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David Miliband warns: “There’s no alternative to hard Brexit without Labour”

The former Labour foreign secretary returns to a troubled and anxious Britain, and urges his party to step up.

Nearly five years after he left parliament, David Miliband has become a familiar presence in Britain. In recent days, the former Labour foreign secretary has been energetically promoting Rescue, his new book on the world refugee crisis.

“As I’m in England,” he quips when he orders fish and chips and a pot of breakfast tea, flashing his ever telegenic straight-toothed smile. He visits Britain at least five times a year, having left in 2013 to be chief executive of the International Rescue Committee in New York.

But something is different this time. “The people I’ve met, from taxi drivers to journalists, there’s a sense they don’t know what’s going to happen next. I think people feel there’s a cliff edge coming and don’t know whether we’re going to be like one of those cartoons where we carry on staying at the same elevation off the end of the cliff – or go down.”

The country that the now 52-year-old Miliband left behind is grappling with Brexit and, by association, its sense of identity. The Britain of the New Labour years – liberal, open, at ease with globalisation – is long gone, replaced by a country unsure of its place in the world. And liberal internationalists such as Miliband seem marooned.

Our lunch location is poignant. From the arched window of a dim, oak-panelled bar at St Pancras Station, you can see the international terminal’s giant clock face gleaming above six Eurostar platforms. This physical link with the rest of the world feels an appropriate haunt for Miliband, who seems in limbo. Over lunch, he reflects on New Labour’s failures, the catastrophe of the Iraq War most of all. In Rescue, he describes the invasion as his “biggest mistake in government” and laments that he feels “only regret” whenever he visits Iraq.

Today, he lists the “failures of globalisation”: “inequality, the financial crisis, Iraq and Afghanistan, the integration of minorities”. These issues, he says, explain “some of the heat and reversals being suffered at the moment”. Is this the fault of governments such as his for underestimating globalisation’s threats and dangers?

“The short answer to that must be yes,” he admits.

Even so, Miliband refuses to accept Brexit as inevitable, endorsing a second referendum and telling me: “The ideal outcome is obviously that it doesn’t happen.”

He wears a light pink shirt and suit trousers, free of the jacket he wore on his TV rounds earlier that morning. He talks in the clipped, smooth tone that recalls the Blair era (he was given his first frontbench role by the former prime minister, who once called Miliband the “Wayne Rooney of my cabinet”), and aside from the tuft of white in his thick, dark hair – a feature he shares with his brother Ed – he looks unchanged from his days as one of the youngest-ever foreign secretaries.

In the new book, he writes about his own refugee story – both his parents fled the Nazis and he lost 43 family members, including one of his grandfathers, in the Holocaust – and makes a compelling case for communities as well as governments to set aside their differences and help refugees integrate. “It’s been exploited in the Brexit referendum; it’s been exploited in the Trump election. There’s a lot of fear and loathing. There’s also a lot of concern. So it felt important to get something out.”

Miliband is used to batting away the customary questions about his younger brother, Ed, who defeated him in the 2010 Labour leadership election, and about any unfinished political business he might have.

He enjoys returning to Britain, visiting his mother in London and, when he can, his old Tyneside constituency of South Shields. “You miss your comrades. You miss your country,” he says. And, he adds, “There’s no doubt you’ve got more power in government than you do in an NGO.”

Would Miliband come back to British politics?

He doesn’t like the word “back”, because it suggests a “status quo ante” to which to return. “I try not to address it like that,” he says.

And even if he wanted to return, it would be tough, because the Labour Party has changed so much. Jeremy Corbyn’s values now define the opposition. In conversation, he praises the Labour leader’s ability to mobilise people around his political project, yet warns, “that we don’t fall for a Leninist fallacy about the role of the party is really important”.

He argues: “There’s a tendency to think, ‘Let’s build socialism in one country, or social democracy in one country,’ after Brexit. [But Brexit is] a restructuring of state action of an absolutely fundamental kind. That’s why I don’t buy the division that says there’s Brexit in a box over here, and then there’s progressive Britain over here. That’s the argument of the 1970s… Labour has 260 MPs and so is in an important position. There’s no alternative to hard Brexit, or brutal Brexit, without Labour.”

David Miliband writes candidly in his book about how, when his brother was Labour leader, he “chose the wrong track” in fighting the Conservatives. He also criticises Corbyn’s chosen path. “It’s not clear whether he’s ready to surround himself with people who disagree with him,” Miliband tells me. And he cautions against complacency: “That ‘Oh, well, Labour won’ suggestion – the worst mistake we could make would be to assume that a Labour government is the next logical consequence of the current crisis.”

Leaning forward in his seat with his back to the platform, from where he’ll later catch a train to Brussels for more book promotion, Miliband worries that “there’s not been much change” in the polls since the general election. “Ironic for me to be saying it, but there are no silver medals in politics,” he says, before pausing. “Well, maybe not ironic, but well informed.” 

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Europe: the new disorder

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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.