Human chromosomes, with the "sex" chromosomes on the far right. Image: BSIP/UIG via Getty Images
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Sex isn’t chromosomes: the story of a century of misconceptions about X & Y

The influence of the XX/XY model of chromosomal sex has been profound over the last century, but it’s founded on faulty premises and responsible for encouraging reductive, essentialist thinking. While the scientific world has moved on, its popular appeal remains.

When the International Astronomical Union (IAU) reclassified Pluto from planet to dwarf planet in 2006, it did nothing to change the fact of the existence of Pluto. Its status, however, is an innocuous example of how science is not always an objective descriptor of reality, but an interpreter, loaded with the context of previous generations – how the Greek “planetai” and the post-Copernican “planets” were both labels to describe things that moved in the heavens, even if we realised those things weren’t actually that similar to each other on closer inspection over time.

The scientific process often involves tweaking taxonomies. Humanity saw distant objects above, and the taxonomy we built was simple: two entries, one labelled “planets”, the other “stars”. Over time we added extra things, like asteroids (rocky) and comets (icy), to cover new discoveries – and, then, even further research (and pictures like those returned by the Rosetta probe) meant that some of the things we thought made asteroids and comets very different were really only a reflection of our perspective. (And, for what it’s worth, at the same meeting in 2006 where the IAU created the new term “dwarf planet” for objects like Pluto and “planet” for, y’know, planets, it also voted to use “small Solar System body” for everything else. This too will pass, probably.) 

We all believe in the existence of comets and asteroids, even though the colloquial distinction between them makes less and less formal sense – would we bother with two different names if we’d only discovered them today? What purpose would drawing the dividing line between them that way serve?

Famously, when the first taxidermied duck-billed platypus was sent back to London by naturalists working in Australia, it was believed to be a hoax, as it refused to cohere to the then-accepted definitions of mammals and birds by insisting on being a hairy warm-blooded creature that laid eggs. The taxonomical status of the platypus (and the few other egg-laying monotremes that have yet to become extinct) is still a subject of debate to this day - biologists have found it has genes usually only present in fish and amphibians. A male platypus even has ten sex chromosomes (XYXYXYXYXY), instead of the normal two for a mammal.

Ah, but there’s a weasel word there: “normal”. And with sex chromosomes, perceptions of “normal” play a huge role – not only in what we think that they are and do, but in the very existence of the term “sex chromosomes”. This is the subject of Sarah Richardson’s revelatory book Sex Itself: The Search for Male and Female in the Human Genome, a history of the science of sex and the invention of the sex chromosome concept – one that Richardson argues we should reject entirely as a mistake that has led to bad science, societal prejudice and widespread misunderstanding of what sex really is.

This is the point in talking about this issue where, so to speak, things can fall apart. Just as mammals not only don’t lay eggs, but shouldn’t, it can come across as a bizarre postmodern self-indulgence to say that humanity isn’t split neatly in two on the basis of whether they’re chromosomally male (XY) or female (XX). This is a framework that makes intuitive sense to almost everyone because it correlates exactly with sexual dimorphism – there are those with penises, and those with vaginas, and with a bit of luck combining the two means we end up with even more humans that each have their own penises or vaginas. But like the platypus, it’s crucial not to think the taxonomy more important than the reality it’s meant to describe.

As Claire Ainsworth writes for Nature, the science of sex has, for some years now, recognised that sexual characteristics exist on a spectrum – not as a binary:

Sex can be much more complicated than it at first seems. According to the simple scenario, the presence or absence of a Y chromosome is what counts: with it, you are male, and without it, you are female. But doctors have long known that some people straddle the boundary – their sex chromosomes say one thing, but their gonads (ovaries or testes) or sexual anatomy say another. Parents of children with these kinds of conditions – known as intersex conditions, or differences or disorders of sex development (DSDs) – often face difficult decisions about whether to bring up their child as a boy or a girl. Some researchers now say that as many as 1 person in 100 has some form of DSD.

...

Since the 1990s, researchers have identified more than 25 genes involved in DSDs, and next-generation DNA sequencing in the past few years has uncovered a wide range of variations in these genes that have mild effects on individuals, rather than causing DSDs.

Ainsworth’s article is an excellent overview of the current state of the science of sex; Richardson, as a historian and philosopher of science, excels at telling of the people whose work (and whose mistaken assumptions) has misled popular thinking on sex over the years. She describes how existing sex and gender stereotypes were projected onto chromosomes by early researchers, in turn creating and reinforcing the misunderstanding among the wider public that the strict XX/XY binary is a true synecdoche for sexual dimorphism. In reality, there are extremely few sexual characteristics solely controlled by the presence or absence of a Y chromosome – and just as there are plenty of characteristics controlled by genes found on other chromosomes, the “sex” chromosomes also carry genes that determine traits that have nothing to do with sex.

Y is not the essence of masculinity, nor is X that of femininity. As Richardson writes:

Gender has helped to shape the questions that are asked, the theories and models proposed, the research practices employed, and the descriptive language used in the field of sex chromosome research... Today, scientific and popular literature on the sex chromosomes is rich with examples of the gendering of the X and Y. Humorous maps of the X and Y chromosome – pinned up on laboratory walls and always good for a laugh in an otherwise dry scientific talk – assign stereotypical female and male traits to the X and Y, from the ‘Jane Austen appreciation locus’ to ‘channel flipping’.

The X is dubbed the ‘female chromosome’, takes the feminine pronoun ‘she’, and has been described as the ‘big sister’ to ‘her derelict brother that is the Y’ and as the ‘sexy’ chromosome. The X is frequently associated with the mysteriousness and variability of the feminine, as in a 2005 Science article headlined ‘She Moves in Mysterious Ways’ and beginning, ‘The human X chromosome is a study in contradictions’. The X is also described in traditionally gendered terms as the more ‘sociable’, ‘controlling’, ‘conservative’, ‘monotonous’, and ‘motherly’ of the two sex chromosomes. Similarly, the Y is a ‘he’ and ascribed traditional masculine qualities – ‘macho’, ‘active’, ‘clever’, ‘wily’, ‘dominant’, and also ‘degenerate’, ‘lazy’, and ‘hyperactive’.”

We treat the X and Y chromosomes in a way we’d never think of treating other physical characteristics – many people who would think it absurd or rude to tell a stranger that “really you’re male, though” because they have short hair, or a penis, or excess body hair, nevertheless think nothing of doing so when it comes to having XY chromosomes. Sex Itself is the story of how some scientists became convinced that there was something in the body, and then the cell, and then the genome, that would literally be “sex itself” – the only thing that truly mattered for sex, the thing that was its true source and the thing that finally allowed for a simple, causational definition of sex. It’s also the story of how the premise of that entire argument was wrong from the start.

Surprisingly, though, the emergence of the “sex chromosome” concept didn’t happen immediately – while the term itself was first coined by Edmund Wilson of Columbia University in 1906, and not generally accepted by the rest of the science world until the 1920s due to its incompatibility with what was already understood about inheritability.

During the 19th century, biologists were “fascinated by the diversity of forms of sexual dimorphism and intersexuality in nature”, Richardson writes. Sex was seen as something that began before conception and which could change before and after birth – experiments with castrated chickens, and male guinea pigs given ovaries through transplants, gave rise to what was known as the “metabolic model”. A combination of environmental factors – like the health of the parents, or the temperature of an egg – determined the sex development of the offspring.

By the end of the century, though, microscopes had improved enough to allow biologists to see inside the nuclei of cells, and researchers “raced” each other to try and identify the cellular evidence that would confirm the theories put forward by Darwin in On The Origin of Species in 1859. It didn’t take long for chromosomes to be found - but German cytologist Hermann Henking found a weird, unpaired chromosome in the sperm of a fire wasp in 1891. He called it the “X element”, and others speculated that it might be a “degenerate” or “accessory” chromosome that no longer serves a purpose, like the appendix in the human gut.

Between 1903 and 1906, Nettie Stevens (left) at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania investigated this “X element”, and found that it wasn’t alone – there was a tiny Y chromosome hidden right next to it. Elsewhere, Wilson (he who first used the phrase “sex chromosomes”) also found the Y, and agreed with her that its presence seemed to influence the development of male sex characteristics. (Richardson takes some time to sardonically note the extraordinary achievements Stevens, who was never offered a full faculty post, made “in the face of few opportunities for women” – when she applied for post-doctoral funding from the Carnegie Institution in 1903, she “assembled stunning letters of recommendation” from America’s most prestigious cytologists, and “none failed to note her brilliance – for a woman”.)

Stevens and Wilson both agreed that the X and the Y had something to do with sex – but they disagreed as to what. Stevens thought that sex must be one of the traits carried on the X, in the same way other chromosomes seemed to carry multiple traits; Wilson, instead, saw them as solely sex-determing. There was “a whole-chromosome effect – one X kept things titled towards maleness, while two Xs pushed the balance in favour of femaleness”.

The two worked to refute each other until Stevens died in 1912, aged 50. By 1920, Wilson’s version of the chromosomal theory of sex won out, as the term “sex chromosomes” became almost ubiquitous in the scientific literature, displacing “accessory chromosomes”, “hetero-chromosomes” and “idiochromosomes” as popular alternative labels. This came after a strong fight from those who disagreed. Richardson writes of Thomas Montgomery at the University of Philadelphia, who called the sex chromosome theory “an absurd and simplistic overextension of the chromosome theory of heredity”; and of Thomas Hunt Morgan, one of the leading figures in the young field of embryology, who blasted it for inventing “a special element that has the power of turning maleness into femaleness”.

Calling them “sex chromosomes” ran against the accepted convention of naming other chromosomes after their size and structure within a cell, not their function. And there were still unanswered questions: what the hell was going on with species that reproduce with more than two X accessory chromosomes at a time? What about odd numbers of sex chromosomes? A significant number of species didn’t reproduce in line with the neat sex chromosome theory. Wilson was one of those who tried to integrate the sex chromosomes into the metabolic theory – with sex chromosomes, hormones and environmental pressures each influencing how offspring move through different parts of the sex development spectrum – but the damage, Richardson argues, was done.

One of the main reasons the name had such appeal, she argues, is that the 1920s and 30s was when oestrogen and testosterone were first isolated, and the idea of binary “sex hormones” captured the popular imagination:

By the mid-1920s, hormones had become, like genes today, the most prominent object of biomedical, pharmaceutical, and popular interest to emerge from modern biology. Sex hormones seized the public imagination and became a node through which ideas were exchanged between scientific theory and cultural norms, ideologies, and expectations. Scientists promoted the view that the sex glands were the ‘master glands’ of the endocrine system... Pharmaceutical hormone therapies promised new fertility aids and offered the prospect of a simple, highly effective means of birth control. Many also believed hormones would permit the correction of modernity’s gender deviants – feminist spinsters, homosexuals, impotent males, and frigid wives. The endocrinology pioneer Eugen Steinach promoted testicular transplantation as a medical cure for homosexuality and a 'rejuvenation' therapy for low virility and listlessness in elderly men.”

(It was around this time, by the way, that Frank Buckley, the then-manager of Wolverhampton Wanderers, started a rumour that he was injecting his players with a serum taken from monkey glands to improve their performance. The sex hormone fad was weird.)

In this context, sex chromosomes made perfect sense – a matching pair to go with the hormones that determine maleness and femaleness. By the end of the 1930s, the metabolic theory had been discarded in favour of this new model, where the genetic sex (XX/XY) causes the developments of either testes or ovaries, which in turn create the sex hormones that take care of the rest. This two-stage process was “a powerful mutually self-reinforcing framework for the biology of sex”, and the foundation upon which later work – like the idea that sex is biological and fixed, and gender social and malleable - was built.

This can been seen in how the sex chromosomes began to influence debates on gender and sexuality. There was speculation that the Y chromosome “represses” the feminine X, or that femaleness is the “absence” of maleness; or, that the “greater intellectual variability among males” (ie, why male researchers thought men were smarter than women) was down to the lottery of having a single X chromosome. With two Xs, unusual recessive traits would be more commonly repressed, but with one, rare genes presumed responsible for genius must be allowed through. And, similarly, early women's rights activists and feminists, as well as male writers like the anthropologist Ashley Montagu, seized on the idea of having twice as much X as men as the scientific justification for what was really women's “biological superiority” over the male. The idea of the X and Y carrying “sex itself” was entrenched, helped by the fashionable eugenics of the time that saw biology as the justification for a range of racist, sexist and classist prejudices.

This only became worse after the Second World War, with the discoveries of DNA and the first specific chromosomal causes for certain illnesses (like Down’s Syndrome, caused by an extra chromosome 21). The fashion was to think of genetics as the reductive answer to everything – it felt like every physical characteristic, from eye colour to height to intelligence to sex, was caused by the presence or absence of a single gene or set of genes. The sex chromosomes of the 1930s hormonal model – “the genetic homunculi underlying sexual dimorphism”, as Richardson calls them – fit perfectly into this new paradigm.

Karyotypes (pictures of chromosomes against a stark white background) became widely known, giving people perhaps the first real iconic image of the human genome. The sex chromosomes were shoved to the margin or to the end of the last row, accentuating their perceived difference – the format still used today:

A human male karyotype. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Sex Itself has plenty of stories about the general public not understanding that X and Y are not all there is to sex, but it has even more when it comes to scientists leaning on theoretical models built on sand not realising until too late. (Though that isn't to say this was true of everyone – Richardson finds plenty of evidence of geneticists struggling to figure out how much influence they should really ascribe to the X and the Y.)

One particularly damning example is that of the so-called “super male” – the discovery by a researcher that an unusually high number of men incarcerated in an Edinburgh prison had an extra Y chromosome (making them “XYY males”), leading to speculation that “it predisposes its carriers to unusually aggressive behaviour”. The amount of time spent investigating this hypothesis, and its influence on pop culture, is astounding:

The so-called XYY syndrome was a mainstream target of investigation in the most prestigious journals of biology, genetics, and cytogenetics... by 1970, nearly two hundred papers on the link between XYY and aggression had appeared in the scientific literature. Between 1960 and 1970, XYY research comprised 82 per cent of all published scientific studies on the human Y chromosome. It accounts for 28 per cent of the entire body of Y chromosome research generated in the quarter-century between 1960 and 1985.

...

As Jeremy Green records, ‘by the early 1970s, there had been at least two thriller films in which the main character is a violent criminal driven by a chromosome abnormality, a series of crime novels with an XYY hero (who constantly wrestles with his inner compulsion to commit crimes), and as a spin-off from the novels, a TV series called The XYY Man’. The Oxford English Dictionary cites Peter Cave’s 1974 Dirtiest Picture Postcard as the earliest English-language usage of the Y chromosome in a nonscientific text: ‘You’ve buttonholed me to give me long and boring lectures upon Germaine Greer, the faulty Y chromosome and the drudgeries of housework and child-bearing’.

But of course there was no link between having an extra Y chromosome and extra “maleness”, because maleness is not defined by the Y chromosome. Stereotypically male traits (like aggression, even though not every XYY male in a prison was there because of violent crime) are a result of a complex interplay of nature and nurture, and the projection of the western concept of maleness onto the Y chromosome led to untold hours of research into a dead-end.

And this type of thinking was common with the X chromosome as well - Richardson describes how Klinefelter (XXY) males were seen as more “mother-dependent”, and tested to see if they were more like men or women in their verbal and social skills. XXY males look like men, and most men with the extra chromosome never realise they have it – yet researchers often interpreted their deviations from normal maleness (like larger breasts or smaller testes) not on objective terms, but as “feminised” male traits, in turn creating a stigma.

The last gasp of the sex chromosome theory came in the 1990s, with the discovery of the SRY gene on the Y chromosome – without it, the development of male gonads is impossible. It’s the only genetic tag found only in those who present as male, and is the best candidate to underpin the classic sex chromosome theory. But, as Richardson writes: “Today the SRY gene is understood as one among the many essential mammalian sex-determining factors that are involved in the genetic pathways of both testicular and ovarian determination. Mammals require cascades of gene product in proper dosages and at precise times to produce functioning male and female gonads, and researchers recognize a variety of healthy sexual phenotypes and sex determination pathways in humans.”

Ascribing biological sex based on the presence or absence of the SRY gene makes no sense when it’s only part of a massively complex network of other biological and environmental factors, especially when it’s not even necessary in every species of mammal. (And perhaps we owe our Victorian ancestors some belated recognition here for their more nuanced appreciation of sex development.) Many scientists strenuously argue that research into the genetics of race shouldn’t begin by cataloguing genomes by what we perceive to be different racial groups, to avoid projecting racial bias onto results – shouldn’t we do the same for sex?

Richardson points to several different groups as responsible for digging genetics out of its chromosome-determining rut: criminal psychologists, clinical physicians and, above all, feminists, whose interrogations of gender and sexuality (often from outside the scientific academy) created an important body of empirical evidence. Anne Fausto-Sterling and Jennifer Graves, in particular, as well as feminist science pressure groups like the Society for Women’s Health Research, are cited as important critics of the binary representation of biological or genetic sex - and critical to the post-2000 “conceptual shift” towards the complex model we know today, where the interplay of different genetic and environmental factors gives rise both to physical sex characteristics and aspects of the psychological feeling of gender identity.

Sex Itself is a comprehensive demolition of the very term “sex chromosomes” – a taxonomy from nearly a century ago, stumbling along half-alive in the public’s imagination but long overdue a visit to the glue factory:

Gender ideology is dynamic, persistent, and ever-present in genetic and genomic research on sex and gender; it cannot be surgically or permanently excised from the science. Rather than seeking to somehow eliminate gender in science, we are better advised to focus on modeling the many roles of gender assumptions in particular areas of the sciences to develop gender-critical methods for and approaches to science.

The question is not ‘how can we get all of this gender politics out of genetics?’ but rather ‘how can we enlarge and critically hone our ideas about gender, which are central to our scientific theories of sex?’

In the time between the discovery of Pluto in 1930 and its reclassification as a dwarf planet in 2006, it had only completed a third of a full orbit around the Sun; about the same amount of time sex chromosomes had to enjoy being mystical arbiters of all things sex. Worrying about the hurt feelings of a downgraded planet is as sensible as worrying about those for some clumps of genetic material in a cell – what matters is how we make sure that we interpret our world, and build our taxonomies, in such a way that improves our understanding of the world, not limit it.

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

CLIVE BARDA
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The lost magic of England

The great conservative journalist Peregrine Worsthorne reflects on a long life at the heart of the establishment.

In a recent editorial meeting, our subscriptions manager happened to mention that Peregrine Worsthorne was still a New Statesman subscriber. A former editor of the Sunday Telegraph and, during a long Fleet Street career, a self-styled “romantic reactionary” scourge of liberals and liberalism, Worsthorne used to be something of a pantomime villain for the left, a role he delighted in. He had close friends among the “Peterhouse right”, the group of High Tory intellectuals who gathered around Maurice Cowling at the small, conspiratorial Cambridge college. He was a frequent contributor to Encounter (which turned out to be funded by the CIA) and an ardent cold warrior. His social conservatism and lofty affectations offended lefty Islingtonian sensibilities. On several occasions he was the Guardian’s reviewer of choice for its annual collection of journalism, The Bedside Guardian, and he invariably delivered the required scornful appraisal while praising its witty television critic, Nancy Banks-Smith. There is no suggestion, he wrote in 1981, that the “Guardian ever sees itself as part of the problem; itself as having some responsibility for the evils its writers described so well”.

His prose style was Oxbridge high table, more Walter Pater than George Orwell. It was essential not to take Worsthorne too seriously, because he delighted in mischief-making and wilful provocation – one of his targets for remorseless ridicule was Andrew Neil, when Neil edited the abrasively Thatcherite Sunday Times. He ended up suing Worsthorne, who was famous for his silk shirts and Garrick Club lunches, for libel; he was awarded damages of £1, the then cover price of the Sunday Times.

“I wrote that in the old days editors of distinguished Sunday papers could be found dining at All Souls, and something must have changed when they’re caught with their trousers down in a nightclub,” Worsthorne told me when we met recently. “I had no idea he was going to sue. I was teasing. I occasionally run into him and we smile at each other, so it’s all forgotten and forgiven.”

After his retirement in 1989, Worsthorne, although he remained a resolute defender of aristocracy, seemed to mellow, and even mischievously suggested that the Guardian had replaced the Times as the newspaper of record. In the 1990s he began writing occasionally for the New Statesman – the then literary editor, Peter Wilby, commissioned book reviews from him, as I did after I succeeded Wilby. Like most journalists of his generation, Worsthorne was a joy to work with; he wrote to length, delivered his copy on time and was never precious about being edited. (Bill Deedes and Tony Howard were the same.) He might have had the mannerisms of an old-style toff but he was also a tradesman, who understood that journalism was a craft.

Shortly before Christmas, I rang Wors­thorne at the home in Buckinghamshire he shares with his second wife, Lucinda Lambton, the charming architectural writer. I asked how he was. “I’m like a squeezed lemon: all used up,” he said. Lucy described him as being “frail but not ill”. I told him that I would visit, so one recent morning I did. Home is a Grade II-listed old rectory in the village of Hedgerley. It is grand but dishevelled and eccentrically furnished. A sign on the main gates warns you to “Beware of the Dog”. But the dog turns out to be blind and moves around the house uneasily, poignantly bumping into objects and walls. At lunch, a small replica mosque in the dining room issues repeated mechanised calls to prayer. “Why does it keep doing that?” Perry asks. “Isn’t it fun,” Lucy says. She then turns to me: “Have some more duck pâté.”

As a student, I used to read Worsthorne’s columns and essays with pleasure. I did not share his positions and prejudices but I admired the style in which he articulated them. “The job of journalism is not to be scholarly,” he wrote in 1989. “The most that can be achieved by an individual newspaper or journalist is the articulation of an intelligent, well-thought-out, coherent set of prejudices – ie, a moral position.”

His Sunday Telegraph, which he edited from 1986 to 1989, was like no other newspaper. The recondite and reactionary comment pages (the focus of his energies) were unapologetically High Tory, contrary to the prevailing Thatcherite orthodoxies of the time, but were mostly well written and historically literate. Bruce Anderson was one of the columnists. “You never knew what you were going to get when you opened the paper,” he told me. “Perry was a dandy, a popinjay, and of course he didn’t lack self-esteem. He had a nostalgia for Young England. In all the time I wrote for him, however, I never took his approval for granted. I always felt a tightening of the stomach muscles when I showed him something.”

***

Worsthorne is 92 now and, though his memory is failing, he remains a lucid and engaging conversationalist. Moving slowly, in short, shuffling steps, he has a long beard and retains a certain dandyish glamour. His silver hair is swept back from a high, smooth forehead. He remains a stubborn defender of the aristocracy – “Superiority is a dread word, but we are in very short supply of superiority because no one likes the word” – but the old hauteur has gone, replaced by humility and a kind of wonder and bafflement that he has endured so long and seen so much: a journalistic Lear, but one who is not raging against the dying of the light.

On arrival, I am shown through to the drawing room, where Perry sits quietly near an open fire, a copy of that morning’s Times before him. He moves to a corner armchair and passes me a copy of his book Democracy Needs Aristocracy (2005). “It’s all in there,” he says. “I’ve always thought the English aristocracy so marvellous compared to other ruling classes. It seemed to me that we had got a ruling class of such extraordinary historical excellence, which is rooted in England
almost since the Norman Conquest.

“Just read the 18th-century speeches – the great period – they’re all Whig or Tory, but all come from that [the aristocracy]. If they didn’t come directly from the aristocracy, they turned themselves very quickly into people who talk in its language. Poetic. If you read Burke, who’s the best in my view, it’s difficult not to be tempted to think what he says has a lot of truth in it . . .”

His voice fades. He has lost his way and asks what we were talking about. “Oh, yes,” he says. “It survived when others – the French and Russians and so on – were having revolutions. It was absolutely crazy to set about destroying that. There was something magical . . . the parliamentary speeches made by Burke and so on – this is a miracle! No other country has it apart from America in the early days. And I thought to get rid of it, to undermine it, was a mistake.”

I ask how exactly the aristocracy was undermined. Even today, because of the concentration of the ownership of so much land among so few and because of the enduring influence of the old families, the great schools and Oxbridge, Britain remains a peculiar hybrid: part populist hyper-democracy and part quasi-feudal state. The Tory benches are no longer filled by aristocrats but the old class structures remain.

“Equality was the order of the day after the war,” Worsthorne replies. “And in a way it did a lot of good, equalising people’s chances in the world. But it didn’t really get anywhere; the ruling class went happily on. But slowly, and I think unnecessarily dangerously, it was destroyed – and now there are no superior people around [in politics]. The Cecil family – Lord Salisbury, he was chucked out of politics. The Cecil family is being told they are not wanted. The institutions are falling apart . . .

“But there were people who had natural authority, like Denis Healey. I’m not saying it’s only aristocrats – a lot of Labour people had it. But now we haven’t got any Denis Healeys.”

Born in 1923, the younger son of Alexander Koch de Gooreynd, a Belgian banker, Worsthorne (the family anglicised its name) was educated at Stowe and was an undergraduate at both Cambridge (Peterhouse, where he studied under the historian Herbert Butterfield, the author of The Whig Interpretation of History) and Oxford (Magdalen College). “I have always felt slightly underprivileged and de-classed by having gone to Stowe, unlike my father who went to Eton,” Worsthorne wrote in 1985.

Yet his memories of Stowe remain pellucid. There he fell under the influence of the belle-lettrist John Davenport, who later became a close friend of Dylan Thomas. “He was a marvellous man, a famous intellectual of the 1930s, an ex-boxer, too. But in the war he came to Stowe and he was preparing me for a scholarship to Cambridge. He told me to read three books, and find something to alleviate the boredom of an examiner, some little thing you’ll pick up. And I duly did and got the scholarship.”

Can you remember which three books he recommended?

“Tawney. Something by Connolly, um . . . that’s the terrible thing about getting old, extremely old – you forget. And by the time you die you can’t remember your brother’s name. It’s a terrible shock. I used to think old age could be a joy because you’d have more time to read. But if you push your luck and get too far, and last too long, you start finding reading really quite difficult. The connections go, I suppose.”

Was the Connolly book Enemies of Promise (1938)?

“Yes, that’s right. It was. And the other one was . . . Hang on, the writer of the book . . . What’s the country invaded by Russia, next to Russia?

Finland, I say. Edmund Wilson’s To the Finland Station (1940)?

“Yes. Wilson. How did you get that?”

We both laugh.

***

Worsthorne is saddened but not surprised that so many Scots voted for independence and his preference is for Britain to remain a member of the European Union. “What’s happening is part of the hopelessness of English politics. It’s horrible. I can’t think why the Scots would want to be on their own but it might happen. The youth will vote [for independence]. This is part of my central theme: the Scots no longer think it’s worthwhile belonging to England. The magic of England has gone – and it’s the perversity of the Tory party to want to get us out of the European Union when of course we’re much more than ever unlikely to be able to look after ourselves as an independent state because of the quality of our political system.

“The people who want to get us out are obviously of an undesirable kind. That the future should depend on [Nigel] Farage is part of the sickness. I mean the real horror is for him to have any influence at all. And when you think of the great days of the Labour Party, the giants who strode the stage – famous, lasting historical figures, some of them: Healey, Attlee, who was probably the greatest, [Ernest] Bevin. I’m well aware that Labour in the good days produced people who were superior.”

He digresses to reflect on his wartime experience as a soldier – he served in Phantom, the special reconnaissance unit, alongside Michael Oakeshott, the philosopher of English conservatism who became a close friend, and the actor David Niven, our “prize colleague”.

“I remember Harold Macmillan saying to me, after the Second World War, the British people needed their belt enlarged; they’d done their job and they deserved a reward. And that’s what he set about doing. And he wasn’t a right-wing, unsympathetic man at all. But he didn’t – and this is what is good about conservatism – he didn’t turn it into an ‘ism’. It was a sympathetic feel, an instinctive feel, and of course people in the trenches felt it, too: solidarity with the rest of England and not just their own brotherhood. Of course he didn’t get on with Margaret Thatcher at all.”

Worsthorne admired Thatcher and believed that the “Conservatives required a dictator woman” to shake things up, though he was not a Thatcherite and denounced what he called her “bourgeois triumphalism”. He expresses regret at how the miners were treated during the bitter strike of 1984-85. “I quarrelled with her about the miners’ strike, and the people she got around her to conduct it were a pretty ropey lot.

“I liked her as a person. I was with her that last night when she wasn’t prime minister any more, but she was still in Downing Street and had everything cut off. The pressman [Bernard Ingham] got several of us to try to take her mind off her miseries that night. There’s a photograph of me standing at the top of the stairs.”

In the summer of 1989, Peregrine Wors­thorne was sacked as the editor of the Sunday Telegraph by Andrew Knight, a former journalist-turned-management enforcer, over breakfast at Claridge’s. He wrote about the experience in an elegant diary for the Spectator: “I remember well the exact moment when this thunderbolt, coming out of a blue sky, hit me. It was when the waiter had just served two perfectly poached eggs on buttered toast . . . In my mind I knew that the information just imparted was a paralysingly painful blow: pretty well a professional death sentence.”

He no longer reads the Telegraph.

“Politically they don’t have much to say of interest. But I can’t put the finger on exactly what it is I don’t like about it. Boredom, I think!”

You must read Charles Moore?

“He is my favourite. Interesting fellow. He converted to Catholicism and started riding to hounds in the same week.”

He has no regrets about pursuing a long career in journalism rather than, say, as a full-time writer or academic, like his friends Cowling and Oakeshott. “I was incredibly lucky to do journalism. What people don’t realise – and perhaps you don’t agree – but it’s really a very easy life, compared to many others. And you have good company in other journalists and so on. I was an apprentice on the Times, after working [as a sub-editor] on the Glasgow Herald.”

How does he spend the days?

“Living, I suppose. It takes an hour to get dressed because all the muscles go. Then I read the Times and get bored with it halfway through. Then there’s a meal to eat. The ­answer is, the days go. I used to go for walks but I can’t do that now. But Lucy’s getting me all kinds of instruments to facilitate people with no muscles, to help you walk. I’m very sceptical about it working, but then again, better than the alternative.”

He does not read as much as he would wish. He takes the Statesman, the Spectator and the Times but no longer the Guardian. He is reading Niall Ferguson’s biography of Kissinger, The Maisky Diaries by Ivan Maisky, Stalin’s ambassador to London from 1932 to 1943, and Living on Paper, a selection of letters by Iris Murdoch, whom he knew. “I get these massive books, thinking of a rainy day, but once I pick them up they are too heavy, physically, so they’re stacked up, begging to be read.”

He watches television – the news (we speak about Isis and the Syrian tragedy), the Marr show on Sunday mornings, and he has been enjoying War and Peace on BBC1. “Andrew Marr gave my book a very good review. He’s come back. He’s survived [a stroke] through a degree of hard willpower to get back to that job, almost as soon as he came out of surgery. But I don’t know him; he was a Guardian man.” (In fact, Marr is more closely associated with the Independent.)

Of the celebrated Peterhouse historians, both Herbert Butterfield (who was a Methodist) and Maurice Cowling were devout Christians. For High Tories, who believe in and accept natural inequalities and the organic theory of society, Christianity was a binding force that held together all social classes, as some believe was the order in late-Victorian England.

“I was a very hardened Catholic,” Worsthorne says, when I mention Cowling’s book Religion and Public Doctrine in Modern England. “My mother was divorced [her second marriage was to Montagu Norman, then the governor of the Bank of England] and she didn’t want my brother and me to be Catholic, so she sent us to Stowe. And I used to annoy her because I read [Hilaire] Belloc. I tried to annoy the history master teaching us Queen Elizabeth I. I said to him: ‘Are you covering up on her behalf: don’t you know she had syphilis?’

“Once I felt very angry about not being made Catholic. But then I went to Cambridge and there was a very Catholic chaplain and he was very snobbish. And in confession I had to tell him I masturbated twice that morning or something, and so it embarrassed me when half an hour later I had to sit next to him at breakfast. I literally gave up going to Mass to get out of this embarrassing situation. But recently I’ve started again. I haven’t actually gone to church but I’ve made my confessions, to a friendly bishop who came to the house.”

So you are a believer?

“Yes. I don’t know which bit I believe. But as Voltaire said: ‘Don’t take a risk.’”

He smiles and lowers his head. We are ready for lunch. 

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 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle