I don’t know where we are going

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.

24 thoughts on “I don’t know where we are going

  1. When I read Sir John Maddox’s obit in the paper I thought of you – what a man! and what a loss.
    I spent much of the past 8 years in disbelief at my own country’s politics. My outrage-o-meter failed through overuse. So here’s hoping things get better chez vous.

  2. Maxine, in respect of this country’s politics I am part way through writing a similar post to you, coming from a similar angle. What a way to spend a Saturday evening, eh? But many will be enraged this weekend. My rage, accumulated over the last 48 hrs, has actually given me a burst of energy late this afternoon. (I’m on a mega-dose of anti-biotics because of an infection.)
    Labour is clinging on for power’s sake and for their own interests (individual and collective). The electorate has spoken and a general election needs to come very soon, although I have some empathy with you finding a party worth voting for. (There is one I have faith in for restoring our economy…)

  3. Well said, Maxine! Surely there must be a clean sweep soon. That reshuffle was outrageous, and the appointment of Sugar unbelievable – yes, just a pandering to a popular TV programme. I think, and hope, that this will just be a very temporary state of affairs.

  4. This is indeed a depressing day with weather to match the mood.
    What on earth can Glenys Kinnock and Alan Sugar [who is now much more of a TV personality than a businessman] bring to the government?

  5. I do agree about the various unelected bods. It seems supremely ironic that a Labour government is using this method to bring people into government, when it has (rightly, in my view) been so critical in the past of the unelected House of Lords.
    As for DTI => BERR + DIUS => DBIS (?), that equation really doesn’t balance well for me. Will be interesting to see comment in the science oress next week.
    I’ve also been saddened to see Ian Gibson brought down by all this, after his good work on the Science Select Committee over the years.

  6. I cannot speak at all about politics and politicians in Britain, but I am nevertheless dismayed at your high praise for President Obama, a power-hungry man whose vision for the future includes the destruction of virtually all of the values and institutions that had been part-and-parcel of America’s most enviable economic, political, and culture status over the past two and a quarter centuries. Were you to examine more carefully the facts upon which you base your off-handed perceptions about our President Obama, I think you would quickly mitigate your rosy assessment of this extremely dangerous politician, unless you are congenitally predisposed to endorse the thorough annihilation of modern capitalist democracies in favor of fascism and socialism.

  7. Too true.
    I shall write to my MP—no, sorry, that was facetious. You’re absolutely right Maxine. Question is, what can we do? I’m no advocate of civil disobedience but are being taken for fools and it is time to stop.

  8. Thanks, everyone, for your comments.
    RT – I have to disagree. I’ve been reading about Obama regularly each day – I don’t live in the US, true, but for example his reaction to not being awarded the honorary degree is exactly the kind of thing I am writing about here.
    As some of you are also saying, to my mind one of the most depressing aspects of all of this is that it seems to be endemic to our culture – what is the alternative? Prof P thinks I should stop taking it personally and go out and do something to change things, a fair point I suppose.

  9. PS I find it hard to see how Obama could be responsible for all that you write, RT – look at the state of the world and the country when he became president. However, this isn’t the place for a debate about US politics, a subject on which many people are more expert than I. It’s to do with inspiration, leadership and direction for others to follow, and with setting an example.

  10. Maxine, I agree with every single word you have written here. A very fine post indeed.

  11. I, too, cannot comment on UK politics with any confidence, but I fundamentally agree with R.T. regarding Obama, a man who self-referential obsession borders on the sociopathic.

  12. Very disappointed to read your words about Obama, Frank, particularly “sociopathic”. What a thing to write, particularly when one compares the current US administration with the preceding one. I think it is a great pity that a couple of the US commenters here have picked up an anti-Obama line, because taking a party-political line was not the point of my post. My post was about leadership and example at a time of crisis and need.

  13. I think if the US hadn’t had such an awful time with G.W that someone like Obama might never have become a contendor, never mind President. So I think sometimes we (the great unwashed masses) have to have things made really clear for us before we see things as they are and perhaps what’s happening in the UK right now is the ugliness before some brightness in the future.
    Oh and while I don’t believe ALL the positive spin about Obama I find it equally difficult to believe he’s a dangerous sociopath. I agree with you Maxine that regardless of party politics he is displaying some admirable qualities and genuine leadership – a sadly rare thing in the halls of power worldwide.

  14. Maxine,
    I agree -with much of what you say–
    but -of course-many of the key positions in Obama’s
    government are held by folk who are not elected!
    Cheers
    Simon

  15. Thanks, Bernadette – I agree with you that I don’t believe anyone’s positive spin in its entirety (or even at all) – but Obama seems to be a refreshing alternative to Brown.
    Simon, thanks for the kind words. I understand that the political systems are different and the US President can’t appoint congressmen, but it is as if Brown is stuffing the Senate or the House with people of his choosing rather than people who were duly voted for. Not that people one votes for are necessarily any better, but it seems to say a lot about the party if they can’t promote anyone from the 300 plus MPs into these roles, but have to look to cronies and partners of ex-leaders of the party, etc.

  16. I am sorry to disappoint, Maxine, but my objections to President Obama have nothing to do with partisan politics. I find the cult of personality surrounding Obama repulsive, and I find his use of the first personal pronoun excessive to a disturbing degree. It is amazing to me that more people have not noticed how much he seems to think everything is about him. Leadership is fine, but I am not looking for a Maximum Leader.

  17. The post was not written to have an argument about Obama. So I’m not going to respond to these latest personal comments about him or to get into a ding-dong about Obama vs Bush (about whom, no doubt, equally nasty comments could be and have been made). As noted above, this is to miss the point of the intention of my post, possibly because it was insufficiently well expressed.

  18. Maxine, I chime with all the others here who applaud your thoughtful and heartfelt comments about the new breed of ghastly puff merchants. I take on board what you’ve said about ding-dongs, too, but as a voting American I would like to throw in my two cents’ worth. I have to say I’m utterly amazed by the comments of a few here, who seem determined to sling extremist mud (fascist? really?) at a man who–let’s remember–is a well-rounded intellectual with considerable political nous and emotional maturity. His take on the Middle East stands in real contrast to the ignorant hate-mongering of his predecessor. He’s a decent man with evolving leadership ability trying to do the right thing at a time of economic and environmental meltdown. We haven’t had one in office for a while.

  19. Thank you for your heartwarming comments, Barbara, and for taking the time to make them. I am very glad to read your words, which say much better what I was stumbling around trying to write in my post! Thanks again.

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