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The opinions expressed on this page are mine alone. Any similarities to the views of my employer are completely coincidental.

Thursday, 1 September 2016

Incidental pleasures of academia

Earlier this month I found myself on one of the LSE's roof gardens looking at a hole in the ground. LSE is truly an empire on which the concrete never sets. The East Building, Clare Market, The Anchorage and half of the St Clement's Building have all been demolished.

I doubt anyone will mourn their loss. They were cramped and ugly. I  remember as an undergraduate attending a class on Sociological Theory in the East Building in a room that was so narrow that everyone sitting around the table had to stand up and pull their stomach and chair in so that a newcomer could be admitted. Latecomers were not popular.

I was  a bit shocked though to discover that the part of the Old Building that at one time housed Sociology's Departmental Offices has been turned into a staircase. O tempora  o mores!

Still intact though is the nearby Graham Wallas Room, one of the most dysfunctional and difficult to find rooms in the whole of the School. Its obscurity was not aided by a tendency to refer to it, even in official publications, as the Graham Wallace Room. I always had a feeling that there were few faculty, even in the Department of Government, who knew who Wallas was.

All of which is a preamble to the confession that I've just finished reading his Human Nature in Politics.  There are two copies in my college's library and I picked one off the shelf at random. Someone has written in pencil on the inside of the cover that it is the third edition, which was published in 1920. But this is obviously incorrect, for on the facing page as well as the stamp that tells me that the book was donated to the library by G. D. H. Cole is the inscription: M. I. Postgate, Butler Prize, 1914. Margaret Postgate, was, of course, Mrs G. D. H. Cole and the (Agnata) Butler Prize was awarded at Girton for Classics. I imagine the other copy was Cole's own  and now they sit in connubial bliss on their library shelf. I imagine it will be a long time until they are parted again.

Which is a shame, because Wallas has very perceptive things to say about the psychology of politics. His big point is that a lot of political thinking is irrational which must have been a bit dispiriting for someone who started as a Fabian:

The empirical art of politics consists largely in the creation of opinion by the deliberate exploitation of subconscious non-rational inference.

By the time he wrote that he had already left the Fabians over the dog-whistle issue of the day - tariff reform. You can't imagine he would be very surprised by the tactics of the Brexit campaign. He was still Fabian enough though to believe that the facts and the accurate representation of the facts actually matter:

If official figures did not exist in England, or if they did not possess or deserve authority, it is difficult to estimate the degree of political harm which could be done in a few years by interested and dishonest agitation on some question too technical for the personal judgment of the ordinary voter.

Wallas wrote that in 1908 and it took another 100 years before the UK Statistics Authority was established. It is abundantly clear that UK politicians of all shades still detest being brought to book when they fiddle the numbers. They may prefer to live in a fact free world, but it isn't good for the rest of us if we let them.

My favourite part of the book though is just a little incidental anecdote. Wallas is talking about political representation and pouring  cold water on the ideas of the Proportional Representation Society. He relates a mock ballot experiment run by the PRS in 1906 in which voters are to choose  five out of twelve candidates for an imaginary constituency.:

...in my case the ballot papers were distributed at the end of a dinner party. No discussion of the various candidates took place with the single exception that, finding my memory of Mr Arthur Henderson rather vague, I whispered a question about him to my next neighbour."

The relationship between left-leaning intellectuals and the Labour Party has always been contaminated by a hint of ambivalence. Oh well, if things carry on as they are we won't have an electorally viable left in the UK, so at least that problem will be solved.

1 comment:

Peter Chapman said...

Anyone who does not have access to your library can get the book here: