Blunkett and the Philosophers

Crooked Timber highlights yesterday’s bizarre choice of front-page lead in the Guardian about the fact that one of the Home Secretary’s special advisers, Matt Cavanagh, once wrote a D.Phil thesis and then a book arguing that a lot of the arguments made about so-called equality of so-called opportunity are a crock of shit.

All the Guardian journalist had to do to turn this into a newspaper story was to find the most provocative things that Cavanagh wrote about race discrimination laws, treat them as if they were soundbites rather than steps in complicated theoretical arguments, and then find a rent-a-quote Labour MP to say that anyone who disagreed with the party line on this kind of thing must be “psychotic”. And there’s your story — which will probably remain an exclusive, in the strict sense that other media outlets are highly unlikely to think it’s worth running with.

I flicked through the book, Against Equality of Opportunity when it came out, liked parts of it, didn’t like other parts of it, and occasionally tell students to look at it if they’re writing essays on related subjects. Since I remember a section on why racism is very bad because of the kind of contempt racists express when they behave in a racist fashion, it’s not clear to me that the Guardian is onto a winner here in trying to paint Matt Cavanagh as some kind of right-wing nutter (though he may be that, and it wouldn’t surprise me to hear that right-wing nutters were working for David Blunkett).

Although Matt Cavanagh and I are both the kind of people who have spent too much time in Oxford, we’ve never really had much to do with one another: he was working on his doctorate and teaching Philosophy in Oxford in exactly the period that I was living in the States, and I returned to Oxford at the same time, I think, that he left academic life altogether. And my main memory of Matt isn’t of anything he’s done in academic philosophy, I’m afraid, but of his attempt in the Balliol junior common room a decade ago when we briefly overlapped as undergraduates there to try to stop the Chapel ringing its bell for a few minutes before 6pm in order to remind people to turn up to the evening service. (The attempt failed.)

But I did want to use this post to say something about the surprising number of political theorists who do seem to end up dealing with David Blunkett. Blunkett is Bernard Crick’s most famous student from years ago at Sheffield University — there’s a funny, though probably apocryphal anecdote about how Blunkett’s then guide dog would bark every time Crick mentioned Karl Marx in lectures — and the lucky Crick was rewarded many years later by being made the Britishness Tsar (if that isn’t a contradiction in terms) and getting to draw up projects for how to teach “citizenship” in schools and to bring in “citizenship tests” and the like.

(I vaguely remember one pilot paper saying that school children should be asked to write essays reporting their reactions to the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, as part of “citizenship” training, though that may be my overheated imagination at work, again. I also remember the lovely line in the Government’s [mostly horrible] white paper on citizenship and immigration which tried to say what the most distinctively “British” values were, and concluded that they were the values enshrined in the European human rights charter…)

But Crick and Cavanagh aren’t the only ones: there’s also Dr. Mads Qvortrup, who has worked for the Referendum Institute, and who seems to have some Blunkett connection, possibly as some kind of adviser or other. Qvortrup thanks Blunkett in the Acknowledgments of his new book, The Political Philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and implausibly says of Blunkett in the Preface that he has “further elaborated” the arguments of Machiavelli, Rousseau and Alexis de Tocqueville about civic nationalism. And Blunkett has clearly returned the favour, blurbing the book as follows:

No society can survive without mutuality. Dr Qvortrup’s book shows that rights and responsibilities go hand in hand. It is an excellent primer for anyone wishing to understand how renewal of democracy hinges on a strong civil society.

Now who would have thought that Jean-Jacques Rousseau was a forerunner of the politics of New Labour? (And who could have guessed from this blurb that this book was a study of Rousseau?) Have I missed any others?

UPDATE [2pm]: Alright: so I was wrong about the exclusivity of the Guardian‘s report: page four of the Sunday Telegraph is devoted to the same story, with a spokesman for the Home Secretary quoted as saying, “Mr Blunkett is aware of the book and thinks it is quite cleverly argued, but he does not agree with a lot of it. The point is, do people want ministers to be surrounded by yes men or do they want extremely bright philosophers and political thinkers who grapple with difficult issues?” The general defence of MC’s continuing employment seems to centre on a claim that “he was trying to make his name in academia” four years ago, and so decided to publish a bunch of things he never really agreed with, but which sounded provocative. Ho hum.

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