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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Cameron needs to decide what he thinks about Russia

David Cameron's words suggest one thing, his actions quite another.

David Cameron needs to decide whether he takes Russia seriously.

He certainly talks a good game, calling Vladimir Putin to account for crimes against Ukrainian sovereignty and for supporting the wrong side in Syria, claiming credit for bolstering the post-Crimea sanctions regime, and demanding that Moscow’s behaviour change. And the new Strategic Defence & Security Review, published last week, puts Russia front and centre among the threats Britain faces.

The problem is, his government’s foreign policy seems calculated to make no one happier than Putin himself.

At fault is not a failure of analysis. It has taken Whitehall 19 months since Moscow annexed Crimea to develop a new Russia policy, replacing the old aspirations of “strategic partnership based on common values”, but the conviction that Russia be treated as a significant threat to the U.K.’s security and prosperity is solid.

Five years ago, when the coalition government published the last Strategic Defence & Security Review, Russia was mentioned once, in the context of rising global powers with whom London could partner to help solve planetary problems, from nuclear proliferation to climate change. The new SDSR tells a very different story. Russia gets 28 mentions this time around, characterised as a “state threat” that “may feel tempted to act aggressively against NATO allies.” Russia’s annexation of Crimea and instigation of a separatist civil war in eastern Ukraine are mentioned in the same sentence with Assad’s chemical weapons attacks on Syrian civilians and the rise of the Islamic State as key examples of how the world is becoming a more dangerous place.

How that threat will be countered, however, is not a question Whitehall can answer: it is a question for Westminster, and it gets to the heart of where this government sees its place in the world, and in Europe in particular. What Whitehall cannot say – but what the politicians must recognise – is this: the best bulwark against the Kremlin is a strengthened European Union, with more integrated markets and the force to push a concerted foreign policy in the Eastern Neighbourhood. And that recognition requires Cameron to decide whether Putin poses a greater challenge than Nigel Farage.

The SDSR is right to note that the danger of a military confrontation with Russia is remote. Just in case, the Government has committed to bolstering aerial defences, contributing to NATO’s rapid reaction capabilities and maintaining the sanctions regime until a full settlement is reached that restores Ukrainian sovereignty. These are all reasonable measures, which will go some distance to ensuring that Moscow understands the risks of further escalation in the near term. But they do nothing to address the longer term problem.

From a hard-security perspective, Russia is a nuisance. The real danger is in the threat Moscow poses to what the SDSR calls the “rules-based order” – that system of institutions, agreements and understandings that underpin stability and prosperity on the European continent. That order is about more than respecting national borders, important as that is. It is also about accepting that markets are impartially regulated, that monopolies are disallowed and political and economic power reside in institutions, rather than in individuals. It is, in other words, about accepting rules that are almost the polar opposite of the system that Russia has built over the past 25 years, an order based on rents, clientelism and protected competitive positions.

Russia, after all, went to war over a trade treaty. It invaded Ukraine and annexed part of its territory to prevent the full implementation of a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement that was designed to make Ukraine function more like Europe and less like Russia. From Moscow’s point of view, the European project is a very real geopolitical threat, one that promises to reduce the territory in which Russia can compete and, eventually, to increase the pressure on Russia itself to change. In somewhat less pernicious ways Moscow is seeking similarly to derail Moldova’s and Georgia’s European integration, while working hard to keep Belarus and Armenia from straying.

This is not a problem of vision or diplomacy, a failure to convince Putin of the value of the European way of doing things. For Putin and those on whose behalf he governs, the European way of doing things carries negative value. And unless the basic structure of politics and economics in Russia shifts, that calculation won’t change when Putin himself leaves the Kremlin. For the foreseeable future, Russia’s rulers will be willing to go to extraordinary lengths to prevent the widening of Europe, at the cost of instability and dysfunction in the region.

European willingness is another question. A chorus of euro=sceptics both left and right have demanded that Europe stop provoking the Russian bear, leaving the Eastern Neighbourhood countries to fend for themselves – sacrificing Kiev’s sovereignty to Moscow in order to bolster their own sovereignty from Brussels. Cracks, too, are emerging in the centre of the political spectrum: as French President Francois Hollande pledged to work with Moscow to fight ISIS in Syria, Prime Minister Manuel Valls declared that such an alliance would necessitate the lifting of sanctions on Russia, thus trading stability in Syria for instability in Ukraine.

As a member of the EU, London has a role to play. Together with Berlin, London could exert pressure on Paris and keep the margins of the political spectrum marginal. London could through its weight behind a common energy market, forcing Gazprom to play by EU competition rules. London could bolster anti-corruption systems and ensure that ill-gotten gains have no safe haven in Europe. London could insist on the legitimacy of the European project from one end of the continent to the other.

Instead, London is threatening Brexit, relinquishing any leverage over its European allies, and seeking EU reforms that would eviscerate the common energy market, common financial regulation, the common foreign and security policy and other key tools in the relationship with Russia.

In their February 2015 report on EU-Russian relations, the House of Lords raised the question of “whether Europe can be secure and prosperous if Russia continues to be governed as it is today.” To be sure, Europe can’t change Russia’s government and shouldn’t try. But by insisting on its own rules – both in how it governs its internal markets and in how it pursues its foreign policy – Europe can change the incentives Russia’s government faces.

The question, then, to Cameron is this: Whose rules would Westminster rather see prevail in the Eastern Neighbourhood, Europe’s or Russia’s?

Samuel A. Greene is Director of the King’s Russia Institute, King’s College London.