The public intellectual is an endangered species in our anti-intellectual, sound bite and social media-obsessed world, but the BBC’s Reith Lectures, now in its 73rd year, is one place that remains a happy hunting ground.
Even here, though, the obsession with youth is evident in this year’s choice of 46-year-old Professor Ben Ansell, a political scientist who will take as his theme “Our Democratic Future”.
The four lectures in the series are being recorded before live audiences in London, Berlin, Sunderland and Atlanta, USA. I catch up with Ansell over Zoom while he is in the States for the last one, though confusingly as he talks he has put up behind him an image of Oxford’s dreamy spires. It is just habit, he explains.
“I think it is better to say I am younger than the average Reith lecturer,” he suggests modestly, when I ask why he was chosen. And then there was his book, earlier this year, provocatively called Why Politics Fails that garnered him plenty of attention for its resonant diagnosis of our turbulent and fractious times.
“I do think,” he points out, “that there is less deference to figures from grand cultural positions, and I guess the University of Oxford would count as one. But that is probably a good thing. The voice from on high may have had its day.”
That said, his title as Professor of Comparative Democratic Institutions, based at Nuffield College, Oxford, does sound rather “high”, and at one stage in his first lecture, he urges the live audience, “trust me, I’m an academic”. But it is done as a jokey aside, sending himself up, part of his much less formal delivery than Reith lecturers of old.
And he is also very keen to avoid the charge of hypocrisy. “I can’t get up and talk in these lectures about the importance of ‘agreeable disagreement’ and that everyone should get involved in the democratic process, and then say in the lecture you should only listen to me. That wouldn’t be very consistent.”
“I don’t want these lectures to come across as hectoring,” he begins, “though all Reith Lectures come across as a bit hectoring.” Instead, he says, he wants to “open people’s minds to the trade-offs that we have to think about with politics”.
‘Voters have become more polarised by hatred for the other side than by support for their own’
Ansell may not relish the public spotlight quite so much as other celebrated public intellectuals past and present – from Kenneth Clark through to Richard Dawkins and Mary Beard – but in his four lectures on the Future of Democracy, the Future of Security, the Future of Solidarity (that one given in Red Wall Sunderland) and the Future of Prosperity, neither does he shy away from courting controversy by questioning whether liberal democracy has a future at all in the age of electoral success for Donald Trump, Giorgia Meloni, Viktor Orbán and most recently Geert Wilders in the Netherlands.
Listening to an advance copy of the first lecture, I quickly came to the conclusion that, while he certainly sees threats to democracy – in a world where there are now, for the first time in a long time, more autocratic regimes than democracies – he reassuringly isn’t too alarmed about its imminent collapse.
“I’m not particularly worried. Panicking about the state of democracy in the West is unfortunate. I don’t buy it. It is pretty hard for a very consolidated democracy [in existence for a long time] to collapse. Social scientists often talk about them becoming immune.”
That may sound slightly glib with the USA so polarised and soon going into an election where the self-styled disrupter, Donald Trump, currently facing multiple legal cases, could well triumph. “Just because somebody you dislike gets elected, as Trump did in 2016, and just because they use crude and inflammatory rhetoric, it does not mean that the actual functioning of democracy has declined.”
That said, he quickly adds, had the mob that tried to storm the Congress in 2021 succeeded, there might have been a decline. “But it didn’t. And that then raises the question of whether American democracy is stronger than we thought it was because even under these pressures it survived – or was it a flashing red sign if Donald Trump comes back into power?”
And the answer is? “On the whole I am more minded to say it showed the robustness of the system. From the vice-presidency to the court to the Secretary of State in Georgia [who refused to give in to Trump’s demands to find him a few more votes], most of the functioning parts to prevent collapse stood up. But I don’t want to be complacent.”
Complacency, fittingly, is one of three enemies of democracy that he sets out in his lectures. “And that is a plea to people not to give up because they get fed up of going to cast their vote all the time. We have to understand that ruling ourselves is not something we can just outsource.”
A bigger red flag for him is polarisation, “though we have to be careful about that because polarisation isn’t always bad. In the middle of the 20th century when Republican and Democratic senators and representatives in America often cross-voted outside party, look what they were voting for – to restrict voting rights to African-Americans.”
Ansell doesn’t feel as many have of late that the party-political system is to blame for the current age of anxiety. Or even parties disagreeing internally (as is the case with our own governing party).
“What is unfortunate is when you end up with what we political scientists call ‘effective polarisation’ – that voters become more polarised by hatred for the other side than by support for their own. We’ve tipped into that in American politics and to some extent in the UK.”
As an example – and Ansell is a natural storyteller who peppers his opinions and research findings with human stories that illuminate the statistics – he quotes the very low inter-marriage figures in the States between registered Republicans and registered Democrats.
“It’s less than three or four per cent and it is more prevalent with people of the left not wanting to marry people from the right. Or for their children to do the same. That is true in the UK as well.”
‘A large group of people who voted Tory in 2019 who still say don’t-know’
He clearly knows his stuff. Ansell was raised in Kent with his younger brother (his father’s background was more working class, while his mother grew up in a middle-class home in north Lincolnshire), educated at state primary and then privately at Sevenoaks School, where he played the guitar and didn’t make prefect because he wrote “marginally rude” things about his teachers in the school magazine.
His stellar academic career started with a first in history in 1998 at Manchester, then a post-graduate MA in cultural history, before a politics masters at University of California, Berkeley, a doctorate at Harvard, and seven years teaching politics at the University of Minnesota.
His time in the States started under Bill Clinton and ended under Barack Obama – and included 9/11. Since 2013 he has been back in Britain with a chair at Oxford at just 36, though the American accent hasn’t quite gone.
With such a transatlantic perspective, he is surely ideally placed to say who is going to win in 2024 in the UK and in the USA elections. “The first rule of political science is no predictions, so I don’t know what will happen. It is pretty clear that the American election will be closer than some people had imagined.”
And over here? “Most of the political analyst class thinks that things look poor for the Conservative Party, but I would say there are very large numbers of don’t-knows out there. I did my own survey on them which I talk about in my third lecture, on solidarity, and there is a large group of people who voted in 2019 who still say don’t-know.”
Though politics may divide us, much of Ansell’s lecture is about how to bring Britain back together again. He firmly believes that as a community we are not as “atomised” as sometimes appears to be the case.
“Social media, which has been blamed for this, pushes in both directions. On the one hand, it allows us all to sit in our rooms ‘doom-scrolling’ on our phones, but on the other it allows us to form Facebook groups where we are collectively doing stuff.”
It is at the local level that you really see things happening, he explains – as in the neighbourhood online groups in north Oxford where he lives with his Canadian partner and two young sons, and has served as a school governor.
“We are more engaged with talking to each other than national politics sometimes makes us feel. It would be nice to push some of that spirit up from the grassroots.”
‘What people really care about is feeling listened to’
Drawing on his local experience in his lectures, he talks of low traffic neighbourhoods – or LTNs – of which there are many in Oxford. “It’s a circus,” he says. But a circus that has given him food for thought regarding the future of democracy.
“It is not clear if there was a huge amount of democratic consensus about introducing LTNs. People weren’t told by politicians about the trade-offs – that some would gain and some would lose. And so they are angry.”
He learns a lot about politics, he says, from the nextdoor.com online group in his street, reading why his neighbours feel so passionately about local issues like LTNs. “And I get the same from the Crystal Palace fan website [they are his footie team]. What people really care about is feeling listened to.”
His academic role means he has to stand above party politics but, as a citizen, he says he probably agrees more often with Labour than the Conservatives, though sometimes it is the other way round. Has he ever been tempted to stand for election? “No, I’m too two-handed. On one hand, on the other.”
He applies the same technique to providing a diagnosis of democracy’s current state of health. Next to the pluses he has outlined, there are also minuses.
The biggest threat to UK democracy is, he warns, “giving up too quickly with a lot of the institutions we have. Consistent attacks on judges, on the media (which is an important institution in democracies) and frustration when the party in power can’t always have its way is unfortunate.”
This is not, he stresses, a party-political point. “When the shoe is on the other foot, parties may regret making some of the claims they do while in office. So it is just as important for Labour to be constrained as for the Conservatives to be constrained. We have to think about what comes next and that is true when it comes to thinking about overruling judges, reforming the House of Lords or restricting protests.”
And to cast our net wider, what about the biggest threat to democracy on the world stage? “Non-democracies. While I don’t want this to be a paean to Donald Trump, I don’t think he is the biggest threat to democracy in the world by any stretch of the imagination. It is Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping and the Iranian government who are not democratic, don’t want to be democratic, and don’t want democracies near them to be democratic. They claim to be democratic but they bluntly aren’t.”
If Ansell is hard to place politically, the task is no easier in terms of society. “As an Oxford professor,” he reflects, “I can’t claim to be anything other than an Establishment figure, but I did spend those 13 years in the States. I went away. And that gives you distance.”
In other words the best of both worlds – a good qualification, surely, for a Reith lecturer.
The Reith Lectures begin on BBC Radio 4 on November 29 at 9am and will be broadcast weekly (available to catch up on BBC Sounds).