Blog: David Leask: After Brexit debacle, the boffins are back. What now for Scotland’s public intellectuals? – HeraldScotland

It was just before the referendum on leaving the European Union that Michael Gove declared that “people in this country have had enough of experts”. The Tory frontbencher may well have been right; there certainly were Brexiteers who did not want to hear how complicated it would be to untangle a half-century-old common market. Some still do not.

Does Mr Gove’s claim still ring true? Maybe, up to a point. But a two-year pandemic has – hopefully – nudged the dial of public opinion. Amid – or perhaps even because of – a tide of online disinformation and conspiracism, a good few of us have turned to clinicians, technocrats and academics for answers.

Some of these experts have become pretty well known. Public health thinkers have put in a helluva shift over the last couple of years.

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But can these and others experts, thrust in to the media limelight by world events, grow in to something more, joining Scotland’s small stock of “public intellectuals”?

We do not use this term that much in the English-speaking world. But we should. Most Anglophone countries do not have anything like as strong a tradition of public intellectuals as say, France, Italy or Germany. But Scotland perhaps comes closer to doing so than other parts of the Anglosphere (though it has to be said there is also fair degree of angst about the declining role of the intellectuel engagé on the continent).

We do have a group high-profile thinkers who have outgrown their academic disciplines or other backgrounds, who engage more widely with politics, culture, the media and who play a special and prominent role in our public life.

Think of Sir Tom Devine. Some of his fellow scholars resent his prominence on TV and radio and the papers. Some are now doing so openly.

We reporters tend to dub him “Scotland’s greatest historian”. This is – if we stop to think about it – a very silly idea: there are no Top Trumps rankings for those who reveal and explain our past.

Sir Tom, though, he’s more than an historian; he is one of our country’s pre-eminent public intellectuals. As fluent as he is insightful, the emeritus professor of Edinburgh University is the kind of figure busy and ignorant reporters – like me – love. Why? Because he always gives perfect quotes. Everybody from book publishers to radio producers and TV documentary makers will feel the same way.

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There are other specialist academics who can talk. But Sir Tom is not just good at communicating. He takes his great hinterland of scholarship, his wit and his charm and he applies them to our sense of ourselves, to how we live today.

And he does this year in, year out.

So does another historian, Murray Pittock of Glasgow University. He gives a helpful understanding of the role he and others play. “The public intellectual is defined by their extended expertise: if they are an economist, they speak on policy; if a historian, on politics,” he said. “They challenge and inform, unlike the lobbyist or celebrity endorser, and they have staying power in the media, unlike the expert.”

History lends itself to this status, perhaps more than white-coat science. Will the clinicians who helped us through the pandemic make the leap? We shall see. Their knowledge may, if anything, be too focused. But I think some of the public health academics might. Professors Bauld and Sridhar of Edinburgh – as two examples – have a discipline with multiple applications in wider society and public policy. And they have shown an ability to zoom out as well as to zoom in, to explain the big picture as well as the small.

Will they – and so many other worthy contenders, not just “boffins” – be able to take the kind of lasting public intellectual role Prof Pittock describes? What does our society need to do to help them, if that is what they want to do? I am thinking especially about our media-political eco-system which, let us be honest, has seen healthier days. And which has never done enough, even now, for women.

Most of our small cadre of public intellectuals are older white men. And that reason for that is not clever.

There is plenty of discussion about how Scotland can unlock the expertise in its universities, how we can connect our scholars with public policy and discourse. But we talk less on how we engage some of brighter minds outside the precise boundaries of their specialities. That means we sometimes insist on treating public intellectuals as experts – because we have not all quite figured out their wider role.

Scotland is not huge. The same names crop up again and again. There is no Sir Tom Devine equivalent in, say, England. The retired academic is sometimes wheeled out in the press as some kind of infallible arbiter of history, his word, his authority, seen as settling everything from pub arguments to public policy. He won’t find that comfortable, or fair. Nobody, after all, is an expert in everything.

Equally sometimes our public intellectuals find themselves excluded from formal policy-making, feted in the columns in the papers but shunned in the corridors of power.

Scottish public life can be toxic, our politics hyper-partisan. This creates disincentives for experts to grow out of their subject area bunkers and play a wider role in society. Who – after all – wants to ad-homed back in to the stone age after expressing views on, say, independence or a culture wars wedge topic?

Boffins are back. But we need to grow more public intellectuals too.

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