J L Barr, a phrenologist, demonstrates how to read someone’s personality from the bumps on their head, 27 January 1937. Photo: Getty Images
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“Jews are adapted to capitalism”, and other nonsenses of the new scientific racism

Nicholas Wade's A Troublesome Inheritance argues that the genetic differences between racial groups explain why the West is rich and Africa is poor - but beneath the new science lies an old, dangerous lie.

Before getting into quite why Nicholas Wade’s A Troublesome Inheritance - a book which argues, among other things, that Jews possess a genetic “adaptation to capitalism” - is racist,  it may be worth thinking back to the summer of 2012. Viewers of the BBC’s coverage of the Olympics on 10 August would have been surprised, between heats in the 200 metres, by a short video explaining how the slave trade made black people into better athletes:

For those of you unable to watch, the argument (as cheerily introduced by John “you’re never going to be, you know, a looker” Inverdale) goes like this:

  • The slaves of the Caribbean and American plantations predominantly came from a select group of west African ethnic groups
  • Only the fittest slaves survived the horrors of transportation to, and working on, plantations
  • Their descendants overwhelmingly make up the best professional sprinters in the world
  • African-Americans and Afro-Caribbean people are genetically predisposed, through evolution, through survival of the fittest, to be sprinters

Spot the problem? Congratulations - you’re better at this than Nicholas Wade, former deputy editor of Nature, writer for the New York Times and Washington Post, pop-sci author and pusher of the hypothesis that: a) there is a biological basis for race, and b) racial differences explain cultural and societal differences.

In this, he is partly correct - at least, in the way he defines “race” - but in oh-so-very-many other ways he is not. Frankly, it may well be that A Troublesome Inheritance is most useful as an illustration of the gap between the popular understanding of racism and the reality of how it operates. Wade very clearly does not consider himself, or his conclusions, to be racist, writing that "no one has the right or reason to assert superiority over a person of a different race". Yet this book is ultimately racist, because it does exactly that.

This is most obvious during the (numerous) sections of the book where Wade uses language that can best be described as “unfortunate”. We are told that, as a consequence of genetic analysis, “an individual can be assigned with high confidence to the appropriate continent of origin”. Furthermore, it is “perfectly reasonable” to classify all humans into one of five “continental based races”, while “classification into the three main races of African, East Asian and European is supported by the physical anthropology of human skull types and dentition”.

Here’s some more:

If running a productive, Western-style economy were simply a matter of culture, it should be possible for African and Middle Eastern countries to import Western institutions and business methods, just as East Asian countries have done. Though it was justifiable at first to blame the evils of colonialism, two generations or more have passed since most foreign powers withdrew from Africa and the Middle East, and the strength of this explanation has to some extent faded.”

Then there’s the money shot:

Populations that live at high altitudes, like Tibetans, represent another adaptation to extreme environments. The adaptation of Jews to capitalism is another such evolutionary process.”

And lest you be in any doubt that this isn’t a political tract disguised as science writing, Wade believes that the current scientific consensus is “shaped by leftist and Marxist political dogma”. (Plus, he’s been given the cover feature in this week’s Spectator to argue his position, which is always a science writing red flag.)

A Troublesome Inheritance begins with a history of Darwin and the theory of evolution, an overview of how natural selection works, and an explanation of how eugenics was the “perversion” of  Darwinism (including a shout out for New Statesman founders and eugenics fans Sidney and Beatrice Webb - always appreciated). As an opening, it comes across as an attempt to make clear that this new, scientific conception of race isn’t the same, but it’s a bit like saying Father Christmas and your dad aren’t the same person. They both get to screw your mother.

Wade is keen to argue that humans, like all animals, are subject to evolutionary pressures, and that this evolution continues to happen. There are discussions of studies showing how different human populations carry certain genes more than others (for example, Finns disproportionately carry the HTR2B gene, linked with a tendency towards violent behaviour when drunk), but between the science there are bizarre asides where he attacks those he perceives as suppressing these findings - like Marxists, “who wish government to mold socialist man in its desired image and [who] see genetics as an impediment to the power of the state”. (These statements are not given citations.)

He explains that these pockets of genetic difference happened because pre-historic peoples spread out across the world from Africa, rapidly, to fill almost every available ecological niche - yet they remained tribal societies, which meant “the mixing of genes between these populations” was rare. How does he square the contradiction between eager human migration with a reluctance for societies to mix with each other? Why, for reasons of “warfare, [which] was probably incessant”. The book is full of these dismissive anthropological assumptions, which, combined with warm citations of neoconservative thinkers like Francis Fukuyama, often gives the book the feel of the Empire, and the 19th century.

Regardless, the meat of his argument comes when he cites a study from 2006 which found that there were 412 genes under the influence of natural selection in humans, and that there are three broad groupings of humans where there is minimal overlap between them in terms of which of the 412 genes they hold. That’s the basis of “the three main races”. Further studies have shown other evidence that different populations have evolved separate gene clumps, where you can be roughly sure about dividing two groups of people based on which of the clumps they tend towards.

The key thesis of the book, then, is this: once you’ve proven that there are distinct biological divisions between people which could have evolved and spread through a population over only a few hundred years, and that those genetic differences can take the form of genes that influence behaviour, it must then follow that the social and cultural characteristics of human societies are changed and shaped by changes in the genes of their people.

That is, the Industrial Revolution started in England because the English spent the medieval period evolving to respect private property and the rule of law. The Chinese are predisposed to authoritarian rule. Africans are stuck with tribalism because that’s what their genes tell them to do. Jews are good with money because they evolved to be better at banking, their socially-acceptable niche.

Andrew Gelman, at Slate, is very good here in his review on quite how arbitrary and - I'm just going to say it - stupid this is:

I suspect that had this book been written 100 years ago, it would have featured strong views not on the genetic similarities but on the racial divides that explained the difference between the warlike Japanese and the decadent Chinese, as well as the differences between the German and French races. Nicholas Wade in 2014 includes Italy within the main European grouping, but the racial theorists of 100 years ago had strong opinions on the differences between northern and southern Europeans."

It’s not even like the hypothesis is internally consistent. Wade often strays from his taxonomy - Caucasians sometimes stand equal alongside Africans and East Asians, while at other times “the West” is treated as separate to both the Middle East and the Indian sub-continent. Modern nation-states are frequently talked about as if ethnically homogenous, and what discussion there is of internal variation (say, class difference) is waved away as irrelevant. Quite why the Jews benefited from being kicked around Europe for hundreds of years while other persecuted ethnicities didn't is unclear - the inevitable, unpleasant implication of this is that we can just as easily decide that the Roma are predisposed to petty crime, for example.

Never mind that there are plausible social, historical and economic analyses, with substantial evidence, that also explain the trends Wade has identified - his view is almost fatalistic in attributing everything to genes, based on nothing more than a correlation between the time it takes for the human genome to be shaped by environmental pressures and the time it takes for societies to undergo significant change. He does not pinpoint the genes he suspects cause social change - he merely deduces they must be there, because it fits the pattern.

And that's so, so weird. Nobody - nobody - denies that there is genetic variation between distinct groups of people. This is visible in the colour of our skin, in our different heights and hair colours, in the higher rates of sickle cell disease among Africans and higher rates of obesity among Pacific Islanders.

What Wade is arguing for, though, is a definition of race that is at once dangerous and useless. Fine, define and separate people into groups based on one definition of genetic similarity. Even if we allow that evolution could cause a society’s social structures to change over the course of only a few hundred years - and I’m not saying we should - it’s such a flaccid, facile argument. What of gay rights? What of communist revolutions? What of anything that happens on a shorter, or longer, scale than evolution? There’s nothing here to explain them, but plenty of counterfactuals. To go back to the BBC's "slavery had surprising benefits!" film - you might as well ask if white people are more genetically-adapted to sailing and dressage thanks to the "evolutionary pressure" of colonialism.

The fundamental flaw is that Wade has identified a way of defining humanity into sub-groups, and then misunderstood this as a justification for doing so. Scientific racism is dangerous because it assumes its subjective interpretation of a single fact or set of facts to be synonymous with objective reality, ignoring the social consequences of what that interpretation may be. You can see that in Wade’s casual references to “skull types and dentition” - but phrenologists weren’t wrong to group people by skull shape, they were wrong to think that those groups meant anything beyond the ability to group humans by skull shape.

(A side note: It’s incredible how often this mistake is made in other areas, like, for example, when trying to talk about biological sex as being a matter of XX or XY chromosomes. Sure, it's technically correct, but it's useless in a practical sense when "female" and "male" are fuzzy categories that different societies decide are defined by a range of changeable physical characteristics like genitals, body shape, hair coverage, etc. - and, for that matter, nobody gives a shit what your chromosomes are when they’re kicking in your ribcage on a piss-streaked pavement for being “a bloke in a dress” or whatever. But I digress.)

In the second chapter, Wade defines racism:

The central premise of racism, which distinguishes it from ethnic prejudice, is the notion of an ordered hierarchy of races in which some are superior to others. The superior race is assumed to enjoy the right to rule others because of its inherent qualities.”

As far as definitions go, this is a pretty shabby one, and indicative of the general tone of the book when it comes to understanding the “social sciences” it is so dismissive of. (And let's not even start on the astonishing claim that “both religion and race are essential but strangely unexplored aspects of the human experience," which appears in the acknowledgements.) This definition of racism misses that it can be, and most often is, a structural thing. Institutions can be racist even if no one person within them holds the sincere belief that black or Asian people are somehow inferior. Intent is not a necessary condition of racism, but even without the intent it's clear A Troublesome Inheritance does conclude that some races are superior to others. It satisfies Wade's own definition of racism.

I couldn't help but think of A Troublesome Inheritance when reading Gary Younge's superb piece in the Guardian about the popular misunderstanding of what racism is, and how dangerous it is that the persistent prejudices of Ukip are judged only by a withered definitiion, one of "old white men using the n-word". He writes:

And so the perception – on both sides of the Atlantic – takes hold that racism is not a system of discrimination planted by history, nourished by politics and nurtured by economics, in which some groups face endemic disadvantage – it's about ignorant old people getting caught saying mean things. By privileging these episodes – outrageous as they are – racism is basically reduced to the level of a private, individual indiscretion made public. The scandal becomes not that racism exists but that anyone would be crass enough to articulate it so brazenly.

The reality of modern racism is almost exactly the opposite: it's the institutional marginalisation of groups performed with the utmost discretion and minimum of fuss by well-mannered and often well-intentioned people working in deeply flawed systems. According to a recent US department of education report, black preschoolers (mostly four-year-olds) are four times more likely to be suspended more than once than their white classmates. According to a 2013 report by Release, a UK group focusing on drugs and drug laws, black people in England and Wales are far less likely to use drugs than white people but six times more likely to be stopped and searched for possession of them. In both countries black people are far more likely to be convicted, and to get stiffer sentences and longer jail time.

This is the soporific, statistical drumbeat to which black children march through our institutions and to which society as a whole has become inured. You are unlikely to find many of these preschool teachers throwing around the N-word or judges reminiscing about slavery. Apparently, until you do, there will be no big story here. It's just the way we do things. The problem is no longer that it's brazen, but that it's banal.

Regardless of its intent, A Troublesome Inheritance is scientific racism precisely because of that banality, that casual divorce from the consequences of its conclusions. By all means, protest that you aren't dividing humanity into a hierarchy of intelligence, impulsiveness and creativity based on an arbitrary criteria - but always be aware that the psuedoscience of far-right pamphlets and clock tower gunmen has to come from somewhere.

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

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Cabinet audit: what do Theresa May’s new hires mean for government?

The New Statesman team looks at the politics and policy behind the new Prime Minister’s cabinet appointments.

Liam Fox, International Trade Secretary

Only Nixon, it is said, could have gone to China. Only a politician with the impeccable Commie-bashing credentials of the 37th President had the political capital necessary to strike a deal with the People’s Republic of China.

Theresa May’s great hope is that only Liam Fox, the newly-installed Secretary of State for International Trade, has the Euro-bashing credentials to break the news to the Brexiteers that a deal between a post-Leave United Kingdom and China might be somewhat harder to negotiate than Vote Leave suggested.

The biggest item on the agenda: striking a deal that allows Britain to stay in the single market. Elsewhere, Fox should use his political capital with the Conservative right to wait longer to sign deals than a Remainer would have to, to avoid the United Kingdom being caught in a series of bad deals.

Stephen Bush

Andrea Leadsom, Environment Secretary

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), senior industry figures had already begun questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment toopposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies – thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke

Chris Grayling, Transport Secretary

Having run Theresa May’s leadership campaign, Chris Grayling was always going to be in line for a pretty beefy promotion. And so it transpired, with the staunch Brexiteer being plucked from his post as Leader of the House of Commons to head the Department for Transport.

He has been a useful ally of May’s, reassuring fellow eurosceptics and Brexit voters that the once Remain-backing Prime Minister really means that “Brexit means Brexit”.

But his appointment will bring less comfort to DfT mandarins and those in the transport industry. Detractors who have previously worked for him in government usually either decry him as a hardline right winger, or suggest he is just simply not very bright. A notorious figure since his stint as Justice Secretary in 2012-15, Grayling is known for his uncompromising and compassionless (and often senseless) policy decisions – banning books being sent to prisoners, legal aid cuts, and controversial new court charges. The legal world was also riled by his lack of knowledge about the profession, as the first non-lawyer to serve as Lord Chancellor for nearly half a century.

However, Grayling is familiar with the transport brief, having shadowed the role in 2005-7, and he will have the same challenges as many past transport secretaries (and their shadows): the future of HS2, and the question of airport expansion. Politically sticky infrastructure projects that have been consistently kicked into the long grass. But perhaps May’s enthusiasm for a proper industrial policy – and shelving of austerity targets – will mean Grayling has to get more done on such matters than his prevaricating predecessors.

Anoosh Chakelian

Karen Bradley, Culture Secretary

The most politically charged of the culture minister's responsibilities is overseeing the BBC, and to anyone who works for - or simply loves - the national broadcaster, Karen Bradley has one big point in her favour. She is not John Whittingdale. Her predecessor as culture secretary was notorious for his belief that the BBC was a wasteful, over-mighty organisation which needed to be curbed. And he would have had ample opportunity to do this: the BBC's Charter is due for renewal next year, and the licence fee is only fixed until 2017. 

In her previous job at the Home Office, Karen Bradley gained a reputation as a calm, low-key minister. It now seems likely that the charter renewal will be accomplished with fewer frothing editorials about "BBC bias" and more attention to the challenges facing the organisation as viewing patterns fragment and increasing numbers of viewers move online.

Of the rest of the job, the tourism part just got easier: with the pound so weak, it will be easier to attract visitors to Britain from abroad. And as for press regulation, there is no word strong enough to describe how long the grass is into which it has been kicked.

Helen Lewis

Sajid Javid, Communities Secretary

Sajid Javid is a pinup for Tory aspiration – son of a British-Pakistani bus driver, he worked his way from his local comprehensive in Rochdale to the towers of New York.

At 20, he was attending the Conservative Party Conference and by 25 he was the youngest vice-president of Chase Manhattan Bank. This was the start of an international career that took him to London and Singapore.

After winning the seat of Bromsgrove in 2010, Javid began an equally rapid political rise. By the end of 2011, he was the parliamentary private secretary to the then-Chancellor, George Osborne.

The following years saw him climb the Treasury’s stairs. And a year’s break from economic policy found him haunting the foyers of London’s West End as Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. But by 2015, he was back in Osborne’s sphere of influence as Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills.

He is now the most high-profile survivor of Theresa May’s purge of the Osbornites (she and the former Chancellor often clashed in cabinet), but downgraded to the slightly less weighty position of Communities and Local Government Secretary.

Could Sajid Javid be Britain's first Asian Prime Minister? asked the Daily Mail in 2014. As it is, the new PM has sent his path to power on something of a detour. He's held onto a seat at the cabinet table, but with Osborne on the backbenches, he’s on his own.

Julia Rampen

Boris Johnson, Foreign Secretary

The world shared a stunned silence when news broke that Boris Johnson would be the new Foreign Secretary. Johnson, who once referred to black people as “piccaninnies” and more recently accused the half-Kenyan President of the United States of only commenting on the EU referendum because of bitterness about colonialism, will now be Britain’s representative on the world stage.

His colourful career immediately came back to haunt him when US journalists accused him of “outright lies” and reminded him of the time he likened Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton to a “sadistic nurse”. Johnson’s previous appearances on the international stage include a speech in Beijing where he maintained that ping pong was actually the Victorian game of “whiff whaff”.

But Johnson has always been more than a blond buffoon, and this appointment is a shrewd one by May. His popularity in the country at large, apparently helped by getting stuck on a zip line and havingnumerous affairs, made him an obvious threat to David Cameron’s premiership. His decision to defect to the Leave campaign was widely credited with bringing it success. He canned his leadership campaign after Michael Gove launched his own bid, but the question of whether his chutzpah would beat May’s experience and gravity is still unknown.

In giving BoJo the Foreign Office, then, May hands him the photo opportunities he craves. Meanwhile, the man with real power in international affairs will be David Davis, who as Brexit minister has the far more daunting task of renegotiating Britain’s trade deals.

Julia Rampen

Philip Hammond, Chancellor

Even officials with leftwing politics hoped that Theresa May would keep George Osborne in place at the Treasury, for two reasons: firstly because he is a considerate boss, and secondly because his exit from frontline politics likely means the end of a 19-year period of dominance by the Treasury, in which, whether under Gordon Brown, Osborne or even under Alistair Darling, whoever has been in office, the Treasury has been in power.

But Philip Hammond was very much the second choice, way ahead of any of the possible figures. Hammond was the biggest beast to back May’s candidacy and was rewarded for the Treasury brief that coalition denied him (he had shadowed the post of Chief Secretary to the Treasury in opposition but the mechanics of the coalition meant the post had to be given to a Liberal Democrat). Before May’s accession to the premiership, he had already lined up with her on negotiations with the European Union and Osborne’s deficit targets (now shelved).

Hammond comes in with the economy looking pre-recessional and with Britain’s future participation in the single market in some doubt. (Hammond has publicly said Britain ought to remain in the single market above all else – May is more concerned about immigration, while the Brexit-backing ministers are divided.)

What ought he to do? The big task is to get the construction industry back on its feet. Happily, although the decline in Britain’s credit rating has made borrowing more expensive, low interest rates at home and abroad make the case for fiscal stimulus stronger than ever, and mean the government can borrow on the cheap. Launching programmes of housebuilding, transport infrastructure and clean energy would be good ways to try to avert or at least ride out any economic shocks. (From an economic perspective albeit not an environmental one, it makes sense to approve new runways at Heathrow and Gatwick, two “shovel-ready” infrastructure projects that have private money behind them.)

But the big victory that Hammond could achieve at the Treasury would be to defeat the Brexiteer ultras and keep Britain in the single market.

Stephen Bush

Amber Rudd, Home Secretary

The good news first: Amber Rudd, MP for Hastings and Rye since 2010, joins May in the Great Offices of State. This is the first time two of these four positions have been held by women at the same time. Rudd is only the fifth woman ever to hold one.

The ex-Energy Secretary will take the reins directly from May, so it’s fair to assume she’ll carry on much of the work begun by the longest-serving Home Secretary since 1892. Rudd is unlikely to rock the boat here – she has not rebelled once in this parliamentary term. Therese Coffey MP told the Telegraph that May sees Rudd as “a safe pair of hands”.

The Investigatory Powers bill, or so-called Snoopers’ Charter, was a high priority for May, and is currently making its way through the Lords. Despite objections raised in the House around the protection of communications with journalists’ sources and lawyers’ clients, it’s likely it’ll pass without much fuss. Depending on the amendments that make it through, it may allow security services to hack into our computers and phones (including cameras and microphones), and require back doors to be built in encrypted messaging systems.

Rudd has repeatedly voted for a stricter asylum system by restricting the support available to failed asylum seekers, and denying permission for them to work if they’re in the UK for over six months. She was absent for a vote on sparing migrants from deportation on human rights grounds. May stubbornly sought to cut net migration in her time as Home Secretary, and created a minimum income threshold (£35,000) for non-EU citizens who have lived in the UK for less than ten years and who are hoping to stay.

Since taking the leadership May has confirmed that “we should have that goal of bringing immigration down to sustainable levels”. This is now down to Rudd, who in a fiery Brexit TV debate with Boris Johnson argued that immigration is “a complex problem…you need to look at the numbers. But the only number Boris is interested in is Number 10!”

Female Genital Mutilation within the UK also falls within the Home Office remit, and Rudd may try to make her own mark here. She is vice-chair of the Parliamentary Committee on Female Genital Mutilation and has called for stricter laws around the practice.

Barbara Speed

Justine Greening, Education Secretary

An early supporter of the new Prime Minister, and longstanding cabinet member, Justine Greening was always heading for promotion in a Theresa May cabinet. Her former territory, the Department for International Development, loyally picked up a lot of slack from the Home Office on migration issues under Greening's leadership, and she has regularly worked closely with May.

Personal allegiances aside, Greening is a sensible choice for the Department for Education. She is the first Education Secretary to have been educated at a comprehensive school, and as the first openly gay woman to serve in cabinet, she is a good choice for the Women and Equalities brief, which she also carries.

Theresa May’s first speech as Prime Minister highlighted two huge problems that many would attribute to the education system: how white working-class boys are “less likely than anybody else in Britain to go to university”; and how “If you’re at a state school, you’re less likely to reach the top professions than if you’re educated privately”.

Going some way to solving these two huge problems will be Greening’s aim, though really the issues go far deeper than her new department. Still, there is scope for improvement, beginning with an increased focus upon early years education: by the age of five, there is a 19-month gap in school readiness between the most and least disadvantaged children.

The UK is almost unique in having larger class sizes for primary than secondary school, which is barmy; addressing that should be part of a whole project of centring UK education policy on the first years in life, which are the most important, and ceasing the endless tinkering with secondary education.

Alas, many in the Conservative party do not want the tinkering to stop. There is a renewed call for the ban on opening new grammars to be overturned. There are 163 remaining today, concentrated in a few selective counties. The government’s approval of a new grammar school annexe in Sevenoaks last October, ten miles away from the original site, hints at many more to come, with ten council areas keen to open more satellite schools – effectively bringing grammar schools back through the back door.

The nostalgic argument to bring back grammar schools seems perverse considering that, in areas that maintain fully selective education like Kent, poorer pupils do worse than the national average and the attainment gap between the most advantaged and disadvantaged students is above the national average. It also ignores that the countries that perform best in education are those that separate latest, and demand the highest standards of all pupils until 16.

Greening will have more to grapple with than her predecessor Nicky Morgan, because the education brief has now been expanded to include higher education. Integrating the two could have some negative effects: schools and universities will now effectively be competing with each other for funding within the department. Whereas universities' former place in the Department for Business recognised how they are a British export and a driver of business.

But this integration gives Greening the opportunity to improve communication between elite universities and state schools, thereby improving access to the top universities. The coming vote on increasing tuition fees to £9,250 might give her an opportunity to demand that some universities ramp up their access work, as they did when fees when trebled in 2010. Yet she will soon realise that, while some universities could undoubtedly do more, the crux of the issue is way earlier, in the earliest years of life. This should be her main focus.

Tim Wigmore

Damian Green, Work and Pensions Secretary

"There will always be a little bit of the Home Office inside me,” Theresa May told her civil servants when she left 2 Marsham Street for the last time.

There is more than a little bit of the Home Office in her government, too, with trusted old hands from her old department now stretched out across the government. Damian Green, a long-term ally of May’s – and, like her, a veteran of the Conservatives’ internal battles to modernise from long before David Cameron arrived on the scene – and a trusted lieutenant in the Home Office, returns to government having been sacked by Cameron in 2014.

The appointment gives us a clue as to how May views the troubled Universal Credit programme and the Department for Work and Pensions overall. The DWP came to be regarded as something of a basket case on Whitehall and was at continual loggerheads – something that Stephen Crabb was brought in to fix after Iain Duncan Smith quit the government. Crabb’s resignation from the government following stories that he had sent salacious texts to a young woman stymied that project.

Step forward Green. It feels likely that his appointment is a signal that Downing Street is well aware of the problems with IDS’ failed reforms and the need for a competent hand to bring the department back into equilibrium. There’s an irony that the progressive wishlist for the DWP – unwind much of the Duncan Smith agenda, and get the department making headlines for positive reasons – is shared both by the Prime Minister and by the new boss at Caxton Street.

Stephen Bush

Priti Patel, International Development Secretary

Perhaps one of the least palatable new hires for Whitehall bods is Priti Patel, semi-promoted from cabinet-attending Employment Minister to International Development Secretary. The right winger is known for being on the neo-Thatcherite vanguard of the party characterised by the provocative 2012 treatise Britannia Unchained, which she co-authored – championing free market economics and a smaller state. So having her at the helm of any department would legitimately give civil servants the jitters.

But Dfid, though one of the less political departments, is a particularly controversial charge for Patel. In 2013, she suggested to the Daily Telegraph that it should be scrapped in favour of a more trade-focused department, calling for, “the consideration to replace Dfid with a Department for International Trade and Development in order to enable the UK to focus on enhancing trade with the developing world and seek out new investment opportunities in the global race. It is possible to bring more prosperity to the developing world and enable greater wealth transfers to be made from the UK by fostering greater trade and private sector investment opportunities.”

The International Development Act makes it illegal to tie aid to trade, so Patel will find it tough to pursue her ideological aims. But there are things she can do to change the tone and focus of the Department; her initial statement upon taking the job emphasises “working across government, with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the new Department for International Trade, the Home Office and others”. 

She could even advocate for repealing David Cameron’s commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of GDP on development, which was enshrined in law last year. Although it is unlikely she would try this, removing the ring fence on the Dfid budget might actually become a tempting prospect for the rest of government, which is set to become even more cash-strapped as a result of Brexit.

We can only hope that Dfid’s ability to keep its ministers out of the political fray, and regularly travelling overseas, will curb this threat.

Anoosh Chakelian

David Davis, Brexit Secretary

David Davis is proof that there are second acts in political lives. Eleven years after he was defeated by David Cameron in the Conservative leadership contest, and 19 years after he last served in government, Davis has been tasked by Theresa May with negotiating Brexit.

It was a role that the Leave supporter had pitched for throughout the EU referendum campaign, though he was still surprised by his elevation. When the call from Downing Street came, Davis was drinking with a former researcher in a Commons bar and initially ignored his phone. As Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, he will now be one of the new administration’s defining figures.

The Haltemprice and Howden MP, 67, served as Europe minister from 1994-97, a role in which he acquired the sobriquet  “Monsieur Non”. He has already displayed similar implacability in his new post. To the charge that opening trade talks with other countries would be illegal under EU law, Davis replied: “Well that’s what they say, they can’t tell us who to talk to . . . What are they are going to do?” He has also warned that European migrants who arrive before Brexit is complete could be denied the right to remain.

Davis expects Article 50, which sets a two-year limit for withdrawal, to be triggered “before or by the start” of 2017. Rater than retaining single market membership (as Norway does), he favours Canadian-style tariff-free access. This would grant the UK exemption from free movement and EU budget contributions but would deny financial services the right to unhindered trade (known as “passporting”).

The former SAS reservist is best remembered by many for resigning as shadow home secretary in 2008 in order to fight a by-election over the issue of 42-day detention. After remaining outside Cameron’s team, he became a redoubtable defender of civil liberties from the backbenches. The council estate boy was also one of just two Tory MPs to originally vote against tax credit cuts (a record of rebellion that also includes tuition fees, capital gains tax, child benefit cuts, House of Lords reform, boundary changes and Syria).

When I interviewed him in May, Davis warned that any attempt to withdraw the UK from the European Convention on Human Rights would be defeated by himself and “a dozen” other Conservatives (a group known as the “Runnymede Tories” after the meadow where Magna Carta was sealed). It was a stance that May abandoned shortly after launching her leadership campaign.

Davis boasts the rare feat of joining the government while simultaneously suing it. In partnership with Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson, he launched a European court action against the Home Office, May’s former department, over the bulk retention of communications data. “I would be surprised if the ECJ doesn’t find in my favour and that will have big implications for the IP [Investigatory Powers] bill,” he told me.

As one of the “three Brexiters” at the head of May’s government (the others being Boris Johnson and Liam Fox), Davis will compete not only for supremacy over policy. The trio have been ordered to share Chevening, the foreign secretary’s traditional country residence, in Kent.

George Eaton

Greg Clark, Business Secretary

A PhD in economics and a career in management consulting would suggest that the new Secretary of State for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy has a flare for maths. Yet when it comes to policy, Greg Clark's record doesn't always add up. 

A renowned Tory moderniser, Clark's appointment to head the new department (born out of watering down BIS, and dismantling DECC) has been greeted with optimism from the business community and green sector alike. He “gets climate change”, said Ruth Davis from the E3G energy policy think tank.

As a former policy director, he helped found and champion David Cameron’s Big Society initiative. He has since been through a succession of frontbench roles, consistently voted in favour of gay marriage, helped devolve power to cities, and made a splash by arguing that Polly Toynbee, not Winston Churchill, should set the Conservative agenda.

Yet can this Middlesbrough-born son of a milkman succeed in growing a green economy where his Big Society agenda appears to have so markedly failed?

The greatest challenge his new, enlarged, and hopefully more empowered, department faces is to grow UK industry at the same time as urgently reducing our emissions. Luckily this is something that Clark also perceives to be one of the country's greatest opportunities. He has criticised those who challenge action on climate change, shown a readiness to plan for the worst when it comes to interpreting climate science, and provided an ambitious vision for Britain’s green economy: “Britain could be the Saudi Arabia of marine energy”, he said in 2009.

Yet while his words have promoted wave-power, his actions have tended to change like the tide. His reputation for devolving power to local governments was seriously dented last year, when it was announced that Clark – then the Communities & Local Government Secretary – not the local council, would get the final say over permission to frack in Lancashire. Other concerning examples of this “do as I say, not as I do” tendency include voting to lower taxes on fuel and for cuts to renewable subsidies. 

He must therefore work fast to ensure that his reputation for blue sky thinking is more than a lot of hot air. Barry Gardiner, Labour's shadow energy secretary, has suggested that accelerating energy efficiency, developing Carbon Capture Storage and bringing forward the government’s promised Carbon Plan, would all be good places to start.

The rise of Clark and his new department is likely to be linked to the demise of the Department for Energy and Climate Change – and the loss of climate change from a cabinet nameplate. Yet if he can steer new policy in the right direction, towards making environmental costs integral to industry rather than an afterthought, he might yet make this chequered inheritance his greatest strength.

India Bourke

James Brokenshire, Northern Ireland Secretary

Remember Northern Ireland? You could be forgiven for forgetting it – certainly, for most of the EU referendum campaign, the fate of the region, which receives £120m a year in funds from the European Union, and thanks to the free movement of labour and the Common Travel Agreement no longer has a hard border between the North and the South.

Now that is in jeopardy, and thanks to the landslide endorsement of Remain by the region’s voters, tensions between Northern Ireland and the mainland are understandably high.

Neglected during the campaign, Northern Ireland has been forgotten during the discussion of what Brexit means. Most of the attention over what Britain’s Leave vote means for its constituent kingdoms has focused on whether Scotland stays in the Union or not – little attention has been given to the £600m hit to the Welsh economy or to what Brexit could do to Northern Ireland’s peace process.

Step forward James Brokenshire. Just as during the Blair era, Gordon Brown brought his protégés up through the Treasury before diffusing them throughout the government machinery, Theresa May has handed jobs to Home Office juniors who she knows and respects.

Brokenshire’s brief will be to shield Northern Ireland from the consequences of the loss of EU funds and ensure that whatever post-Brexit deal is struck, a hard border between North and South remains off the agenda.

Stephen Bush