Robert Winston: "Would you rather live in 1913 or 2013?"

The Imperial College Professor of Science and Society takes the NS Centenary Questionnaire.

What is the most important invention of the past 100 years?

It’s a very arguable point. Possibly the microchip, because it has facilitated so much of what we do in modern society, and what we will do in the future as it becomes more and more miniaturised at the nano level. But I think you could say that the close runner-up would be the laser. It is one of the most ubiquitous pieces of technology. First posited by Albert Einstein in 1905 in his special theory of relativity, it wasn’t actually made until 50 years later. It can be used for nuclear fusion, for microscopes, for recording, for surgery.

What is the most important scientific discovery of the past 100 years?

Maybe the discovery of subatomic particles, because although we knew a bit about electrons, the organisation of the atom has been a phenomenal discovery in terms of our understanding of the universe.

What is the most important sporting event of the past 100 years?

I think the Olympic men’s 1,500 metres, because that gives a very good yardstick of how human performance has improved. In 1900, the world record was about three minutes and 56 seconds. By the 1970s it had fallen to around three minutes 30 seconds. It’s now down to three minutes 26 seconds. It’s actually improved about 8.6 per cent in that time. So that gives you an idea.

We have probably peaked at three minutes 26 seconds, so unless we genetically modify humans, or give them drugs, it won’t improve much more.

Who is the most influential politician in the past 100 years?

Denis Healey. I think that it was one of the great tragedies of British politics that he never became prime minister.

He was widely educated, with a very powerful intellectual background and an extraordinary sense of humour, and great fun to be with.

And philanthropist?

Leonard Wolfson. He was a remarkable philanthropist who did amazing things for the medical and the arts community in Britain and overseas. He was an extraordinary man, although very difficult to deal with.

I am deeply grateful to him; he was very supportive of some of the things I find very important.

What is your favourite quotation and why?

I quite like Gerald Kaufman’s comment, which was also quoted by Denis Healey. It’s “the longest suicide note in history” – referring to the 1983 Labour Party manifesto, which wanted to renationalise a whole lot of industries, and all sorts of things that were completely insane.

What is your favourite speech?

Robin Cook’s resignation speech at the time of the Iraq war. He demolished the front bench of the Conservative Party and it was one of the funniest and most abrasive speeches. Cook at his masterful best.

What is the most significant change to our lives you envisage over the next 100 years?

I think that’s a really stupid question. It is quite impossible for us to envisage what is going to happen to us over the next five years, let alone the next 100 years. We live in an uncertain world. I don’t think that we should try to make predictions. It’s only when uncertainty becomes certainty that it becomes dangerous. Both religion and science are at their most dangerous when they are certain.

So then, what is your greatest concern about the future?

I’m an optimist. I think that human affairs are becoming steadily better. Would you rather live in 1913 or 2013?

Of course I have concerns. But I think that people are becoming more concerned for other people, and we are valuing our children more than ever before. There are all sorts of signs that human society is improving.

In your own field, what will be the most dramatic development?

I have no idea! I don’t think you can predict any developments in my line of work.

Science is never clear where it is going to go, but this is what I find interesting.

What is the most important priority for the future wellbeing of people and our planet?

The education of young people, especially primary school children and below. Having a better, broader education for people before the age of nine is important, because by the age of nine and ten, children start to lose that wide-eyed innocence.

We corrupt their view of the world and stultify their innovation and imagination. What we need to do is to start maintaining that inquisitiveness and inventiveness of children. They are the young scientists.

 

The New Statesman centenary questionnaire (Illustration: Ellie Foreman-Peck)

This article first appeared in the 30 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Should you bother to vote?

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To beat the Trump hype, we need a return to old-fashioned political virtues

If we want to resist the Trumpification of politics, what we need is restraint, duty and incorruptibility.

After the 1992 US presidential election, Alistair Cooke’s celebrated BBC radio series Letter from America struck a poignant note. Cooke described Bill Clinton’s worn jeans and checked wool shirt, contrasting them with George H W Bush’s buttoned-up Wasp manners and buttoned-down Ivy League shirts. Clinton’s style, Cooke argued, was a rebuke to a tired social and political establishment. His casualness was the new America.

Cooke, then 83, was honest enough to admit unease about this departure from the old, patrician modes and manners. “Along with the passing of George Bush,” he said, “we shall see, I fear, the passing of the blue blazer.” Cooke seemed right at the time. But don’t write off the blue blazer just yet. As ruling elites change, so does the appropriate counterpoint. To topple Bush’s stuffy golf club elites, Clinton picked up his saxophone, took off his tie and felt everyone’s pain. And now? The subtext of these turbulent months (the inevitable second question, prompted by “How do you beat Donald Trump?”) is: “What should ­tomorrow’s leaders, the leaders we crave, look and sound like?”

My conjecture is that, to beat Trump and his type – bling, shiny suits, dodgy deals – we should push towards centre stage an underestimated set of political virtues: restraint, duty and incorruptibility. If it weren’t for the gender associations, I would be tempted to call this quality gentlemanliness. Aside from personal virtue – signally lacking in the Clinton camp – how might decency inform public debate as it comes under attack from maverick showmen trained in the media circus? How can the middle ground regain its confidence?

First, level with the public. Maybe liberalism hasn’t failed so much as its messaging has failed. Instead of smashing the electorate over the head with the idea that everything is just great, make the case that not everything can be for the best in all possible worlds. As populists reach for empty slogans, a new space has opened up. Accept and exploit those asymmetries: more people are ready to hear uncomfortable truths than politicians imagine.

Kingsley Amis once argued that a writer’s voice should stay close to his speaking voice: not the same, but close. Adapting that idea, if politicians stayed closer in public debate to the truths that they articulate in casual conversation – some things are impossible; almost every policy creates a losing as well as a winning side; there really isn’t any money – they would be surprised how many people are ready to hear that not all problems can be evaporated into thin air. Stray too far from awkward truths and elections become about simple lies v tricksy lies.

Second, centrists do more harm than good when they rush to categorise dissenting opinion as not only wrong, but unacceptable. “Any suggestion that liberal values are not humanly universal,” as John Gray wrote in a recent NS essay, “will provoke spasms of righteous indignation.” Instead, we need to be more tolerant in our tolerance.

Third, stop pretending that everything desirable can be shoehorned into the “progressive” agenda. “I really care passionately about persevering with the common-sense middle ground and doing it quite well” is a problematic political sales pitch, but not for the reasons that are usually given. The gravest difficulty may come at the beginning, with the faux passion, rather than with the substance – public service and competence – underneath.

It is revealing that those closest to David Cameron expended so much energy trying to persuade us that he was not an updated version of Harold Macmillan. That is why the gay marriage reforms, though admirable, were accorded too much significance. Ah, Cameron was a natural crusader! But he paid a price for dressing up as a “radical” when greater challenges arrived. It weakened some of his strongest cards – calmness, perspective, proportion – just as politics was coarsening. Aren’t Tories supposed to understand the virtues of yesterday? In other words, as an electoral strategy to beat Trump (or Nigel Farage), I’d put up a Macmillan type over a Clinton type every time.

Fourth, cut ties with “messaging experts”. It’s a fraud. They teach that everything must be asserted with powerful conviction. Yet ideas unworthy of powerful conviction are best left shorn of them. The electorate has endured a communications version of crying wolf. As a result of the messaging game, when something genuinely important crops up, it sounds simply like the same old shtick.

Fifth, ditch the bogus quantification. Few things signal untrustworthiness more reliably than fake precision. Something shifted in me when George Osborne argued that Brexit would leave households £4,300 worse off. What, no decimal point? Voters understand uncertainty better than politicians imagine. Precise quantification used to sound professional. Now it sounds suspicious.

Finally, think about tone. Conventional wisdom holds that the mainstream must fight the Trumpian revolution on its own terms: a simple solution, memorably expressed, a guiding vision for the country or the world. If anyone has a good one to hand, I’m all for it. But what if – after decades of ­sophisticated argument and counterargument, as politics has solved the easy problems while parking the difficult or insoluble ones – we have reached a state of such evolved equilibrium that no such easy answer can exist?

Pretending otherwise is no longer a point of difference. It takes you towards the lowest common denominator. As Trump has shown, that is well-occupied territory. Perhaps wooing the angry mob is not the solution. Instead, the admirable and successful politician of the future will have to win back the support of moderate, sensible but disillusioned voters. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage