Top “British” Public Intellectuals

by Chris Bertram on June 24, 2004

Prospect Magazine are running a poll to find the top 5 “British” public intellectuals. You can see “the whole list here”: and can vote by email to . I say “British” rather than British because the blurb reads: “Candidates do not need to live here or be British citizens, but they should make their most significant impact here.” So Seamus Heaney, Amartya Sen and Michael Ignatieff end up being “British”. There are some pretty dodgy characters on the list, various low rent talking heads, a Daily Mail columnist, and several people whose public ravings are at the outer limits of sanity (these aren’t meant to be exclusive categories). I’ll avoid mentioning names for fear of a libel suit. I thought about voting for Quentin Skinner as the only person on the list ever to have left a comment on Crooked Timber, and Richard Dawkins irritates me too often. In the end, my choice from their top 100, in no particular order is:

bq. Onora O’Neill (I had to pick a philosopher and the other philosophical options are _terrible_ and she’s done some good stuff over the years. Her Reith lectures are one of the most forthright recent attempts to drive back the “audit culture” that is wrecking Britain’s public services.)

bq. Amartya Sen (his work on democracy and famines alone should get him near the top of any such list.)

bq. Seamus Heaney (the only poet on the list.)

bq. V.S. Naipaul (the only _great_ novelist in their selection.)

bq. W.G. Runciman (manages to be a shipping magnate and a social theorist at the same time.)

Sen and Runciman were also, aeons ago, co-authors of a paper on Rousseau, the general will and the prisoner’s dilemma, all topics close to my heart.



Chris Bertram 06.24.04 at 9:46 am

I’ve just noticed the “prizes”:

bq. The five public intellectuals who receive most votes will be invited to dinner with a cabinet minster and the editor of a national newspaper, and Prospect will report on the conversation. The ten readers whose choices most closely resemble these five will each receive a copy of Samuel Huntington’s new book, “Who Are We? America’s Great Debate.”

I guess that the people I’ve voted for would find that “prize” pretty unappealing (since they could probably have dinner with either any time they chose). I’ve been racking my brains for appropriate uses for a book by Samuel Huntington and I fear that it is likely to be too thin to function as a doorstop and too thick to be an effective draught excluder.


Michael Greinecker 06.24.04 at 10:30 am

I think Eric Hobsbawm should be in the top ten too. Anthony Giddens should make the list for being very influential without writing complete nonsense.


Kieran Healy 06.24.04 at 10:58 am

So Seamus Heaney, Amartya Sen and Michael Ignatieff end up being “British”.

It’s a grand old British tradition that, in sports, literature, large tracts of land, etc, etc.


Peter Murphy 06.24.04 at 11:13 am

Entire books have been written about how to define a public intellectual; we will restrict ourselves to just a few sentences. The basic qualification we used was distinction in a field of intellectual or cultural endeavour coupled with an ability to communicate well to generalist audiences through the written or spoken word.

So why not Sir Tim Berners-Lee, WWW inventor? He’s missing from the list altogether. No one could deny he gets brownie points for “distinction in a field of intellectual or cultural endeavour”. He’s maybe not “public” enough for other part, but I think he should qualify anyway on the way his little WWW acts as an enabler “public intellectual activity”. (Well, I wouldn’t be reading Crooked Timber without it, would I?)


gavin 06.24.04 at 12:11 pm

Don’t you just love lists like this? Something for everyone to rant about. My particular favourites are the inclusion of George Monbiot, Philip Pullman (a children’s author!), Jeanette Winterson, and David Hare (Ben Elton has at least as much to say about politics). All extraordinary choices, all one-trick ponies.

They might as well have added Raj Persaud and Oliver James, on the basis that they both appear on tv a lot! Come to that, what about Richard Maddeley? Surely, he’s been under-rated for too long.

It seems to me that a public intellectual has to have something interesting (or even better, true) to say about things outside their own field. Which rules out most of the humanities people on the list as far as I can see.


Matt 06.24.04 at 12:16 pm


What’s so bad about A.C. Greyling? I admit I’ve read very very little by him, but had no idea that he should be considered to be a _terrible_ choice. Enlighten us, please.


des von bladet 06.24.04 at 12:26 pm

Can you really be sued for outing someone as a Daily Mail columnist? I mean, I know British libel laws are harsh, but…


Ian 06.24.04 at 12:35 pm

Don’t knock Philip Pullman – his work stands up against anything nominally written for adults and will still be read long after many of the others have returned to the obscurity they so richly deserve.


gavin 06.24.04 at 12:59 pm

Ian, certainly not knocking the books themselves (and the play was good too)… just the idea that Pullman is a public intellectual. As far as I can see, he makes sensible comments about education and literature, which is to be expected given his background. But does that make him a public intellectual?


Alison 06.24.04 at 1:56 pm

What about Stephen Hawking? He’s a great British communicator of ideas who is heard with respect by people all over the world. Or have I missed the point?


harry 06.24.04 at 2:14 pm

Might this turn out to be like the Nobel Peace Prize — you can’t turn it down, but you don’t like the company? Melanie Phillips is on a list with Sen and O Neill?

Gavin, there’s nothing wrong, or non-public intellectually, about having views about a narrow range of matters. He has, simply throuhg the books, done more to stimulate and contribute to debate about the place of religion in society than more than half the other people on the list have done… have done. There’s something like a 10% chance (random figure) that his work will be read and taken seriously in 50 years time, which can be said of only a handful of the others on the list.

What Chris hasn’t done is named 10 more people who should be on the list in the place of the at least 30 who look absurd there. Chris?


theCoach 06.24.04 at 2:45 pm

Can you expand on what, exactly, about Dawkins irritates you?
I think I know, but I would like to see it spelled out. thanks.


Rich 06.24.04 at 3:01 pm

Wot no Carol Vorderman?


Chris Bertram 06.24.04 at 3:30 pm

Matt and Rich, I’m saying nothing …

Harry, good question. Peter Murphy is plainly right to nominate Tim Berners-Lee as one of the unjustly excluded. And where is Alan Bennett on the list?

Given the somewhat loose definitions of “British”, “public” and “intellectual” employed by the list, all or any of these would have been less risible inclusions in a top 100 than, say, Melanie Phillips

Ronald Dworkin
John Lloyd
Alasdair Gray
Jeremy Paxman
Marina Warner
Richard Fortey
Tariq Modood
Antony Gormley
Alison Wolf
Peter Ackroyd
J.G. Ballard
Ken Worpole
Colin Ward
Helena Kennedy
Antony Barnett
Susan George
Nira Yuval-Davis
Patrick Wright

[I’m certainly not endorsing these as finalist btw, nor saying that I necessarily like them]


q 06.24.04 at 3:52 pm

I found reading the proposed list profoundly depressing view of intellectualism in the UK for the number of talentless individuals on it.
(Sorry to be a party pooper).
To look on the bright side, maybe someone needs to kickstart some kind of movement, to focus on quality. (Hey revolution everybody!)
…and yes, why aren’t Tim Berners-Lee and Alan Bennett on it.


q 06.24.04 at 3:58 pm

…and of course Stephen Hawking, and maybe Jeremy Paxman EVEN THOUGH he is a journalist!


harry 06.24.04 at 4:21 pm

I find the list less depressing now that I’ve thought of all the people who might have been on it and aren’t!!! EG Andrew Adonis, Stephen Pollard, Peter Hitchens, that young historian whose name I can’t remember but whose inclusion might have been expected given the presence of Starkey. Let alone Vorderman…

And I’m also pleased to see some people I wouldn’t have thoguht of on there: Willetts and Brown are the right politicans to include, I’d have forgotten Mary Warnock, who is an excellent choice (not an original philosopher, but an unflashy and intellectually responsible public face of philosophy).

I know why Alan Bennett isn’t on. People don’t think of him as an intellectual because he’s too clever in disguising his brilliance with the lower middle-brow tone of his public persona. Anyway, I can just about stand to see Melanie Philips on a list with Sen: to see her on a list with Bennett would be unbearable.


dave heasman 06.24.04 at 4:30 pm

Well, at least that list tells me that George Steiner is still alive. For a list of intellectuals there are some terrible halfwits. Tariq Ali!

If they have (and they should) Ian Buruma, they should also have Timothy Garton Ash. And Hamish MacRae. And Barry Riley.


q 06.24.04 at 4:42 pm

If you were a “top” British intellectual, is it not likely that you’ll end up working abroad, especially in the USA?

Maybe in 1900, Europe was where it was “at”, and in 2000, USA is where it is “at”. So then if are we interested in:
1. Being British
2. Working in Britain
3. Effect on Britiain,

Two famous intellectuals: Jerry Springer is from Britain. Madonna lives in Britain. :)

(btw Britain: is this the British Nation or the whole of the British Isles?)


q 06.24.04 at 4:56 pm

I think their criteria are worth reprinting here to assist in deconstruction:

_Entire books have been written about how to define a public intellectual; we will restrict ourselves to just a few sentences. The basic qualification we used was distinction in a field of intellectual or cultural endeavour coupled with an ability to communicate well to generalist audiences through the written or spoken word. Identifying distinction is more subjective in some fields (literature, journalism) than in others (science). So two supplementary criteria were added for these more contested fields, somewhat in tension though they are: first, originality of contribution; second, ability to articulate or represent an important strand of British cultural life. The people on our list are not necessarily the cleverest or most rigorous thinkers in Britain. Rather, the emphasis must lie on a sliding scale between their “public” and “intellectual” roles. For example, we have not included even the most brilliant of political advisers, since they are by definition not fully public creatures._

_Three further points of clarification. First, we are stressing current contribution—by which we mean the past five to ten years. Many names you might otherwise expect to see are absent for that reason. Second, this is a list of British public intellectuals. Candidates do not need to live here or be British citizens, but they should make their most significant impact here. Third, given that there is no objective way of comparing the contributions of a biologist and a novelist, there is no objective way of judging how many representatives there should be from different disciplines. So this is down to our own reading of the zeitgeist._

It seems to me that defining this “field of intellectual or cultural endeavour” is quite(*) critical to the whole effort.

To take two very extreme examples, everyone in connected beligerant Britain sits up and listens when:
BILL Gates talks about the “future of the Internet”
USAMA Bin Laden talks about “Crusaders”.



Ophelia Benson 06.24.04 at 5:58 pm

They do have Buruma, and Garton Ash too.

Yeah, Marina Warner on the should-be list – she’s the first person I looked for, for some reason, and was irritated not to find her. And yet I voted for someone else for the one extra vote you get.

And I too voted for Sen in the top five.

And what’s all this about Grayling? Is he the Daily Mail columnist? (Pardon US ignorance.) So that makes Junius’ long-ago comment that B&W is okay but it sounds too much like Grayling – even more insulting than I thought at the time. Well I never!


Chris Bertram 06.24.04 at 6:27 pm

Hmm, I did say that, didn’t I Ophelia? He isn’t the Daily Mail columnist but he did (maybe still does) write one in the Guardian called “The Last Word”. The formula is to take some topic “Death”, “God”, “Toast”, “Conkers”, whatever and to use it to peddle a Dawkins-style scientistic liberalism in 200 words, peppering the sentiments we all knew he’s going to come up with with a few select quotations from Montaigne, Mill, whoever. Irritates the hell out of me. I’m shallow enough also to be “annoyed by his hairstyle”: .


Ophelia Benson 06.24.04 at 6:54 pm

You did indeed, Chris, and I burst into tears at the memory several times a day.

Oh yes, I know about the silly essays, I’ve even read one or two, and agree about them. Also about the hair. But I like Dawkins a lot more than you do, apparently, so that may account for the horrible echo. That and always talking about Toast, of course.


Matt Weiner 06.24.04 at 7:13 pm

Oh I don’t think that’s so bad at all. Methinks Timberites are displaying unnecessarily repressive attitudes toward hair-dos. I myself will always stand up for the rights of people who are too lazy to go to the barber as often as we should.


Ophelia Benson 06.24.04 at 7:25 pm

Barber? Who said anything about a barber? What, is Grayling missing hands or something? He can’t cut that stuff off himself? Sure he can.


Stephen Wade 06.24.04 at 7:38 pm

I know he might be more intellectual (or academic) than public, but what of Bernard Lewis? His efforts in the academic establishment have a major impact on the public discourse on Near Eastern topics, and indeed his methodology is one of the more stringent (and, in my opinion, effective) within the academic establishment.


Ophelia Benson 06.24.04 at 7:54 pm

Oh – that’s a thought. Ibn Warraq. He’s done quite a lot for public understanding too.


Matt Weiner 06.24.04 at 9:02 pm

Dunno, cutting your own hair, like bringing democracy to countries you’ve just conquered, has always struck me as the sort of thing that enthusiastic amateurs should not attempt at the risk of coming out looking stupid and perhaps slightly bloody. (Yes yes, sorry for injecting politics into this, I thought it was funny though.)
(Also, I have never lived anywhere near the UK, so my use of “dunno” is affected. “Bloody” is not used in the UK sense though.)


DJW 06.25.04 at 12:43 am

I don’t know, I’ve been cutting my own hair for years. It’s really not that hard, at least for me. I’m not accomplishing artistic genius, but you can’t really tell the difference between what I do and what a mediocre barber would do. Close enough, and free.


adm 06.25.04 at 2:33 am

How is Roger Scrutton on the list while (Sir)Derek Parfit and Joseph Raz are left out? Granted they are much more influential in academic circles, but surely they can passibly count as public intellectuals. I don’t know anything about British public debate, but I do recall Parfit mentioning several high profile commissions etc that he has served on. James Griffin (yes, he’s an American citizen, but he’s been at Oxford forever) also might qualify, he was given a knighthood (or some equivalent) in (if I recall correctly) Argentina for his work on well being. Shouldn’t that qualify him as a British public intellectual?


micah 06.25.04 at 4:18 am

I’m very surprised Alan Ryan isn’t on the list. Any reason for his omission?


Backword Dave 06.25.04 at 11:05 am

Ophelia, the Daily Mail columnist is Melanie Phillips: warrior on straw, and abuser of adjectives. Like Roger Scruton, her main thesis is “fings ain’t wot they used ter be” but I quite like Scruton (a perverse taste, I know), while she is mostly shrill — “Drugs are wicked” and “Everyone on the left is an anti-semite” just about sums up her world view.


harry 06.25.04 at 3:33 pm

I think Phillips has, in fact, gone slightly mad (crazy, nuts, since we’re on the subject of US-UK differeneces in usage). Not that she was ever anything but appalling, but if you read her ‘diary’ she comes off as deeply obsessive and irrational. Quite different from Scruton who just seems to enjoy pissing people off.


Ophelia Benson 06.25.04 at 6:42 pm

Oh, Alan Ryan, that’s true – he’s one of my favorites. I was going to say Ray Monk, too, if I did an alternative list. Maybe I will have to do one.

Thanks for Daily Mail-Melanie P info.


Matt McGrattan 06.25.04 at 8:36 pm

Re: A.C.Grayling…

I’ve never been a fan of his Guardian columns. I think Julian Baggini does a much better job of that type of thing, to be honest.

However, Grayling’s book on ‘Berkeley’ is excellent. One of, if not the the best books available in that area. [IMHO]


Chris Martin 06.25.04 at 10:46 pm

Grayling bears an uncanny resemblance to Gary Oldman. Perhaps Oldman can play him when they make a biopic.


英国留学 06.28.04 at 9:24 am

Who said anything about a barber? What, is Grayling missing hands or something? He can’t cut that stuff off himself? Sure he can.


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