Simon Blackburn: ‘‘The stresses of the modern world are only just beginning to show’’

The philosopher takes the NS Centenary Questionnaire.

What is the most important invention of the past 100 years?
The computer has to come rather high on the list. I suppose it’s a closely run thing between the computer and the aeroplane, but computers have made such a difference to life.

What is the most important scientific discovery of the past 100 years?
Probably quantum theory. The general theory of relativity was, I think, in 1915. But those two together should take pride of place. It introduced the field of probabilities as a fundamental fact of the world, instead of hard, “billiard ball” atoms. We are still trying to absorb the full meaning of that.

And sporting event?
I’m the wrong person to answer that. Andy Murray winning Wimbledon – how about that?

Which book, film, piece of music or work of art has had the greatest impact on you?
I’m not in the habit of growing lists of stuff, but I think as far as books go, almost certainly A Treatise of Human Nature, first published by David Hume in 1739. That’s the most important philosophical book in my life. Most works since can be seen as footnotes to Hume.

It’s quite difficult to separate out one painting. I keep coming back to small portraits. Leonardo’s portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci has always been very moving. There is also a wonderful Titian of a man called Alessandro [Cardinal] Farnese.

Who is the most influential or significant politician of the past 100 years?
If we are being British, I suppose we would have to say Mrs Thatcher. It’s a pity, but it’s probably true.

And author or playwright?
The playwright I’m not so sure about. Some people might say Harold Pinter but I’m not certain I agree. Perhaps Samuel Beckett. For an author . . . if I’m allowed to include philosophical authors, I would say Ludwig Wittgenstein. He introduced an important voice into the philosophical conversation. He brought pragmatism into the British mainstream, where it had not been before. Pragmatism was thought of as an American aberration.

And artist?
From the past century, one would have to cite Picasso. He changed so many genres of art.

How about someone in business?
I don’t think I know any. Perhaps the guy who invented Google.

And a sportsperson?
Muhammad Ali gave a certain kind of inspiration to a lot of people.

What about a philanthropist?
Are there many left? The funny thing is that some of the great philanthropists were Edwardian robber barons, such as Andrew Carnegie. They spent their lives sucking blood out of the poor, then thought to redeem themselves by giving it all back. In terms of this century, I would name Bill Gates.

What is your favourite speech?
I think the greatest speech of the 20th century is Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream”. The rhetorical power is just amazing.

Do you have a favourite quotation?
Lines I find swimming through my head quite often are:

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold . . .

It’s one of Shakespeare’s sonnets, a lamentation on old age. I do feel old sometimes when I wake up in the morning.

What do you think will be the most significant change to our lives in the next 100 years?
I’m not really sure I envisage any significant change. I would like to see a period of relative stasis, so that people’s obsession with economic progress starts to become less obsessive.

What is your main concern for the future?
We are going to have to learn to do without all the energy that we have been depleting.

What will be the most dramatic development in your own field?
I think Anglo-American philosophy needs to become more practical and Continental philosophy needs to become more analytical. That would be very good for both sides.

What is the most important priority for the future well-being of people and our planet?
A return to an understanding of co-operative existence, away from the relentlessly competitive and individualistic ideologies that animate so much discussion these days.

The stresses of the modern world are only just beginning to show themselves. They include a few winners and all sorts of losers: the decline of the middle classes and of employment – and therefore hopelessness.

Hopelessness breeds war and all kinds of social ills – terrorism and so on.

Artwork by Ellie Foreman-Peck

This article first appeared in the 20 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, iBroken

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Richmond is a wake-up call for Labour's Brexit strategy

No one made Labour stand in Richmond Park. 

Oh, Labour Party. There was a way through.

No one made you stand in Richmond Park. You could have "struck a blow against the government", you could have shared the Lib Dem success. Instead, you lost both your dignity and your deposit. And to cap it all (Christian Wolmar, take a bow) you self-nominated for a Nobel Prize for Mansplaining.

It’s like the party strategist is locked in the bowels of HQ, endlessly looping in reverse Olivia Newton John’s "Making a Good Thing Better".

And no one can think that today marks the end of the party’s problems on Brexit.

But the thing is: there’s no need to Labour on. You can fix it.

Set the government some tests. Table some amendments: “The government shall negotiate having regard to…”

  • What would be good for our economy (boost investment, trade and jobs).
  • What would enhance fairness (help individuals and communities who have missed out over the last decades).
  • What would deliver sovereignty (magnify our democratic control over our destiny).
  • What would improve finances (what Brexit makes us better off, individually and collectively). 

And say that, if the government does not meet those tests, the Labour party will not support the Article 50 deal. You’ll take some pain today – but no matter, the general election is not for years. And if the tests are well crafted they will be easy to defend.

Then wait for the negotiations to conclude. If in 2019, Boris Johnson returns bearing cake for all, if the tests are achieved, Labour will, and rightly, support the government’s Brexit deal. There will be no second referendum. And MPs in Leave voting constituencies will bear no Brexit penalty at the polls.

But if he returns with thin gruel? If the economy has tanked, if inflation is rising and living standards have slumped, and the deficit has ballooned – what then? The only winners will be door manufacturers. Across the country they will be hard at work replacing those kicked down at constituency offices by voters demanding a fix. Labour will be joined in rejecting the deal from all across the floor: Labour will have shown the way.

Because the party reads the electorate today as wanting Brexit, it concludes it must deliver it. But, even for those who think a politician’s job is to channel the electorate, this thinking discloses an error in logic. The task is not to read the political dynamic of today. It is to position itself for the dynamic when it matters - at the next general election

And by setting some economic tests for a good Brexit, Labour can buy an option on that for free.

An earlier version of this argument appeared on Jolyon Maugham's blog Waiting For Tax.

Jolyon Maugham is a barrister who advised Ed Miliband on tax policy. He blogs at Waiting for Tax, and writes for the NS on tax and legal issues.