Time Out with Nick Cohen

Nick Cohen meets Simon Baron-Cohen, Cambridge professor of developmental psychopathology.

When an old friend heard I would be seeing Simon Baron-Cohen, she asked if I could describe her family to him and then ask a question. I did my best. My friend is a wife and mother of two, I told him when we met at his Cambridge college. She is a highly numerate and purposeful woman who has had a successful career in the City. Her husband is also good at maths and a successful City analyst. He is a quiet, handsome and loyal man. People who have known him for years consider themselves lucky to count him as a friend. But he's not at his best when making small talk with strangers.

Their son is on the autistic spectrum. He's a clever boy, but his life is cursed because he can't handle the confusion of everyday life: the echoes of the swimming pool and the screams of the playground are torments; the relationships others manage instinctively are like trips into a wilderness without a map. Their daughter is almost a teenager and is the spit of her mother. She, too, prefers numbers to losing herself in fiction, and, although it is hard to predict the woman from the girl, I can see her repeating her parents' success.

"She wants to know what to tell her daughter about men," I relayed. "Should she advise her to look for someone who is the opposite of her - the life and soul of the party, who can read a stranger's emotions in a glance and share their joys and woes? Should she warn her about strong, silent types, in case she ends up with an autistic boy of her own?"

"Ah, assortative mating," said the Cambridge professor of developmental psychopathology, "the research on that is just beginning and it's very early days. This idea that certain types of women should think about who they marry if they want to minimise the risk hasn't been tested. But . . ." And he went off into a long discussion of how genes may influence the autistic personality.

As I listened, I thought about the intellectual revolution being brought by the full acceptance that the brain is a product of evolution. Ten years ago, maybe even five years ago, our conversation would have been impossible. Baron-Cohen would have been wary of speaking his mind for fear that demonstrators would churn up the grass of the quad at Trinity College and that his right-thinking colleagues in the social sciences departments would denounce him as some kind of fascist.

The consensus after the Second World War was that the mind was a blank slate. It evolved at some point, obviously, but now environment determined consciousness and nurture trumped nature. The ideological reason for believing that human beings were solely the product of their cultures was a generally well-meant reaction against social Darwinism and "scientific" racism. But it had the consequence of turning apparently liberal men and women into deniers of the legacies of evolution who were just as fanatical in their way as the most boneheaded southern Baptist. In 1975, when Edward O Wilson wrote about the biological bases for human behaviour in his ground-breaking Sociobiology: the new synthesis, the American Anthropological Association debated a motion that condemned him for "attempting to justify genetically the sexist, racist and elitist status quo in human society", an anathema Time magazine likened to the Catholic Church's assault on Galileo.

"Female" compassion

If anything, Baron-Cohen is a greater heretic because he appears to be saying that men and women have different kinds of intelligence. Men are more likely than women to "systemise" the outside world, his argument runs. They are quicker to see patterns, create organisations and make predictions. Women are better at empathising with others, feeling their emotions and producing a sympathetic response. Autism, in his view, is an extreme "male brain", which allows autistics to pick apart systems while showing little or no understanding of the people around them. He hastily adds that when he talks about "male" and "female" brains, he is talking about averages. Women, like my friend, can have "male" brains and be brilliant financial analysts. Men can have "female" brains and be compassionate social workers. Gender isn't destiny.

But then, who reads the caveats when the urge to join a righteous frenzy breaks? In 2005, all hell broke loose when Larry Summers, the president of Harvard University, suggested that along with sexist hiring practices and career breaks for childbirth, the relatively small number of exceptional women mathematicians and physicists may also have a biological explanation. He resigned shortly afterwards.

Baron-Cohen's account of how the "male" brain may have evolved is even more of an offence to conventional pieties. In The Essential Difference, he speculates that the men who fathered the most children in early human societies may have collected and kept harems of wives because they were exceptionally aggressive. A violent man is almost by definition good at systemising when he plans his attacks, but hopeless at empathising with his victims' suffering. In support of his hypothesis, he quoted a study by James Neel and Napoleon Chagnon of the Yanomamö Indians of Venezuela. Whereas, in industrial societies, murderers lose their social status, Baron-Cohen wrote, "among the Yanomamö, men who kill other men end up with higher social status".

He didn't seem to know it, but the punishment Chagnon and Neel received for questioning the Rousseauian myth of the noble savage was a scandalous campaign of vilification. Their accusers falsely claimed that they had deliberately unleashed a lethal measles epidemic on the Yanomamö and been the dupes of loggers who wanted to steal Indian land. As Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom say of the affair in their fine polemic Why Truth Matters, their enemies didn't care whether what Chagnon and Neel reported was right or wrong. "From the perspective of postmodernism, social science, as a science, is just another mechanism for objectifying and oppressing people, and it is, therefore, to be resisted."

Baron-Cohen didn't want trouble, but couldn't escape uncomfortable evidence. He began working with autistic children as a young man. He saw the sadness of their parents, who gave much but got little back, but was also fascinated by the problem of why so many of the children were boys. "Amazingly, although lots of research had gone into autism, no one was looking at that stark fact, even though nature was giving us a big clue about causality."

He studied test results from the general population and found that, in tests where women did well, autistic children did badly, and in tests where men did well, autistic children did well, too. Further experiments emphasised the "masculinity" of autism. He found that newborn boys, untouched by culture, were more likely than girls to look at a mobile than a human face, and a connection between the testosterone levels that three-month-old foetuses experienced in pregnancy and their ability to learn language when they were toddlers.

Autism may be a strength

Like Darwin with The Origin of Species, Baron-Cohen was careful and delayed the publication of his full findings. His first step was to test the water with a tentative lecture at Rutgers University in New Jersey. "I expected to be attacked either by feminists or by Americans in general, because in the States there's much more of a climate of 'you can become everything that you want'. The idea that biology might be more deterministic than we previously thought, well, I was worried it might be unfashionable there."

But he experienced none of the almost Maoist levels of denunciation that greeted his predecessors. Baron-Cohen explains the protests that never came by saying: "There is now a more open-minded climate and you can talk about sex differences in the mind without fear of the accusation of either sexism or essentialism." To that, I would add that the extreme male brain is not something many feminists would wish for their daughters, even if it does on occasion produce brilliant thinkers.

In contrast to his less interesting cousin, Sacha, Simon Baron-Cohen is a wonderfully humane man. The most compelling instance is his attitude to the "anti-cure" wing of the fractious "autism community". I expected a hard-headed scientist who has dismissed so many of the comforting assumptions of the late 20th century to have little time for politically correct radicals who insist that they are "autistics" rather than "people with autism" because their autism isn't an add-on, but the defining feature of their personality. Not a bit of it.

Baron-Cohen refuses to call autism a disorder, and is dubious about researchers in America who are trying to produce drugs to improve the social skills of autistics. "What will the costs be?" he asks. "What will we lose? Autism involves disability, but it also involves areas of strength - fantastic attention to detail and a good memory. There are aspects of autism to be proud of that can lead to gifts and talents."

Inclusion not the answer

He was less angry about the nonsensical MMR mania than I imagined he would be, because it at least forced the government to think about autism as it tried to combat the mass hysteria. His ambition now is to use that interest to make ministers realise their superficially benign doctrine of "inclusiveness" is bringing unnecessary suffering. Their "inclusive" national curriculum is hopeless for children on the autistic spectrum because autistics find "the lack of precision in discussing a novel frightening compared to the precision involved in getting an answer to a mathematical problem. That's not necessarily a disability; it just means they should be channelled off in one direction." Meanwhile, the closure of special schools and the dumping of autistic children in the "inclusive" mainstream can sound sweet and may help some, but it has left many others exposed to horrible bullying.

My guess is that the Ruth Kelly affair will help his cause. The true hypocrisy of her behaviour lay not so much in a Labour minister going private, as in a former education secretary whose government had closed state special schools sending her dyslexic son to an excellent private special school, which protects children while it turns them round. Baron-Cohen believes there are many more who need protecting. "We see a lot of people in adulthood who dropped out of education because, by secondary school, if you are not good at socialising then you are not tolerated. If only they could skip teenage and go straight to adulthood, they could find jobs in technology or science."

My friend's eight-year-old son knows he has autism. "My brain is scribbled," he says. "But that's good because it makes me clever. When I grow up I will find a cure, but I will keep my brain scribbled because I want to stay clever."

The last time I phoned his mother, she had the prospectus for the school chosen by Ruth Kelly on her knees, so maybe the boy will find a cure that he can himself refuse to take. In any event, his parents have the money to make sure he will have the chance of staying clever, a chance that should be available to all of his contemporaries.

Nick Cohen is an author, columnist and signatory of the Euston Manifesto. As well as writing for the New Statesman he contributes to the Observer and other publications including the New Humanist. His books include Pretty Straight Guys – a history of Britain under Tony Blair.

Laura Hynd for New Statesman
Show Hide image

Having the last laugh

How Diane Abbott – overlooked, mocked and marginalised by her own party for three decades – ended up as the closest ally of a Labour leader

“I don’t think you’re up to it.” It is 1970, and Diane Julie Abbott, aged 17, is keen to apply to Cambridge University, but her history teacher has other ideas.

“I was an omnivorous reader,” she says now, sitting in her parliamentary office, in a prime spot overlooking the Thames, “and in all these books, particularly these novels between the wars, if you went to university, you went to Oxford or Cambridge.”

The teachers at Harrow County School for Girls, where Abbott was the only black girl in her class, were not supportive. Her memories are less happy than those of her contemporary Michael Portillo, who attended the affiliated boys’ grammar school, and who played Macduff to her Lady Macduff in a school play.

Even when Abbott succeeded, she was regarded with suspicion. She remembers getting an A-minus in an English class – a mark that disappointed her – and being asked to stay behind by the teacher. “She picked up my essay between her thumb and her forefinger and said: ‘Where did you copy this from?’ I was genuinely shocked.”

The story suggests that she acquired her ability to shrug off criticism early. It is also a reminder of how often she is underestimated. The Times journalist Matt Chorley once described a successful day for Labour as one in which “Diane Abbott was on TV a bit less”. Julie Burchill described her in the Spectator as a “preposterous creature” who “blotted the landscape of English politics, speaking power to truth in order to advance her career”. In the Guardian, Michael White dubbed her a “useful idiot”.

She has been endlessly dismissed as stupid, untalented and bad at politics – an obvious “diversity hire”. These criticisms are immune to evidence: her time at Cambridge, the only black British student from a state school in the entire university; her 12 years on the sofa with Portillo on BBC1’s This Week; her time in the shadow cabinet under Ed Miliband; her reliable ability to hold the line in television interviews; and now her status as Jeremy Corbyn’s closest political ally. She is largely ignored by lobby journalists, even as they lament their failure to secure a line into the Labour leader’s thinking. In 2017, Diane Abbott celebrates her 30th year in parliament. Should we take her seriously?

 

****

Abbott’s mother, a nurse, and her father, a welder, were born in the same village in Jamaica, but met and married in London and lived in Notting Hill “before it was a fashionable place to live”. Abbott was born there in 1953, 12 years before the phrase “race relations” first made its way on to the statute books. “My father was very aspirational,” she recalls, “and so every weekend, he and my mother would drive round houses in Pinner, and every Monday they’d ring the estate agent, and the estate agent would say the house had gone. But, of course, the house wasn’t gone.”

Eventually, they did buy a house, not in Pinner but in Edgware, north London. “My brother – his best friend was Jewish,” she tells me, “and he’d attend the Jewish youth club with his friend, and one day his friend said in a really embarrassed way: ‘I’m really sorry, I’m afraid you can’t continue to attend the club, because they’re afraid it will encourage the girls to marry out.’

“The thing was,” she continues, “my brother was upset about this. We were all upset on his behalf but it was just part of life.” And in 1970, a black straight-A student being told that she wasn’t good enough to go to Cambridge was, again, part of life. It was her response that was out of the ordinary: “Well, I do think I’m up to it. And that’s what matters, isn’t it?”

At university, Abbott didn’t get involved in politics, and she found the Cambridge Union off-putting. Her hall tutor advised her to go into the civil service, and so she arrived at the Home Office in 1976, the lone black graduate trainee on what she now describes as “a quixotic quest to do good”.

In turn, that took her to the National Council for Civil Liberties, now Liberty. Believing it to be a hotbed of communist sympathisers, MI5 tapped the office phones, an action that was ruled unlawful in 1990. “One of the things that Diane still talks about,” a friend tells me, “is her experience not only of the Home Office, but of being the subject of official surveillance. She has a cynicism about the state that hasn’t gone away.”

Abbott also joined local campaigns on some of the issues that have defined her career, such as the abolition of the “sus laws”, the informal provision that allowed the police to stop and search anyone under the ­Vagrancy Act, which activists claim was used to target ethnic minorities in Britain. After joining the Labour Party, she became a councillor in Westminster in 1982.

In the 1970s and 1980s, as today, Labour took the lion’s share of the ethnic minority vote. But no one from an ethnic minority had ever sat as a Labour MP. In the 1983 election, just one person from a minority was selected as a parliamentary candidate, and in an ultra-safe Conservative seat. In response, Labour’s minority activists formed the Black Sections, a campaign to secure ethnic minority representation.

It was through these that Abbott met Linda Bellos, who was the leader of Lambeth Council, where Abbott worked as a press officer – her last job before entering parliament. “I was born here in 1950, one of 50,000 black people [living in the UK],” Bellos tells me. “We might have talked about going home but home for me was bleeding London, wasn’t it? Hence the need to make sure we were involved in all of the parts of the state. Someone like Diane had been to Cambridge, she’d been a councillor, she knew the democratic process, she was friends with a number of MPs, she knew the score. If someone like her couldn’t be selected, what was the point of any of us being here?”

The Black Sections wanted affiliated status, similar to that of the Fabians. But there were concerns that black candidates would not appeal to Labour’s presumed core white working-class vote. Some on the left saw “identity politics” as a distraction from the class struggle; and some on the right thought the Black Sections were too radical. At the 1984 conference, their plan was thrown out by a margin of ten to one.

Despite this setback, the fight had an important legacy. In the 1987 elections, four ethnic minority MPs entered the Commons for Labour: Paul Boateng in Brent South, Keith Vaz in Leicester East, Bernie Grant in Tottenham – and, in Hackney North and Stoke Newington, there was the 33-year-old Diane Abbott.

 

****

She was the first black woman to be selected for a safe parliamentary seat. The Times marked the occasion with a leader denouncing her “rhetoric of class struggle and skin-colour consciousness”.

A few months later, the Sun profiled the “ten looniest Labour candidates” in Britain. “We were all there,” Abbott recalls. “Jeremy [Corbyn], the rest of us, and I was number eight.”

The local party in Stoke Newington was delighted with this firebrand reputation. “They said: ‘Stick with us, and we’ll take you right to the top!’”

The voters of north London were less welcoming. A brick was thrown through the office window of her local party. With Abbott as the candidate, some traditional Labour voters switched to the SDP-Liberal Alliance, taking the Labour vote below 50 per cent for the first time in the seat’s history (the second occasion was in 2005, just after the invasion of Iraq).

In parliament, the intake of ethnic minority MPs was regarded with caution. Abbott recalls that the then speaker of the House of Commons, Bernard Weatherill, was “very anxious”. She adds: “He thought we’d be like the Fenians and disrupt and collapse parliamentary process. So he invited Bernie [Grant], who was regarded as our leader, for port. And Bernie came for port and the speaker was very nice to him. And I imagine the speaker thought this was what stopped us being like the Fenians.”

Those Labour MPs who were disruptive – such as Corbyn the serial rebel – were in low spirits for other reasons. The marginalisation of Abbott and her allies during the late 1980s and 1990s explains why they have so little sympathy for the party’s beleaguered centrists in the current power struggle.

At the Labour conference in Liverpool this year – where she spoke as shadow health secretary – Abbott told me: “I came to party conference every year for 20 years, and we would lose and lose and lose. These people have lost twice and they’re complaining!”

Her thick skin was toughened during the New Labour years – and it reaffirmed her close friendship with Corbyn. (The two had a short sexual relationship in the early 1980s, which ended amicably. Abbott was married for two years to a Ghanaian architect from 1991 to 1993; her son, James, was born in 1992.) “She’s always had an odd hold on Jeremy,” one Labour MP tells me. “You would see them having lunch together and her bossing him about. I think people underestimate how influential she
is on his thinking.”

When David Lammy, her neighbouring MP in Tottenham, entered parliament in 2000 following the death of Bernie Grant, he found her “vilified, ostracised and exiled by the Blairites”. There were several attempts to remove her as an MP – another reason why the Corbyn camp is unconcerned by complaints from MPs such as Stella Creasy and Peter Kyle about their local parties threatening to deselect them.

Abbott retains a network of friends from her time before politics, including from her stint as a television producer. They urged her to quit in the Blair years – or to end her association with the left-wing Socialist Campaign Group. “I never thought I was willing to trade what I thought was right for some position in the party,” she says.

Some allies see it differently. “I don’t think Diane is someone who can quit [politics],” a friend told me. “I see her tweeting at all hours. She has interests, books and so forth, but she couldn’t walk away.”

Abbott says that Keith Vaz convinced her to stay, telling her, “You have forgotten what it took for us to get here.” (Some of Corbyn’s allies believe that this is what made the leader so supportive of Vaz during his latest scandal.) This sense of solidarity with other ethnic minority MPs has led to the long-standing rumour that Abbott would have nominated Chuka Umunna had Corbyn not stood for the Labour leadership.

“Diane is absolutely loyal to Jeremy,” one MP who knows them both well tells me. “She’s loyal to the project, yes, but she’s also loyal to him, in a way I don’t think you could honestly say about John McDonnell or Clive Lewis.” During the coup attempt against Corbyn last summer, Abbott spoke forcefully in favour of Corbyn remaining in place, rather than striking a deal to put Lewis or McDonnell on the ballot. “Her position,” one insider recalls, “was that we’d got a candidate we knew could win, and that candidate was Jeremy.”

Not that they always agree. Abbott advocated a less conciliatory approach after Corbyn’s first victory in 2015. “The thing that can be infuriating about Jeremy is that he likes to think the best of everyone,” she says. “I’m always perfectly straight with him as to what I think, and even if he doesn’t believe me at the time, he always does come round to my point of view.”

Abbott is one of the few people in the Parliamentary Labour Party whom Corbyn trusts completely. In their relationship, it’s hard to see who is the senior partner.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Corbyn and Abbott settled into a pattern of dissent, followed by defeat. Corbyn spent the time attending to foreign and human rights campaigns and signing thousands of early day motions. Abbott carved out a niche as a reliable critic of the Labour government under Tony Blair, with a month-long slot at the launch of the BBC’s This Week in 2003 blossoming into a regular gig alongside Michael Portillo. But away from Westminster, Abbott was making a decision that she knew could destroy her political career.

 

****

The London borough of Hackney is today a national leader in schooling, but in 2002, just a third of students received five or more A*-C grades. That prompted Abbott to send her ten-year-old son, James, to City of London, a leading private school.

“I knew I could lose the seat over it,” she told me. “I was a single parent, and time after time, I had not been there for things at school, or I was too tired to take him out somewhere . . . I just thought, just this once, I should be prepared to make a sacrifice for him. If I lost the seat, then I lost the seat.”

She kept the seat. “Other things do annoy Diane – reporters saying things about her that aren’t true, people talking down to her,” one friend tells me. “But with [the schooling] I think she was very happy with that deal and to take that blow.”

Then, in 2010, Abbott’s career began a surprising second act: a bid for the party leadership. Activists and commentators felt uninspired by the choice in front of them – Ed Miliband, David Miliband, Andy Burnham and Ed Balls, four former special advisers from the New Labour era. Abbott called them “geeky men in suits”. Harriet Harman, in particular, was keen that the contest should not be an all-male field. Her support swayed Abbott. “If you had to pick one person, it was her,” she says, “because she was more mainstream.”

David Lammy set up a meeting between Abbott and David Miliband. The front-runner told her that, if she were a vote short in the nominations from MPs, he would vote for her. “But because it was David Miliband, I didn’t believe him.”

The elder Miliband had his own reasons for backing her. He believed that having her on the ballot would deprive his brother, Ed, of valuable support from the left. This was also the calculation that allies of Yvette Cooper made about Corbyn in 2015. “David’s legacy,” the Wakefield MP, Mary Creagh, wrote five years later, “made it normal – Blairite, even – to put a left-winger on the ballot to ‘have a broad debate’.’’

Of Corbyn’s campaign, Abbott says now: “I knew he’d do well, because what people missed is that had it been one person, one vote [in 2010], I’d have come third.”

Had the unions and the MPs not had a disproportionate influence on the result, she says, “I’d have beaten Andy Burnham, I’d have beaten Ed Balls. I’d been to 53 hustings – most Labour people are where Jeremy and I were. I knew there was much more left-wing sentiment in the Labour Party than the lobby thought.”

As a result of Corbyn’s victory in 2015, she is shadowing one of the great offices of state in what once looked like her final term in parliament. Her policy priorities as shadow home secretary are broad but include her favoured subjects of police reform and anti-racism. “I want to help shape the debate on migration,” she tells me. “I think we’ve had a very vacuous debate.”

That has put her at odds with the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell. Though both are long-time friends of Corbyn, their relationship is not warm. Allies believe that the division stretches back to the late 1980s, when McDonnell – then outside parliament – gloried in not going “soft” in the manner of Neil Kinnock. Abbott attracted suspicion, in part because of her early conversion to a pro-European position. Many believe that McDonnell never embraced the European project. He has ruled out opposition to Brexit and is behind the toughening of the party’s line on immigration. Abbott, privately and publicly, is determined to hold Labour to a more open and pro-immigration position. She has said that Labour cannot win as “Ukip-lite”, a coded rebuke to McDonnell.

The shadow chancellor is the only MP with a comparable influence to Abbott’s on Jeremy Corbyn and, thus far, the Labour leader has struck a middle path on migration, supporting Abbott’s line that the single market cannot be traded away for restrictions on the free movement of people but stopping short of a full-throated defence of free movement in principle.

As well as winning that internal battle, Abbott faces the task of landing more blows on Amber Rudd than her predecessors – Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Ed Balls – managed against Theresa May when she was the longest-serving home secretary in a century, transforming the reputation of a department once regarded as a political graveyard. Not many give Abbott much chance of success but, as always, she believes in herself and thinks that she’s up to it.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent of the New Statesman

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 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge