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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As long as the Tories fail to solve the housing crisis, they will struggle to win

The fall in the number of homeowners leaves the Conservatives unable to sell capitalism to those with no capital. 

For the Conservatives, rising home ownership was once a reliable route to government. Former Labour voters still speak of their gratitude to Margaret Thatcher for the Right to Buy scheme. But as home ownership has plummeted, the Tories have struggled to sell capitalism to a generation without capital. 

In Britain, ownership has fallen to 63.5 per cent, the lowest rate since 1987 and the fourth-worst in the EU. The number of private renters now exceeds 11 million (a larger number than in the social sector). The same policies that initially promoted ownership acted to reverse it. A third of Right to Buy properties fell into the hands of private landlords. High rents left tenants unable to save for a deposit.

Rather than expanding supply, the Tories have focused on subsidising demand (since 2010, housebuilding has fallen to its lowest level since 1923). At a cabinet meeting in 2013, shortly after the launch of the government’s Help to Buy scheme, George Osborne declared: “Hopefully we will get a little housing boom and everyone will be happy as property values go up”. The then-chancellor’s remark epitomised his focus on homeowners. Conservative policy was consciously designed to enrich the propertied.

A new report from the Resolution Foundation, Home Affront: housing across the generations, shows the consequences of such short-termism. Based on recent trends, less than half of millennials will buy a home before the age of 45 compared to over 70 per cent of baby boomers. Four out of every ten 30-year-olds now live in private rented accommodation (often of substandard quality) in contrast to one in ten 50 years ago. And while the average family spent just 6 per cent of their income on housing costs in the early 1960s, this has trebled to 18 per cent. 

When Theresa May launched her Conservative leadership campaign, she vowed to break with David Cameron’s approach. "Unless we deal with the housing deficit, we will see house prices keep on rising," she warned. "The divide between those who inherit wealth and those who don’t will become more pronounced. And more and more of the country’s money will go into expensive housing instead of more productive investments that generate more economic growth."

The government has since banned letting agent fees and announced an additional £1.4bn for affordable housing – a sector entirely neglected by Cameron and Osborne (see graph below). Social housing, they believed, merely created more Labour voters. "They genuinely saw housing as a petri dish for voters," Nick Clegg later recalled. "It was unbelievable." 

But though housebuilding has risen to its highest levels since 2008, with 164,960 new homes started in the year to June 2017 and 153,000 completed, this remains far short of the 250,000 required merely to meet existing demand (let alone make up the deficit). In 2016/17, the government funded just 944 homes for social rent (down from 36,000 in 2010). 

In a little-noticed speech yesterday, Sajid Javid promised a "top-to-bottom" review of social housing following the Grenfell fire. But unless this includes a substantial increase in public funding, the housing crisis will endure. 

For the Conservatives, this would pose a great enough challenge in normal times. But the political energy absorbed by Brexit, and the £15bn a year it is forecast to cost the UK, makes it still greater.

At the 2017 general election, homeowners voted for the Tories over Labour by 55 per cent to 30 per cent (mortgage holders by 43-40). By contrast, private renters backed Labour by 54 per cent to 31 per cent. As long as the latter multiply in number, while the former fall, the Tories will struggle to build a majority-winning coalition. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.