I am disoriented and reeling. Yesterday night I attended a memorial meeting at the Royal Institution for the greatest man I have ever known well – Sir John Maddox, who hired me in August 1984 to work for a superb journal, Nature - a journal for which I am still honoured to work, whose mission is to communicate the results of science to the world. Several people, many of them as distinguished as it gets, spoke last night about aspects of John's life: his Welshness, his transforming roles as scientific correspondent of the Manchester Guardian, his two editorships of Nature, his leadership of the Nuffield foundation, his political offices, his brilliant journalism, incredible writing output, his books, restlessness, tireless travels, his awards (he was the first honorary fellow of the Royal Society), the many and varied risks he took and the fearless independence of his opinions – and his roles as a husband, father and grandfather. It was a delight and an honour to have known and to have worked for John (even though sometimes terrifying); I was deeply moved by the evening and the number of ways in which he inspired the many people present last night, and many others who were not.
Today, on the other hand, I open the paper to read that the Labour party now has won not one single local council in the country, so badly did they perform at the local elections held on Thursday. None of the councils returned a Labour majority, in such bad regard they are held. There has been an overnight cabinet reshuffle as yet more (mainly pathetic, self-serving) ministers have resigned. Lord Mandelson (an unelected person) now heads a Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, which brings together the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform and the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, and has also been given the rarely used title of First Secretary of State as well as the post (previously held by Baroness Royall) of Lord President of the Council. Thus, the department for the universities, created a mere two years ago, has been subsumed into a minor appendage of the business department – to summarise its clutter of names. What would John Maddox have made of that?
I am sick to read that a sexist bully TV entertainer, unelected, has been made a Lord and will be advising government. What message is that giving children and young people (the main target audiences of these inane shows)? We have three Lords in cabinet now (Mandelson, Drayson (minister for Innovation and Science in this Mandelsonian department store of a business empire) and Malloch-Brown at the foreign office). Another non-elected person, Glenys Kinnock (wife of a former leader of the Labour party) has been made minister for Europe. Again, what would John Maddox have made of these people: the Brown-Mandelson-Sugar triumverate in particular?
So, where's the vision? Where's the next generation of elected leaders for our country? Where is some simple language reflecting some simple, strong decisions (one-word government departments would be a good start)? At this time of exceptional global circumstances, it isn't exactly difficult to see the direction we need to be going in. What can we look up to and aspire to follow? I am ashamed of this government and parliament. We need a leader who faces up to the awful situation the world is in, both in respect of its natural state (its environment, which we are ruining – climate is one of the few topics, incidentally, on which John Maddox changed his mind), and in respect of the horrendous global economy which is affecting us all in so many ways on the individual level as well as generally. We need a leader who will rise above the pettiness of the grasping, moneygrubbing, sleazy expenses claims – sort out the rot and set up a decent, new system. Obama is facing many of the same problems in terms of endemic congressional corruption and coziness, a wrecked economy, global conflict and terrorism, and more – but he is rising to the challenge. He might not succeed, but he's facing up to the problems and growing in stature all the time in doing so. He isn't making it his top priority to phone up a person who came second in a talent show to commiserate, that's for sure.
Well, I am not writing anything new, or writing it particularly well. But at a time when we are remembering the brave sacrifices made by previous generations, and the serious intellectual contributions made by people like John Maddox, an inspiration to those who followed, I am ashamed by what I read in the papers today. Yet more aimless milling about, with blatant pandering to ignorance and stupidity. And, sadly, I don't see any other of our reprehensible Westminster parties being any better, as they are all far too busy looking after themselves and trying to cling on to their positions by sucking up to the media and conning the electorate. What we need is leadership, a sense of direction, and a vision for our country and the world at large, such as Obama is doing in the United States. Whether or not I voted for him, if I were an American I would be proud of Obama today and to be part of the country he is leading. Unfortunately, the opposite is the case for the United Kingdom, which is being treated with patronising contempt by its so-called leaders and other political parties.