is the former co-publisher of LM and founding director of the Institute (since renamed the Academy) of Ideas. Huw Spanner spent a sometimes fractious two hours with her in a café in central London on 19 April 2007.
Photography: Andrew Firth
What were the dominant values in the home you grew up in? Your parents were working-class Irish immigrants and devout Catholics, is that right?
That’s true. And Catholicism was very important, and quite natural. I went to Catholic schools, and I thoroughly enjoyed my upbringing. It was certainly liberating rather than oppressive – though obviously I’m not uncritical of Catholicism. My teachers believed in knowledge for its own sake and were very aspirational for their pupils, most of whom would not have aspired to go to university; and that was very inspiring.
Did you believe in God then?
When did that belief lapse?
When I was at university I became much more interested in politics and I think that became a clash.
One profile I read said that you went to Warwick University a Tory and emerged a communist.
When I went to university I didn’t know anything about politics, but I was very disillusioned with the Labour Party because I had gone to a meeting where a Labour MP had promised to save Shotton steel works and then it closed down and I just thought, ‘They lied.’ I mean, I was just astounded – I couldn’t get over the hypocrisy. So, I voted for Margaret Thatcher. And then I thought, ‘Am I a Tory?’ I went to one Federation of Conservative Students meeting and thought, ‘Oh! No, I’m not.’ And that was that.
Were your parents Tories?
We discussed politics all the time at home, but we talked about current affairs, not party politics. We watched the news, we read newspapers and we had lots and lots of arguments
Well, my father would have been a Tory, but I only worked that out afterwards. We discussed politics all the time at home, but we talked about current affairs, not party politics. We watched the news and Panorama, we read newspapers and we had lots and lots of arguments. My father was very interested in poverty and equality and, you know, why doctors were considered to be more important than him. My mother was very interested in education, not having had any. She was a great believer in women being independent and able to earn for themselves.
How did you become a communist?
I went to [the international ecumenical community] Taizé1taize.fr/en for the summer holidays when I was 15 or 16 and then every year until I was 21 or so; and I think that made me think about the Third World. I suppose I had a romantic attachment to the oppressed, and I became interested in liberation theology.
At university, the left were an active force. I began to read, I went to meetings, I listened to all the arguments and I started to think it through. I joined the Socialist Workers Party for a while and did the usual going out selling papers and all the rest of it, went on every demonstration there was, spoke at general meetings, all of that kind of thing. But even when I was a member of the SWP I thought they were crude and were not very interested in the ideas. And then I went on a demonstration and met some people from the Revolutionary Communist Party and thought: ‘This is more like it.’
What was more like it?
Well, first of all they challenged me. I was an anti-abortion activist – I had thought more about that issue between the ages of 14 and 18 than just about anything else – and the RCP said, ‘If you’re anti-abortion, you can’t join.’
And then I was interested in the finer points of left-wing differences: how imperialism was understood, the interpretation of what Lenin had said, how one understood the Marxist method. I suppose it’s like the differences between all the different religious denominations. If you’re interested in left-wing politics, there are six different organisations and you work out which is most compelling, most convincing; and that’s what I did, because I wanted to make sure that I joined the organisation that was going to be most effective.
In going from Catholicism to communism, were you exchanging one dogmatic ideology for another?
I didn’t ever think that Catholicism was a dogmatic ideology and I didn’t think that getting involved in politics was. It was a fair intellectual exchange. I decided I agreed with something and I got involved.
I was and am passionate about politics, and in today’s ideology-light atmosphere I think people are suspicious of that. And I think that’s one of the reasons why people are very nervous about people who have got a religious faith: they see them as being somehow fundamentalist. I don’t have that view of people who are religious, and I don’t have that view of people who are passionate about politics. I think that if you take yourself seriously and believe what you’re saying, you’re going to want to see it through. I don’t see it as dogmatic, I see it as being convinced – but not closed-minded.
So, looking back, you’re not embarrassed by –
If the Daily Mail happen to agree with me on some question, that’s fine; but if it’s what I think, it’s what I think. I have to not be intimidated by the possibility of having the wrong bedfellow
No, not even remotely. Not even remotely.
Some of the stories I’ve read suggest that the RCP was not a movement that encouraged free thinking.
I know, but that’s just not true. Not remotely true. It was the most intellectually rewarding period – I read, I talked, I rowed. There are obviously a lot of people who have written about the RCP in that period who weren’t in it and didn’t like it.
Nick Cohen, the author of What’s Left?,2What’s Left?: How liberals lost their way (Fourth Estate, 2007) has characterised the RCP as ‘revolutionary defeatists’, who argued that attempting to reform the system merely deferred revolution. Better to let the system crash itself, if not actually encourage it to.
No, that is not what the RCP’s position was. Nick Cohen’s got about as much insight into the RCP as he would have into transubstantiation, do you know what I mean?
Is it true that the RCP was anti-anti-apartheid?
It was opposed to the soft tactics of the Anti-Apartheid Movement and thought that a lot of the boycott campaigns were rather self-congratulatory and much more about looking good and saving British capitalism’s skin – the kind of position I might even have today about corporate social responsibility.
That’s what appealed to me about them: they didn’t just go along with the latest leftie position, they thought about things. If you really want to defeat apartheid, what’s the best way to do it? Politics is not just a series of ‘Whose side are you on?’ positions: it’s complicated, and intellectually challenging.
Some of the opinions the RCP expressed did strike a lot of people as being strangely right-wing. Didn’t its magazine, Living Marxism, defend the right to deny the Holocaust?
There’s nothing right-wing about believing in free speech. I argued against ‘No Platform’ when I was at university, even before I was involved in the RCP, because when I was an anti-abortionist [my opponents] tried to no-platform me, so I’d already thought it through and I thought it was always more important to have the argument out.
You know, people still say to me, ‘I was very surprised that you came out with such-and-such, because that could have been argued in the Daily Mail.’ But ultimately it doesn’t really matter, does it? I mean, if the Daily Mail happen to agree with me on some question, that’s fine; but if it’s what I think, it’s what I think. I have to not be intimidated by the possibility of having the wrong bedfellow.
The RCP has been accused of choosing the positions it took on the basis of how controversial or contrary they would be. Is it true, for instance, that it supported Saddam Hussein in the 1991 Gulf war?
No. The RCP didn’t support Saddam; it supported the Iraqi people. I thought that the war was illegitimate and therefore, as is the way of these things, it was like: ‘Who would we want to win? Well, it’s got to be Iraq.’ I have been a consistent anti-militarist.
Can you sum up your development after you joined the RCP, through to its dissolution in 1997 and your setting up of the Institute of Ideas3instituteofideas.com in 2000? Did your fundamental values and principles change at all?
I consider myself to be a progressive who believes in social equality and thinks that this society isn’t it. There are better ways of organising society
I think my fundamental values and principles have remained consistent: being an Enlightenment thinker, having a respect for individual autonomy.
It’s politics that has changed enormously since the end of the Cold War. For example, when I was involved in, you know, revolutionary politics, there were quite a lot of Marxists and other lefties who were very pro development in the Third World and would have said that the way forward for a country like Bangladesh was to industrialise and develop. Now that is no longer seen as a left-wing position; but I still believe it. Now I find myself up against green activists – who are considered to be the new radicals – and they say that the only people who argue that the Third World should have roads and infrastructure all work for the big corporates.
A lot of people seem to find you very enigmatic.
I don’t think I am – and I’m certainly not trying to be. I think I’m fairly straightforward in what I believe. I just think it’s hard to put a convenient label on me, and people find that disconcerting.
Do you still describe yourself as a Marxist?
What principles of Marx in particular do you hold to?
Well, I… I consider myself to be a progressive who believes in social equality and thinks that this society isn’t it. There are better ways of organising society, fairer ways. I want the Third World to be liberated from need and poverty and I have a consistent position on that.
But you no longer believe in the inevitability of proletarian revolution.
I never did.
Do you still believe the means of production should be in the hands of the workers?
I think that the social system as it stands doesn’t work very efficiently.
You are a very strong advocate of the GM food industry. Do you think Marx would have approved of it?
First of all, Marx isn’t my god. And being a Marxist is not the same as poring over him and quoting him at every turn. He was interested in the matchstick girls in the 19th century and we don’t have them any more, do you know what I mean?
It amazes me how GM has become such an iconic issue. For me, what has happened is that science, a great modern project, has discovered a potentially great new technology that could be liberating for the Third World – and there has been a hysterical backlash against it. I’m on the side of progress (if you want to put it that way) and the great gains that science can bring us.
If you ask me what Marx would say, I would have thought – although I’m not going to attribute anything to somebody who’s long dead – he would have generally been sympathetic to my position and not thought that I’d joined the capitalist class. He’d have had a more subtle understanding of what I was saying.
‘Progress’ is a slippery word, isn’t it, because it has a tick of approval built into it. But what we call ‘progress’ is never simply good or bad.
No, of course. Every development throws up challenges, that is true. But I generally think that living in a mud hut and, you know, drawing water from a well and cleaning your clothes with a stone is not as good as having washing machines and roads and modern medicine, right?
You say that your principles have remained consistent. One of the slogans the Institute of Ideas has used is ‘Ban nothing,’ but that’s not a sentiment that most people would associate with the hard left or with communism in any of its actual manifestations.
Freedom and the left have not been closely aligned in Britain, and I think that’s a mistake. The left don’t understand that free speech might be something worth fighting for, but I happen to think it is and I always have done.
You keep referring to Marx. Remember ‘Liberate them from their chains.’ It’s meant to be about creating a free society. One precondition for any sort of social change has to be a sense of the robust individual – which is very different from individualism as it is caricatured today, as selfish and narcissistic and don’t-care-about-anyone-else.
People are not as pathetic as they are often portrayed in contemporary discussions on social policy. There is a view now current that ordinary people are incapable of running their own lives: incapable of making decisions about whether they smoke or whether they drink too much, what they feed their children. That has an enormous impact at the cultural level – and at the more political level I think that the laws and regulations that hem people in produce an atmosphere of utter stultification and hamper any sort of dynamism, intellectual or social.
I mean, people are walking on eggshells, knowing that if they say the wrong thing they’re going to be demonised and dealt with very harshly. Take a nice controversial example: the debate around climate change – and when I say ‘debate’, I mean there is none. People who are sceptical about climate change are called ‘deniers’, which puts you on a par with Holocaust deniers. It’s a silencing technique, and it’s been very effective. And I think it’s bad for science and bad for politics to have an atmosphere where you can’t challenge things or ask questions because you’re afraid people will accuse you of something.
The other very dangerous thing that is happening at the moment is the confusion between science and politics. I’ve become increasingly nervous about the way government ministers hide behind science as a pretext for draconian social policy. Again, global warming is a really good example: they say the science is closed, a consensus has been reached and therefore we’re going to attack cheap flights, we’re going to make sure you have a certain type of light bulb and you’re going to be cast out of polite society unless you go through your garbage and recycle it in the correct way. I think that science has to be very wary of the way it’s being dragged into politics.
It isn’t actually the politicians who have taken the lead on global warming, is it? Sir John Houghton4Former chair of the scientific assessment working group of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has long pushed for action, and Jim Hansen5Then director of the Nasa Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and George W Bush’s chief climate modeller warns that humankind may have 10 years’ grace at most.
Yeah, there are some scientists, but they’re scientists with political opinions. Science doesn’t say we have only got 10 years, right, because science doesn’t tell you those kind of things, right? What science has done is to indicate that there is man-made climate change – nobody’s quite sure how much or what it will lead to – but it doesn’t tell you how humanity should respond to that challenge. And that’s where politics and science get muddled up.
We live in a period that has lost faith in the future. So often discussions about the problems we face are couched in incredibly pessimistic, mean-spirited and misanthropic terms
But increasingly scientists are saying – while politicians try to shut them up – that changes may well be impending that are going to be devastating.
If it’s the case that (for example) there is going to be flooding in parts of the Third World, for me the urgent task would be to ensure that those countries were modernised. You know, when there’s flooding in Holland or America its impact isn’t devastating. My argument is that Bangladesh should be en route to being like America, so that if the floods come it can cope with them. I think that everybody is entitled to develop to the point that America has.
You know, there’s a whole attack on China for developing, whereas I think it’s the most liberating thing that people in China are now going to be able to enjoy the gains of the modern era. Millions and millions of people now are not going to be peasants – how good is that? It’s great news from my point of view, but from a Western green perspective it’s suddenly a problem.
We live in a period that has lost faith in the future and lost faith in our capacity to change things for the better, and that is the greatest challenge. So often discussions about the problems we face are couched in incredibly pessimistic, mean-spirited and misanthropic terms.
Don’t you think that the history of the 20th century justifies a degree of pessimism?
No. But I do think we have lost the ability to imagine a better world. Look at how we celebrated the [arrival of the new] millennium. I collected all the articles and commentaries, and the majority were about what a disaster humanity had been. You’d think there was nothing to celebrate in all that time. And then there was a panic about the Millennium Bug – we were all doomed!
I mean, how often does this happen? Bird flu, oh my God! Ecological refugees! I mean, every discussion is couched in this way – ‘Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God!’ Paedophiles on the internet! You know. All of these things are overstated, and what I’m saying is: There is a cultural atmosphere of fear, right? It’s like the man who used to stand on the street corner with a placard that said: ‘The end of the world is nigh, three weeks on Friday.’
Yes, but Houghton and Hansen are not like the man on your street corner.
What I’m saying is that that way of looking at the world has become mainstreamed by environmentalism, and I am not sympathetic to it. I think we can rise to the challenges, but not if we’re constantly seeing the negative.
Science is not a dogma. It doesn’t tell you what to do. If our policy was dictated by science, Britain would be leading the world in developing GM crops; but people didn’t want that, right? I mean, just because the science says something is safe, it doesn’t mean you have to have it. The irony is that suddenly everybody cites science on global warming and nobody wants to believe it on GM crops.
Scientists also said that asbestos was safe.
There are a lot of breakthroughs that have required leaps of imagination and leaps of faith – and sometimes bad things happen, I’m not trying to deny that. I don’t believe you can have a risk-free world – and science can never guarantee anything.
Science is not a dogma. It doesn’t tell you what to do. If our policy was dictated by science, Britain would be leading the world in developing GM crops – but people didn’t want that
Isn’t it sensible, if there is doubt, to err on the side of caution?
What I’m saying is that we are over-cautious and over-nervous, and it’s not a healthy atmosphere to live in. The precautionary principle has been institutionalised, and this creates a climate of fear around experimentation. And that makes me very nervous.
Do you call yourself a libertarian?
I don’t particularly. Other people do. I’m not embarrassed by the term, but I know that it’s generally associated with the right, so as soon as I say I don’t mind it some people say, ‘Oooh, you see, she has become a right-winger.’ I read something the other day that suggested that really I was a front for the right and working for the corporate sector.
How should I know? Because we don’t easily fit into simple categories. These things do fly, don’t they? Look at the people who think America was responsible for [the attack on] the Twin Towers. I mean, there is absolutely reams of stuff on the web – and that way madness lies.
Some people find it remarkable that you are still associated today with many of the people you were fellow-travelling with in the RCP 20 years ago.
I’m really glad there are people I knew 20 years ago that I can still have a conversation with politically. Mick Hume [who edited LM] works in the office upstairs, so I bump into him on the staircase, and there’s a handful of other people well-documented on these conspiracy websites, like Frank Furedi…
I think that at last year’s Battle of Ideas we had 250 speakers and probably about 20 of them were people who were involved in the RCP in the past.
That’s an awful lot, isn’t it, given that the RCP was only ever a splinter group of a splinter group of the hard left?
Oh! Absolutely outrageous! Absolutely outrageous!
I cannot understand how you can’t understand that if I organise a conference with 250 speakers it is fairly obvious that I will have people I have every regard for politically. What on earth is wrong with that? What could anyone think is scary or weird?
Is the Institute of Ideas committed to promoting debate or to promoting one side of a debate?
We are committed to debating in general, but make it perfectly clear that we have a position in the debates we organise.
Would it be true to say that everyone at the Institute of Ideas is on the same side of the debate?
I don’t do a check on them when they start, but obviously, just being realistic and honest, the people who are most likely to want to work with the Institute of Ideas are going to be sympathetic to the kind of things I say. Nobody would want to work with me if they hated everything I stood for.
But that’s not the same as saying we can’t organise open debates. Open debates are open debates. I have a view in those debates, but I’m prepared to have my views absolutely hammered, right? Unless you’re accusing me of setting up debates so that I win them, which you’d be hard-pressed to do…
I think there are two kinds of people who are keen on debate. There are those whose own opinions are provisional, who want to hear all the arguments, and there are those who know exactly what they think and want a platform so that they can persuade other people. Which category do you come in?
I think that if you’re not open to persuasion yourself, even if you’re pretty sure that you know what you think, if you’re not open to the possibility that you’re wrong, then debate is futile. I rarely am involved in a debate – and I mean this – where I don’t think differently at the end of it. I don’t mean I sort of go, ‘Oh God, I thought black was black but now I think it’s white!’ But I think, ‘That was a really interesting point. I must think about that.’ And I think that’s how you develop intellectually.
Are there things you retain an open mind about?
I’m completely open-minded on everything. I do think that principles matter, and there are reasons why you attach yourself to a particular position; but I’m all for saying, ‘Let’s look at things again.’ In fact, I constantly encourage the people who work with me to look at things again and rethink things. I try and encourage them to read widely and deeply, to expose them to other arguments. You know, it’s a really nice atmosphere to work in, because you’re constantly being challenged.
What would change your position on global warming?
If someone could convince me that the Third World is better off in mud huts at the whim of the weather and that living in soaring temperatures without air-conditioning is a good thing, maybe…
When I read material from the Institute of Ideas, and from not unconnected organisations –
– yes, and the Manifesto Club,8manifestoclub.com say, my observation is that everything seems to be very unnuanced. For example, when you all say we live in a ‘risk-averse’ society, I think: ‘Yes, in some respects. But in other respects it’s a complacent, even reckless, society.’
But what I am saying, as unnuanced as it may be, is that there is a general trend that is having a negative impact on the way we organise society. That is not to suggest that we don’t understand that there are other factors – of course we do. But I’m interested in what the trends are, and what I think are the damaging trends; and I’m trying to apply a corrective.
We’re trying to open up a discussion about why things have so changed politically that (for example) the Government thinks its main job is to police and alter behaviour – as they would say themselves. I do not think that is what the Government should do.
It’s the transformation of the welfare state into a behaviour-modification scheme that I don’t like. It infantilises people. Believe me. I’ve read all of the government advice, and it is sanctimonious and tut-tutting. There is a real danger – and I am serious about this – of demoralising ordinary people to the point where they don’t know what to do.
You have been a panellist on Radio 4’s The Moral Maze since 2001. What are the basic principles that guide you to the positions you take?
I consider myself to be a kind of radical humanist. I believe in the human race. I’m optimistic about it. I’m disturbed that it’s become fashionable to see people as a problem
I think that’s very difficult to analyse. I read as much as I can in the 24 hours I have to prepare and then I argue what I think is the right position.
You can only try to work it out on the basis of the value system you have developed. I’m 46 years old, I’ve been thinking about politics and the world I live in for 25 years, trying to work things through. I’m not guaranteed to be right on everything, but I don’t have an existential dilemma every time I have to come up with something.
So, what are the basic values that help you to find your way in the maze?
Well, these things are always difficult, but I consider myself to be a kind of radical humanist. I believe in the human race. I’m optimistic about it. I’m disturbed that it’s become fashionable to see people as a problem. I think that the human race has generally been a fantastic boon: I don’t want it to go away, I want it to develop.
I’m a secularist, but I’m not hysterical about religion. For me, it is and always has been a humanist project – in some ways, one of the greatest imaginative projects. I understand why people are religious, I think, and have every sympathy with them. I am generally not worried about the growth of religion at all. I think it’s become a real straw man, and that annoys me.
I’m very, very worried that we have such a vacuum in our society that young British Asian kids find nihilism attractive. I think this society offers them very little. If people want to know why some 20-year-old up the road is so pessimistic about the future that he wants to blow himself up and everyone with him, well, culturally he’s not alone: the great white intellectuals of this country have got the same outlook. They just don’t blow themselves up.
We have to take responsibility for not being able to inspire future generations, and that, I believe, is because we have nothing positive to say about what the world could be like. We’ve lost faith in the great projects, the great visions for changing society…
Perhaps that’s because a lot of the great projects didn’t deliver what we had hoped for.
That might be true, but in 2007 I do not think this is it. We have a task of trying to create a new world, a new vision of the world.
And that has to be a point of debate, by the way. I haven’t got the answers, by any stretch of the imagination. If I knew what to do, if I knew how to inspire people, if I knew exactly how to make that [vision] come alive, I would do it. But I do try. You know, the Institute of Ideas organises a sixth-form debating competition and I see young people grow through being taken seriously and being given the challenge of coming up with ideas and solutions. You know, don’t treat people like idiots! Give them an opportunity to become more than they are, to change the world they live in, not be victims of it!
I believe in the transformative power of people and ideas, I suppose. I’m an optimist about human nature, in spite of all the disasters. In my unnuanced way, I can see all the gains.
This edit was originally published in the June 2007 issue of Third Way.
|⇑2||What’s Left?: How liberals lost their way (Fourth Estate, 2007)|
|⇑4||Former chair of the scientific assessment working group of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)|
|⇑5||Then director of the Nasa Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and George W Bush’s chief climate modeller|
|⇑6||See in particular lobbywatch.org.|
|⇑7||The ‘libertarian e-zine’ spiked-online.com|
Claire Fox was born in north Wales in 1960. She was educated at St Richard Gwyn Catholic High School, and studied English and American literature at Warwick University. In 1992, she took a PGCE at Thames Polytechnic (now Greenwich University).
From 1981 to 1987, she worked as a social worker in mental health, for the Cyrenians and Mind among others.
She then became a lecturer and tutor in English language and literature, at Thurrock Technical College from 1987 to 1990 and then at West Herts College until 1999.
Having joined the Revolutionary Communist Party ‘in the 1980s’, she relaunched its magazine Living Marxism as LM with Helene Guldberg in 1997, and co-published it until its closure in 2000 (after ITN won a libel case that bankrupted it).
In 2000, she founded the Institute (latterly the Academy) of Ideas. LM had been organising popular public debates – such as the three-day conference Free Speech Wars, presented in association with Waterstone’s at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts in 1998 – and the IoI ‘grew out of’ these. She remains its founder director and is co-convenor of the Battle of Ideas, the annual festival of debate it has organised since 2005. In 2003, she initiated Debating Matters, a competition for sixth-formers that now involves over 150 schools.
She has appeared often on Question Time on BBC1 and Any Questions? on BBC Radio 4, and has been a regular panellist on Radio 4’s The Moral Maze since 2001. She has written for a number of national newspapers and specialist journals, and has a monthly column in the ‘municipal journal’ MJ. She also presents Claire Fox News on the new ‘online TV channel’ 18doughtystreet.com.
She has contributed chapters to a number of books, including The McDonaldization of Higher Education (2002), The RoutledgeFalmer Guide to Key Debates in Education (2004) and A Lecturer’s Guide to Further Education (2007).
She is a member of the public engagement strategy committee of the Wellcome Trust. In 2006, she was one of the judges of the Orange Prize for Fiction.
Up-to-date as at 1 May 2007