"Gut feelings" are just as valid as political rhetoric in the new Rational Parliament. And why not?

In ancient Athens, each citizen had to take a turn offering his governance. The Rational Parliament attempts to bring that spirit back, because certain issues are too important to leave to the professionals.

Last month, thousands of farmers descended on the centre of New Delhi to show their support for the use of biotechnology in agriculture. A few days earlier, thousands of other citizens had gathered in the same place. Their goal was to persuade the Indian government to do the opposite: not to allow field trials of genetically modified crops.
 
Had these two gatherings taken place on the same day, violence would almost certainly have ensued. The issue of genetic modification is a flashpoint for extremism, with ideology and egos elbowing facts out of the debate.
 
India has a fast-growing population, and the Indian parliament is considering if biotechnology should play a part in the food production industry. Thanks to public interest litigation on the matter, so is India’s Supreme Court. Here’s a question: why aren’t you?
 
Most of us feel unqualified to approach these issues. But our use of biotechnology matters wherever we are, and there is no reason to think you are less qualified than the politicians who get to make the call. In ancient Athens, each ordinary citizen had to take his turn offering governance, making thought-out decisions on the questions of the day, based on his best understanding. What makes you so special?
 
It’s hard to find a good way to engage with complex problems. Marches and rallies inevitably polarise opinion. Debates between panels of experts often leave an audience feeling powerless and paralysed by partisan rhetoric. Wouldn’t it be good if you, like the Athenians, could discuss both sides for yourself, quietly and without fear of provoking violence? And then listen, politely, to other people’s views before casting a vote on whether we should proceed with something?
 
That’s the idea behind the Rational Parliament, which will debate genetic modification at its inaugural meeting in Conway Hall, central London, on 10 September. It is open to anyone and everyone who wants to take part (though numbers are limited). There will be short presentations from scientists who have published on the subject, but anyone who turns up will be considered a Member of the Rational Parliament (MRP) and can ask questions or table motions. Towards the end of the evening, MRPs will use a ballot box to cast a vote for or against the motion.
 
It’s just possible the outcome will have some influence in the UK’s other parliament. As the Speaker of that house, John Bercow, recently pointed out in a controversial speech on reform, history shows societies can lead as well as follow parliaments. The Rational Parliament’s aim is dignified democratic engagement with the scientific topics of the day – difficult to achieve in the older house.
 
At the Rational Parliament, submission of robust evidence will be encouraged but “gut feelings” are valid submissions, too, and if they are widely shared they will be influential. Not everything that matters can be put into peer-reviewed journals (though they’re a good place to start).
 
In fact, when it comes to GM and many other current issues, we have a lot of facts at our disposal. Should we choose to sit down and look at them without prejudice, it may well be that there is an obvious answer. But it is also possible there is no right answer yet, just a right way forward. Either way, it’s far too important to leave to the professionals.
 
Michael Brooks will be speaker of the house at the inaugural debate of the Rational Parliament. Details: rationalparliamentgm.eventbrite.co.uk 
Indian farmers demonstrate during a protest against the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI) Bill in New Delhi. Image: Getty

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 09 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Britain alone

ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
Show Hide image

Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories