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Corbyn’s bung to the middle class, the true causes of terror, and a musical’s off-key message

Plus Labour's Brexit negotiating team and the morals of leaking about the Manchester attack.

What explains Labour’s surge in the polls? I suspect, unlikely as it may seem, that the middle classes are rallying to Jeremy Corbyn. By far the most expensive proposal in the Labour manifesto, costing £11.2bn or nearly a quarter of its entire additional spending commitment, is to abolish university tuition fees and reintroduce student maintenance grants. Since a child from a middle-class home is significantly more likely to go to university than one from a working-class home, that money will go disproportionately to well-off families. So will the much smaller cost of free school dinners for all primary school pupils since children from poor homes already get free meals.

By contrast, Labour will spend only £4bn on reversing the Tories’ social security cuts, leaving two-thirds of them in place. Its manifesto contains no commitments to stop the benefits freeze (though Corbyn mysteriously told Channel 4’s Jeremy Paxman they would be “uprated”) or to reverse cuts to child tax credits.

Corbyn, perhaps, is not as left-wing as everybody thinks he is

Team players

One charge that should not be levelled against Labour is that it couldn’t get a good Brexit deal. On the contrary, it has a better negotiating team. Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary, is a barrister and former director of public prosecutions; the shadow foreign secretary, Emily Thornberry, who looks and sounds like a traditional Tory, is also a barrister; and Barry Gardiner, the shadow trade secretary, won a postgraduate scholarship to Harvard and worked in shipping insurance.

Consider their opposite numbers. David Davis made an eccentric resignation from parliament and the shadow cabinet in 2008 to fight a pointless by-election on civil liberties. Boris Johnson was sacked from the Tory front bench in 2004 for lying about an extramarital love affair to Michael Howard, then his party leader. Liam Fox had to resign as defence secretary in 2011 because he allowed a lobbyist to accompany him on overseas trips. That trio look about as strong and stable as dandelions in a hurricane.

Poll position

So do I think Corbyn can emulate Donald Trump and pull off victory in defiance of expectations? Alas, no. Though voters, now they have seen Corbyn dealing with questions from TV audiences, like him more than they expected (and Theresa May less), the idea of him in No 10 is still too implausible for most. Some polls overestimate the likelihood of young voters, who overwhelmingly support Corbyn, getting to the polling stations.

But May called the election with the stated intention of crushing the opposition. Voters dislike being used in that fashion and they warm to Corbyn as the underdog. I’d be surprised if the Tory majority was more than 60 and unsurprised if it were quite a bit lower. I’d be surprised, too, if Corbyn failed to increase Labour’s share of the vote from Ed Miliband’s 30.4 per cent. He could even come close to Tony Blair’s 35.2 per cent in 2005. I hope so. We may then hear less from Blair, Mandelson and their ilk about how Labour can’t win on a left-wing manifesto.

Right to know now

I do not criticise newspapers for publishing leaked diplomatic cables. In such cases, they expose material of public interest that would otherwise remain secret indefinitely. Pictures and information relating to the Manchester bombing, published by the New York Times less than 48 hours later, are a different matter. The UK police would probably have released most of this material within days, even hours. They thought premature disclosure would alert the bombers’ associates. New York Times readers derived no benefit, except the early gratification of voyeuristic curiosity. The public has a right to know, but not a right to know on Wednesday afternoon rather than the following Friday morning.

Newspapers and broadcasters devote enormous resources to revealing information slightly ahead of its official release. The aim is not to inform the public – because premature leaks are often partial, they tend to misinform – but to beat their rivals. Journalists should spend more time digging out material that the authorities want to keep secret for as long as possible.

The road to 9/11

Responding to Corbyn’s claim that Western foreign policy incubated terrorism, his critics argue that 9/11 happened before any interventions overseas. That is nonsense. First, the US funded the Afghan mujahedin in the 1980s to oppose a Soviet-supported Marxist regime. The mujahedin eventually morphed into al-Qaeda. Second, the West intervened in the early 1990s to throw Iraq’s Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. When the US stationed troops in Saudi Arabia, some Saudis saw it as “desecrating holy places”. The Independent’s Robert Fisk and other Middle East specialists warned of consequences. They were mocked. And, by 2001, their warnings were forgotten.

Bootstraps and stardust

As my wife and I left London’s Theatre Royal, where the musical 42nd Street is running, I heard an American voice stating: “What that means is that, when you don’t succeed, just try again.” That is indeed the show’s message. Originally a film written at the height of the 1930s Depression, when US unemployment was nearly 25 per cent, it features a struggling producer who gambles on a lavish new musical and a girl from small-town Pennsylvania who can’t get an audition for the chorus but later becomes star of the show. It has catchy songs, carrying you along with its feel-good message. But homilies such as “just try again” didn’t rescue America from the slump. It owed its recovery to the then novel social democratic policies of Franklin Roosevelt which put social security for the poor and unemployed at the top of the agenda. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 01 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Labour reckoning

Spudgun67 via Creative Commons/
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It might be a pseudo science, but students take the threat of eugenics seriously

Today’s white nationalists and neo-Nazis make extensive use of racist pseudo-science to bolster their political arguments.

In January, the London Student published my investigation, which showed that the controversial columnist Toby Young attended the London Conference on Intelligence, secretly held at University College London. Shortly afterwards, I mentioned to someone in a pub smoking area that I go to UCL. “Did you hear about the eugenics conference?” he asked me.

He was an international student from Africa. “I applied to UCL partly because I thought it was safer than other universities, but now I’m not so sure. I worry about how many other professors hold the same opinions.”

A protest outside the UCL Provost’s office after the article was published attracted scores of students. “I have a right to come to university and not fear for my safety,” one told the crowd, exasperated. “Nothing has been done, and that’s what really scares me.”

While hecklers derided the protest as an overreaction, students have good reason for taking eugenics seriously. UCL has a long history of support for scientific racism, beginning with Francis Galton, the Victorian polymath who, among other achievements, founded the science of eugenics. UCL’s Galton Chair in National Eugenics, which survived under that name until 1996, was first held by Karl Pearson, another ardent racial eugenicist. Pearson talked about creating a nation from “the better stocks” while conducting war with the “inferior races”, and in 1925 co-authored an article published in the Annals of Eugenics warning of the dangers of allowing Russian and Polish Jewish children into Britain. The London Conference on Intelligence was held in a building named in Pearson’s honour.

Eugenics is most closely associated in the popular imagination with fascism, and the twisted ideology of the Nazi party. Yet racial eugenics was closely linked to wider European imperialism, as illustrated by one object in the Galton collection, contributed by Pearson. Dr. Eugene Fischer’s hair colour scale is a selection of 30 different synthetic hair varieties in a tin box, a continuous scale from European to African. Fischer’s work was used in the early 20th century by Germany to ascertain the whiteness of Namibia’s mixed-race population, even before it was used by the Nazis to design the Nuremburg Laws. In apartheid South Africa, Afrikaans researchers used his tools as late as the 1960s.

Its importance to the imperial project meant that eugenics enjoyed widespread support in British scientific and political establishments. Galton’s Eugenics Society, set up to spread eugenicist ideas and push for eugenic policies, had branches in Birmingham, Liverpool, Cambridge, Manchester, Southampton and Glasgow, drawing hundreds of academics to their meetings. It was a movement of the educated middle class, including leading progressives such as John Maynard Keynes, Marie Stopes and the Fabians. Society presidents hailed from the universities of Edinburgh, Oxford, Cambridge, LSE, and UCL.

With this history in mind, it is easier to understand why students take the UCL eugenics scandal so seriously. Science journalist Angela Saini, who has been researching the history of race science for her upcoming book, argues that the problem lies in the co-opting of pseudoscience for political purposes. “These people are on the fringes, they’re not respected in mainstream academia,” she says. “The problem is when people like Toby Young come in from outside and use these studies to promote their own political agenda.” (Young said he attended the conference purely for research).

The rise of the far-right in Europe and America also means that the tolerance afforded to racist pseudoscience is not a purely academic question. Today’s white nationalists and neo-Nazis make extensive use of racist pseudoscience to bolster their political arguments.

Our investigation into the London Conference on Intelligence uncovered the involvement of at least 40 academics from at least 29 different universities in 15 different countries. Among these was the Oxford academic Noah Carl, a postdoctoral researcher in the social sciences at Nuffield College, who has spoken twice at the London Conference on Intelligence. Carl has also written several papers for Emil Kirkegaard’s OpenPsych, which include two looking at whether larger Muslim populations make Islamist terrorism more likely, and one suggesting that British stereotypes towards immigrants are “largely accurate”.

One external reviewer responded to the last paper by stating that: “It is never OK to publish research this bad, even in an inconsequential online journal.” Nevertheless, the paper was featured by conservative US website The Daily Caller, under a picture of Nigel Farage’s “Breaking Point” poster. The far right European Free West Media cited the paper to claim that “criminal elements are represented by certain ethnic groups”, and on the blog of a far-right French presidential candidate under the headline “Study validates prejudices”. It even ended up on InfoWars, one of the most popular news websites in the USA, and can be found circulating on far-right corners of Reddit. The fact that Carl is linked to Oxford University was mentioned frequently in the coverage, providing legitimacy to the political opinions presented.

Another contributor to the London Conference on Intelligence was Adam Perkins of King’s College London, whose book The Welfare Trait proposed that “aggressive, rule-breaking and anti-social personality characteristics” can be “bred out” of society by reducing child support for those on the lowest incomes. Perkins actively engaged with far-right media outlets in promoting his book, appearing in hour-long interviews with Stefan Molyneux and Tara McCarthy. Molyneux doesn’t “view humanity as a single species because we are not all the same”, and argues that “ordinary Africans were better off under colonialism”. McCarthy was banned from YouTube for alleging a conspiracy to commit “white genocide”, and supports deporting naturalised citizens and “killing them if they resist”. Perkins himself attracted criticism last year for tweeting, alongside data from Kirkegaard, that Trump’s Muslim ban “makes sense in human capital terms”.

Perkins is not the first KCL academic to use his platform to promote contested science in the far-right press. In the 1980s, the Pioneer Fund supported the work of Hans Eysenck, whose work has been credited by his biographer with helping to “revive the confidence” of “right-wing racialist groups” such as the National Front by providing an “unexpected vindication from a respectable scientific quarter”. The original mandate of the Pioneer Fund was the pursuit of “race betterment”; it is considered a hate group by the US civil rights group the Southern Poverty Law Center. KCL did not respond to a request for comment.

An association with a high profile university can help bigots to legitimise their beliefs, but the infiltration of mainstream academia by eugenicists is even more complex than this.

After we exposed his involvement with eugenicists, Toby Young pointed out that the conference at which he actually spoke, that of the International Society for Intelligence Research (ISIR), was “super-respectable” and attended by “numerous world-renowned academics”.

He is entirely correct. The ISIR is home to many great scientists, and its journal Intelligence is one of the most respected in its field. Yet Richard Lynn, who has called for the “phasing out” of the “populations of incompetent cultures”, serves on the editorial board of Intelligence, along with fellow director of the Pioneer Fund Gerhard Meisenberg, who edits Lynn’s journal Mankind Quarterly. Two other board members are Heiner Rindermann and Jan te Nijenhuis, frequent contributors to Mankind Quarterly and the London Conference on Intelligence. Rindermann, James Thompson, Michael Woodley of Menie and Aurelio Figueredo, all heavily implicated in the London Conference on Intelligencehelped to organise recent ISIR conferences. Linda Gottfredson, a Pioneer Fund grantee and former president of the ISIR, famously authored a letter in the Wall Street Journal defending Charles Murray’s assertion that black people are genetically disposed to an average IQ of “around 85”, compared to 100 for whites.

The tolerance afforded to eugenicists threatens the reputation of respectable scientists. Stephen Pinker, the world-renowned cognitive psychologist, spoke at last year’s ISIR conference. Another speaker at the conference, however, was the aforementioned Emil Kirkegaard, a “self-taught” eugenicist who has written a “thought experiment” which discusses whether raping a drugged child could be defended, and whose research into OKCupid made international headlines for its “grossly unprofessional, unethical and reprehensible” use of personal data.

Saini spoke to Richard Haier, editor-in-chief of Intelligence, about the involvement of Lynn and Meisenberg. “He defended their involvement on the basis of academic freedom,” she recalled. “He said he’d prefer to let the papers and data speak for themselves.”

Publishing well-researched papers that happen to be written by eugenicists is one thing, but putting them in positions of editorial control is quite another. “Having researched Lynn and Meisenberg, I fail to understand how Intelligence can justify having these two on the editorial board,” Saini said. “I find that very difficult to understand. Academic freedom does not require that these people are given any more space than their research demands – which for a discredited idea like racial eugenics is frankly minuscule.” I contacted the ISIR but at time of publishing had received no response.

UCL has published several statements about the London Conference on Intelligence since my investigation. In the latest, released on 18 January 2018, the university said it hoped to finish an investigation within weeks. It said it did not and had not endorsed the conference, and had formally complained to YouTube about the use of a doctored UCL logo on videos posted online. UCL’s President described eugenics as “complete nonsense” and added: “I am appalled by the concept of white supremacy and will not tolerate anything on campus that incites racial hatred or violence.” UCL management has also agreed to engage with students concerned about buildings being named after eugenicists.

UCL’s statement also stressed its obligation “to protect free speech on campus, within the law, even if the views expressed are inconsistent with the values and views of UCL”.

Yet there is a direct link between the tolerance of eugenicists in academia and the political rise of the far-right. Journals and universities that allow their reputations to be used to launder or legitimate racist pseudo-science bear responsibility when that pseudo-science is used for political ends. As one UCL student put it: “This is not about freedom of speech – all violence begins with ideas. We feel threatened, and we want answers.”

Ben van der Merwe is a student journalist.