The NS Interview: Mary Warnock

“The ‘big society’ doesn’t speak to me. It doesn’t speak to anyone”

How has philosophy developed since you trained in the discipline?
I loved the philosophical climate of the 1950s. We were iconoclastic and it was great fun. But I think what changed was the status of moral philosophy - it was probably the Vietnam war that changed it, because students were not prepared to study the subjects that had nothing to say on just war.

You dispute that morality is grounded in religion. What is its basis, in your view?
I believe morality comes from our common human nature and that we live in a society that is precarious and difficult. To take morals seriously is to take the view that we've got to collaborate and take one another seriously.

Is it an oversimplification to describe Britain as a secular society?
In some ways there's more religion than there was; there's more Islamic religion and there's a lot of enthusiastic Christianity. On the other hand, we have politicians being openly able to say they are not religious.

But we still have an established church.
Yes, but I think that the established church has - and I suspect for years has had - very little to do with policy. It's more to do with ceremony and there being some formal way of recognising great occasions.

The Archbishop of Canterbury has talked of a religious "longing" in society. Do you recognise this?
I would probably call them longings of the imagination, because I think religion grew up out of human imagination. This is a Romantic idea and none the worse for that. Romanticism is part of our history; it won't go away.

Would you describe yourself as a “cultural Christian"?
Yes. I love the Church of England. And particularly I love church music, which couldn't have existed were it not for people who absolutely believed what they were expressing.

Do atheists such as Richard Dawkins conflate religious belief with fundamentalism?
Yes. I think he's got very little sense of history, therefore he hasn't bothered to think what it is like to claim to be a member of the Church of England. I can find horrors that happened because of religion, but to move from that to say that religion necessarily produces horrors of that kind does seem to me overly simple.

Is it a failure of imagination on Dawkins's part?
If you talk to Richard Dawkins you will find that he's sympathetic to the imaginative things from religion, such as church music, paintings and architecture. But he dissociates the imaginative content from the religious content. That seems absurd, because obviously the cathedrals were built to the glory of God and people believed that. You can't pretend that Bach wrote his religious cantatas out of anything other than profound Protestant belief.

Why is imagination so important to you?
What I tend to mean by imagination includes the Archbishop's longings: the things that really, as far as we know, separate us from all other animals. It is a distinctly human capacity.

Do you think politicians should declare their faith?
The Archbishop of Canterbury said he thought that religious people had an absolute right to express their political opinions in parliament and outside. But he thought they ought to declare where they're coming from; they shouldn't expect a free passage just because of their faith. I thought that was absolutely wonderful.

You reject the idea that a basis for morality can be found in the concept of rights. Why?
Rights are too legalistic a concept to be the foundation of morality. When you claim a right, you're claiming a right either for yourself or
for your group: you're not looking out towards other people. I think this does diminish the importance in moral discourse of virtues such as patience or compassion or loving kindness. I'm a great believer in the virtues.

What is your view of the "big society"? Is it about trying to find a common good?
I believe that what David Cameron is trying to say is that there's something missing. But the actual phrase, "the big society", doesn't speak to me. I don't think it speaks to anyone. It's not intrinsically intelligible. He should have searched around and consulted a few theologians.

Did you vote before you entered the House of Lords?
I certainly did.

Was there a plan?
No. Though I knew from the age of about ten that I was to be an academic.

Is there anything you regret?
Not being a scientist. If I had my life again, I'd really learn about biology.

Are we all doomed?
Probably - but it will be after my time.

Defining Moments

1924 Born in Winchester, Hampshire
1949 Becomes fellow and tutor in philosophy at St Hugh's College, Oxford
1949 Marries Geoffrey Warnock, later vice-chancellor of Oxford University
1966 Becomes headmistress of Oxford High School for Girls
1982 Chairs human fertilisation inquiry
1985 Is made a life peer
2010 Publishes her book Dishonest to God: On Keeping Religion Out of Politics

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 13 December 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The radical Jesus

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times