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I want my country back

This was never a referendum on the EU. It was a referendum on the modern world.

This morning, I woke up in a country I do not recognise. David Cameron’s big gamble – the future of Britain against his personal political ambitions – has backfired so badly that we’ve blasted clean out of the EU. By the time I’d put the kettle on, the stock markets were in free fall, Scotland was debating a new independence referendum, Sinn Fein was making secession noises, and the prime minister had resigned.

There’s not enough tea in the entire nation to help us Keep Calm and Carry On today. Not on a day when prejudice, propaganda, naked xenophobia and callous fear-mongering have won out over the common sense we British like to pride ourselves on. Not on a day when we’re being congratulated by Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, and nobody else. Well done, turkeys. Santa’s on his way.

Nigel Farage, the rich, racist cartoon demagogue, boasts that this victory was won “without a single shot being fired”. Tell that to the grieving family of Jo Cox, the campaigning Labour MP gunned down last week. Farage promised that unless something was done to halt immigration, “violence will be the next step”. It looks like we’ve got a two-for-one deal on that one.

So, here’s the thing. This was never a referendum on the EU. It was a referendum on the modern world, and yesterday the frightened, parochial lizard-brain of Britain voted out, out, out, and today we've all woken up still strapped onto this ghost-train as it hurtles off the tracks. Leave voters are finding they care less about immigration now that their pension pots are under threat. Maybe one of the gurning pundits promising them pride and sovereignty should have mentioned that, but they were too busy lying about the NHS. The curtain has been torn away and now we all have to look at the men behind it. They are not good men.

Anyone feel like they’ve got their country back yet? No? That, after all, was the rallying cry of the Leave campaign – the transatlantic echo of "Make America Great Again". There’s a precedent for what happens when svengalis with aggressively terrible haircuts are allowed to appeal to parochialism and fear in the teeth of a global recession, and it isn’t pretty.

It says something about this campaign that I’m no longer at all worried about risking hyperbole or unoriginality when referencing all that Nazi history they made us study in school. I’m just frightened. I’m frightened that those who wanted "their" country back will get their wish, and it will turn out to be a hostile, inhospitable place for immigrants, ethnic minorities, queer people – everyone and anyone who wasn’t included when Farage proclaimed victory for "ordinary, decent people" this morning in front of a posse formed entirely of angry-looking, whey-faced blokes in suits.

But the thing is – I want my country back too.

I want to wake up tomorrow in a country where people are kind, and tolerant, and decent to one another. A country where people – all people – can feel at least a little bit safe. I want to rub the sleep of neofascist nightmares from my eyes and find myself in a country where we do not respond to the killing of a politician by voting against everything she stood for. A country where we are polite to our neighbors. A country where we have dealt like adults with the embarrassing fact that we once conquered half the world, instead of yearning for a time when our glory was stolen from enslaved people a convenient ocean away and large parts of the map were the gentle pink of blood in the water. I want to go back to a Britain where hope conquers hate; where crabbed, cowed racism and xenophobia don’t win the day; where people feel they have options and choices in life and are less likely to press the big red button to bring the house down on top of us. I want my country back.

That country, of course, is fictional. But it’s no less so than the biscuit-tin, curtain-twitching, tea-on-the-lawn-with-your-white-friends-from-the-Rotary-Club fantasy Britain the other side have been plugging for years, editing out all the ugly parts of the past and photoshopping it into the backdrop for an image smeared indelibly across the back of all our sickened eyeballs this morning, an image of fists raised and boots marching in step. If they’re allowed their fantasy, can I have mine, too?

The Welsh have a word for this feeling. The word is "hiraeth". It means a longing for a home you can never return to, a home which may never have existed at all. The Welsh, incidentally, voted to leave the EU after decades of being ungently screwed by government after conniving Tory government; cackling and tearing the heart out of towns which were once famous for something other than teen suicide. Finally, someone gave them the opportunity to vote for change, for any change at all. When all you have is a hammer, every problem starts to look like David Cameron’s face.

Cameron, who today must be longing for the morning when all he had to deal with was the papers claiming he once had sex with a dead pig in university, sold us all up the river that runs through the chasm of British culture. In a sop to the eurosceptic wing of his own party, he gambled the future of the nation and the political stability of the continent for his own career.

The whole mess started because of a disagreement between rival factions of a right-wing government which is still tearing itself apart and taking the rest of us with it. The fractured Left, unable to unite behind a leader with a popular mandate, was nowhere in this conversation until it was far too late. Cameron promised a referendum in order to pander to the rise of a xenophobic far right and secure his own power: he got his wish, was duly re-elected, and now his career is over, and so are the life chances of millions of young British people. He gets to slink off back to Oxfordshire and live off his family money. Don't weep for Hameron. He'll be fine.

If only the same were true of the rest of us. As it stands, tens of millions are going to suffer. Real people are going to hurt. Real people are going to die. That is David Cameron's fault, more than anyone's. It was right for him to resign, but he will surely be replaced by any one of a rogues' gallery of gurning ideologues who have been decrying “experts” and “elites” to people so desperate for change that they didn’t care that those elites are people their wisecracking white knights literally went to school with.

This morning it looked like Britain had shot itself in the foot. By lunch time, with two political parties imploding and the stock markets crashing, it appears our aim was higher above the knee. This was not just a vote against Europe, but a vote against Westminster and the entirety of mainstream politics. Every political party campaigned hard for a "Remain" vote – but Britain still chose to Leave, even if we’re regretting it this morning.

There are huge areas of post-industrial decline and neglect where people are more furious than Cameron and his ilk could possibly understand, areas where any kind of antiestablishment rabble-rousing sounds like a clarion call. In depressed mountain villages and knackered seaside towns and burned-out former factory heartlands across the country, ordinary people were promised that for once, their vote would matter, that they could give the powers that be a poke in the eye. Westminster may have underestimated how very much it is hated by those to whom mainstream politics have not spoken in generations.

In desperation, the Remain camp begged us to think of the markets. Unfortunately, everyone here hates the markets. Fear-mongering over "the economy" was never going to work when the most deprived areas of the country have already suffered years of savage right-wing austerity in the name of safeguarding "the economy". Those parts of the country clearly felt that things were bad enough already, that they had little enough to lose that they could gamble the rest on the possibility of being lied to. British people are used to being lied to by incompetent spivs in the name of "protecting the economy". Unfortunately, this time the spivs were dead right.

As the tattered remains of the government try to work out what Brexit will actually mean in practice, more damage has already been done to our economy, to our prospects and to the job market than years of open borders ever could have.

In the meantime, the cackling clown-car drivers rolling this catastrophe over the wreckage of civil society are already cheerfully admitting that they lied about their key campaign statements. No, there won’t be £350m more to spend on the NHS, whatever Vote Leave wrote on its battle bus. It turns out that the reason you can’t get a GP appointment isn’t because of immigration, but because the Conservatives have spent six years systematically defunding the health service and cutting public spending to the bone. Brexit will mean more of that, not less.

This was a working-class revolt, but it is not a working-class victory. That’s the tragedy here. The collective howl of rage from depressed, deindustrialised parts of the country bled white and reckless by Thatcher, Blair and Cameron has turned into a triumph for another set of elites. Another banking crisis, another old Etonian in power – that’s what we’ve got to look forward to as Scotland decides when to let go of the rope and the union splinters into jagged shards and we all realise we’re stuck on a rainy rock with Michael Gove, forever.

I wish I could tell you that we’re about to turn this around. I wish I could tell you that we’re about to collectively realise, even at this late hour, the magnitude of our mistake – that we will discover a new capacity for tolerance, a new resilience, a way to recover ourselves and remember our common humanity. I wish I could tell you that the cannibalistic, scattered Left will rally. Today, I don’t want to make any promises. All I see is a lot of racist crowing on the internet and campaigners being told to go back where they came from. I’ve already had people telling me it won’t be long before a new Kristallnacht, and people like me had better go back – where? I was born in London. Perhaps the city can secede. That’ll do wonders for house prices.

This Britain is not my Britain. I want my country back. I want my scrappy, tolerant, forward-thinking, creative country, the country of David Bowie, not Paul Daniels; the country of Sadiq Khan, not Boris Johnson; the country of  J K Rowling, not Enid Blyton; the country not of Nigel Farage, but Jo Cox. That country never existed, not on its own, no more than the country the Leave campaign promised to take us to in their tin-foil time machine. Britain, like everywhere else, has always had its cringing, fearful side, its cruel delusions, its racist fringe movements, its demagogues preying on the dispossessed. Those things are part of us as much as beef wellington and bad dentistry. But in happier times, those things do not overwhelm us. We do not let bad actors reading bad lines in bad faith walk us across the stage to the scaffold. We are better than this.

I believe we can still be better than this. I want my country back, and it’s a country I’ve never known, and getting there will take more strength, more kindness, more resilience than this divided nation has mustered in living memory. Meanwhile, I’m putting the kettle on again. Today is a day for mourning, for retweeting sick memes and holding our loved ones close. Tomorrow – well. Tomorrow, we get to work. 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

Spudgun67 via Creative Commons/https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/
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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.