In this week's New Statesman: The Science Issue

With Michael Brooks, Daniel Dennett, Martin Rees, Richard Dawkins, Maggie Aderin-Pocock and Philip B

Science Special: Dangerous Knowledge

For the New Statesman's annual Science special we asked 13 prominent scientists and thinkers two of the biggest questions in their field: is there anything science can’t explain? And is there anything it shouldn’t try to explain?

Our cast of experts includes Daniel Dennett, the philosopher and cognitive scientist, the theoretical physicist Paul Davies, the epidemiologist Precious Lunga, and the space scientist Carolyn Porco.

Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal, tells the NS that, however powerful computers become, there will be limits to our future learning:

And even if we could build a computer with hugely superhuman processing power, which could offer an accurate simulation, that doesn’t mean that we will have the insight to understand it. Some of the ‘aha’ insights that scientists strive for may have to await the emergence of post-human intellects.

And the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins explains why a career in science is so worthwhile:

. . . what we do know is that, if there is a question about the universe that science can never answer, no other discipline will. Science is our best hope for answering the deep questions of existence, but we must be alive to the possibility that the science of the future will be so different from the science of the present as to be scarcely recognisable under the same title. Is there anything science should not try to explain? No.

Also in this Science issue, in an essay titled “Sublime intervention”, Philip Ball argues that an inquiring wonder is what drives meaningful progress in science – and that curiosity must trump passive acceptance of the way things are. Elsewhere, Helen Lewis talks to the palaeontologist Jenny Clack and learns how some of the biggest recent discoveries in evolution were made by accident.


Neville Thurlbeck on Tom Waton's Dial M for Murdoch

In this week’s New Statesman, the former News of the World journalist Neville Thurlbeck reviews the MP Tom Watson’s book about the phone-hacking crisis, Dial M for Murdoch. Thurlbeck writes:

To a newspaperman like me, it is a very useful and, by and large, accurate reference book about the unfolding of the phone-hacking saga. It’s what we call in the trade “a cuttings job”, produced by piecing together information that can be found in any good newspaper-cuttings library.

He continues: 

We learn a lot about the toll the crisis took on Watson, on his marriage and on his mental state. But it was Watson’s visit to my home last year that provided him with the book’s most dramatic revelation. The information was given to him confidentially and should not have been made public. However, our quarrel over that need not detain us here.

In conclusion, Thurlbeck says that, for the moment:

Dial M for Murdoch is the only cogent book available on the most important media story since the birth of newspapers and has every chance of becoming a bestseller. It is only half the story because only half the story has been told. Its sequel will be the explosive revelations that will be made in court, should any trials take place. And then the drama of Cuttings Job II will ensure this book is swiftly remaindered.

Cameron's Crises

In the Leader, the New Statesman calls for the Prime Minister to face the pressing issues surrounding the Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt that have dominated the past week’s news:

It is entirely inadequate for [David Cameron] to remind voters that Tony Blair and Gordon Brown also fell under the spell of the Murdoch empire. In promising to lead the “most open and transparent government in the world”, he vowed to be different.

. . . It is the perception that this government is in hock to vested interests . . . that corrodes trust in our political class. There is no more serious issue. It is time Mr Cameron recognised as much and called Mr Hunt to account.

In his Lines of Dissent column, Mehdi Hasan argues that after the “Omnishambles Budget”, the row over Hunt and the confirmation of a double-dip recession, the political class is realising Cameron has been overestimated for far too long:

Regardless of the outcome of the London mayoral election on 3 May, Cameron’s reputation will not recover. “We’ve been too afraid of the Tories. We assumed Cameron was a Machiavellian figure and a brilliant communicator,” says a shadow cabinet minister. “Turns out he’s neither.” The veil has been lifted; the Don’t Overestimate Cameron Association (DOCA) has had plenty of recruits in recent weeks.

But in the Politics Column, Rafael Behr warns that Murdoch-bashing may not be enough to establish Ed Miliband’s credentials as a potential prime minister and champion of a new political order:

[Miliband] is persuaded that Britain is undergoing a political upheaval that will leave Cameron and Osborne marooned on the wrong side of history, along with Rupert Murdoch, the Liberal Democrats and unnamed Irresponsible Capitalists. Given the scale of the crisis, he might well be proved right. What is missing from the story is an explanation as to why Ed Miliband, loyal lieutenant aboard the last Labour government, scion of the Westminster establishment, shouldn’t be swept away by the very same tide.

Elsewhere in the New Statesman

  • In Observations, Rowenna Davis reports on the crisis in magistrates’ courts, where budget cuts of 25 per cent are bringing the local justice system close to collapse. Yet the courts are a fine example of the “big society” at work – all the judges are volunteers. The present woes of the Courts and Tribunals Service, she writes, “are an indictment of the Tories and David Cameron in particular, who is criticised by his own backbenchers of failing to know what’s worth protecting”.
  • In this week’s NS Diary, the journalist, writer and broadcaster John McCarthy describes a trip around revolutionary Paris, remembers his “years spent banged up in Beirut” and considers the future of radio.
  • Sophie Elmhirst talks to the Chinese author and historian Jung Chang in the NS Interview.
  • In the Critics, the NS’s pop music writer Kate Mossman examines the musician Jack White (formerly of the White Stripes) and the cult of authenticity; Mark Leonard writes an essay on the decline of American power; in her TV column, Rachel Cooke assesses the BBC’s move to Salford and the impact on BBC1’s flagship morning show, and in Real Meals, Will Self tentatively tries eggs Benedict at Patisserie Valerie.


Alice Gribbin is a Teaching-Writing Fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She was formerly the editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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John McDonnell interview: "We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility"

The shadow chancellor on the Spending Review, Jeremy Corbyn's leadership and why trade unions will have to break the law. 

When I interviewed John McDonnell in March, before the general election, he predicted that Labour would be the largest party and confessed to a “sneaking feeling that we could win a small majority – because I think the Tory vote is really soft”. As the long-standing chair of the Socialist Campaign Group, McDonnell anticipated leading the resistance inside Labour to any spending cuts made by Ed Miliband. Eight months later, he is indeed campaigning against austerity – but as shadow chancellor against a Conservative majority government.

I meet McDonnell in his new Westminster office in Norman Shaw South, a short walk down the corridor from that of his close friend and greatest ally, Jeremy Corbyn. The day before George Osborne delivers his Spending Review and Autumn Statement, his desk is cluttered with economic papers in preparation for his response.

“The message we’re trying to get across is that this concept of the Tories’ having a ‘long-term economic plan’ is an absolute myth and they’re in chaos, really in chaos on many fronts,” he tells me. McDonnell points to the revolt against cuts to tax credits and policing, and the social care crisis, as evidence that Osborne’s programme is unravelling. On health, he says: “He’s trying to dig out money as best as he can for the NHS, he’s announced the frontloading of some of it, but that simply covers the deficits that there are. Behind that, he’s looking for £22bn of savings, so this winter the NHS is going to be in crisis again.”

Asked what Labour’s equivalent is to the Tories’ undeniably effective “long-term economic plan” message, he said: “I don’t think we’re going to get into one-liners in that way. We’ll be more sophisticated in the way that we communicate. We’re going to have an intelligent and a mature economic debate. If I hear again that they’re going to ‘fix the roof while the sun shines’ I will throw up. It’s nauseating, isn’t it? It reduces debate, intellectual debate, economic debate, to the lowest level of a slogan. That’s why we’re in the mess we are.”

Having abandoned his original support for the Chancellor’s fiscal charter, which mandated a budget surplus by 2020, McDonnell makes an unashamed case for borrowing to invest. “The biggest failure of the last five years under Osborne is the failure to invest,” he says. “Borrowing at the moment is at its cheapest level, but in addition to that I’m not even sure we’ll need to borrow great amounts, because we can get more efficient spending in terms of government spending. If we can address the tax cuts that have gone ahead, particularly around corporation tax, that will give us the resources to actually start paying again in terms of investment.”

He promises a “line-by-line budget review” when I ask whether there are any areas in which he believes spending should be reduced. “My background is hard-nosed bureaucrat . . . we’ll be looking at where we can shift expenditure into more productive areas.”

From 1982 until 1985, John McDonnell, who is 64, was chair of finance at the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone. After vowing to defy the Thatcher government’s rate-capping policy he was sacked by Livingstone, who accused him of manipulating figures for political purposes. “We’re going to look like the biggest fucking liars since Goebbels,” the future mayor of London told him. McDonnell, who later described Livingstone’s account as “complete fiction”, has since resolved his differences with the man now co-chairing Labour’s defence review.

After his election as the MP for Hayes and Harlington in 1997, McDonnell achieved renown as one of New Labour’s most vociferous opponents, rebelling with a frequency rivalled only by Corbyn. His appointment as shadow chancellor was the most divisive of the Labour leader’s reshuffle. “People like Jeremy even if they don’t agree with him. People don’t like John,” one MP told me at the time. Mindful of this, McDonnell has sought to transform his image. He has apologised for his past praise of the IRA and for joking about assassinating Margaret Thatcher, rebranding himself as a “boring bank manager”. But there are moments when his more radical side surfaces.

He told me that he supports workers breaking the law if the trade union bill, which would limit the right to strike, is passed. “It’s inevitable, I think it’s inevitable. If the bill is introduced in its existing form and is used against any particular trade unionist or trade union, I think it’s inevitable that people will resist. We established our rights by campaigning against unjust laws and taking the risk if necessary. I think that’s inevitable and I’ll support them.”

“Chaos” might be how McDonnell describes Osborne’s position but the same term is now daily applied to Labour. The party is riven over air strikes in Syria and the renewal of Trident and MPs are ever more scornful of Corbyn’s leadership.

While Corbyn has so far refused to offer Labour MPs a free vote on Syria, McDonnell says that he favours one and would oppose military action. “My position on wars has always been that it’s a moral issue and therefore I veer towards free votes . . . We’re waiting for Cameron’s statement; we’ll analyse that, there’ll be a discussion in shadow cabinet and in the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] and then we’ll make a decision. I’m still in a situation where I’ve expressed the view that I’m opposed to the bombing campaign or engagement. I think the history of the UK involvement in the Middle East has been a disaster, to say the least . . .This isn’t like the Second World War where you have a military campaign – you defeat the enemy, you sign a peace agreement and that’s it – this is asymmetric warfare. In addition to the risks that are in the battlefield there’s a risk in every community in our land as a result of it.”

Would he want any of the 14 former shadow cabinet members who refused to serve under Corbyn to return? “All of them, we’re trying to get them all back. We’ve got Yvette [Cooper] helping us on a review we’re doing about the economy and women . . . It’s an open door policy, I’m trying to meet them all over these next few weeks.”

Livingstone, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee, recently called for Simon Danczuk, who revealed details of a private meeting with Corbyn in the Mail on Sunday, and Frank Field, who told me that MPs should run as independents if deselected, to be disciplined. But McDonnell takes a more conciliatory line. “With Simon [Danczuk] in particular and the others, it’s just a matter of saying look at the long-term interests of the party. People don’t vote for a divided party. They’ll accept, though, that within a party you can have democratic debate. As I said time and time again, don’t mistake democracy for division. It’s the way in which you express those different views that are important. All I’m saying is let people express their views, let’s have democratic engagement but please don’t personalise this. I think there’s a reaction within the community, not just the party, against personalised politics. It’s not Jeremy’s style, he never responds in that way. It’s unfortunate but we’ll get through it. It’s just minor elements of it, that’s all.”

McDonnell disavows moves by some in Momentum, the Corbyn-aligned group, to deselect critical MPs. “What we’re not into is deselecting people, what we want to try and do is make sure that everyone’s involved in a democratic engagement process, simple as that.

“So I’ve said time and time again, this isn’t about deselection or whatever. But at the same what we’re trying to say to everybody is even if you disagree, treat each other with respect. At the height of the debates around tuition fees and the Iraq war, even though we had heated disagreements we always treated each other with mutual respect and I think we’ve got to adhere to that. Anyone who’s not doing that just lets themselves down, that’s not the culture of the Labour Party.”

In private, the 90 per cent of MPs who did not support Corbyn’s leadership bid speak often of how and when he could be removed. One point of debate is whether, under the current rules, the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged or be forced to re-seek nominations. McDonnell is emphatic that the former is the case: “Oh yeah, that’s the rule, yeah.”

McDonnell’s recent media performances have been praised by MPs, and he is spoken of by some on the left as a possible replacement if Corbyn is removed or stands down before 2020. His speech to the PLP on 23 November was described to me by one shadow minister as a “leadership bid”. But McDonnell rules out standing in any future contest. “No, no, I’ve tried twice [in 2007 and 2010], I’m not going to try again, there’s no way I would.”

Despite opinion polls showing Labour as much as 15 points behind the Conservatives, McDonnell insists that the party can win in 2020. “Oh definitely, yeah, you’ll see that. I think this next year’s going to be pivotal for us. We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility over the next six months. But more importantly than that, we can’t just be a negative party . . . we’re going to present a positive view of what Labour’s future will be and the future of the economy.

“Over the next 18 months, we’ll be in a situation where we’ve destroyed the Tories’ economic reputation and we’ve built up our own but we’ll do it in a visionary way that presents people with a real alternative.”  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.