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The NS Interview: Robert Winston, doctor and Labour peer

“It’s difficult to be a doctor and a genuine right-winger”

Why did you become a doctor?
There were never any doctors in my family. But my grandparents and my mother had a strong social conscience that was formative.

Does politics influence your medical work?
Most of the people you care for are not going to be rich, unless you're in private practice. It's hard to be a good doctor if you don't think about the social circumstances of who you're treating. There are many Tory doctors, but I think it's difficult to be a doctor and a genuine right-winger.

What do you think of the government's change of tack on the NHS?
If it's not a U-turn, it's a huge change of emphasis. There's a massive deficit in the NHS that the government is not handling. The idea that this is due to mismanagement is nonsense, and GP-led commissioning is not going to make it better, it's going to make it worse.

What about their "listening exercise"?
It's not a listening exercise - it's a communication without dialogue.

Are you worried about further privatisation?
The fragmentation that already started with the internal market is going to be made much worse. People are talking about the postcode lottery with IVF - it's a model for what's going to happen to other services, including cancer. Cameron saying "We're going to treat cancer patients differently" is a nonsense. There are all sorts of fatal diseases. Will they not be treated in the same way? There's a lack of coherence.

Do you think David Cameron and Andrew Lansley understand the NHS?
No, of course they don't. They don't understand how people work in the health service. If they did, the first thing they would do is increase morale by having people working in teams. You're fighting a battle and dependence on your comrades is key. That's how young doctors feel - that's how I felt.

How should the NHS be funded?
Perhaps we should be getting some people to pay for parts of it. When I ran an NHS clinic, I would have at least 20 per cent no-shows. Each of those cost the NHS £200.

How is Labour doing in opposition?
Badly. The government is vulnerable and it should be ripped to shreds, but in both houses we're not doing well. I don't know if it's the leadership. I like Ed Miliband - he's a nice man - but it's not an easy job. Would Ed Balls do it better? Probably not.

Did you support David's bid for leadership?
Yes. I know David well, and I've always been impressed by him - but it's difficult to know whether he would have done better.

Do you regret your anti-AV stance?
One of the reasons for being against AV is that it makes hung parliaments more likely. We're facing a coalition that doesn't have a mandate for so much of what it is doing.

How do you see the state of higher education?
In a way, it's a tragedy that the sciences have been so successful. Scientists have managed to claim that the economy will be driven by science, so the arts and humanities have starved.

What's your view of A C Grayling's university?
It's not much of a university if you don't have a universal education. It seems to be focused on a few humanities subjects. Some of the names involved might look great on paper, but that doesn't mean they can teach.

It reminds me of Jamie's Dream School, in which you were involved.
I agree. They were hopeless teachers, with the exception of Rolf Harris. You don't need a stellar teacher, what you need is a teacher.

As a religious Jew, are you tired of debating militant atheists?
My objective is to show that there isn't such a thing as the truth. I'm not arguing that evolution's not true, but it is foolish to say to the public that you're deluded because you don't believe what I believe. And for a scientist to say that is very damaging to science. I'm afraid that's what Richard Dawkins has done.

Do you vote?
My first vote was for a communist in east London when I was a medical student. But I've voted Tory, Labour and Lib Dem in my time.

Is there anything you regret?
I don't believe in regretting - one should try to move on. My mum was good at that. She was deeply in love with my father, and he died when I was nine. She remarried and her second husband died, too. I saw the grieving process she went through. My mother had this way of moving on. It was a fine trait.

Was there a plan?
Never. My career has been completely chaotic.

Are we all doomed?
No, provided we take ownership of the science. Science is often misused by even the most democratic governments.

Robert Winston is a judge for The Academy Excellence Awards

Defining moments

1940 Born in London
1964 Graduates from the London Hospital Medical College, University of London
1984 Made chair, British Fertility Society
1987 Professor, Institute of Obstetrics and Gynaecology; becomes dean in 1989
1995 Made a Labour peer
1998 His BBC TV series The Human Body wins three Baftas and a Peabody award
2008 Voted Peer of the Year for his work on Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 04 July 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Afghanistan

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

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

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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