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Susan Greenfield: “I worry that we are becoming a dysfunctional society’’

The Labour peer and senior research fellow at Lincoln College, Oxford, takes the <i>NS</i> Centenary Questionnaire.

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

The contraceptive pill. It changed views on male and female relationships, which are more complex now – there is more variation than in my mother’s day, when on the whole women gave up work and had children. The Pill introduced more options and, as is the case when you get more options, there are upsides and downsides.

And scientific discovery?

The quantum theory that was introduced at the beginning of the century. It seemed obscure at the time but it helped us to understand the nature of the chemical bond and the structure of DNA. It also gave rise to our understanding of transition theory and modern computing.

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

Margaret Thatcher. She offended the toffs because they thought she was petit bourgeois and that she should have known her place. They liked things the way they were. She also alienated the left wing by introducing capitalism for the working classes.

And she was a woman. I know there are many who say she was unkind to women but that is not the issue. I, too, come from a modest social background; as a female, I have taken flak. I admire anyone who has strong convictions – even if I don’t agree with them.

Earlier generations lived in a very unexciting environment with limited opportunities. Margaret Thatcher instilled the attitude that if you work hard, you can own your house, you can own shares and you can start a business.

And playwright?

Probably one of the “angry young men” from the 1950s. I was born around then and was very aware at the time of the winds of change. If you look at any of [those plays] – The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner by Alan Sillitoe, John Braine’s Room at the Top, Look Back in Anger by John Osborne – you’ll see they upped the trend and forced people to get away from the “Anyone for tennis?” kind of thinking. They were very exciting. It’s just a shame there weren’t any angry young women.

What is your favourite quotation?

I don’t know who it’s by: “I wish long life to my enemies, so they live to see all my successes.” Why have I chosen this one? Perhaps because it kept me going.

What will be the most significant change to our lives in the next hundred years?

I’ve written a novel called 2121 [published in July 2013]. It’s set just over 100 years from now. The majority of people have come so far into the cyber-world that they don’t need to reproduce: they have IVF, so they don’t touch each other. They are healthy and beautiful but have no past or future. They don’t need to have an identity or a purpose for life.

Then there are the neopures: they are grey and cerebral. They put a premium on consequences and abstract thought.

The hero of the book is a brain scientist called Fred. He’s sent by them to find how the brains of others are working. He has various relationships along the way. It takes to the extreme the way our cultures are going – this purity of the abstract idea, neither religious nor political, but about the promotion of the brain above the mind. The most significant thing is not GM food or climate change but how we think and feel differently.

What is your greatest concern about the future?

That we won’t make the most of it. One of the biggest challenges is not just having a long life but a healthy one. If we do crack it, what then? No one is addressing what to do with the second 50 years of your life. Why can’t we all be like Warren Buffett, Desmond Tutu or the Queen, leading active lives?

What will be the most dramatic development in your own field?

If I knew the answer to that, it would be here already. I would like to think we will have a better understanding of targeted treatment for Alzheimer’s disease – although there may not be a cure.

The other exciting area is the neuroscience of consciousness. The ultimate question is how the brain generates consciousness.

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

I am torn. On the one hand, curing dementia. On the other, I worry about our next generation and giving them the best possible life in terms of their brains. I have concerns about the young. Some are spending five hours a day or more in front of a screen. That’s time when they are not giving someone a hug or walking along a beach. I worry we are becoming a dysfunctional society.
 

This article first appeared in the 13 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Can we talk about climate change now?

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Labour’s best general election bet is Keir Starmer

The shadow secretary for Brexit has the heart of a Remainer - but head of a pragmatic politician in Brexit Britain. 

In a different election, the shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer might have been written off as too quiet a man. Instead - as he set out his plans to scrap the Brexit white paper and offer EU citizens reassurance on “Day One” in the grand hall of the Institute of Civil Engineers - the audience burst into spontaneous applause. 

For voters now torn between their loyalty to Labour and Remain, Starmer is a reassuring figure. Although he says he respects the Brexit vote, the former director of public prosecutions is instinctively in favour of collaborating with Europe. He even wedges phrases like “regulatory alignment” into his speeches. When a journalist asked about the practicality of giving EU citizens right to remain before UK citizens abroad have received similar promises, he retorted: “The way you just described it is to use people as bargaining chips… We would not do that.”

He is also clear about the need for Parliament to vote on a Brexit deal in the autumn of 2018, for a transitional agreement to replace the cliff edge, and for membership of the single market and customs union to be back on the table. When pressed on the option of a second referendum, he said: “The whole point of trying to involve Parliament in the process is that when we get to the final vote, Parliament has had its say.” His main argument against a second referendum idea is that it doesn’t compare like with like, if a transitional deal is already in place. For Remainers, that doesn't sound like a blanket veto of #EUref2. 

Could Leave voters in the provinces warm to the London MP for Holborn and St Pancras? The answer seems to be no – The Daily Express, voice of the blue passport brigade, branded his speech “a plot”. But Starmer is at least respectful of the Brexit vote, as it stands. His speech was introduced by Jenny Chapman, MP for Darlington, who berated Westminster for their attitude to Leave voters, and declared: “I would not be standing here if the Labour Party were in anyway attempting to block Brexit.” Yes, Labour supporters who voted Leave may prefer a Brexiteer like Kate Hoey to Starmer,  but he's in the shadow Cabinet and she's on a boat with Nigel Farage. 

Then there’s the fact Starmer has done his homework. His argument is coherent. His speech was peppered with references to “businesses I spoke to”. He has travelled around the country. He accepts that Brexit means changing freedom of movement rules. Unlike Clive Lewis, often talked about as another leadership contender, he did not resign but voted for the Article 50 Bill. He is one of the rare shadow cabinet members before June 2016 who rejoined the front bench. This also matters as far as Labour members are concerned – a March poll found they disapproved of the way Labour has handled Brexit, but remain loyal to Jeremy Corbyn. 

Finally, for those voters who, like Brenda, reacted to news of a general election by complaining "Not ANOTHER one", Starmer has some of the same appeal as Theresa May - he seems competent and grown-up. While EU regulation may be intensely fascinating to Brexiteers and Brussels correspondents, I suspect that by 2019 most of the British public's overwhelming reaction to Brexit will be boredom. Starmer's willingness to step up to the job matters. 

Starmer may not have the grassroots touch of the Labour leader, nor the charisma of backbench dissidents like Chuka Umunna, but the party should make him the de facto face of the campaign.  In the hysterics of a Brexit election, a quiet man may be just what Labour needs.

What did Keir Starmer say? The key points of his speech

  • An immediate guarantee that all EU nationals currently living in the UK will see no change in their legal status as a result of Brexit, while seeking reciprocal measures for UK citizens in the EU. 
  • Replacing the Tories’ Great Repeal Bill with an EU Rights and Protections Bill which fully protects consumer, worker and environmental rights.
  • A replacement White Paper with a strong emphasis on retaining the benefits of the single market and the customs union. 
  • The devolution of any new powers that are transferred back from Brussels should go straight to the relevant devolved body, whether regional government in England or the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
  • Parliament should be fully involved in the Brexit deal, and MPs should be able to vote on the deal in autumn 2018.
  • A commitment to seek to negotiate strong transitional arrangements when leaving the EU and to ensure there is no cliff-edge for the UK economy. 
  • An acceptance that freedom of movement will end with leaving the EU, but a commitment to prioritise jobs and economy in the negotiations.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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