Some thoughts when turning seventy

It’s been a strange time recently. On the one hand, I’ve been pleased that my work has received recognition in print (in Judith Tucker’s ‘Walking backwards: Art between places in twenty-first-century Britain’, a chapter published in David Borthwick, Pippa Marland and Anna Stenning’s edited collection Walking, Landscape and Environment) but, on the other, there have been increasing signs of the further disintegration of our civil society. One of these has touched us directly as a family, although it’s not appropriate to go to closely into the whys and wherefores of that here, so I’ll address it obliquely. 

It should probably have come as no surprise that Boris Johnson’s senior advisor, Dominic Cummings, apparently believes IQ should be the basis on which to judge the value of a human being. It certainly explains why the Government has expressed its intention of denying entry to those born elsewhere whose talents lie in their ability to translate compassion and empathy into, say, a career in nursing or care for the sick or elderly into the country. (It would be interesting to know Boris Johnson’s IQ – something about as likely to happen as Trump admitting complicity in a whole raft of illegal acts to gain and maintain his position).

But then one could also say that Cummings’ views simply reflect an extreme version of a fundamental bias within our culture, one reinforced by our increasingly archaic and dysfunctional education system. The state of which, in turn, may explain why people who in their day-to-day lives clearly do value compassion and empathy higher – at least when faced by a crisis such as having their homes flooded –  than the kind of ‘cleverness’ that got Cummings his job. People who, however, were happy to vote into power a collection of Tory politicians that, in turn, are prepared to put up with having their party represented by a bunch of bullying, lying, egotistical individuals whose views are coming increasingly to resemble those of Nazi Germany in the 1930s. 

And no, these are not simply the dyspeptic ramblings of someone who has just turned seventy.         

Are we perhaps in danger of mis-reading the whole business of Cummings, IQ and eugenics? (Nasty and degrading as they are). I suspect the real issue here is simply the naked desire for untrammelled power presumed to be justified by the presumption of ‘intelligence’. Dominic Cummings clearly believes he should have the power to appoint whatever ‘weirdo’ or ‘misfit’ he chooses to the staff of number ten. (That he appears to favour the kind of attention-seeking extremism found in a certain type of fifth-form schoolboy – and maybe schoolgirl? – seems to me to speak volumes). Anyone who challenges that power is, in Cummings’ view (one clearly supported by Boris Johnson), ‘stupid’. So far, that designation of ‘stupidity’ has not been seen as having serious consequences. But that is not actually the case.

Yesterday it was revealed that Graham Parsons, a senior pharmacologist who for three years served on the Advisory Council for the Misuse of Drugs, was blocked from re-joining the government’s drug advisory because he had publicly criticised Jeremy Hunt. (A blocking signed off by Amber Rudd). That criticism was purported to compromise his ability to provide objective policy advice. (Hunt, we should remember, was a minister for heath who believed the NHS should be sold off to business and who believed junior doctors should be exploited by making them work impossible hours).

In short, it was ‘stupid’ of Parsons to criticise Hunt, which is taken in official government circles to mean that Parsons is incapable of giving objective and independent scientific advice. Parsons’ real ‘stupidity’ was, of course, to use his intelligence, empathy and understanding to question an ideology with regard to health policy vis-à-vis the NHS that had been purged of all compassion and empathy in the name of ‘efficiency gains’, privatisation by stealth, and party politics.  

I realise that I am going to have to spend my old age in ‘interesting times’. So be it.