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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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Voters are turning against Brexit but the Lib Dems aren't benefiting

Labour's pro-Brexit stance is not preventing it from winning the support of Remainers. Will that change?

More than a year after the UK voted for Brexit, there has been little sign of buyer's remorse. The public, including around a third of Remainers, are largely of the view that the government should "get on with it".

But as real wages are squeezed (owing to the Brexit-linked inflationary spike) there are tentative signs that the mood is changing. In the event of a second referendum, an Opinium/Observer poll found, 47 per cent would vote Remain, compared to 44 per cent for Leave. Support for a repeat vote is also increasing. Forty one per cent of the public now favour a second referendum (with 48 per cent opposed), compared to 33 per cent last December. 

The Liberal Democrats have made halting Brexit their raison d'être. But as public opinion turns, there is no sign they are benefiting. Since the election, Vince Cable's party has yet to exceed single figures in the polls, scoring a lowly 6 per cent in the Opinium survey (down from 7.4 per cent at the election). 

What accounts for this disparity? After their near-extinction in 2015, the Lib Dems remain either toxic or irrelevant to many voters. Labour, by contrast, despite its pro-Brexit stance, has hoovered up Remainers (55 per cent back Jeremy Corbyn's party). 

In some cases, this reflects voters' other priorities. Remainers are prepared to support Labour on account of the party's stances on austerity, housing and education. Corbyn, meanwhile, is a eurosceptic whose internationalism and pro-migration reputation endear him to EU supporters. Other Remainers rewarded Labour MPs who voted against Article 50, rebelling against the leadership's stance. 

But the trend also partly reflects ignorance. By saying little on the subject of Brexit, Corbyn and Labour allowed Remainers to assume the best. Though there is little evidence that voters will abandon Corbyn over his EU stance, the potential exists.

For this reason, the proposal of a new party will continue to recur. By challenging Labour over Brexit, without the toxicity of Lib Dems, it would sharpen the choice before voters. Though it would not win an election, a new party could force Corbyn to soften his stance on Brexit or to offer a second referendum (mirroring Ukip's effect on the Conservatives).

The greatest problem for the project is that it lacks support where it counts: among MPs. For reasons of tribalism and strategy, there is no emergent "Gang of Four" ready to helm a new party. In the absence of a new convulsion, the UK may turn against Brexit without the anti-Brexiteers benefiting. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.