Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Big Thinkers and Masters of the Detail

It occurred to me this afternoon while having a discussion about proposed changes designed to incentivise the private and third sector to design schemes to boost participation in the labour market (with reference to the different characteristics of the British and German welfare models) that there is a division amongst Labour (and probably political activists more generally) which is not often remarked on, between the Big Thinkers and Masters of the Detail.

Big Thinkers think Big Thoughts about Important Issues. The rise of socialism in South America, how society could be completely reordered, the need for a new progressive and internationalist coalition, radical reforms to the taxation system or the constitution, the failure of multiculturalism and other similar debates are fought over in newspapers and on the blogosphere. For Big Thinkers, politics is the clash of big ideas and great causes and the stakes are high. When occasionally a Big Thinker strays from foreign or constitutional policy and stumbles across social policy, they find a Big Idea to adopt, such as the cause of abolishing all benefits and replacing them with a universal basic income, and set about this idea with as much vigour as their other Big Ideas. Big Thinkers are found on the right and the left, and amongst leafleters and pamphleteers (though with a bias towards the pamphlet).

The Masters of the Detail have a different set of preoccupations. A complicated and technical tweak to a particular section of the welfare state or labour market, how a new planning policy guidance note could impact on residential intensification, or more or less any aspect of local government is what makes them tick. Whereas people who aren't that involved in politics can usually at least follow and contribute to the discussions of the Big Thinkers, many people with even quite a strong commitment to political activism have found their evenings ruined by sitting in on an exchange of local planning anecdotes followed by a heated discussion about some technical aspect of welfare reform. For the Masters of the Detail, politics is a matter of small but important improvements to existing policies and structures, based on a detailed understanding of the subject.

There is much greater mutual incomprehension between these two groups than between, say, right and left or leafleter and pamphleter. The Big Thinker cannot understand the parochialism of the Master of the Detail or why they would rather talk about some insignificant detail of some existing policy rather than see the bigger picture, while the Masters of the Detail would rather people stopped making pronouncements about Venezuala when it was obviously not based on any first hand knowledge.

There is no quicker way to turn a Big Thinker into a Master of the Detail than to persuade them to stand as a local councillor - the bright ideas for changing the world quickly disappear and get focused into 'my housing casework'. This is generally good news for their ward, and bad news for social acquaintances.

The best example that I've seen of the clash of cultures that can happen when the two groups come together was in a debate on multiculturalism. We were discussing a very lengthy and ideological motion condemning the 'political strategy of multiculturalism'. Exasperated by this distraction from actually relevant council business, one councillor got up and said to the proposer of the motion, "If we don't have multiculturalism, the only alternative is monoculturalism. Who is going to decide what this one culture that we all have to follow is. You?"


At 11:54 pm , Blogger Paul Macmanomy said...

So how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?

At 9:36 am , Blogger Mike said...

Many people with even quite a strong commitment to political activism have found their evenings ruined by sitting in on an exchange of local planning anecdotes followed by a heated discussion about some technical aspect of welfare reform

It serves me right for going to the pub with Labour councillors...;-)

At 1:43 pm , Blogger Pickles said...

I'm not sure I agree that this distinction is as complete and comprehensive as you make out.

I suppose I can only talk for myself on this.

I am definately not a "Big Thinker" - I've barely read any pamphlets, never mind considered writing one. If I were it would be about political organisation rather than on some wider issue of policy.

But on the other hand I would never be interested enough in just the one single issue to get the mastery of detail necessary to get enough respect from other "Masters of Detail" to make going into those kind of details a rewarding experience - i.e. to achieve anything.

Basically I'm too impatient to be a master of detail - with a tendency to just declare "Change the bloody rules" whenever someone says that "regulation whatnot" says you can't do something - but I'm also too instinctively pragmatic to be able to define my ideal set of rules in any given area like a big thinker would.

I therefore tend to focus on what I think to a certain extent most political activists focus on. Identifying the big thinkers and master of detail I trust and whose overall politics I instinctively know I share, and offering organisational and tactical support to helping them win more fights with those who I instinctively do not trust than they lose.

Those people I trust would be the people whose politics I broadly share. Most "masters of detail" have goals, and most Big Thinkers can give a BIG reason why they oppose small technical regulations. What binds them is a, admittedly nebulous, shared politics.

I'm succeeding if I ensure that most of the decisions of detail are taken by people I trust to take decisions of detail, and that the big political ideas that govern the big decisions taken in my area are taken with the overarching vision of those whose vision I either share or who I trust to articulate a vision that accords with my gut feelings about the world around me.

That doesn't even mean I wouldn't want to take a lead - Attlee for example is someone who was often pretty hands off on detail with his ministers - but who also left the big picture stuff to others.

If we accept your distinction we can't really find a place for that kind of thing - or we'd have to say that Attlee just didn't provide any political leadership to the 1945-51 government since niether detail not vision was his thing.

I suppose I'm making a case for a role for tactical and practical nous in pursuit of shared goals, that may well be defined by others.


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