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Whatever happened to Theresa May’s politics of the “common good”?

Many in her inner circle were disdainful of libertarian free market dogmas. 

When I interviewed Theresa May in February she quoted – or rather, more accurately, paraphrased – Edmund Burke. This piqued my interest. Before meeting May in Downing Street, I’d had several wide-ranging conversations with her joint chief-of-staff Nick Timothy about attempts being made inside No 10 to remake Conservatism for our age of upheaval. Timothy, Will Tanner and others who had gathered around May were disdainful of libertarian free market dogmas.

They wanted to create a national popular politics that would attract the working classes in large numbers. These “post-liberal” Mayites weren’t sympathetic to socialism. But their politics was more communitarian than the insouciant liberalism espoused by the Cameroons.

I carried the spirit of my conversations with Timothy into the Prime Minister’s office and, to her credit, she made a decent attempt at articulating a new Conservative politics of the “common good”. At one point, I asked what kind of conservative she was. She looked bewildered. “I’m a Conservative,” she replied, as if no more needed to be said. But it did, it really did, as we discovered during the election campaign.

Searching for purpose

The Conservative party conference in Manchester was generally considered to have been a disaster. The general election result and the rise of Corbynism have spooked the Tories. I kept meeting MPs who were ravaged by doubt: what is our purpose, they asked, what are we for?

Anxiety creates opportunity, however, and behind the scenes and at fringe events, there was some serious thinking being done. The most stimulating event I attended was organised by Dean Godson’s Policy Exchange and it asked: “Is the intellectual momentum all with the left?”

The speakers were the philosopher Roger Scruton, the former Prospect editor David Goodhart, the MPs George Freeman and Nicky Morgan, as well as the ubiquitous Jacob Rees-Mogg, who has the gift of making people smile as soon as he opens his mouth and who seems to be enjoying his new-found fame.

Of the speakers, only Rees-Mogg expressed admiration for Jeremy Corbyn. He said that a “golden thread” of principle ran through everything the Labour leader said. The Tories, by contrast, had become “complacent”. They believed that socialism had been “defeated” and that the consensus – “Thatcherism tempered by Blairism” – was enduring. This would not do. Rees-Mogg wanted a politics of principle, which for him amounted to a hard Brexit, unrestrained free market economics and social conservatism (he did not mention his position on abortion).

Only Scruton – after some high-flown romantic disquisitions on the legitimacy of representative democracy – seemed prepared to acknowledge that something fundamentally was wrong with capitalism. He appealed for a patriotic and cultural conservatism that reached out to “ordinary people” but also “qualified” capitalism. 

Courting controversy

The last time I’d seen Scruton was one recent morning in a ticket queue at Kemble station in Gloucestershire. I was surprised to hear him ask for an OAP’s concession. I’d always considered Scruton to be a young fogey and now here he was as a fully-fledged pensioner. It occurred to me that I’d not actually spoken to him in person since interviewing him in his rooms at Albany, in London’s Piccadilly, when I worked on the Times in the late Nineties.

His politics were not mine, but as a student I used to read him – his books on the history of western philosophy, aesthetics, and the metaphysics and ethics of Kant – and he was an interesting editor of the Salisbury Review, which became notorious when it published an article by a Bradford headmaster called Ray Honeyford who was alarmed by multiculturalism and the ghettoisation of Asian Muslim children. The controversy forced Honeyford, who was accused of racism, into early retirement. In hindsight, he understood that educating children to embrace cultural and linguistic separation would undermine social cohesion.

A nation adrift

Clive James wrote recently about seeing the American comedians Bud Abbott and Lou Costello die on stage in Sydney in the 1950s. “The two stars, who had done this sketch 1,000 times, produced their lines with fluency for the first five minutes, but after that the silence got to them and they lost control of their tongues, their breathing… The fear they projected is with me yet, but they were pros, so they didn’t run. It would have been better if they had, because this was their primary material. What happened when they reached their secondary material is not to be described. I saw a man in tears. It was Costello.”

I was present for Theresa May’s speech in Manchester and it was poignant to watch her struggle: you could say she died up there on that stage. May is a pro and she did not run. But I think I saw fear in her eyes as her voice dried up and her words fragmented. A year earlier, in Birmingham, she had been so dominant, as during her triumphalist speech she denounced both the libertarian right and the socialist left and took aim at deracinated cosmopolitans. A year later, she seemed terribly lost.

The day before her big speech I watched as May was rushed like a fugitive from her car and into the Hilton hotel at Deansgate. She was preternaturally pale and seemed haunted, even hunted. She was not enjoying this. She was enduring it – out of ambition but also out of a stubborn sense of duty, admirable in its way. I wrote in the summer that hers had become the masochism premiership. Now, in the autumn, she seems to have no greater purpose than to occupy the crease and take the blows. It is joyless. And this joylessness is affecting not only her fractured party but the morale of the nation, which feels leaderless and adrift. 

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 12 October 2017 issue of the New Statesman, How May crumbled

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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.