Last Thursday I sat next to the Government’s Chief Scientific Advisor, Sir Mark Walport, at a College dinner. We discovered we were exact contemporaries in Cambridge, both coming up in 1971 to a world utterly different from the one we found ourselves in that day. In 1971 there was a spirit of optimism loose, at least in the circle I inhabited. We weren’t worrying about jobs we were, in the words of the time, ‘finding ourselves’. Although immigration had formed the heart of Enoch Powell’s 1968 Rivers of Blood speech, he was widely shunned across the political spectrum. I don’t believe ‘balance’ had entered the BBC’s lexicon. We may not have been the flower power generation, a bit too young, but we probably both saw things essentially through flower-coloured glasses.
We joked over dinner about the heyday of political demonstrations, both of us remembering an episode in our first term when he demonstrated against the then VC and I took part in a related sit-in in Old Schools. Neither of us now have the slightest recollection of what we were objecting to! But I do know that after that sit-in there were no more during my time (whether or not I took part in them). The optimism that students could change the world faded a little. Things became more serious as we moved towards Thatcher, monetarism and a neo-liberal take on how things should be. I knew the world had moved on from my generation’s hope of global change and peace, but Thursday has made concrete just how far we have moved. How could one believe in hope, love and flowers when the UK is now apparently so riven with hate of the ‘other’ fuelled by politicians with views little better (or well thought through) than Trump populism that we see the murder of an MP?
As a member of the ERC’s Scientific Council it is hardly surprising I am pro-European. In a personal capacity I have signed two Cambridge-based letters (one from a broad spectrum of academics to the Telegraph, the other from 150 Cambridge FRSs to the Times) supporting Remain. I have done less than I might have hoped having been so knocked by my mother’s death, in particular dropping out of a Today interview and not having the brain or energy to write for the Observer when invited. I did do a CNN interview last week, very much thinking that I was ‘doing it for my mother’ who felt, as so many of those born pre-war did and do, that the EU is a safeguard against armed conflict within Europe. As indeed did Churchill himself.
On Thursday the prospect of bloodshed became a reality. We have somehow created an atmosphere in this country where violent death is seen by some as a reasonable response to debate. The violent death of someone who seems to have stood out as compassionate, welcoming to those who did not resemble her and set to make her mark in our political system. It is sickening. The UK once prided itself as a nation that was compassionate through and through. With some of our politicians now being so openly xenophobic, not to mention economical with the truth, we are falling into the pits – or as Nick Cohen put it , it is as if the sewers have burst. I am glad my mother did not live to see these horrors. But I have to remain optimistic that Remain will triumph and this moment of madness will pass as we revert to what I have always thought of as ‘British values’.
I do not normally write political polemic on this blog. Perhaps because of the rawness of my own grief, how can I not think about two small children who will not have the luxury of having known and loved their mother for 60 odd years as I have had? How can I not question what world we are creating by stoking up fires of hatred, based on a distrust of ‘experts’, empty lies and the rhetoric of those who seek power for power’s sake by playing on emotions and fear? Mark and I can joke about the ideals of our youth, but we could not joke about the horrifying world that seems to be forming around us today. Reasoned arguments about what the EU does or doesn’t do well, even careful analysis of what our ‘sovereignty’ means, have got obscured by the fog of paranoia, loathing of anyone who is different and empty promises based on fantasy economics.