“The one thing you can say about defeat,” reflects Michael Ignatieff, currently a professor at both the University of Toronto and Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, “is that it earns you the right to speak well of a life which didn’t go so well for you.
“There are uses for defeat and losing. I’ve tried to put loss to good and productive use, which I hope makes my optimism credible. If I can still believe in this game after what happened to me, I hope other people will feel the same.”
Ignatieff is speaking about his new book, Fire and Ashes: Success and Failure in Politics, which he hopes will give “people like me who were crazy enough to go into politics a real picture of what it’s like but at the same time retain people’s faith in the process, which I came out believing in very strongly”. People such as Russell Brand who argue that we should “give up on democratic politics”, he adds, are “just wrong”.
A harsh political awakening
To get to that upbeat conclusion, Ignatieff has to survey the time he spent in Canadian politics, returning after 30 years of living in the UK and the US to become leader of the Liberal Party and then going on to suffer a severe defeat when he stood for prime minister in 2011.
The book is amusingly frank about some of the blunders he made: putting far too much stress on his own motives in a fundraising meeting with business people uninterested in “bankrolling my existential challenges”; initially “believing that every voter deserved a Socratic dialogue of many minutes’ duration” when he was canvassing door to door; managing to alienate both Jewish and Muslim voters in his comments on the 2006 fighting between Israel and Lebanon; foolishly replacing his chief of staff.
He even acknowledges that, in some sense, he just didn’t get the nature of modern politics, where allegiances “can change faster than a blink of an eye” and his party became “an echo chamber: all we were hearing was the sound of our own voices…I had too literal an understanding of everything. I thought I was in an election. We were in a reality show. I thought content mattered. I thought the numbers in a platform should add up. Ours did and theirs didn’t. None of it mattered. It was a case of parallel universes.”
His critics, of course, had a great deal more to say, pointing to a lack of ease with the glad-handing, baby-kissing side of politics, and one Guardian writer accusing him of being “an opportunist, if not a self-absorbed charlatan”. Central to the charge sheet, however, was the claim that it showed both naivety and arrogance to believe that he could return home after three decades away and expect voters to warm to him. Repeated attack ads by the incumbent Conservative Party reading “Michael Ignatieff: Just visiting” proved highly effective.
So how much would he now concede to his critics?
“I would admit to hubris but not to arrogance,” he responds. “An arrogant person is unprepared to learn. I was prepared to learn from my mistakes. Naive? Sure. I think I didn’t understand what I was getting into.
“I had spent nearly 20 years as a spectator of other people’s politics, in England and the United States, and I thought it was time to get out of the stands and on to the field. There was a certain risk-taking in that, which I still speak for. I would concede lots to my various critics, but they are still in the stands.”
But could this be interpreted as a kind of academic arrogance, based on the assumption that all politicians are incompetent, shallow or corrupt – and that he could do a better job himself?
This is not how Ignatieff sees it. As someone “of the Jack Kennedy generation”, he notes that he “had a rather romantic view of politicians. I worked for and came to know a bit the most charismatic politician Canada has had in its history, Pierre Trudeau. I had all the complicated feelings everybody has about politics, despair about how bad some of them are, but combined with a very romantic and even sentimental respect for the great ones. And I still do.”
Out of the ring
Now declaring himself “totally done and dusted” as a practising politician, Ignatieff claims to be very happy “back in a classroom and writing”, trying to “teach politics to the next generation”. He has also gained “a lot of respect for the people who were doing it better than I was, who had a sort of natural gift for it that I didn’t…I understand the pressures on politicians much better. I understand how you can get bent out of shape by the public glare. I understand how messy the political process is, and how much unintended consequence, chance and timing play in things.”
So how would his rather bruising experience influence what Ignatieff now wants to tell his students?
“It sure changes the way you teach!” he admits. “A lot of teaching is driven by ‘the literature’, ‘the field’ or ‘the discipline’, the state of academic debate on a particular controversy. All that is fine, but once you’ve done politics you really feel you want to teach the problems and to be as realistic as you can about the political obstacles that lie in the way of solutions.
“At the Kennedy School, I spent a lot of time talking about ‘normatively desirable outcomes’ without thinking nearly hard enough with my students about how you get it done. I’m now much more interested in how we take an abstract normative goal and make it happen.
“One of the things that is extremely challenging to my teaching now is the possibility that there are some things you can learn only from experience and can’t be taught. The pathos of teaching is that some things can’t be taught – and one of them might be political judgement. I don’t think that’s a despairing thought, but it does induce humility in a teacher and make the job much more interesting.”