Tag Archives: book reviews

Review of “Control – The Dark History and Troubling Present of Eugenics”

When Charles Darwin published “On the Origin of Species” in 1859; while the finches of the Galapagos Islands formed an example of natural selection, he also referenced selective breeding in animal husbandry as an example of how desired characteristics in breeds could come about. It did not take a genius to realise that selective breeding could also be applied to humans, although it was one, Francis Galton (Darwin’s half-cousin) the Victorian polymath, who did so and founded eugenics. At a distance of over a century it is difficult to see why they found eugenics so attractive as opposed to other interventions, but late Victorian Britain was a country in the grip of an early version of the Great Replacement theory, in this case the replacement of the educated middle and upper classes with the, then uneducated, working classes simply because the latter were having many more children. Galton’s “Hereditary Genius” set out the case for eugenics: that the ‘better’ classes should be encouraged to breed more and the ‘worse’ classes less.  This idea was attractive to many: Winston Churchill, Arthur Balfour, William Beveridge, George Bernard Shaw, Sydney and Beatrice Webb, Marie Stopes, and D H Lawrence amongst others. It even gained the support of the Manchester Guardian. In 1913 the Liberal Government, including Churchill, passed the Mental Deficiency Act (only 3 MPs voting against) which locked up those of low intelligence in institutions, effectively preventing them from breeding, although it did not require sterilisation. That Act was not repealed until 1959.

By 1913, Galton’s ideas had spread far beyond the UK with the United States, in particular, taking them up vigorously; the Eugenics Records Office at Cold Springs Harbour on Long Island being funded mainly by the Carnegie Institute, Rockefeller Foundation, and the philanthropist Mary Harriman. This should be a warning about letting those with money fund research; their interests may not accord with those of society as a whole. Unlike the British, the Americans had no qualms about sterilising those whom they thought should not be allowed to breed, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes writing in a 1927 judgement “Three generations of imbeciles is enough”.

Not surprisingly, these American ideas soon crossed back across the Atlantic, this time to Germany, where Alfred Ploetz built on them and the earlier scientific racism of Ernst Haeckel, who had brought Darwin’s ideas to Germany. In time this led to the Holocaust as we all know, but it is important to appreciate that the first victims were those they considered inadequate, either physically or mentally. That experience inoculated most of the world for a couple of generations, but with the success of the Human Genome project and the development of CRISPR gene editing it became possible not only to repair faulty body cells (somatic cells) to cure some rare diseases, but also change the germ cells that create the sperm and ova and so eliminate the disease in future generations. Eugenics was back!

The second part of the book brings the story up to the present and covers what gene editing can, and more importantly, cannot do. It is an important corrective to the idea that genetics at its root is simple: we all learned at school about the heritability of eye colour, controlled by the OCA2 gene. Yet only 62% of those with two copies of the blue-eyed version of the gene have blue eyes; while 7.5% of those with two copies of the brown-eyed version of the gene have blue eyes as well (p. 217). Genetics is nowhere near as simple as people think, and Rutherford offers several other examples.

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Review: The Wolves in the Forest, tackling inequality in the 21st Century

The relationship between liberty and inequality is one of the central tensions in liberal philosophy – and one of the defining lines between economic and social liberalism.  So it’s highly appropriate that the Social Liberal Forum have published a collection of essays on this theme (edited by Paul Hindley and Gordon Lishman), taking its title from Lloyd George’s promise when presenting his ‘People’s Budget’ that there would be a time when ‘poverty…will be as remote to the people of this country as the wolves which once infested its forests.’

Peter Hain contributes a sharply-worded essay on the Liberal Democrat record in the coalition, accusing us of abandoning the legacies of Keynes and Beveridge, though recognising that the previous Labour government had also failed to challenge the conventional wisdom of ‘mainstream economics’.  Other contributors reclaim Keynes, and Hobhouse, as major Liberal thinkers.  Paul Hindley insists that ‘individual liberty cannot exist without social justice’; and adds that the distinction between social democracy and social liberalism is that the latter are committed to spreading power as well as wealth.  Gordon Lishman reminds us that spreading power and status at work is also a long-held Liberal theme – badly neglected in recent years.  Robert Brown notes that a Liberal citizen community must be politically and economically inclusive: ‘People must feel they have a stake in society.’

Several contributions explore the different dimensions of inequality – from Britain’s sharp differences in regional prosperity to wide gaps in educational provision and social aspiration, to continuing inequalities for women and for ethnic minorities.  James Sandbach traces the differential impact of cuts in legal aid and access to justice on already-disadvantaged citizens; Chris Bowers argues that poorer people suffer disproportionately from environmental degradation.

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Review: The Yorkshire Yellow Book 2019

If Liberal success is to be more than transitory, it needs to be based on a clear vision that can easily be transmitted to and acclaimed by the electorate.  On this basis, Yorkshire’s Liberal heritage is about to be reborn. The Yorkshire Yellow Book 2019 is bursting with ideas about how a future Yorkshire should develop.  Importantly, these ideas are evidence-based and embedded in sound Liberal principles.

The theme of the book – a devolved Yorkshire administration – is set out clearly in an excellent Foreword by Chris Haskins (former chairman of Northern Foods).  Illuminating comparisons between Yorkshire, Scotland, and London are made by David (Lord) Shutt. Yorkshire, with a population almost identical to that of Scotland, has higher unemployment but a lower GVA per head.  Both have GVA figures far behind that of London. Despite its relative prosperity, though, London is to receive over 50% of planned future transport spending in England, even though its extensive transport system is already massively subsidised by the rest of us.  New ways of sharing are obviously needed.

In this context, the authors build a convincing case for devolution. They emphasise that Yorkshire is a strong “brand”, with a recent track record of sparkling achievement in areas as diverse as sport (the Tour de France) and culture (Hull’s successes as City of Culture in 2017).  Philip Knowles points out that the party constitution implies Yorkshire’s entitlement to local decision-making on matters including health, education, agriculture and transport. Other valuable essays examine how Yorkshire devolution could work as part of a broader federal structure, as well as avoiding over-dependence on Leeds.

I was pleased to note scepticism about proposals for elected mayors, because it is difficult for the public to hold them effectively to account.  Rather the authors show a preference for devolution more along Welsh or Scottish lines, which two decades show to have delivered local accountability and to have engendered self-belief (as if that were lacking in Yorkshire!)

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Jane Bonham Carter reviews biography of Marie Colvin

I always liked reading Marie Colvin’s reports from war zones. She brought the stories of people whose lives were constrained or ruined by war to our breakfast tables. She made you understand the dilemmas and dangers people faced just to get through the day.

Colvin died in Syria in 2012. Her friend, Lib Dem Peer Jane Bonham-Carter, reviewed a new biography of her written by Channel 4’s Lindsey Hillsum in this week’s Sunday Times.

She was extraordinarily brave. The stories of Marie’s courage are legion, but the one that stands out for me was East Timor. There, holed up in 1999 in a UN compound with 1,500 women and children, she and two other heroic female reporters, Minka Nijhuis and Irena Cristalis, refused to go when an evacuation of international and national staff and the press was announced. She stayed, reported on the plight of those left trapped via her satellite phone, and after four tense days was able to leave for safety. Not an outcome she expected — her sister Cat remembers her calling “to say goodbye as she was likely to be killed”. Marie later wrote that “staying in the East Timor compound was one of the moments in my life of which I am most proud”.

As Hilsum notes, Marie was hopeless with technology, frequently erasing stories by accident and needing help to send copy from her computer. But, as I saw countless times, she had an extraordinary ability to get people to open up to her. What she wanted to do was tell people’s stories, and relay their words to the outside world.

Despite her apparent addiction to danger, she did not court death. She loved life, absolutely loved it — loved young people, too, and was loved in return by them. But she had her own horrors to deal with, in particular in Sri Lanka in 2001, where, despite clearly identifying herself as a journalist, yelling it, in fact, she was fired on by a government soldier.

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Review: Yes we (still) can, by Dan Pfeiffer

I have avoided reading too much by former Obama staffers because, as I watch the racist, misogynist monster in the White House play havoc with the most basic of human rights, I just get too sad. I definitely appreciated what we had while we had it, making its loss acute. Similarly, watching The West Wing  feels a bit masochistic sometimes.

There is very little point in languishing, though. Obama’s people survived 8 years of a Republican onslaught, from actual bare-faced lies and fake news to serious national and international crises. It stands to reason that they have a lot to teach …

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Book Review – Power to the People: Confessions of a Young Liberal Activist 1975 – 1987 by Felix Dodds

Felix Dodds, who was Chair of the National League of Young Liberal (NLYL) 1985-1987 and led the so-called Green Guard, inheritors of the late 60s/early 70s YLs Red Guard mantle, wrote this book to inspire and give hope to today’s young people at a time when politics seems a much more cynical and jaded business than the last time we had a Tory female Prime Minister and were arguing about Europe.

Dodds ‘confessions’ tell of his involvement with the YLs starting as a 6th former in Hertfordshire, having been inspired by the Kennedy …

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Book review: My life on the road by Gloria Steinem

Gloria Steimen My life on the road coverI read this book as the primary campaigns started in the US earlier this year. There is a chapter dedicated to the misogynistic bile directed at Hillary Clinton in 2008, which seems tame given what she’s getting now. “Life’s a b****. Don’t vote for one.” was an actual badge being sold by Republicans in Cleveland at their convention. I’d like to think that Federal Conference Committee Chair Andrew Wiseman would fling out anyone selling similar at a Liberal Democrat Conference.

My Life on the Road details four decades of travel all over the world as Gloria Steinem’s work took her to all sorts of  places. It is a wise and gentle book which is primarily about bringing people together and making sure diverse voices were heard. It’s a great insight in to the  history of the feminist movement and the importance of intersectionality within that.

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Lynne Featherstone’s “Equal ever after” is out now – how same sex marriage became a reality (with added Lib Dem flouncing)

Lynne Featherstone Equal Ever AfterLast night, at a glitzy party, Lynne Featherstone’s book, Equal ever after was launched. In it she tells the story of  her crusade as Equalities Minister to deliver same sex marriage.

The launch was attended by Nick Clegg, Jo Swinson, Julian Huppert and many, many more. Sadly, I wasn’t there, even though I was in London. I was at a meeting of the Federal Finance and Administration Committee instead.

You have to wonder what position Jo Swinson was in when she took this:

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Book review: ‘This Boy’ by Alan Johnson

this boyWhile this is a very late review, hopefully it will persuade anyone left in the political community, who has not read Alan Johnson’s “This Boy”, to read it.

I tend to read at a snail’s pace and also have a habit of (accidentally) reading volumes of memoirs back to front chronologically. I read both Alan Clark’s and Chris Mullin’s volumes backwards. I read and reviewed Alan Johnson’s later work “Please Mister Postman” last summer. Just before Christmas I was kindly loaned “This Boy”.

The book is a remarkably detailed, harrowing account of a one-parent (and then no-parent) family living in 1950s/60s London in grinding, distressing poverty as the parent suffers increasingly failing health. Abandoned by her husband, Johnson’s mother, Lily, works all the hours God sends, and struggles bravely to bring up her children, Linda and Alan. Living in appalling slum conditions, they manage to survive through various trials and hardships. Linda emerges as a great confidante of her mother and a strong pseudo-parent for Alan as she grows into a young adult.

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Book Review: The Cruel Victory: The French Resistance, D-Day and the Battle for the Vercors 1944 by Paddy Ashdown

paddy book 2It is not like me to read books about wars and battles, but after being so moved and angered by Paddy Ashdown’s excellent portrayal of the inaugural mission of the Special Boat Service, A Brilliant Little Operation, I knew that I had to buy his next book.

The Cruel Victory tells the story of the brave Resistance fighters who briefly controlled the Vercors plateau in south-east France in the Summer of 1944. The original plan was for the Vercors to be secured to help an Allied invasion from the south, but for various reasons, the support that the fighters on the ground needed was not forthcoming. If people had been smarter in their decision making, at least some of it could have been and lives could have been saved.

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Book Review: Revolt on the Right by Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin

Farage ukip - Some rights reserved by Astral MediaOne of the political debates over UKIP is the question of whether it is primarily taking its support from disgruntled Conservatives or not.

Leading the charge for the ‘yes’ camp are several recent large-scale polls (or conglomeration of separate polls) from reputable polling companies. Looking at how people who currently say they’ll vote UKIP behaved in 2010, the pattern seems clear: UKIP’s growth in support predominantly comes from ex-Tories.

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Book Review: Austerity: the history of a dangerous idea

Mark Blyth delivers a masterful, blistering, devastating, and totally convincing critique of austerity in his book Austerity: the history of a dangerous idea. It’s impossible to read this book and still believe that austerity is the right policy. Blyth writes engaging, powerful economic history of economies applying austerity, including the US, UK, Sweden, Germany, Japan and France in the 1920s and 1930s, Denmark and Ireland in the 1980s, and the Baltic states in 2008, demonstrating in each case that austerity does not work. It does not generate growth or reduce debt. He shows that the current hot spot crises …

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