20 new ideas in science

Today’s most cutting-edge scientific thinking: from switching off ageing to “enhancing” our babies;

Humans are still evolving

The modern world hasn't stayed evolution's hand. Comparisons of different genomes show that natural pressures are still doing their thing. The gene for digesting lactose, for example, is slowly spreading from European populations to the rest of humanity. A gene that appears to enhance fertility is also becoming more common across Europe. Disease is still a big driver of human evolution: people with particular genetic arrangements are more likely to survive malaria and HIV, for example. And almost all humans have lost the caspase 12 gene from their genomes, probably because those who have it are more susceptible to bacterial infections. It happens slowly, but we're still changing.

There's no such thing as time

Physicists searching for the ultimate "theory of everything" have a big problem with time. They have to stitch quantum theory - our description of how very small things behave - together with relativity - the theory behind the way space, time and matter interact. The biggest stumbling block to this is that time works in different ways in these theories.

In relativity, the passage of time is different for people moving relative to one another, so there is no absolute measure of time. In quantum theory, it's even less well defined: time doesn't even figure as something that gets measured. Quantum theory might be able to tell you where an electron is, but it can't tell you how long it's been there. One radical solution to the problem is to view time as a concept that humans have made up. If it doesn't play a fundamental, well-defined role in the processes of the universe, maybe our theories can do without it altogether.

This is one of many universes

Physicists like to know why things are as they are. Which makes it frustrating that some facts about the universe appear inexplicable. There are certain constants of nature - the numbers that determine how strong forces such as gravity are - that seem to be "just so" for no good reason. That wouldn't be so bad if they weren't so exquisitely perfect for allowing life to develop in our universe. Naively speaking, it looks as if someone designed the universe. That doesn't seem like a satisfying explanation to most physicists, so they have come up with a better one: that there are many universes, all with different properties. It is impossible to move from one to another, so we can't test this idea, but it does take away the "specialness" of the conditions we find ourselves in. Of course the universe is perfect for us: if it were any different we wouldn't be here to observe it.

We might be able to turn off ageing

Can we flick a switch in our genome that will greatly extend our lifespan? Experiments on worms, mice and fruit flies indicate that stopping certain genes from functioning, or altering others so that they flood the body with particular combinations of chemicals, can dramatically slow the rate at which an organism ages. It can even be done by more low-tech means: changing the chemical environment of the body by altering the diet or by injecting certain hormones can slow ageing, too. It's an alluring avenue of research, but it is also controversial.

Plenty of biologists still say it's a mirage because we will never overcome the biological programme whereby cells die after a certain time, or indeed the rigours of wear and tear on the genome. Add that to the dangerous genetic copying errors that occur as cells divide and, for these naysayers, growing old remains an unavoidable future for humanity. Nevertheless, the consensus is that the fight against biological ageing has moved from impossible to enormously difficult, and that is exciting progress.

Enhanced humans are coming

The next generation of humans -- or perhaps the one after that -- will face a difficult choice: do they equip their children with "enhancements"? A group of researchers, led by Ray Kurzweil, is suggesting that we are approaching "the Singularity", where technologies will enhance our mental and physical capabilities to produce a giant leap in what human beings can do. Most of these technologies were initially developed to help those with health problems, but they are now being co-opted for those looking to get past their normal limitations. Drugs developed to help children with ADHD are already in common use in academia as concentration improvers. Retinal implants that help the partially sighted are being developed as bionic eyes. Brain implants, such as those developed to fight neurological problems such as Parkinson's disease, are paving the way for neural enhancement and plug-in memory upgrades. Genetic diagnosis of IVF embryos has enabled the selection of babies that are equipped to donate to an ill sibling; selecting for other kinds of advantage is not far behind. The big worry is it may leave us with a new enhancement-free underclass. Discuss.

Everything is information

If you had a magic microscope that could see how things work on the tiniest scale in nature, you might get a bit of a surprise. Right at the bottom, holding everything together, is something we think of as abstract: information. The idea that has big thinkers all worked up is that everything in physics is made up of atoms of information. Any experiment or observation can be boiled down to asking a yes/no question, and the answer is a piece of information analogous to the 0 and 1 binary digits (bits) that computers process.

Ultimately, the universe works as a giant computer, with answers to questions such as "Did the photon pass through this point?" providing the digital information to be processed. Constructing the full range of binary answers to questions the universe might pose will take a while, but it might provide an entirely new way to simplify - and thus understand - the fundamentals of how everything works.

Understanding consciousness is no longer an impossible dream

How do the few kilos of spongy stuff in our skulls create the experience of being human? A combination of imaging techniques, computer models and an ever-increasing understanding of the biology of the brain means that we are in a good position to get an answer. Even if a good understanding of consciousness is another century away, there will be spin-offs that make the journey worthwhile. The quickest route to understanding the brain is to watch what happens when small bits of it go wrong. Many illnesses, such as depression, schizophrenia, autism and dementia, result from breakdowns in small component parts; researchers looking for clues to the root of consciousness are studying these malfunctions - and hope to learn as much about curing them as they do about consciousness.

Most of the universe is missing

Ninety-six per cent of the universe is in a form we can't fathom. Observations of galaxies show they are rotating too fast to hold all their stellar material in place: the outer stars should be flung out. The only explanation is that there is an extra gravitational pull from something unseen, holding them in place. The unseen stuff is known as dark matter, and accounts for just under a quarter of the mass in the universe. Around three-quarters is "dark energy", which creates a force that is speeding up the expansion of the universe. Physicists have yet to come up with a plausible explanation for the source of either of these dark entities. Dark matter requires the existence of particles with properties unlike anything else we have discovered. We are looking for what they might be, and the Large Hadron Collider might even create some. Dark energy is even more of a challenge: it comes neither from known particles nor from the empty space between them. Researchers are literally clueless about its source.

We may be close to understanding mass

Physics is becoming ever more exciting as Cern's Large Hadron Collider ramps up the energy of its colliding particles. That's because the collisions might give us a fleeting glimpse of the Higgs boson. This is the final piece of the puzzle in our best theories of particle physics. The Higgs boson creates a field that exerts a drag on certain types of particles. The result of this is that the particles feel mass, the property of matter that responds to gravity. If the Higgs boson does show up, physicists will breathe a sigh of relief, because it is a central pillar of particle physics. If it doesn't, physicists will have a lot of explaining to do. And not just about the source of mass.

Prepare for aliens

Space agencies are identifying hundreds of planets outside our solar system that could harbour life. Biochemists have a firm grasp on the conditions that make life possible, and the traces that such life would leave in their vicinity. What's more, our imaging technologies are getting better at detecting the signatures of life in the atmospheres that surround the potential homes of extraterrestrial life. It looks as if people alive today might well hear the news that we have discovered life elsewhere in the universe. It is unlikely to be intelligent life - more likely to be in the form of microbes - but it will still cause a fundamental shift in our view of life on earth. It would show that life has probably evolved more than once, and that the universe is likely to be teeming with other life forms. Scientists, ethicists and philosophers are now rushing to work out what action - if any - we should take if and when we make the discovery.

Humans are not special

So far, researchers have found only three genes unique to humans. The likelihood is that, in total, fewer than 20 of our 20,000 or so genes are not found in any other creature. Other primates have brain cells exactly like ours, and our seemingly unique mental capacities are, it turns out, more developed versions of tricks that other animals can pull off. Killer whales and dolphins show distinct cultural groups within their populations. Crows use tools and chimps display morality. Elephants show empathy, and even salamanders and spiders show a range of personalities. Though nothing in the animal kingdom is using what we think of as language, gestures used by bonobos and orang-utans come close. We are top of the class, perhaps, but not in a class of our own.

We are born believers

It takes a lot of effort to be an atheist, and not just because you now have to find new ways to fill Sunday mornings. The human brain evolved to attribute a living cause to every phenomenon - if the rustling of a bush in the forest wasn't a predator, then it was probably an evil spirit. Those who instinctively assumed something was there were the ones who survived when it actually was a predator. And those people - and they alone - are our ancestors. Neuroscience experiments show that belief in invisible entities interacting with the physical world has become the default state of the human brain.

Most of the earth is unexplored

Covering 70 per cent of the planet, with an average depth of 4km, the ocean is the largest habitat on earth, and it is largely virgin territory. Whenever researchers go into the deep, they almost always discover new species. The oceans are also throwing up new geology, and surprising us about the conditions under which life can thrive, redefining what we think of as habitable zones. As it turns out, we probably know very little about life on earth.

The tree of life is a web

Darwin's tree of life is evolving. No longer do we think one creature leads to another down an ever-branching path, while at the base of everything stands Luca, the Last Universal Common Ancestor of all living things. Genetic analysis is showing that life is much more complex than that: all kinds of hidden mechanisms have allowed speciation to occur as a wandering from branch to branch. Life is a web, not a tree, which means he future of biology is much more interesting than anyone had dared to hope. Rather than just cataloguing the differences between species and looking for ways in which natural selection has acted, we can explore the plethora of mechanisms and revel in the inventiveness of life.

There's more than one path to the final theory

The ultimate aim of physics is, as one wag put it, to be able to write all the equations of the universe on a T-shirt. This snappy, self-contained final theory will encompass all other explanations of phenomena - the forces of nature, the way particles come together to form atoms, planets and stars - and offer a single, simple explanation. For years, the only game in town was string theory, an attempt to describe the stuff of the universe as arising from the vibrations of loops of energy. Now some serious competitors have turned this into a race.

They have suitably exotic names, such as loop quantum gravity, causal dynamical triangulations and quantum graphity. More important, though, they provide the prospect of testing and elimination through experiment - the acid test of any theory. Biology doesn't have exclusive rights over
the survival of the fittest.

We can do big physics in small labs

Not all physics is sexy. There are physicists who work in dingy basements, following electron movements through slivers of metallic crystal or spending hours watching the swirling patterns in vats of liquid helium. These physicists have often looked at their colleagues working on huge, expensive particle accelerators with envy. But not for much longer, perhaps. It turns out that particles in crystals and bubbles in liquid helium follow the same laws as some of the fundamental particles of nature. That makes them excellent ways of simulating much bigger systems, and perhaps even replacing the mega-machines of physics. They can even make artificial black holes. How sexy is that?

The graphene revolution is here

A discovery made from pencil lead is promising to change the future of the electronics industry. In 2004, Andre Geim at the University of Manchester made a pencil scrawl on a sheet of paper, then used a length of Sellotape to pull off the graphite deposits. They came off as sheets of carbon atoms linked together in a hexagonal array, rather like microscopic chicken wire. Tests have shown that these "graphene" sheets have extraordinary properties. Graphene is ten times stronger than steel. Where copper wire and semiconductors lose a lot of electrical energy as heat, resulting in the average computer chip wasting 75 per cent of its power, graphene conducts electricity with little loss of energy.

Researchers have now refined the production technique and are busy turning graphene into low-power electronic components such as transistors. It gets better: graphene's optimum electronic performance comes in the high-frequency range. This has phone manufacturers, eager to squeeze ever more information through their circuits, falling over themselves to get graphene components into handsets. And, as if its future wasn't bright enough already, graphene is also transparent to visible light. That makes it the ideal material for transferring information between optical fibres and the electronic devices they link. Because of this, graphene-based telecommunications devices are already on the laboratory bench, as are graphene-based TV screens and high-efficiency solar cells. The humble pencil just made good.

Language is the key to thought

We used to think that all human languages arose from brain programming that existed, fully formed and ready for action, at birth. This idea, put forward by Noam Chomsky in the 1960s, is no longer unchallenged. Ethnographic research has thrown up so many exceptions to the "universal" rules of language that some researchers are rejecting Chomsky's dominance and suggesting that nothing is pre-programmed: instead, different cultures' ways of thinking and their languages are intertwined. It may even be that the restrictions of a primitive language are a barrier to creating complex thoughts.

DNA origami could change our inner world

First take a few hundred strands of DNA, then chemically alter them so they will bond at various points. Now put them all together and use every technique available to chemistry to get those bonds to stick to each other. If you do it right, you'll end up with all kinds of tiny shapes. The highlights so far are "toothed gears", a nanoscale tetrahedron and a lidded box that can be locked or unlocked with a key made of a short strand of DNA. It looks like chemists messing around, but could be the best way to get drug doses delivered into the heart of a cell, and build DNA-based computers and micromachines that work on the same scale as standard biological machinery.

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 16 August 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The war against science

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The age of outrage

Why are we so quick to take offence? The Private Eye editor on Orwell, Trump and the death of debate in post-truth politics.

Anyone who thinks that “post-truth politics” is anything new needs to be reminded that George Orwell was writing about this phenomenon 70 years before Donald Trump.

Audiences listening to President-Elect Trump’s extraordinary disregard for anything resembling objective truth – and his astonishing ability to proclaim the absolute opposite today of what he said yesterday – will be forcibly reminded of the slogans that George Orwell gave to his political ­dictators: Black is White, War is Peace, ­Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength (the last of which turned out to be true in the US election). But any journalist trying to work out what the speeches actually mean, amidst the mad syntax and all the repetition (“gonna happen, gonna happen”), cannot help but fall back on Orwell’s contention that “political chaos is connected with the decay of language”. And the sight of Trump praising Secretary Clinton for her years of public service in his post-election victory speech while the crowd was still chanting his campaign catchphrase of “Lock her up” was surely a perfect example of Doublethink.

No wonder Trump is an admirer of Vladimir Putin, who is an admirer of the Soviet strongmen whom Orwell satirised so well. These echoes from the past are very strong in America at present but there are plenty of them reverberating through British and European politics as well. Our Foreign Secretary managed to accuse other European leaders of a “whinge-o-rama” when they issued qualified statements of congratulation to the new president-elect, even though he himself had previously accused Trump of being “nuts”. Black is White, Remain is Leave, a Wall is a Fence, two plus two equals five: but Brexit means Brexit.

You may find this reassuring, in that we have been here before and survived – or distressing to think that we are regressing to a grimmer Orwellian age. But one of the worrying developments attached to these “post-truth” political figures is the increasing intolerance in public debate of dissent – or even disagreement – about what objective truth might be.

A great deal has been written recently about the influence of social media in helping people to become trapped in their own echo chambers, talking only to those who reinforce their views and dismissing not only other opinions, but also facts offered by those who disagree with them. When confronted by a dissenting voice, people get offended and then angry. They do not want to argue, they want the debate to be shut down. Trump supporters are furious with anyone who expresses reservations about their candidate. Pro-Brexit supporters are furious with anyone who expresses doubts about the way the process of leaving the European Union is going.

I edit the magazine Private Eye, which I sometimes think Orwell would have dismissed as “a tuppeny boys’ fortnightly”, and after the recent legal challenge to the government about Article 50 being put before parliament, we published the cover reproduced on page 25.

It was a fairly obvious joke, a variant of the “wheels coming off” gag. But it led to a large postbag of complaints, including a letter from a man who said he thought the cover was “repulsive”. He also said he wanted to come around and smash up the office and then shove our smug opinions so far up our arses that we choked our guts out.

There was one from a vicar, too, who told me that it was time to accept the victory of the majority of the people and to stop complaining. Acceptance was a virtue, he said. I wrote back and told him that this argument was a bit much, coming from a church that had begun with a minority of 12. (Or, on Good Friday, a minority of one.)

This has become a trend in those who complain: the magazine should be shouted down or, better still, closed down. In the light of this it was interesting to read again what Orwell said in his diary long before internet trolls had been invented:


We are all drowning in filth. When I talk to anyone or read the writings of anyone who has any axe to grind, I feel that intellectual honesty and balanced judgement have simply disappeared from the face of the earth. Everyone’s thought is forensic, everyone is simply putting a “case” with deliberate suppression of his opponent’s point of view, and, what is more, with complete insensitiveness to any sufferings except those of himself and his friends.


This was in 1942, when the arguments were about war and peace, life and death, and there were real fascists and Stalinists around rather than, say, people who disagree with you about the possibility of reconciling freedom of movement with access to the single European market.

Orwell also made clear, in an essay called “As I Please” in Tribune in 1944, that what we think of as the new online tendency to call everyone who disagrees with you a fascist is nothing new. He wrote then:


It will be seen that, as used, the word “Fascism” is almost entirely meaningless. In conversation, of course, it is used even more wildly than in print. I have heard it applied to farmers, shopkeepers, Social Credit, corporal punishment, fox-hunting, bull-fighting, the 1922 Committee [a Tory group], the 1941 Committee [a left-liberal group], Kipling, Gandhi, Chiang Kai-Shek, homosexuality, Priestley’s broadcasts, Youth Hostels, astrology, women, dogs and I do not know what else.


When Orwell writes like this about the level of public debate, one is unsure whether to feel relieved at the sense of déjà vu or worried about the possibility of history repeating itself, not as farce, but as tragedy again.

The mood and tone of public opinion is an important force in the way our society and our media function. Orwell wrote about this in an essay called “Freedom of the Park”, published in Tribune in December 1945. Five people had been arrested outside Hyde Park for selling pacifist and anarchist publications. Orwell was worried that, though they had been allowed to publish and sell these periodicals throughout the entire Second World War, there had been a shift in public opinion that meant that the police felt confident to arrest these people for “obstruction” and no one seemed to mind this curtailment of freedom of speech except him. He wrote:


The relative freedom which we enjoy depends on public opinion. The law is no protection. Governments make laws, but whether they are carried out, and how the police behave, depends on the general temper in the country. If large numbers of people are interested in freedom of speech, there will be freedom of speech, even if the law forbids it; if public opinion is sluggish, inconvenient minorities will be persecuted, even if laws exist to protect them.


This is certainly true for the press today, whose reputation in the past few years has swung violently between the lows of phone-hacking and the highs of exposing MPs’ expenses. In 2011 I remember at one point a football crowd shouting out the name of Ryan Giggs, who had a so-called superinjunction in place forbidding anyone to mention that he was cheating on his wife and also forbidding anyone to mention the fact that he had taken out a superinjunction. He was named on Twitter 75,000 times. It seemed clear that public opinion had decided that his private life should be made public. The freedom of the press was briefly popular. Later the same year it was revealed that the murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler’s phone had been hacked by the News of the World, along with those of a number of high-profile celebrities, and the public decided that actually journalists were all scumbags and the government should get Lord Leveson to sort them out. Those who maintained that the problem was that the existing laws (on trespass, contempt, etc) were not enforced because of an unhealthy relationship between the police, the press and the politicians were not given much credence.

In a proposed preface to his 1945 novel, Animal Farm, Orwell wrote: “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”

This is the quotation that will accompany the new statue of Orwell that has now been commissioned by the BBC and which will stand as a sort of rebuke to the corporation whenever it fails to live up to it. The BBC show on which I appear regularly, Have I Got News for You, has been described simultaneously in the online comments section as “overprivileged, right-wing Tory boys sneering at the working class ” and “lefty, metropolitan liberal elite having a Labour luvvie whinge-fest”. Disturbing numbers of complainants feel that making jokes about the new president-elect should not be allowed, since he has won the election. Humour is not meant to be political, assert the would-be censors – unless it attacks the people who lost the vote: then it is impartial and neutral. This role for comedy would have surprised Orwell, who was keen on jokes. He wrote of Charles Dickens:


A joke worth laughing at always has an idea behind it, and usually a subversive idea. Dickens is able to go on being funny because he is in revolt against authority, and authority is always there to be laughed at. There is always room for one more custard pie.


I think there is also room for a custard pie or two to be thrown against those who claim to be outsiders, against authority and “the system”, and use this as a way to take power. The American billionaire property developer who is the champion of those dispossessed by global capitalism seems a reasonable target for a joke. Just like his British friend, the ex-public-school boy City trader-turned-critic of the Home Counties elite.

The emblematic quotation on liberty is from a preface that was not published until 1972 in the Times Literary Supplement. A preface about freedom of speech that was censored? It is almost too neatly Orwellian to be true, and in fact no one seems to know exactly why it did not appear. Suffice to say that it is fascinating to read Orwell complaining that a novel which we all now assume to be a masterpiece – accurate about the nature of revolution and dictatorship and perfect for teaching to children in schools – was once considered to be unacceptably, offensively satirical.

The target of the satire was deemed to be our wartime allies the Russians. It is difficult to imagine a time, pre-Putin, pre-Cold War, when they were not seen as the enemy. But of course the Trump presidency may change all that. Oceania may not be at war with Eurasia any more. Or it may always have been at war with Eastasia. It is difficult to guess, but in those days the prevailing opinion was that it was “not done” to be rude about the Russians.

Interestingly there is now a significant faction on the British left, allied with the current leader of the Labour Party, who share this view.


The right to tell people what they do not want to hear is still the basis of freedom of expression. If that sounds like I am stating the obvious – I am. But, in my defence, Orwell once wrote in a review of a book by Bertrand Russell published in the Adelphi magazine in January 1939:


. . . we have now sunk to a depth at which the restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men.


Orwell himself managed to come round to a position of accepting that an author could write well and truthfully about a subject even if one disapproved of the author’s politics: both Kipling and Swift were allowed to be right even though they were not left enough. So I am hoping that we can allow Orwell to be right about the principles of freedom of expression.

In the unpublished preface to Animal Farm he writes:


The issue involved here is quite a simple one: Is every opinion, however unpopular – however foolish, even – entitled to a hearing? Put it in that form and nearly any English intellectual will feel that he ought to say “Yes”. But give it a concrete shape, and ask, “How about an attack on Stalin? Is that entitled to a hearing?”, and the answer more often than not will be “No”. In that case the current orthodoxy happens to be challenged, and so the principle of free speech lapses.


One can test oneself by substituting contemporary names for Stalin and seeing how you feel. Putin? Assange? Mandela? Obama? Snowden? Hillary Clinton? Angela Merkel? Prince Harry? Mother Teresa? Camila Batmanghelidjh? The Pope? David Bowie? Martin Luther King? The Queen?

Orwell was always confident that the populist response would be in favour of everyone being allowed their own views. That might be different now. If you were to substitute the name “Trump” or “Farage” and ask the question, you might not get such a liberal response. You might get a version of: “Get over it! Suck it up! You lost the vote! What bit of ‘democracy’ do you not understand?”

Orwell quotes from Voltaire (the attribution is now contested): “I detest what you say; I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Most of us would agree with the sentiment, but there is a worrying trend in universities that is filtering through into the media and the rest of society. Wanting a “safe space” in which you do not have to hear views that might upset you and demanding trigger warnings about works of art that might display attitudes which you find offensive are both part of an attempt to redefine as complex and negotiable what Orwell thought was simple and non-negotiable. And this creates problems.

Cartoon: "Voltaire goes to uni", by Russell and originally published in Private Eye.

We ran a guide in Private Eye as to what a formal debate in future universities might look like.


The proposer puts forward a motion to the House.

The opposer agrees with the proposer’s motion.

The proposer wholeheartedly agrees that the opposer was right to support the motion.

The opposer agrees that the proposer couldn’t be more right about agreeing that they were both right to support the motion.

When the debate is opened up to the floor, the audience puts it to the proposer and the opposer that it isn’t really a debate if everyone is just agreeing with each other.

The proposer and the opposer immediately agree to call security and have the audience ejected from the debating hall.

And so it goes on, until the motion is carried unanimously.


This was dismissed as “sneering” and, inevitably, “fascist” by a number of student commentators. Yet it was only a restatement of something that Orwell wrote in the unpublished preface:


. . . everyone shall have the right to say and to print what he believes to be the truth, provided only that it does not harm the rest of the community in some quite unmistakable way. Both capitalist democracy and the western versions of socialism have till recently taken that principle for granted. Our Government, as I have already pointed out, still makes some show of respecting it.


This is not always the case nowadays. It is always worth a comparison with the attitudes of other countries that we do not wish to emulate. The EU’s failure to confront President Erdogan’s closure of newspapers and arrests of journalists in Turkey because it wants his help to solve the refugee crisis is one such obvious example. An old German law to prosecute those making fun of foreign leaders was invoked by Erdogan and backed by Mrs Merkel. This led Private Eye to run a competition for Turkish jokes. My favourites were:


“Knock knock!”

“Who’s there.”

“The secret police.”


What do you call a satirist in Turkey?

An ambulance.


As Orwell wrote in even more dangerous times, again in the proposed preface:


. . . the chief danger to freedom of thought and speech at this moment is not the direct interference of the [Ministry of Information] or any official body. If publishers and editors exert themselves to keep certain topics out of print, it is not because they are frightened of prosecution but because they are frightened of public opinion.


I return to stating the obvious, because it seems to be less and less obvious to some of the current generation. This is particularly true for those who have recently become politically engaged for the first time. Voters energised by Ukip and the EU referendum debate, or by the emergence of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party, or by the resurgence of Scottish nationalism or by the triumph of Trump, have the zeal of the newly converted. This is all very admirable, and a wake-up call to their opponents – the Tartan Tories and the Remoaners and the NeoBlairites and the Washington Liberal Elite – but it is not admirable when it is accompanied by an overpowering desire to silence any criticism of their ideas, policies and leading personalities. Perhaps the supporters of the mainstream parties have simply become accustomed to the idea over the decades, but I have found in Private Eye that there is not much fury from the Tory, New Labour or Liberal camps when their leaders or policies are criticised, often in much harsher ways than the newer, populist movements.



So, when Private Eye suggested that some of the claims that the Scottish National Party was making for the future of an independent Scotland might be exaggerated, there were one or two readers who quoted Orwell’s distinction between patriotism being the love of one’s country and nationalism being the hatred of others – but on the whole it was mostly: “When if ever will you ignorant pricks on the Eye be sharp enough to burst your smug London bubble?”

Those who disagreed with the SNP were beneath contempt if English and traitors if Scottish. This was matched by the sheer fury of the Corbyn loyalists at coverage of his problems with opposition in his own party. When we suggested that there might be something a bit fishy about his video on the lack of seats on the train to Newcastle, responses included: “I had hoped Private Eye was outside the media matrix. Have you handed over control to Rupert Murdoch?”

Their anger was a match for that of the Ukippers when we briefly ran a strip called At Home With the Ukippers and then made a few jokes about their leader Mr Farage: “Leave it out, will you? Just how much of grant/top up/dole payment do you lot get from the EU anyway? Are you even a British publication?”

In 1948, in an essay in the Socialist Leader, Orwell wrote:


Threats to freedom of speech, writing and action, though often trivial in isolation, are cumulative in their effect and, unless checked, lead to a general disrespect for the rights of the citizen.


In other words, the defence of freedom of speech and expression is not just special pleading by journalists, writers, commentators and satirists, but a more widespread conviction that it protects “the intellectual liberty which without a doubt has been one of the distinguishing marks of Western civilisation”.

In gloomy times, there was one letter to Private Eye that I found offered some cheer – a willingness to accept opposing viewpoints and some confirmation of a belief in the common sense of Orwell’s common man or woman. In response to the cartoon below, our correspondent wrote:


Dear sir,

I suffer from a bipolar condition and when I saw your cartoon I was absolutely disgusted. I looked at it a few days later and thought it was hilarious.


Ian Hislop is the editor of Private Eye. This is an edited version of his 2016 Orwell Lecture. For more details, visit: theorwellprize.co.uk

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage