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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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser