O come all ye faithful: Pope Francis greets wellwishers outside the Vatican after an audience for health workers, 22 November. Photo: Getty
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Religion vs medicine, trouble at Fifa and Clive James’s final performance

There is a tendency among the devoutly religious to venerate what to them seems “natural” – or God-given. But the story of religion is one of retreat in the face of science’s relentless advance.

For nature, heartless, witless nature,
Will neither care nor know . . .

A E Housman, from “Tell Me Not Here, It Needs Not Saying”

There is so much to admire about Pope Francis, the Argentine Jesuit who has become a talisman for many on the left. He lives modestly and has great humility. He scourges inequality and global poverty. He has courageously intervened in the Israel-Palestine conflict, which becomes ever more hopeless with each new atrocity committed. Yet his reported remarks condemning in vitro fertilisation – or “the scientific production of a child” – and embryonic stem-cell research were dismaying, if not altogether surprising. He is, after all, the Pope and not some kind of Latin American bandit-revolutionary, as some would have it.

There is a tendency among the devoutly religious to venerate what to them seems “natural” – or God-given. But the story of religion is one of retreat in the face of science’s relentless advance. Just as the Catholic Church was humiliated into accepting the Copernican revolution, so in time it will be forced to accommodate further advances in medicine, from gene therapy to embryonic stem-cell research. We live on a hostile planet and the human journey has been about making it incrementally less inhospitable.

Meanwhile, Doug Melton, co-director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, and his team are edging closer to finding a cure for Type 1 diabetes after discovering how to produce from embryonic stem cells huge quantities of the insulin-producing pancreatic beta cells required in transplantation. Professor Melton’s two children were diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes as infants and it became his life’s mission to find a cure.

My elder sister’s son was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes as a young boy and he has borne his illness with fortitude and grace. No one would wish anyone to suffer as he and others have from such an illness, least of all young children. Christian fundamentalists value above all the sanctity of human life, hence the opposition to contraception, abortion and assisted dying. But life is not an end in itself: how a life is lived is what matters, its quality and dignity. Why be in thrall to what neither knows nor cares?

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David Bernstein, a former chairman of the Football Association, has called on England and other European nations to boycott the 2018 World Cup in Russia in protest at the machinations of Sepp Blatter, the Swiss megalomaniac who seems, in effect, to run Fifa like a personal fiefdom. Fifa’s report into the World Cup bidding process has hilariously exonerated Russia and Qatar of any duplicity but condemned England for breaking the rules. Fortunately, Michael Garcia, the American lawyer hired by Fifa to investigate corruption, has condemned the way his report has been misrepresented.

Football is a fabulously simple game debased by those who control and seek to profit from it. Blatter, who is 78, is seeking election for yet another term as Fifa president. Does the beautiful game have the leader it deserves?

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To the Cambridge Union Chamber, to see Clive James perform in the winter leg of the literary festival of which the New Statesman is media partner. James was there to talk about his latest book but what we were treated to was a virtuoso one-man show. “Here I am making another final performance!” he joked.

This was a reference to his chronic illnesses. James has emphysema, “reward for a lifetime’s smoking”, and leukaemia, which is in remission. Modern medicine (“the meds”) and the dedication of Addenbrooke’s Hospital have prolonged his life beyond what even he imagined was possible. When you are living under a death sentence, one course of action, he said, was “inaction”. The other was “to go on working, as if you have all the time in the world”, which is what he says he has been doing. In truth, the poems he has published recently, several of them in the NS, are mostly about the period of his long, drawn-out dying. These late works offer a kind of extended leave-taking. They are about memory and forgetting and about what will soon be lost for ever: yet the tone is resigned, not bitter. And, because this is James, there is sardonic humour.

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Clive James is unusual in having had a dual career as a prime-time TV presenter and as a serious man of letters: poet, novelist, memoirist. “Television looks as if it dissipates energy,” he said, “and it does. It takes five days to get one hour of television. But I enjoyed those days and I won’t knock them.”

Yet his first and greatest love was poetry, as a reader and writer. James is a wonderful raconteur, moving between different registers, high and low – from Philip Larkin to Game of Thrones in one smooth, easy movement. Dressed in a brown corduroy jacket, a beat poet’s black turtleneck sweater and black trousers, he moved at the “pace of a racing snail”, as he put it. He is thin now and very frail and his voice is weak and wheezy but still unmistakable. He recited from memory some of his favourite poems – Auden’s “Lullaby”, Andrew Marvell’s “The Definition of Love”, something by e e cummings (“a rebel poet who had the distinct advantage of having a trust fund; he could afford to be a communist”) – as well as one of his own. He said the art of poetry was “to capture [experiences] with the excitement of things well said”.

Clive James said many things that night and all of them well – and it was exciting for those of us who were there to see him perform one more time, for one last time. 

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 20 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The deep roots of Isis

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.