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?

Photo: Getty Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

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