Eye strain. When preparing for my book tour I hadn’t realised how much stress it would put on my eye muscles. But the sideways glance seems to be à la mode among newspaper photographers. They tell you to turn your face nearly sideways to the camera, then pull your eyes all the way over so you can peer directly into it. From the inside it feels like they are turning you into a shifty-eyed Richard Nixon, but it must look edgy to photo editors. In any case, after a few minutes your eye muscles hurt.
Ido whatever photographers tell me to do because if you can’t look good you should at least look devious (in France, though, I once refused to pose naked in a bathtub full of milk). I was especially pliable before the lensmen in the UK because I was having such an excellent time. I came to do a little reporting and to promote my book The Social Animal, which has been brilliantly published by Short Books. In the States, it was seen as a non-political book about brain research and personal fulfilment. In Britain, it was treated as the political class’s flavour of the month. I got to meet Ed Miliband, have a chat with David Cameron at No. 10, lead a seminar with members of his policy team in some sort of grand dining room there, and when I got home I had a call from Gordon Brown to talk about the way he is merging cognitive research with a new theory of human rights.
Why is cognitive research and thinking about human nature integrated into British politics but segregated from US politics? Well, in America economists form a phalanx between social research and the world of policymaking. That which does not fit into their rationalist view of human nature is not permitted to pass. Moreover, America’s official ideology is more individualistic, and has trouble processing any mode of thinking that emphasises relationships, emotions and unconscious influences. Finally, Americans are consumed by a single argument — Big Government versus Small Government — and any body of work that doesn’t fit neatly into that frame is considered nonpolitical.
If American elite conversation aspires to the formalistic rigour of Walter Lippmann, British elite conversation has always aspired to the sprawling humanistic whimsy of Samuel Johnson. You have more people who are hard to categorise in American terms — intellectual/journalists and scholar/politicians from Orwell and Enoch Powell all the way up to Ferdinand Mount, David Willetts and Charles Moore. Naturally,
the British political conversation is more welcoming to interdisciplinary research and general humanism. You’ve also got think tanks like Demos, ResPublica and the RSA, which have no counterparts in Washington because they spend less time running regressions on tax rates and more time mulling character and community.
Naturally, I was impressed. I was impressed by Cameron, who effortlessly dominates a room in the manner of a Reagan, Clinton or Obama. I was impressed by his adviser Steve Hilton, whose mind seems to ride the elevator from political marketing to topfloor political philosophy. I was impressed by Oliver Letwin, who reminded me of Clinton and Obama’s adviser Larry Summers, except with a political theory background instead of economics. I was even impressed by the way the British media practises the broken-windows method of fighting political corruption — working itself into a splenetic frenzy over minor transgressions as a way to prevent major ones. While I was in the UK, Ken Clarke got into trouble for talking clumsily about rape (in France you have to actually be accused of rape to get into so much hot water). There was also some inexplicable scandal in which a minister was in danger of losing his career because he passed speeding points to his wife. Really? Speeding points? Does anybody think this is the stuff of scandal in Russia?
Mostly, I was impressed that the British political system, both formal and informal, seems basically to work. In the US we can’t agree on anything except ways to go deeper into debt. People in rival tribes barely talk to each other. But Britain seems to have a normal political culture — not Athenian democracy but basically functional. In this day and age, that’s a wonder of the world.
People in London seemed less despairing than people in Washington, less obsessed with the prospect of national decline (maybe you got over that a few decades ago). I left rethinking my position on the American Revolution. Maybe not such a good idea. Maybe we let things get a little out of hand.
the spectator | 4 June 2011 | www.spectator.co.uk pol_2010_11_2011.indd 10