26 May 2017

Why pundit Douglas Carswell is wrong about pundits


Today’s most entertaining article is by Douglas Carswell for the ConservativeHome website. In it, Mr Carswell, until recently the MP for Clacton, takes aim at what is sometimes called the punditocracy – that is, those, like me, who make their living from opining on politicians and politics and policy.

We are, I accept, an easy and even deserving target. Often wrong, sometimes ill-informed, personally prejudiced, puffed up on our own cleverness, wielding a form of power without responsibility, gentlemen and gentlewomen amateurs raised to the status of authorities. I am, for the record, a fan of Mr Carswell’s, though I much preferred his earlier work.

In his piece, which is a fine bit of punditry, Mr Carswell, now a pundit, uses the word “pundit” or one of its derivations 10 times. Occasionally, as good pundits do, he indulges in elegant variation: a few “commentariat”s, even one “charlatans”.

His gripe appears to be that, as a class, political commentators have strong opinions, rush to judgement on events and their consequences, and are too often – dread word – unscientific. He also has a swipe, in passing, at opinion pollsters and their polling methods, about which “we should… be highly circumspect… they are not the exercise in empiricism they purport to be. The way in which pollsters weight their results mean that many polls are simply intelligent guesswork.”

Still, they’re far from the worst bozos on the scene: “Pollsters guess. Pundits often just make stuff up.”

One might draw a sharp breath at this point – a man who has just stood down as a Ukip MP, having spent 12 years in parliament, and a prominent figure in the Leave campaign, accuses others of guessing, of making stuff up! If you can’t see the irony here, then I have a nearly-new red bus with “NHS” and “£350 million”  painted on the side to sell you.

It has become common in the intellectual right-wing circles that Mr Carswell inhabits to lament the absence of the scientific method from political life. Michael Gove’s former spad Dominic Cummings has written long and interesting blogs on the need for the civil service to be reformed in such a way that policymaking is done on a more rationally scientific basis. Mr Cummings, as I understand it, believes the world should be run by a crack cadre of physicists.

Maybe he’s right. Perhaps the civil service should be replaced by the staff of the National Physical Laboratory and Stephen Hawking should be wheeled into 10 Downing Street. Perhaps we pundits should just shut it, accept we know nothing and that the world would be better run via a series of complex equations, and our editors should in future only publish articles by actuaries, chemists and computer geeks – and, presumably, Mr Carswell.

My intention is not to malign the scientist, that humble seeker of truth and white-coated servant of humanity (though, having met a few physicists, I wouldn’t necessarily trust them to run a scout troop, far less a country or a planet). Instead, I want to defend the pundit – the emotionally intelligent observer, the obsessive wordsmith, the impassioned cheerleader.

One of Tony Blair’s smartest observations was that, after a few years in power, he had come to value wisdom over intelligence. My main argument against the stance of Messrs Carswell and Cummings is that they appear to take the opposite view. They would reduce the process of governing – all of it, from policy development to public debate – to arid, harsh, scientific calculation.

I don’t want to live in that world. The role of the pundit is not to be an impartial observer – I don’t know anyone who does the gig who would claim to be so. It is to bring an openly acknowledged set of principles and prejudices to the analysis of the public realm. It is to speak to, and at times, for, readers who share your outlook, and to challenge those who do not.

Which reader of the Times would fail to recognise Philip Collins and David Aaronovitch as Labour centrists who want to hand out regular pastings to the Corbynites? Which Telegraph subscriber is ignorant of the fact that Charles Moore is a High Tory who applies a series of stern, unbending judgements to the modern world? Isn’t it possible to appreciate, and enjoy, all of it?

Do the soulful, impassioned takes of Matthew Parris or Janice Turner have no place? The daily excoriations that erupt from the pen of Marina Hyde? The gentle grace of Jonathan Freedland? The elegant, ascetic scepticism of Janan Ganesh? The hokey, tearful socialism of Owen Jones? I want to read them, and have words for what the national debate would be without them and their like: dismal, tedious, poorer.

We get things wrong – sometimes on an epic scale. The current era is particularly challenging, as many of the received norms are upended and a series of shocks delivered to the system. The crystal ball has rarely been murkier. But the role of the columnist is to attempt to make sense of the melee as seen through their personal filter, imperfectly, sometimes contradictorily, with vim, humour and bite. In other words, to be human.

Sometimes – whisper it – we even get it right. In November 2015, I wrote the following for CapX:

“There’s every chance that the UK will vote to leave the EU. Some Outer friends even think it’s now probable. But it will have been built, as Kingsley Amis once elegantly put it, on an inverted pyramid of piss. And be prepared for the consequences: the resignation of the PM, the departure of Scotland from the UK, the capture of the Tory party by the Right, an even more emboldened Labour Left, the final diminishment of a once-great world power. If and when that happens, take a look around you: all the wrong people will be clapping.

Not bad at all, if I do say so myself. And, as a pundit, I do.

Chris Deerin is a pundit