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Naked sleepwalking, going native in Spain, and the real threat to the NHS and the BBC

Plus: why the EU referendum is our Hillary Clinton v Donald Trump moment.

The other day, I read that police in Manchester had picked up a man who was sleepwalking through the city late at night with no clothes on. He wasn’t identified at the time, though I did wonder if it was Louis van Gaal. The story reminded me of an occasion when my late friend John Fortune found himself in the street in Chiswick one night, having sleepwalked (he was dreaming he was in Manhattan) and shut the front door behind him.

He dialled 999 from a phone box. “Are you naked?” the operator asked. “No,” said John. “I’ve got my pyjamas on.” “In that case, it’s the fire brigade you want, sir. I’ll put you through.” (Apparently if you’re naked they send the police.)

So John went back and sat on the wall outside his house and, sure enough, a few minutes later, a fire engine came slowly up the street, its blue lights flashing but without the siren. The fire officer jumped down, took one look at John sitting there in his ­pyjamas and said, “Well, George Parr. You’re in a bit of a pickle, aren’t you?”

Viewers of our TV show will ­remember those peerless interviews in which the Johns – Bird and Fortune – took it in turns to play the hapless George Parr, who could be anything from a banker to a junior minister or an army general. How I miss those sketches. Just imagine who Parr might be today. Probably a Brexiteer.

The air that I breathe

“We want our country back” is a constant Brexit refrain. Yet many of the things that make our country great – the BBC, the NHS, the Post Office – are most at risk not from the EU but from the largely pro-Brexit right wing of the Tory party, which wants to undermine the BBC, privatise the NHS and sign up to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, which would ­allow companies to sue our government if its policies impacted adversely on their profits.

Many of those pesky European regulations and directives, meanwhile, are designed to improve the quality of our air, beaches and animal welfare – improvements that our government often fights tooth and nail. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, for instance, was held to account by the European Court of Justice after the campaign group ClientEarth complained that the air ­quality in 16 of our cities and regions – including London, Manchester, Birmingham, Glasgow and Cardiff – was unacceptably below EU standards on pollution.

Bad medicine

Among the Syrian refugees seeking to come to this country are many highly qualified people, including doctors. As he ran out of ways to keep the lid on the crisis, it must have crossed the Prime Minister’s mind that one way to stop them coming here is to create a situation in which nobody in their right mind would want to be a doctor in Britain. Luckily, in Jeremy Hunt, he has the right man for the job.

Where’s Jez?

The referendum campaign so far has been dominated by the battle between Conservatives. Invariably, it’s David Cameron v Boris Johnson; or George Osborne v Michael Gove; or IDS v . . . well, IDS. The other parties barely get a look-in. This is partly because Jeremy Corbyn is still unwilling or unable to make any impact. Each morning, surrounded by a scrum of reporters and news crews waiting to hear something – anything – he doesn’t use the opportunity and is instead bundled into a waiting people-carrier as if he were being taken off to appear in court.

In the battles to come, Labour supporters need a champion, not a conscientious objector. And Corbyn needs a strong phalanx of supporters around him to put out the message in the studios, just as Tony Blair could rely on John Reid, David Blunkett, Margaret Beckett or Peter Mandelson to fight his corner. What we hear of those inside Team Corbyn all too easily gives rise to the impression that he is a Trojan horse. Actually, make that a Trojan donkey.

Isla del Crime

I’m always bemused when Vote Leave states that EU immigrants put an untold strain on the NHS. It is the youngest, fittest migrants who come here to work on our farms and in our factories. Imagine if Britain were a haven for the EU’s pensioners and gangsters. It must feel like that for the Spanish, who for years have provided homes for our retired people and criminals (in some cases, both). To be fair, once they arrive in Spain, the Brits do their best to integrate. Do they set up British pubs, eat fish and chips, watch Premiership football on Sky and play bridge? No. They learn flamenco, eat paella, speak Spanish and quote Cervantes at length.

One fact to rule them all

Just as in the Scottish referendum, people insist that what they want are “facts”. It’s as if they’re waiting for one killer fact that will seal the argument. Yet there are any number of facts available, both for and against Brexit. Maybe they want a comparison website, where you can type in your circumstances and choose your supplier of government based on who offers the best deal. That’s the level at which many of the economic claims on both sides have been made: “Vote Remain and save £4,300!” or “Vote Leave and we’ll cut VAT on fuel!” (That tax was introduced, by the way, not by Europe but by the arch-Brexiteer Norman Lamont and reduced by Gordon Brown against Tory opposition.)

Identity crisis

Ultimately, I believe that the decision is ­existential. What sort of people are we, and what sort of country do we want to live in? Are we outward-looking and ­co-operative, believing in the principle that we can achieve more by uniting across borders? Or are we angry, disillusioned with the EU project in general and immigration in particular? Am I Barack Obama or Marine Le Pen? Mark Carney or Jacob Rees-Mogg? Stephen Hawking or Chris Grayling? In a sense, this is our Hillary Clinton v Donald Trump moment. I know which I prefer. l

Rory Bremner writes for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 09 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, A special issue on Britain in Europe

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White supremacists are embracing genetic testing – but they aren't always that keen on the results

Users of far-right site Stormfront are resorting to pseudo science and conspiracy theories when DNA tests show they aren't as “pure” as they hoped.

The field of genomics and genetics have undergone almost exponential growth in recent years. Ventures like the Human Genome Project have enabled t humanity to get a closer look at our building blocks. This has led to an explosion in genetic ancestry testingand as of 6 April 2017 23AndMe, one of the most popular commercial DNA testing websites, has genotyped roughly 2 million customers.

It is perhaps unsurprising that one of the markets for genetic testing can be found among white suprmacists desperate to prove their racial purity. But it turns out that many they may not be getting the results they want. 

Stormfront, the most prominent white nationalist website, has its own definition of those who are allowed to count themselves as white - “non-Jewish people of 100 per cent European ancestry.” But many supremacists who take genetic tests are finding out that rather than bearing "not a drop" of non-white blood, they are - like most of us a conglomerate of various kinds of DNA from all over the world including percentages from places such as sub Saharan Africa and Asia. Few are taking it well.

Dr. Aaron Panofsky and Joan Donovan, of UCLA’s Institute for Society and Genetics and the research institute Data and Society respectively, presented a research study (currently under peer review for publication) at the American Sociological Association a week ago, analysing discussion of GAT on Stormfront forums. Panofsky, Donovan and a team of researchers narrowed down the relevant threads to about 700, with 153 users who had chosen to publish their results online. While Panofsky emphasised that it is not possible to draw many quantitative inferences, the findings of their study offer a glimpse into the white nationalist movement's response to science that doesn't their self perception. 

“The bulk of the discussion was repair talk”, says Panofsky. “Though sometimes folks who posted a problematic result were told to leave Stormfront or “drink cyanide” or whatever else, 'don’t breed', most of the talk was discussion about how to interpret the results to make the bad news go away”.

Overwhelmingly, there were two main categories of reinterpretation. Many responses dismissed GAT as flimsy science – with statements such as a “person with true white nationalist consciousness can 'see race', even if their tests indicate 'impurity'".

Other commentators employed pseudo-scientific arguments. “They often resemble the critiques that professional geneticists, biological anthropologists and social scientists, make of GAT, but through a white nationalist lens", says Panofsky. 

For instance, some commentators would look at percentages of non-European DNA and put it down to the rape of white women by non-white men in the past, or a result of conquests by Vikings of savage lands (what the rest of us might call colonialism). Panofsky likens this to the responses from “many science opponents like climate deniers or anti-vaxxers, who are actually very informed about the science, even if they interpret and critique it in idiosyncratic and motivated ways".

Some white nationalists even looked at the GAT results and suggested that discussion of 100 per cent racial purity and the "one drop" rule might even be outdated – that it might be better to look for specific genetic markets that are “reliably European”, even though geneticists might call them by a different name.

Of course, in another not totally surprising development, many of the Stormfront commentators also insisted that GAT is part of a Jewish conspiracy, “to confuse whites by sprinkling false diversity into test results".

Many of the experts in the field have admitted to queasiness about the test themselves; both how they come to their results and what they imply. There are several technical issues with GAT, such as its use of contemporary populations to make inferences about those who previously lived in different places around the world, and concerns that the diversity of reference samples used to make inferences is not fully representative of the real world. 

There are other specific complications when it comes to the supramacist enthusiasm for GAT. Some already make a tortous argument that white people are the “true people of color" by dint of greater variation in hair and eye color. By breaking up DNA into percentages (e.g. 30 per cent Danish, 20 per cent German), Panofsky says GAT can provide a further opportunity to “appropriate and colonise the discourse of diversity and multiculturalism for their own purposes". There's is also, says Panofsky, the simple issue that “we can’t rely on genetic information to turn white nationalists away from their views."

“While I think it would be nice if the lesson people would take from GAT is that white nationalism is incoherent and wrong. I think white nationalists themselves often take the exact opposite conclusion."