Henry Milner’s review of Michael Ignatieff, Fire and Ashes: Success and Failure in Politics (Toronto: Random House Canada, 2013) and Tom Flanagan, Persona Non Grata: The Death of Free Speech in the Internet Age (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 2014) appeared in Inroads 36 (Winter/Spring 2015).

In my review of books by Michael Ignatieff (PhD history, Harvard) and Tom Flanagan (PhD political science, Duke), I described them as “intellectuals who entered the Canadian political arena, paid the price, and lived to tell the tale.” I sympathized with Ignatieff’s admission that politics took someone tougher and more experienced than he was and that he was clearly unprepared for its underside. Ignatieff acknowledged that the enterprise had been doomed from the outset: as he put it, his campaign as Liberal leader ended up preaching to the converted. He naively took the warm reception from people he addressed to mean that his message was being heard. In fact, the people he needed to reach had stopped listening long before.

I was more critical of Flanagan’s book, not persuaded that his political role should not have affected how he was treated by the media once he returned to academia. I am more impressed by a thoughtful article I recently came upon in which he insightfully addresses the role of academics in politics. Writing in the University of Calgary’s Academic Matters in 2009, he notes that intellectuals who enter politics have an especially hard time accepting that they cannot control the results of their actions:

Fire and Ashes

Some academics may also have political ability and may choose to enter politics; but if they succeed there, it will not be because of, and may in fact be in spite of, their academic achievements. I had to learn all these lessons through practical experience in my own involvement in politics … If you want to control the results of what you do, you can go paint a picture, compose music, or write a poem … You can make permanent contributions to intellectual life. You can prove a mathematical theorem, or discover a new species in the jungle, or edit the papers of a famous poet. The value of your work will remain, even if others build on it.

I put it somewhat differently in my review: “Both Ignatieff and Flanagan are public intellectuals.” The term intellectual “assume(s) a willingness to – indeed an insistence on — uncovering and disseminating the truth however unpopular it might be.” But partisan politics is quite the opposite. Because of this, intellectual politicians like Flanagan, Ignatieff and Ignatieff’s predecessor Stéphane Dion have to deny the calling of their profession in hewing to a partisan line. This, I suggested, made them appear inauthentic and, thus, less effective.

Can we generalize from these cases? What do we know about the backgrounds of those who succeeded and failed at winning and carrying out the job of head of government in Canada and other modern democracies? If our criterion for considering someone an intellectual is being employed in an institution of higher education before entering politics, a quick glance tells us that there have been relatively few such cases overall. While one might expect that putting our knowledge into practice would naturally appeal to those of us trained in the social, political and administrative sciences, that turns out not to be the case.

Of course there are exceptions, but they are hard to find. One exception in Canada brings us back to the 1960s: Lester Pearson had a master’s degree in history and taught at the University of Toronto in the 1920s before entering the civil service and, later, the political arena. At the provincial level, Stuart Smith went from professor of medicine to an unsuccessful career as Ontario Liberal leader. In the United States, we need to go back a century to Woodrow Wilson, a political science professor and president of Princeton University before going into politics. Beyond North America, I found an exception in Helen Clark, who lectured in political science before entering New Zealand politics and becoming Prime Minister (1999–2008).

A European exception, one who qualifies as an intellectual, is the current Prime Minister of Italy, Mario Draghi, who has a PhD in economics from Princeton and had been an effective head of the European Central Bank. In office for less than a year, from all reports he is doing well by Italian standards. Draghi, in power in a country in which party politicians are so discredited and divided that they have no choice but to make way for nonpartisan technocrats, is the exception that proves the rule.

I have not looked at the background of European politicians in any systematic way, but my sense is that Stefan Löfven, who is stepping down as Swedish Social Democratic leader and Prime Minister, is representative of successful democratic politicians under increasingly adverse circumstances. A union negotiator and in no sense an intellectual, Löfven has recently been praised on all sides as someone who managed for almost a decade to effectively steer a very divided country, in which an anti-immigrant populist party has almost 20 per cent support.

The most successful politician in recent years has been German Chancellor Angela Merkel who, though based at an institution of higher learning, has never been accused of being an intellectual. Before entering politics she worked at the physical chemistry faculty of the national Academy of Sciences, a gloomy concrete box on the southeastern outskirts of Berlin surrounded by barbed wire, where she spent her days punching calculations for the decomposition of hydrocarbons into a 20-year-old windup computer from Hewlett-Packard.

In Britain, the most successful recent leader was Tony Blair, who studied law and immediately entered politics. His successor was more of an intellectual: Gordon Brown lectured in politics at Glasgow College of Technology and tutored for the Open University before joining Scottish Television. Elected to Parliament in 1983, he became Prime Minister when Blair resigned in 2007. Brown’s tenure was short-lived, ending when he lost to David Cameron in the 2010 election.

Readers will note that I have left out two high-profile exceptions: Pierre Trudeau, former Canadian Prime Minister and father of the current Prime Minister, and former U.S. President Barack Obama. They qualify as intellectuals, but they differ from the others discussed here in that their training was in law – both taught constitutional law before entering politics. This brings them closer to the group most overrepresented among successful politicians: lawyers like Jean Chrétien and Jean Charest.

Persona Non Grata

So why are academic politicians rare and unsuccessful as compared to lawyer politicians? Going in and out of practising law facilitates getting into electoral politics, but then leaves of absence from educational institutions are not hard to come by. The fact that lawyers benefit more from the notoriety of public life explains why there are so many lawyer politicians, but not why they are more successful. What does?

The answer, as I suggested above, lies in authenticity. Lawyers’ profession and training makes them well suited to be politicians; not so for academics. Lawyers naturally and convincingly argue one side of a case, and are capable – when they get a different client – of arguing the other side equally well. No one asks: do they really believe this?

It’s not that intellectuals who become politicians are more honest in their new role than are former lawyers. Eschewing the calling of their former profession, intellectual politicians have no choice but to hew to a partisan line. My point is that they are not as good at this as are lawyers. To simplify, when they enter the political arena lawyers are applying their professional training and experience; intellectuals are doing the opposite. This inauthenticity is what makes them less credible.

Here I want to draw on my own personal experience as – as I term it in the title of my recently published political memoir – Participant Observer: An Unconventional Life in Politics and Academia.¹ Three chapters tell the story of what I learned from my unique vantage point close to leading Quebec politicians for more than a decade. Two others set out how I later applied the lessons of that experience to a close observation of Swedish and Scandinavian politics.

Like Tom Flanagan, I never sought elected office; unlike him, I never crossed the line to take a paid top executive position in a political party. But I was deeply involved in the Parti Québécois, and I learned much from my Quebec experience about why lawyers make successful politicians and intellectuals do not. Among those I came to know were two natural Quebec politicians, René Lévesque and Lucien Bouchard, and two intellectuals who proved to be relatively unsuccessful politicians (at least as party leaders), Jacques Parizeau and Claude Ryan.

Ryan’s failure as leader of the Quebec Liberal Party compared to the relative success of two lawyer politicians who led the same party, Robert Bourassa and Jean Charest, is suggestive. But I would like to focus on the comparison between Lucien Bouchard and Jacques Parizeau. Bouchard succeeded Parizeau as Premier of Quebec in 1996. Parizeau had served one year and 125 days when he resigned. Bouchard served five years and 38 days before he resigned in 2001.

I was able to observe Parizeau closely when he was an effective minister of finance in Lévesque’s PQ government.² Parizeau was acclaimed as party leader in 1988, replacing Pierre Marc Johnson, who had lost the 1985 election. Johnson had favoured constitutional compromise, like Lévesque, while Parizeau was identified with the “pur et dur” wing of the party. Parizeau improved the PQ’s showing only marginally in 1989, but five years later won a majority of seats. He then lived up to his promise to hold a referendum on Quebec sovereignty early in his term, despite support for sovereignty being at around 40 per cent in the polls.

It soon became clear to the Yes forces that Parizeau was a liability, and Parizeau allowed himself to be replaced as key spokesman by Lucien Bouchard, leader of the Bloc Québécois, who took a much softer line and proved to be very effective. The vote was very close as the Yes side lost by only 55,000 votes, and Parizeau ended his political career that night when he blamed money and the ethnic vote for the defeat. The Yes might have won had Parizeau not told a group of foreign diplomats, as reported by Chantal Hébert in La Presse, that the guarantee of an offer of partnership with the rest of Canada following a Yes vote meant little since Quebecers would be trapped like “lobsters in a pot,” unable to escape the consequences of a vote for independence once it was cast.

After Parizeau resigned, Bouchard took over as leader of the Parti Québécois and became Premier. Bouchard led the PQ into the 1998 provincial election, defeating the new Liberal leader, Jean Charest. But disillusioned with his experience, he chose not to run again, instead returning to practising law as a partner at a prestigious Montreal firm. He was replaced in 2001 by Bernard Landry, another unsuccessful economist politician, who was defeated by Jean Charest’s Liberals two years later.

Of course times are different now, and other factors are involved. But it’s worth noting that current Premier François Legault, who came to politics from business, in facing the pandemic has been able to persuade Quebecers that he placed their interests above his own partisan ones. This is something economists Parizeau and Landry could not do, not because they were necessarily more partisan but because, as intellectuals, they sounded more insincere when associating the positions of their party with the public good.

In ending I want to insist that my claim is a modest one. Other factors beyond authenticity contribute to determining a politician’s fate. Timing and context matter. For example, I worked closely with Pierre Marc Johnson, in every way a natural politician. And while he brought the Parti Québécois back into contention when he succeeded René Lévesque, the party was so divided and discredited by then that he ended up resigning, opening the door to his rival Parizeau after losing the 1985 election.

Finally, as a rule, authenticity is depleted by the exercise of power. Coming from well behind, the new Liberal leader, Justin Trudeau, led his party to a majority of seats in the 2015 election. But he could not do the same in 2019, or again this past September.


¹ Victoria, BC: FriesenPress, 2021.

² Lévesque had been a respected TV commentator, which raises the question of whether ex-journalists make successful politicians. I suspect that journalists normally also face the challenge of authenticity and Lévesque was an exception, but that is a matter to be explored another day.