Ruth Kelly is one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever met. Which raises a question. Not: should I get out more? But: is intelligence – in the narrow sense of high cognitive skills - useful to politicians? Here are some reasons why it’s a positive handicap:
1. Intelligent people are guided by facts. The fact – as far as we know – is that no child has been sexually attacked by a teacher who had a previous conviction or caution for a sexual offence. An intelligent person might, therefore, infer that there’s no problem. Any reading of the evidence whatsoever shows that a million more children’s lives are blighted by bad schools than by paedophile teachers.
2. Intelligent people think the job of a minister is to set policy, not to micro-manage education so much as to review every single hiring decision. Still less, an intelligent person might think, should it be the minister’s job to review hiring decisions made before she took office. Worse still, intelligent people, particularly economists, over-estimate the intelligence of others. They therefore assume (wrongly) that systems exist to ensure intelligent hiring decisions.
3. Intelligent people don’t have the self-discipline to read through the tons of mind-numbing detail that crams ministers’ red boxes and distracts them from their proper job, of setting policy. This is one reason why lawyers – and second-rate ones at that - so often succeed in politics. Only they have the dull patience to slog through such minutiae.
4. The adversarial nature of parliament doesn’t allow genuine intelligence to display itself. Sure, any mindless abuse can pass for Wildean wit. But parliament is no place for an open-minded inspection of evidence, and still less for any admission that the evidence under-pinning policy is ambiguous or missing.
5. Intelligent people sometimes get promoted quickly, perhaps because their employers commit the halo effect fallacy, of believing that one good quality – cognitive skills or articulacy – must be correlated with other more important skills. This causes their colleagues to resent them. Also, intelligent people often become distant from their colleagues, because they don’t socialize well. On both counts, an intelligent minister will lack ready support from back-benchers, and thus be dispensable.
6. Intelligent people over-rate the importance of ideas. They think policy should be influenced by them. This is, of course, nonsense. Policy should be determined by a crypto-fascist branch of the dead tree industry. Ms Kelly forgot that paedophiles are almost as bad as immigrants.
It’s no wonder, then, that Ms Kelly should be struggling so much. There’s no place for people like her in politics.