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

Picture: ANDRÉ CARRILHO
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Leader: Boris Johnson, a liar and a charlatan

The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. 

Boris Johnson is a liar, a charlatan and a narcissist. In 1988, when he was a reporter at the Times, he fabricated a quotation from his godfather, an eminent historian, which duly appeared in a news story on the front page. He was sacked. (We might pause here to acknowledge the advantage to a young journalist of having a godfather whose opinions were deemed worthy of appearing in a national newspaper.) Three decades later, his character has not improved.

On 17 September, Mr Johnson wrote a lengthy, hyperbolic article for the Daily Telegraph laying out his “vision” for Brexit – in terms calculated to provoke and undermine the Prime Minister (who was scheduled to give a speech on Brexit in Florence, Italy, as we went to press). Extracts of his “article”, which reads more like a speech, appeared while a terror suspect was on the loose and the country’s threat level was at “critical”, leading the Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, to remark: “On the day of a terror attack where Britons were maimed, just hours after the threat level is raised, our only thoughts should be on service.”

Three other facets of this story are noteworthy. First, the article was published alongside other pieces echoing and praising its conclusions, indicating that the Telegraph is now operating as a subsidiary of the Johnson for PM campaign. Second, Theresa May did not respond by immediately sacking her disloyal Foreign Secretary – a measure of how much the botched election campaign has weakened her authority. Finally, it is remarkable that Mr Johnson’s article repeated the most egregious – and most effective – lie of the EU referendum campaign. “Once we have settled our accounts, we will take back control of roughly £350m per week,” the Foreign Secretary claimed. “It would be a fine thing, as many of us have pointed out, if a lot of that money went on the NHS.”

This was the promise of Brexit laid out by the official Vote Leave team: we send £350m to Brussels, and after leaving the EU, that money can be spent on public services. Yet the £350m figure includes the rebate secured by Margaret Thatcher – so just under a third of the sum never leaves the country. Also, any plausible deal will involve paying significant amounts to the EU budget in return for continued participation in science and security agreements. To continue to invoke this figure is shameless. That is not a partisan sentiment: the head of the UK Statistics Authority, Sir David Norgrove, denounced Mr Johnson’s “clear misuse of official statistics”.

In the days that followed, the chief strategist of Vote Leave, Dominic Cummings – who, as Simon Heffer writes in this week's New Statesman, is widely suspected of involvement in Mr Johnson’s article – added his voice. Brexit was a “shambles” so far, he claimed, because of the ineptitude of the civil service and the government’s decision to invoke Article 50 before outlining its own detailed demands.

There is a fine Yiddish word to describe this – chutzpah. Mr Johnson, like all the other senior members of Vote Leave in parliament, voted to trigger Article 50 in March. If he and his allies had concerns about this process, the time to speak up was then.

It has been clear for some time that Mr Johnson has no ideological attachment to Brexit. (During the referendum campaign, he wrote articles arguing both the Leave and Remain case, before deciding which one to publish – in the Telegraph, naturally.) However, every day brings fresh evidence that he and his allies are not interested in the tough, detailed negotiations required for such an epic undertaking. They will brush aside any concerns about our readiness for such a huge challenge by insisting that Brexit would be a success if only they were in charge of it.

This is unlikely. Constant reports emerge of how lightly Mr Johnson treats his current role. At a summit aiming to tackle the grotesque humanitarian crisis in Yemen, he is said to have astounded diplomats by joking: “With friends like these, who needs Yemenis?” The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. By extension, he demeans our politics. 

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left