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In this week's magazine | Who owns the future?

A first look at this week's issue.

Yuval Harari, bestselling author of Sapiens: who owns the future? An essay on how the Silicon Valley prophets have taken over from politicians as the leaders of the world.

Craig Raine: how my “Gatwick” poem caused a Twitter storm.

Novelist John King: the left-wing case for leaving the EU.

Tim Farron interview: out of the wilderness, why I want to take on the toughest job in politics.

Jon Holmes, Gary Lineker’s agent: Before celebrating the fall of Sepp Blatter, English football should get its own house in order.

George Eaton asks whether Labour can avoid George Osborne’s austerity trap.

The Leader: The Europe Question and the NS’s endorsement for the Lib Dem leadership.

Xan Rice looks at the growing pay gap between chief executives and the rest of the workforce.


Who owns the future?

Yuval Harari notes that we live in an era when politics is “bereft of grand visions”, despite having more tools than ever to shape the future of humanity:

Whereas the Nazis sought to create superhumans through selective breeding, we now have an increasing arsenal of bioengineering tools at our disposal. These could be used to redesign the shapes, abilities and even desires of human beings, so as to fulfil this or that political ideal. Bioengineering starts with the understanding that we are far from realising the full potential of organic bodies. For four billion years natural selection has been tinkering and tweaking with these bodies, so that we have gone from amoebae to reptiles to mammals to Homo sapiens. Yet there is no reason to think that sapiens is the last station. Relatively small changes in the genome, the neural system and the skeleton were enough to upgrade Homo erectus – who could produce nothing more impressive than flint knives – to Homo sapiens, who produces spaceships and computers. Who knows what the outcome of a few more changes to our genome, neural system and skeleton might be? Bioengineering is not going to wait patiently for natural selection to work its magic. Instead, bioengineers will take the old sapiens body and ­intentionally rewrite its genetic code, rewire its brain circuits, alter its biochemical balance and grow entirely new body parts.

Harari writes that “present-day politicians are thinking on a far smaller scale than their predecessors a century ago”. Instead, “business entrepreneurs and corporations” are the entities considering how technological developments will shape the future.

Harari concludes:

This should concern all of us. It is dangerous to mix godlike technology with megalomaniac politics but it might be even more dangerous to blend godlike technology with myopic politics. Our politics is becoming mere administration and is giving up on the future exactly when technology gives us the power to reshape that future beyond our wildest dreams. Indeed, technology gives us the power to start reshaping even our dreams. If politicians don’t want the job of planning this future, they will merely be handing it on a platter to somebody else. In consequence, the most important decisions in the history of life might be taken by a tiny group of engineers and businesspeople, while politicians are busy arguing about immigration quotas and the euro.



A very corporate coup

In the first part of a new series on the Europe Question, John King makes a left-wing case for leaving the EU. He begins by exploring the extent to which the British public feel hostile towards our current EU membership:

Despite the denials by our political and media elite, the most important issue of the 2015 election was Britain’s membership of the European Union. Nearly four million votes went to Ukip, a party that has been consistently abused and dismissed by our controllers, with much of that support coming from former Labour voters, while big numbers of people backed the little-loved Conservatives.

Both parties offered referendums on Britain leaving the EU – Ukip powerfully, the Tories reluctantly. It is not hard to work out why they did so well, yet there is still little acknowledgement of this fact from the establishment. An arrogant refusal to listen to the public has left Labour and the Liberal Democrats in tatters. Nick Clegg could moan about “identity” politics in the election’s aftermath, but this matters to the majority of people.

King writes an anti-EU position is seen as inexorably right-wing, something he dismisses as “bubblegum politics”. He writes that many form their pro-EU stance based simply on this association:

Backing the EU because the Tories are supposedly against it is pathetic. The EU is not a party issue. It is much more important.

Considering the myriad ways in which he feels the EU to be harmful to the UK, King concludes:

The EU offers us little. It costs billions to belong to a club that interferes in our affairs and has created needless divisions, one that will ultimately lead to our removal from the map. If a European superstate is achieved, the resentment and anger will flow through the centuries to come, creating resistance movements right across the continent.

Leaving the EU would save Britain money that could (in the right hands) be ploughed back into the public sector to safeguard jobs and services. And yet, nearly every mainstream politician lifts his nose in the air and turns away, embarrassed at ideas he considers crass. Across the world people are fighting to be more independent, not less so. They crave democracy and accountability, want to see their identities and cultures live on. The European Union is not new and it is not progressive, its trail winding back to the Roman empire. Britain needs to look to the future.


Tim Farron: Escape from the wilderness

George Eaton speaks to Tim Farron about the hardest job in politics, Lib Dem leader.

On coalition:

 “I would not sign off any agreement with any of the other parties that did not entail [electoral reform], end of story. Massive, massive red line, don’t even pick up the phone.”

On his competitors for party leader:

“Who can they [Lib Dems] see inspiring the people who are not yet members of the party and who didn’t vote for us this time round to change their minds next time?

“We need to have a voice that is a lot clearer and a lot louder to compensate for our size being smaller and I think I’m the person who’s the campaigner and the communicator who can do that.”

On his policy priorities:

He names housing, the environment and civil liberties as his priorities and declares his opposition to fracking (“It’s another fossil fuel”) and the like-for-like replacement of Trident (“It’s an act of aggression and will be seen as so by a global community that’s looking for people to disarm, not rearm to the max”).

On Charles Kennedy:

What Charles Kennedy is, is living proof that the good guys can be effective. We’ve just gone through an election where the bad guys were effective . . . Charles is proof that you can be human, you can be rigidly principled to a degree, thoroughly principled, and effective and win elections – and that’s a model I’d love us to follow.


Jon Holmes: Before celebrating the fall of Fifa’s Sepp Blatter, English football should get its own house in order

Jon Holmes writes that England shouldn’t feel smug about the fall of Blatter:

For all their righteous indignation about Fifa’s misdeeds under Blatter, the English football authorities were willing participants in the circus, bidding with the triple might of the nation’s royalty, David Beckham and the West Ham- (sorry, Aston Villa)-supporting Prime Minister for the right to stage the game’s premier international contest.


A transparent and much-reformed Fifa can be a force for good in world football, but if England and the UK are to play a part, then first they have to put their own house in order. Without proper powers and authority given to its governing bodies, without its own government representation at cabinet level, this cannot be. For too long a minister for sport has been a joke appointment, outside the cabinet. The Premier League, with its billions and billionaires, should not exist above the rule of law. Only when it is properly regulated and accountable to those who empower it – the billions of people who ­follow their clubs with cash and devotion – can we truly start to play a meaningful role in the rebuilding process.



Sophie McBain asks, can we survive the information assault of the digital age?

Michael Holroyd: Bernard Shaw, Nietzsche and the cult of the Superman.

Martin Fletcher explores the history and work of the Salvation Army on its 150th anniversary.

Mark Cocker: how much do the new nature writers actually care about nature?

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.