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?"