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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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The TV stars MPs would love to be

Labour MPs dream of being Jed Bartlet.

In my latest book, A State of Play, I looked at the changing ways in which Britain’s representative democracy has been fictionalized since the later Victorian period. With the support of the University of Nottingham, we decided to turn the tables and ask MPs about their favourite fictional political characters. The results are intriguing.

All MPs were contacted, but with only 49 responding – that’s a 7.5 per cent return rate – I can’t claim the results are fully representative. At 22 per cent, women figured slightly less than they actually do in the Commons. But the big difference is in party terms: 71 per cent of respondents were Labour MPs – double their share in the Commons – while just 20 per cent were Conservatives, less than half their proportion in the Lower House. Maybe Conservative MPs are busier and have better things to do than answer surveys? Or perhaps they just don’t take political fiction – and possibly culture more generally - as seriously as those on the Opposition benches.

What is not subject to speculation, however, is that Labour MPs have very different tastes to their Conservatives rivals, suggesting they are more optimistic about what politics might achieve. At 22 per cent, the most favourite character chosen by MPs overall was Jed Bartlet, heroic US President in Aaron Sorkin’s romantic TV series The West Wing. Of those MPs who nominated Bartlett, every one was Labour. Of course Barlet is a Democrat and the series - dismissed by critics as The Left Wing – looked favourably on progressive causes. But it seems Labour MPs regard Bartlet as an archetype for more than his politics. As one put it, he is, "the ideal leader: smart, principled and pragmatic" For some, Bartlet stands in stark contrast with their current leader. One respondent wistfully characterised the fictional President as having, "Integrity, learning, wit, electability... If only...".

As MPs mentioned other characters from The West Wing, the series accounted for 29 per cent of all choices. Its nearest rival was the deeply cynical House of Cards, originally a novel written by Conservative peer Michael Dobbs and subsequently adapted for TV in the UK and US. Taken together, Britain’s Francis Urquhart and America’s Frank Underwood account for 18 per cent of choices, and are cross-party favourites. One Labour MP dryly claimed Urquhart – who murders his way to Number 10 due to his obsession with the possession of power - "mirrors most closely my experience of politics".

Unsurprisingly, MPs nominated few women characters - politics remains a largely male world, as does political fiction. Only 14 per cent named a female character, the most popular being Birgitte Nyborg from Denmark’s TV series Borgen. Like The West Wing, the show presents politics as a place of possibility. Not all of those nominating Nyborg were female, although one female MP who did appeared to directly identify with the character, saying: "She rides a bike, has a dysfunctional life and isn't afraid of the bastards."

Perhaps the survey’s greatest surprise was which characters and series turned out to be unpopular. Jim Hacker of Yes Minister only just made it into the Top Five, despite one Conservative MP claiming the series gives a "realistic assessment of how politics really works". Harry Perkins, who led a left-wing Labour government in A Very British Coup received just one nomination – and not from an MP who might be described as a Corbynite. Only two MPs suggested characters from Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, which in the past claimed the likes of Harold MacMillan, Douglas Hurd and John Major as fans. And only one character from The Thick of It was nominated - Nicola Murray the struggling minister. 

The results suggest that MPs turn to political fiction for different reasons. Some claimed they liked their characters for – as one said of House of Cards's Frank Underwood – "the entertainment value". But others clearly identified with their favourites. There is clearly a preference for characters in series like The West Wing and Borgen, where politicians are depicted as ordinary people doing a hard job in trying circumstances. This suggests they are largely out of step with the more cynical presentations of politics now served up to the British public.

Top 5 political characters

Jed Bartlett - 22 per cent

Frank Underwood - 12 per cent

Francis Urquhart - 6 per cent

Jim Hacker - 6 per cent

Birgitte Nyborg - 6 per cent

Steven Fielding is Professor of Political History at the University of Nottingham. Follow him @polprofsteve.