Britain produces an extraordinary amount of commentary, in print, on television and on radio; so much that the production of opinion can seem to be our dominant industry, the thing we are best at and most take to. For the most part, it isn't bad commentary. If the broadsheets were badly written, if the sermonisers and pundits couldn't speak in coherent sentences, if you routinely turned the radio on to hear people not making any sense, it would all be much easier to dismiss. That, though, is not the problem with what passes for intellectual and political life in Britain. The problem with our public culture is not that it is low-grade: it is that it is fluent, clear, coherent, often vividly expressed, and more or less entirely free of fresh intellectual content. You can go whole weeks reading the broadsheet press without encountering a new idea; you can listen to hundreds of hours of broadcast debate and encounter nothing but received wisdoms. The void gapes at its widest when there is a conspicuous attempt at pretending to fill it: the frowning politico miming thought as he makes a 'big' speech to set out policy; the extensively press-released think-tank paper whose main purpose is to draw attention to itself; the utterly formulaic broadcast debate. You witness these performances (which is what they are) and you think: I wish somebody would say something. Because this is the feeling you get about British public life, a bizarre feeling given how astonishingly much talk there is, but one which even so goes very deep: you get the feeling that nobody ever says anything. You watch the television, read the paper, and wait for somebody to say something . . . and wait . . . and wait . . .
LRB 21 October 2004 | PDF Download