Sue Black: ‘‘We might live 20 years longer, but what will be the quality of our life in that time?’’

Sue Black, a leading anthropologist, takes the <i>NS</i> Centenary Questionnaire.

What is the most important invention of the past hundred years?

The World Wide Web. Its ability to bring good (and unfortunately) bad information to the masses and to allow us to communicate globally is revolutionary – but it needs to come with a health warning.

What is the most important scientific discovery of the past hundred years?

The discovery of penicillin. It is impossible to know how many millions of lives have been saved by antibiotics and by penicillin in particular.

And sporting event?

The 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics. It took place in Germany at a time of rising tension and was used as a political platform by Hitler; the response from other nations was pivotal. An event that is supposed to be apolitical and about the best in sport became about elitism and supremacy.

Which book, film, piece of music or work of art has had the greatest impact on you?

If I’m honest, it was The Rocky Horror Picture Show. I was a young girl from Inverness going to university and it was shown at freshers’ week. I was shocked to my core: there were men in women’s clothing, flexible morality, aliens, sex, murder . . . It shook me out of parochialism and into greater acceptance of diversity.

Who is the most influential or significant politician of the past hundred years?

Winston Churchill. He came to embody such a spirit of bulldog British stubbornness – a determination not to be beaten, despite the odds – coupled with an extraordinary ability to instil loyalty and patriotism. He was a born leader.

And author or playwright?

I am a Tolkien fan. His books were some of the first “adult” books I read. On every reading, I have found them to bring something new, on so many different levels.

And artist?

I am more entranced by the Dutch masters but within impressionist painting, I find such vibrant life in the colours that Monet chose.

How about anyone in business?

Walt Disney. He embodied the determination to succeed, despite being knocked back so many times to the point of failure where others would have given up.

And sportsperson?

Back again to the 1936 Berlin Olympics – Jesse Owens. It is difficult to find a sportsperson who made a greater statement, not just for his sport but for equality and acceptance.

And philanthropist?

Andrew Carnegie’s contributions to education, reform and public and civil life continue to influence today.

What is your favourite quotation?

“How far you go in life depends on your being tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving and tolerant of the weak and the strong. Because some day in your life, you will have been all of these.” That’s George Washington Carver.

What is your favourite speech?

I have to come back to Churchill and the “We shall fight on the beaches” speech to the House of Commons on 4 June 1940. For its raw determination, stamina, dogged steadfastness and power, it is awe-inspiring. So many of our politicians today can only wonder how that could ever be achieved and still be so influential more than 70 years later.

What do you think will be the most significant change to our lives in the next century?

The most significant change may well be in health care. We will continue to find cures for diseases that have plagued humankind and eradicate many of those that end our lives prematurely.

What is your greatest concern about the future?

My greatest concern is linked to our most significant change – longevity, because although we might live 20 years longer, what will be the quality of our life in that time? We do not have the social infrastructure to ensure that a dependent, ageing population is cared for.

What will be the most dramatic development in your ownfield of work?

The intrusion into our identity: things that were personal and private will no longer be so. The ability to trace people, to cross-link them and to interact with them remotely will bring huge benefits but also an enormous loss of privacy.

What is the priority for the future well-being of both people and our planet?

It has to be conservation and an awareness of our negative impact on our planet. For as long as countries are cavalier about their global responsibilities, selfishnesswill continue to be our downfall.

Sue Black. Illustration: Ellie Foreman-Peck.

This article first appeared in the 29 January 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The seven per cent problem

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Five things we've learned from Labour conference

The party won't split, Corbynite divisions are growing and MPs have accepted Brexit. 

Labour won't split anytime soon

For months, in anticipation of Jeremy Corbyn’s re-election, the media had speculated about the possibility of a Labour split. But the party’s conference confirmed that MPs have no intention of pursuing this course (as I had long written). They are tribally loyal to Labour and fear that a split would prove electorally ruinous under first-past-the-post. Many still expect Theresa May to hold an early general election and are focused on retaining their seats.

Rather than splitting, Corbyn’s opponents will increase their level of internal organisation in a manner reminiscent of the left’s Socialist Campaign Group. The “shadow shadow cabinet” will assert itself through backbench policy committees and, potentially, a new body (such as the proposed “2020 group”). Their aim is to promote an alternative direction for Labour and to produce the ideas and organisation that future success would depend on.

MPs do not dismiss the possibility of a split if their “hand is forced” through a wave of deselections or if the left achieves permanent control of the party. But they expect Labour to fight the next election as a force at least united in name.

Neither the Corbynites nor the rebels have ultimate control 

Corbyn’s second landslide victory confirmed the left’s dominance among the membership. He increased his winning margin and triumphed in every section. But beyond this, the left’s position is far more tenuous.

The addition of Scottish and Welsh representatives to the National Executive Committee handed Corbyn’s opponents control of Labour’s ruling body. Any hope of radically reshaping the party’s rule book has ended.

For weeks, Corbyn’s allies have spoken of their desire to remove general secretary Iain McNicol and deputy leader Tom Watson. But the former is now safe in his position, while the latter has been strengthened by his rapturously received speech.

Were Corbyn to eventually resign or be defeated, another left candidate (such as John McDonnell) would struggle to make the ballot. Nominations from 15 per cent of MPs are required but just six per cent are committed Corbynites (though selection contests and seat losses could aid their cause). It’s for this reason that allies of the leader are pushing for the threshold to be reduced to five per cent. Unless they succeed, the hard-left’s dominance is from assured. Were an alternative candidate, such as Clive Lewis or Angela Rayner, to succeed it would only be by offering themselves as a softer alternative.

Corbynite divisions are intensifying 

The divide between Corbyn’s supporters and opponents has recently monopolised attention. But the conference showed why divisions among the former should be interrogated.

Shadow defence secretary Clive Lewis, an early Corbyn backer, was enraged when his speech was amended to exclude a line announcing that Labour’s pro-Trident stance would not be reversed. Though Lewis opposes renewal, he regards unilateralism as an obstacle to unifying the party around a left economic programme. The longer Corbyn remains leader, the greater the tension between pragmatism and radicalism will become. Lewis may have alienated CND but he has improved his standing among MPs, some of whom hail him as a bridge between the hard and soft left.

Elsewhere, the briefing against McDonnell by Corbyn allies, who suggested he was an obstacle to recruiting frontbenchers, showed how tensions between their respective teams will remain a story.

Labour has accepted Brexit

Ninety four per cent of Labour MPs backed the Remain campaign during the EU referendum. But by a similar margin, they have accepted the Leave vote. Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, both long-standing eurosceptics, confirmed that they would not seek to prevent Brexit.

Owen Smith called for a referendum on the eventual deal during his leadership campaign. But with some exceptions, such as Angela Eagle, most of his backers have rejected the idea. Though 48 per cent of the electorate voted Remain, MPs emphasise that only 35 per cent of constituencies did. Some still fear an SNP-style surge for Ukip if Labour seeks to overturn the outcome.

The debate has moved to Britain’s future relationship with Europe, most notably the degree of free movement. For Labour, like Theresa May, Brexit means Brexit.

Corbyn will not condemn deselections 

The Labour leader could have won credit from MPs by unambiguously condemning deselection attempts. But repeatedly invited to do so, he refused. Corbyn instead defended local parties’ rights and stated that the “vast majority” of MPs had nothing to fear (a line hardly reassuring to those who do). Angela Eagle, Stella Creasy and Peter Kyle are among the rebels targeted by activists.

Corbyn can reasonably point out that the rules remain the same as under previous leaders. MPs who lose trigger ballots of their local branches face a full and open selection. But Labour’s intensified divisions mean deselection has become a far greater threat. MPs fear that Corbyn relishes the opportunity to remake the parliamentary party in his own images.  And some of the leader’s allies hope to ease the process by reviving mandatory reselection. Unless Corbyn changes his line, the issue will spark continual conflict. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.