When a cow is not a cow

Science made easy, with the help of one persistent parishioner

BBC Radio 4's ingeniously ambiguous series of 15-minute programmes Street Science (1-5 December, 3.45pm) takes leading scientists out of their laboratories to meet "real people". In the first, Stephen Minger, senior lecturer in stem-cell biology, visited a rural Anglican church to speak to the parishioners about experimentation on embryos.

Before, in the car, he confessed it was hard to come by human eggs. "We thought it was unjustified ethically to ask very large numbers of young women less than the age of 30 to come in and be subjected to hormonal stimulation, then have a needle inserted through their uterus and into their ovaries," he said, somewhat gloomily, before getting out at the church and commenting: "It's usual for me to be going to the lab on a Sunday morning, not church. But the bells are nice."

In the rectory it was pure Midsomer Murders. Wall-to-wall Mitford sisters, with more than an edge of the lunatic. One typical exchange: "So why a cow egg?" asked a woman, with a voice that testified to matching mittens strung on a woollen cord around her neck, six gun dogs and gin at six. "Well," said Minger, slowly, "the reason we went for cows in the end -" "- you see I thought the closest tissue to humans was pigs' eggs." (You could see this woman's slightly tarnished but nevertheless enormously valuable antique brooch with its lone blue diamond representing dew on a leaf). "You could use pigs' eggs," agreed Minger. "And you could use rabbits'. But if we're taking, for example, a cow egg and removing the nucleus from the cow egg, the nucleus is where the chromosomes are, and what makes us human are our chromosomes -" "- that's hard to understand," objected the brooch. "And what makes a cow a cow are cow chromosomes," continued Minger, infinitely patient, paternal, good. And then the brooch just says: "That's difficult to understand, because if it's a cow it seems to be a cow to me." The sense in this statement stretched as far back as the horizon and there was a palpable lull.

"Well," tried Minger, "what ultimately turns it into a cow are the chromosomes in the egg which activate the cow gene." "Yeess," replied the woman sceptically. (Although she was clearly a person of ruthless trimness, I was beginning to see her as exquisitely considerate of other people, showing her love of life by kicking the tripe out of Minger, and possibly even playing a big, sly joke on us all). "So you're saying the egg is only a shell?" she suggested. (The depth! Like Shakespeare's "My body is the frame wherein 'tis held"!) "Imagine a wine bottle and you've taken all the wine out?" said Minger, running with her now, thankful. "Yes," she ceded. "Well, you could put wine back into it!" he trilled. "Or you could put milk," she suggested. (With whisky? Like Jeff Bridges in The Fabulous Baker Boys?)

Oh, it was all positive, and everything was eventually got out on the table, and it was generally agreed that thank Christ we're not French because here we believe in regulation but aren't too fussed about existential issues like what constitutes human life and stuff like that. I love this kind of programme - one that presents an argument as perfectly packaged as a cabbage: organic, slightly innocent, and infinitely better than expected. Bliss, in fact.

Pick of the week

Great Lives
9 December, 4.30pm, Radio 4
Matthew Parris begins a new series with an appraisal of Pavarotti.

Powering Africa’s Future
11 December, 10.30am, BBC World Service
Should Africa go nuclear, or use the sun for energy?

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, After the Terror

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide