the languid air of a salon-frequenter hanging about him.

Surely more of those 1980s rebels might be expected, by now, to have put their money where their mouth was, and actually ventured into active politics?

Well, perhaps in the past, and perhaps in a different party. There is probably too much of a sense now that the ordinary parliamentarian has very little in the way of real power, and not necessarily very much in the way of a voice. Why make your point in the form of an unreported speech in the House of Commons when you could simply make a television programme instead? The House of Commons, too, has always been very tough on people who were famous before they took their seats: John Stuart Mill could make no mark against a determined House. That acts as a strong deterrent, as much as the idea of putting your reputation to an electorate to consider.

All the same, and even taking into account the fact that the Labour party would, no doubt, be far from keen to promote a glamorous public intellectual like Mr Ignatieff in this country, one does rather think that the class of thinkers might have made more of an effort. There is something extremely funny about Mr Ignatieff thinking "Indeed" when a political career is suggested to him, though, in reality, he couldn't possibly be as insufferable as that makes him sound.

On the other hand, there is something rather disgraceful about the fact that he, so conspicuously, is the first of his kind to embark on what, after all, should be the most distinguished and honourable of public careers.