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7 July 2011

The NS Interview: Robert Winston, doctor and Labour peer

“It’s difficult to be a doctor and a genuine right-winger”

By Sophie Elmhirst

Why did you become a doctor?
There were never any doctors in my family. But my grandparents and my mother had a strong social conscience that was formative.

Does politics influence your medical work?
Most of the people you care for are not going to be rich, unless you’re in private practice. It’s hard to be a good doctor if you don’t think about the social circumstances of who you’re treating. There are many Tory doctors, but I think it’s difficult to be a doctor and a genuine right-winger.

What do you think of the government’s change of tack on the NHS?
If it’s not a U-turn, it’s a huge change of emphasis. There’s a massive deficit in the NHS that the government is not handling. The idea that this is due to mismanagement is nonsense, and GP-led commissioning is not going to make it better, it’s going to make it worse.

What about their “listening exercise”?
It’s not a listening exercise – it’s a communication without dialogue.

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Are you worried about further privatisation?
The fragmentation that already started with the internal market is going to be made much worse. People are talking about the postcode lottery with IVF – it’s a model for what’s going to happen to other services, including cancer. Cameron saying “We’re going to treat cancer patients differently” is a nonsense. There are all sorts of fatal diseases. Will they not be treated in the same way? There’s a lack of coherence.

Do you think David Cameron and Andrew Lansley understand the NHS?
No, of course they don’t. They don’t understand how people work in the health service. If they did, the first thing they would do is increase morale by having people working in teams. You’re fighting a battle and dependence on your comrades is key. That’s how young doctors feel – that’s how I felt.

How should the NHS be funded?
Perhaps we should be getting some people to pay for parts of it. When I ran an NHS clinic, I would have at least 20 per cent no-shows. Each of those cost the NHS £200.

How is Labour doing in opposition?
Badly. The government is vulnerable and it should be ripped to shreds, but in both houses we’re not doing well. I don’t know if it’s the leadership. I like Ed Miliband – he’s a nice man – but it’s not an easy job. Would Ed Balls do it better? Probably not.

Did you support David’s bid for leadership?
Yes. I know David well, and I’ve always been impressed by him – but it’s difficult to know whether he would have done better.

Do you regret your anti-AV stance?
One of the reasons for being against AV is that it makes hung parliaments more likely. We’re facing a coalition that doesn’t have a mandate for so much of what it is doing.

How do you see the state of higher education?
In a way, it’s a tragedy that the sciences have been so successful. Scientists have managed to claim that the economy will be driven by science, so the arts and humanities have starved.

What’s your view of A C Grayling’s university?
It’s not much of a university if you don’t have a universal education. It seems to be focused on a few humanities subjects. Some of the names involved might look great on paper, but that doesn’t mean they can teach.

It reminds me of Jamie’s Dream School, in which you were involved.
I agree. They were hopeless teachers, with the exception of Rolf Harris. You don’t need a stellar teacher, what you need is a teacher.

As a religious Jew, are you tired of debating militant atheists?
My objective is to show that there isn’t such a thing as the truth. I’m not arguing that evolution’s not true, but it is foolish to say to the public that you’re deluded because you don’t believe what I believe. And for a scientist to say that is very damaging to science. I’m afraid that’s what Richard Dawkins has done.

Do you vote?
My first vote was for a communist in east London when I was a medical student. But I’ve voted Tory, Labour and Lib Dem in my time.

Is there anything you regret?
I don’t believe in regretting – one should try to move on. My mum was good at that. She was deeply in love with my father, and he died when I was nine. She remarried and her second husband died, too. I saw the grieving process she went through. My mother had this way of moving on. It was a fine trait.

Was there a plan?
Never. My career has been completely chaotic.

Are we all doomed?
No, provided we take ownership of the science. Science is often misused by even the most democratic governments.

Robert Winston is a judge for The Academy Excellence Awards

Defining moments

1940 Born in London
1964 Graduates from the London Hospital Medical College, University of London
1984 Made chair, British Fertility Society
1987 Professor, Institute of Obstetrics and Gynaecology; becomes dean in 1989
1995 Made a Labour peer
1998 His BBC TV series The Human Body wins three Baftas and a Peabody award
2008 Voted Peer of the Year for his work on Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill

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