Who will fill the intellectual vacuum?

New Labour's search for definition may be resolved by the Tory rebel right rather than Blairite thinkers
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Once upon a time, there were intellectuals. They wore pebble glasses and stern expressions, sat around in cafes and acted as the collective conscience for politics: they provided a bridge between philosophy and power. (And because of this exalted role, they were permitted, from time to time, to be immoral with one another. But they were immoral in an uncomfortable, serious way, without enjoying it.)

Now, however, there are no intellectuals. There are academics, and crusading authors and journalists and so forth, but they are book-writers who are ignored by people of power. Will Hutton, who is now editing some newspaper or other, is a rare exception. And there are some old Marxists left in a dusty broom-cupboard at the LSE. But the great political intellectuals, such as Strachey or Keynes, Ernest Gellner or Hayek, are gone. The age of ideology is over. And as a result, politics has lost its moral dignity; it is mere management now.

Such, at any rate, is the general assumption. There are surviving intellectuals from the great traditions, including Eric Hobsbawm, the Marxist historian, and John Gray, moving through and beyond liberalism. But an era has passed, a time marked by thick middle-European accents and cigar smoke.

I heard an emblematic story recently about Isaiah Berlin, a living legend, now encrusted with glittering anecdotage. He was, it is said, trying to impress a girl at an American dinner. To do so, he deployed his full range of brilliant conversation, his philosophising, his stories, his epigrams and reminiscence. This rarely happens; it must have been a little like sitting next to Voltaire. After a couple of hours of this cascade of erudition and wit, silence fell. The girl turned to him and said politely: ''I'm terribly sorry, Sir Isaiah. But I don't really understand Russian.'' Thus intellectual traditions die.

Now Berlin, as well as Hayek and Oakeshott, are cited from time to time by serious Conservatives. Meanwhile, thinking Labour people, from the Thatcher era onwards, have found themselves intellectual-short. Having hooted for years at the ''stupid party'', they found the unravelling of traditional socialist and Marxist thought left them looking not entirely clever themselves.

Had Tony Blair been the man his critics say he is, an opportunist without ideology, he would have been supremely unworried by this deficit in intellectuals. In fact, he is very worried and has been harping on about the need for a supportive tide of ideas and writers to carry his project forward.

Now he has lent his name to a collection of essays, edited by the Labour MP Giles Radice*. In it, Blair says that, ''The role of intellectuals and thinkers is crucial to changing the political climate. ... I want Labour to be able to draw on a coalition of thinkers, including people outside the party.'' And the book is wide-ranging, including people like Charles Handy, the business guru; Stephen Tumim, the former Chief Inspector of Prisons; and the businessman David Sainsbury, alongside the more familiar names of leftish journalism and think-tankery.

Does it provide that intellectual definition and edge which Blair and new Labour are supposed to lack? It certainly carries forward the becoming- familiar mix of thinking on globalism, welfare, community and education which will provide the core of any future Labour administration. It brings ideas that have become familiar in the think-tanks nearer to the realities of political policy-making.

It has uncomfortable arguments alongside some rather blander thinking. Neal Ascherson's call for further European integration as a way of taming intolerant English nationalism is, in the context of the rising xenophobia of 1996, incendiary stuff. David Marquand's argument for a redefinition of wealth to take in welfare, so that ''maximum welfare should be the goal of public policy'' is a thought-through provocation to the consensus.

But the most striking effect of the collection is not that it challenges accepted thinking but that it represents a series of judgements about how to modernise Britain (political reform, investment in education, stable macro-economic policy, no taxation principally for redistribution) which have themselves become the new consensus.

In some areas, such as health, aspects of education and the economy, this shows how far Conservative thinking has won through. On Europe, spending priorities and long-termism it is very un-Tory. But the essayists, mostly, are writing not as angry outsiders but as people who believe themselves to be winning, a new policy establishment in the making.

There isn't, frankly, the fizzing, brick-throwing atmosphere of the anti- establishment Thatcherite intellectuals of 20 years ago. There is, instead, a calm self-confidence which is itself rather striking.

For those with a strongly romantic view of the role of intellectuals - the pebble glasses, the cigar smoke and the grave acts of immorality - it is all rather depressing. No wild calls to arms, no denunciatory rage. Once we had revolutionary dreams and grand-sounding, earth-straddling ideologies. Now we've got education and training ... and education and training ... and education and training.

But Peter Hennessy, the historian, provides a rather magnificent rebuke to the romantics, which is worth quoting at some length. He begins by noting that the position of the intellectuals is very different from that of 1945, when they were ''the territorial army of the state in Whitehall''. Today, however, they are dispersed, often not in public or political life but in the information business, in consultancies and the media.

''However, media people have, to a great extent, rubbed their noses in trivia and fad and fashion. And they have become cynical. Scepticism is the necessary intellectual condition for improvement; cynicism is waving the white flag. William Waldegrave has talked about the politico-media complex driving contemporary government. Both the politico bit and the media bit have the attention span of a gnat. ... The real purpose of intellectuals in a society is to hold up evidence and truth to those in power, to provide the inconvenient analysis to those who want the swift and meretricious solution.''

I think this is both true and has interesting implications for the Conservatives. Once, the leftish intellectuals were the ones offering the wild, attention- grabbing answers, while the dull old Tories mumbled on about markets and Europe and all that. Now, in their nationalism, so simple and so addictively easy for the fad- driven media, it is the Tory right that seems meretricious.

New Labour's search for definition may be resolved, in short, not by the Blairite essayists but by the Tory rebel right. By dividing British politics into a crusading anti-EU movement and the Blair-led rest, they are setting up a contest which it is barely conceivable they can win. Whenever the electorate has been confronted by a choice between militant politics and a sensibilist tendency, it has plumped for dull-but-safe.

It is an extraordinary thing that a Labour Party committed to dramatic political reform could ever seem the safe alternative to Conservatism. But the rebel right have managed it. Tony Blair must wake up each morning and pinch himself.

*'What Needs to Change', ed Giles Radice, HarperCollins, pounds 14.99.