Straying from the script
It’s not often that you find the politicians in the audience rather than onstage at a think-tank event, but at Demos’ annual lecture on Monday, I turned around to see that the voice agreeing with Sen’s argument behind me was in fact Patricia Hewitt. Evan Davis was just in front and Henry Porter behind, a testament to the sustained influence of one of the worlds great public intellectuals. Even those on the panel were in awe, Ed Milliband admitting that he felt like an O-Level physics student attempting a response to Sir Issac Newton.
Sen’s lecture, entitled Power and Capability explored his political philosophy, the subject of his latest book, The Idea of Justice in which Sen argues for the needs of citizens to have a broad enough set of capabilities to be ‘responsible for their own wellbeing’. It is not for me to even attempt to offer any kind of critique of his argument but instead to respond to a number of comments under the livestream on www.demos.co.uk about the nature of the lecture itself. One notes how ‘a lecture open to a wide viral audience needs to be more than well scripted reading…Sen needs to be reminded that a lecture be performed.’ In a number of ways I agree with the sentiments of this comment, and Sen was indeed at his most captivating and engaging when he did stray from his script, briefly touching on famine, and during the Q&A.
Yet at the same time, Sen is not a politician. He doesn’t depend on slick media performances and clever sound bites. His influence comes from a lifetime of profoundly important thinking and writing. Whilst a ‘performative’ lecture may be better able to hold our attention in an age where the pressures of modern life have supposedly reduced our concentration span to only a few minutes, it is surely a testament to Sen that a lecture, albeit delivered from a script, could so encapsulate the audience and receive such an extended ovation. At 77, I’ll be happy to just remember my own name.