I entered Parliament with what I thought to be the lowest possible opinion of the average member. I came out with one still lower
– John Stuart Mill.
John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) was a highly intelligent man. He may well be the most intelligent person ever to be an MP. The quote above is what he wrote but he may have said: 'I entered parliament with what I thought was the lowest possible opinion of the place. I left with an even lower one'. Either way, it amounts to the same: he was condemning the quality of the members of parliament of his day.
Now, Mill's time is not ours; we are more of a democracy now with all the people of a certain age entitled to vote; but are our representatives any better? I remember how disillusioned the great and award-winning journalist Dorothy-Grace Elder was when she entered the Scottish Parliament as an MSP. It is fair to say she was shocked at the standard of most (not all) of her fellow MSPs. Their egos vastly outweighed their IQs and their interest was more self-interest than any concern for the greater good, despite how much they protested otherwise.
Here is another relevant quote from Mill. He is clarifying an earlier remark of his that was misunderstood: 'I never meant to say that the Conservatives are generally stupid. I only meant to say that stupid people are generally Conservative – suppose any party, in addition to whatever share it may possess of the ability of the community, has nearly the whole of its stupidity, that party must, by the law of its constitution, be the stupidest party; and I do not see that position as at all offensive to them, for it ensures their being always a powerful party – there is so much dense, solid force in sheer stupidity, that any body of able men with that force behind them may ensure victory in many a struggle, and many a victory the Conservative Party has gained through that power'.
Today, what John Stuart Mill said about the Conservative Party could be equally applied to most other parties as well. Except, perhaps, the Liberal Democrats where they have reversed the process. They have several very capable and very intelligent individuals in their ranks but have ended up with leaders like Jeremy Thorpe, David Steele and Nick Clegg. The able people that Mill referred to in his speech also seem to have lost control in the Conservative Party as they are now led by an intellectually deficient, in over the top Boris Johnson. One suspects that the able people within its ranks are already arranging his controlled departure – his recent illness may be the excuse, although they will probably keep him on until Brexit is over. Then he can carry the can for the assured failures in that connection as well.
Slight digression: although the right-wing press have played this down, Johnson is simply unable to cope at Prime Minister's Question Time in the Commons. This is despite the fact that, as revealed by the online news channel A Different Bias, Johnson has, at least once, worn some sort of discreet, or less than discrete, earpiece which is possibly a radio receiver. Johnson may be getting assistance in answering the points raised by Keir Starmer. If so, it doesn't help him much.
All this is to ask the question of what type of individuals we want to represent us. That's difficult to assess because, oddly, the task of being an MP or an MSP does not require a very deep intellect. In that role, you may be perfectly happy to deal with the basically routine everyday problems that your constituents raise and simply follow your leadership in voting in the House. Your speeches can be written for you and you can be rehearsed in the answers to any questions you are likely to be asked. Your fellow MPs may have a good idea of your limitations, but your constituents only see part of you, and that's through the lens of your marketing machinery. In fact, most highly intelligent individuals appear more attracted to science, medicine and the creative arts − although they can be in all fields including politics (Theresa May was a bright person, for example).
Now, I am not saying that all MPs and MSPs are dumb. Far from it. Nor am I saying that a duller person cannot become such. I am asking the questions of whether it is better to have brighter people in the role and how we can determine those qualities necessary to tackle the task of being a people's representative. These become even more pressing questions when we come to ministers of state.
Fortunately, today, thanks to advances in psychology, we have contrivances available that can highlight at least some part of an individual's qualities – including that most important tool, the intelligence quotient test (the IQ test). Psychometric testing is standard for all civil servants (including IQ tests for higher ranking ones), but not so for politicians and aspiring politicians. The test tells something of their honesty, maturity, and general bearing.
Politicians fill this gap with tastefully decorated publications of their educational attainments, achievements in work and business, and other life skills and accomplishments. These can obfuscate as much as reveal, and it is hard to estimate an individual's intelligence quotient from their everyday speech and appearance. Indeed, some well-educated persons may certainly appear more intelligent than they really are through these points – especially if they are getting their speeches written for them and checked prior to delivery.
We would not buy a dress or a jacket without checking its suitability carefully. We inspect the work of the tradespeople we employ and there are some we decide we would not use again because of the poor job they performed. Yet we vote for politicians with little knowledge of them as individuals and little knowledge of how they have performed previously – and they can play a more important part in our lives than any dress or jacket or tradesperson.
The very least we should know about our politicians and aspiring politicians is what percentile of IQ they are in. That is not meant to suggest that their IQ level is all – experience, maturity and general character count as well – and it is perfectly possibly that an individual of slightly lower IQ may make a better minister due to these latter factors. We can still vote for anyone and, if we choose an individual with limited intellect, that is still our choice and our responsibility, and we bear the consequences of that choice. But at least we then know what we are voting for.
It may be considered that IQs are a personal attribute but that is not what industry believes when they hire people for high-ranking jobs and test their IQs – as the Civil Service does. We, the public, employ people to represent us in our ruling body. Is it not right that we know the most important factor for the task? I am certain John Stuart Mill would have agreed.
Bill Paterson is a writer based in Glasgow