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Confessions from a second-class (or maybe third-class) mind

August 9, 2022

When I was a child, I went through various phases of ambition, none of them concurrent. At one stage, I wanted to be Prime Minister. Unlike Boris Johnson, I soon tired of that aspiration. Harold MacMillan and Harold Wilson were hardly compelling role models. I also wanted to play cricket for England, until a kindly teacher broke the news to me that village cricket was more likely to be my natural home.

I don’t remember wanting to be rich, perhaps because until my mid-teens we were relatively rich, which in my limited imagination meant living in a big house, having a holiday home and watching my parents go off on foreign holidays while I was at boarding school. All that ended when my father suffered a financial disaster – explained to us offspring at the time as none of his fault, but in retrospect the result of an overenthusiastic appetite for business risk.

Come university, and all ambitions were drowned in the Summer of Love. It no longer seemed important to become the best at anything, only good at being myself. So I stumbled through my twenties, mostly having a whale of a time, succeeding at some things and failing at others. What others would describe as the real world only came to the fore in my thirties. Marriage, a long spell working in another country, the need to support a family. Only at the end of that decade did ambitions re-emerge, though much more realistic than in my childhood dreams. To start a business, to avoid the mistakes my father made and never again to be beholden to “a boss”.

That worked pretty well. There were ups and downs, but thirty years later I ended up with a reasonable financial cushion, plenty of priceless experience and an enduring curiosity that survived decades of the relentless focus needed to run a business.

It was only in my sixties that I started thinking about what might have been. My two school classmates for Advanced Level Greek became distinguished academics. Friends at university had varying careers – some writing books, others producing beautiful music. Though precious few of my acquaintances became lawyers or politicians, something of that ilk could have been my path – after all, for much of his career my father was a lawyer. Our family tree was dotted with clergy. For someone fond of the sound of his own voice, either career could have been a good option.

One thing I always enjoyed was writing. During my business career my output was confined to boring stuff – business plans, sales proposals and marketing materials. It was only when the need to earn a living receded, and I had the time to read extensively, that I started to write about things that really mattered to me: history, politics, travel, religion – all the stuff encapsulated in the headers you see at the top of this post. I wrote because all that input demanded some output.

At one stage I thought that the ultimate “might have been” would have been a career as a writer. Journalism, social commentary, history – who knows? But after ten years and a couple of million words broadcast to a relatively small (but perfectly formed!) audience, made smaller partly because I refuse to focus on one subject, I’ve come to realise that while I might have had moderate success as a full-time writer, I would never have emulated the brilliant work of journalists I read week in and week out, of historians and other published authors whose output has so enriched my life over the past couple of decades.

The reason? I can only conclude that I have what academics, politicians and assorted intellectuals in the past used to refer to as a second-class mind. Does that mean second-class intelligence? Not necessarily. And even if it did it would have been no bar to success. After all, nobody claimed that Ronald Reagan was the most intelligent man on the planet. Similar aspersions are being cast on the two turnips vying to become Britain’s prime minister.

There is a certain cachet about being regarded by one’s peers as being in the first rank of intelligence. The likes of Einstein and Bertrand Russell are considered a benchmarks, or even high water marks of intellectual attainment. But do their achievements condemn the rest of us to a life in their shadows?

Far from it. We are continually assured that there are different forms of intelligence. Emotional intelligence, for example: the ability to keep one’s head while others are losing theirs. Is it not also a form of intelligence to be able to accept and work within one’s limitations? And what of people on the autistic spectrum, who might once have been condemned by educators as slow, and often turn out to have gifts denied to most of us?

But woe betide a person who thinks of themselves as having a first-class mind, and who puts the product of that mind up for public scrutiny, only to be found wanting. Such a person, I suspect, is David Frost, the former diplomat and Brexit negotiator, who has just written Holy Illusions, an essay in which he sets out an analysis of Britain’s deficiencies, followed by his suggestions as to the way forward.

I’m not about to trash his work on the basis that he’s one of those right-wing ultras who’s helped the Conservative party to more extreme positions – most of which I oppose – than any adopted in my lifetime. But someone who takes it upon himself to write a State of the Nation pronouncement clearly has a high opinion of himself. He will also believe that his words, with the help of the think tank that published them, will reach a large audience.

The trouble with his essay is that he can’t decide whether he’s a politician or a sage dispensing dispassionate wisdom from a great height. In his summary of our problems, the sage diagnoses, but the politician is never far away:

Implausible energy policies based on technologies which can’t currently do the job and which seem likely to end up in rationing if not urgently rethought.

“Furring up of the arteries” – over-regulation, antipathy to risk and experimentation, the decline of the spirit of enterprise.

Unsustainable welfare systems, shrinking labour forces, and the declining birth-rate.

Education systems that don’t educate and indeed very often inculcate attitudes inimical to prosperity;

and the social and economic consequences of high volumes of immigration over a prolonged period on a scale that the West has not seen before

You get the picture. Sweeping statements, each of which can be disputed, none of which can be disproved because they’re rooted in the writer’s opinion rather than undeniable fact.

Frost’s paper is not all bad. It’s a useful summary of problems and solutions through a right-wing prism with which those of us who follow British politics reasonably closely would be familiar. It contains the usual prescriptions: small state, self-reliance, regulatory bonfire, scientific powerhouse, low taxes and so on. All the stuff, in other words, being parroted in various forms by Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak. But as a would-be magisterial overview it hardly appears to be the work of a first-class mind. In fact, in many places it’s a work of intellectual laziness – the very quality Frost deplores in his fellow citizens.

You might, for example, ask this Brexit prophet why, if we’re suffering from shrinking labour forces and a declining birth rate, we were so keen to cut ourselves off from the most readily available source of labour just across a narrow stretch of sea beyond our borders.

Lord Frost also has a dig at opponents of Brexit for blaming all of our problems on our departure from the EU:

…our politics is affected by the willingness — insistence, even — of a large share of political and public opinion to attribute any symptom of the current problems to Brexit (even though the same problems are visible across the West to a greater or lesser extent).

To which one might question why, if we’re all faced with the same problems, we chose to deal with them alone rather in concert with our closest neighbours. Perhaps he could also explain why energy costs in France are capped at 4%, while ours have risen many times that amount.

And then he states that:

All history and experience teach us that free markets and individual freedom produce prosperity and wealth and that state control and collectivism destroy it.

All history? Xi Jinping might disagree with such a suggestion, as might a number of the Gulf autocracies. Likewise Genghis Kahn and his successors, who presided over a hundred years of relative prosperity by the use of fear as the dominant instrument of rule.

There’s one word Frost uses that doesn’t appear regularly in my second-class lexicon: collectivism, as in farms, presumably. At least he doesn’t go the whole Trumpian hog and condemn any effort of a state to protect its citizens as socialism, or dare I say it, communism.

I could go on, but you’d probably fall asleep before I’m done. But it’s a bit of an irony that Frost accuses us of being intellectually lazy, and yet he feels the need to pepper his paper with assertions that have no obvious evidential basis.

None of this is surprising, given that Frost is one of those advisors upon whom recent government policy-makers have relied to fill the gaps left by their own lack of imagination (see my last post for a longer discussion on the empty minds of many of our ministers).

Perhaps it’s as well that we British lack the respect shown in France for intellect. Our suspicion of intellectuals is neatly captured in the phrase “too clever by half”. And in my business career I frequently came across employers who made it a rule not to hire people with first-class degrees because the effort required to achieve the highest honours suggested an unbalanced personality. They might have been thinking of Enoch Powell, in classical terms a first-class mind if ever there was one, but a failed politician who became a watchword for bigotry.

As for me, as the decades have chipped away at any unrealistic sense of my own intelligence, I’m happy to boast a second-class or even third-class mind.

But perhaps we need to re-think traditional estimations of what constitutes intellectual ability. Perhaps we need to be thinking in terms of “a mind fit for purpose”. In a scientist, the ability to win a Nobel Prize, requires a narrow, almost obsessive intelligence, for sure. But for most of us, and especially our political leaders, a broader palette of intelligence and abilities is needed. Joe Biden, for example, may not be a genius. But sooner him at the helm of the world’s most powerful nation than Dr Strangelove. And contrary to David Frost’s assertion, in my view most enduring enterprises, be they governments or businesses, succeed through collective intelligence in various forms rather than through the vision and determination of one person.

So who cares what kind of a mind you have, as long as you do something constructive with it. Me? I’m content to wallow in cheerful mediocrity, unconcerned by what the world might think of my intellect, but concerned only to follow the immortal Delphic maxim: γνῶθι σεαυτόν (know yourself).

From that starting point everything else flows.

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