David Calling

On the Use and Abuse of Privilege

Here are stories that have a lot to say about two very different characters in the news at the same time — Professor Eric Hobsbawm, the historian who has just died, and Sir John Gurdon, a geneticist who has just won the Nobel Prize for Medicine.

At the end of his life, Hobsbawm, an unrepentant Stalinist, was still maintaining that it was justified to kill 15 or 20 million people to create a radiant Communist society. Tony Blair awarded Hobsbawm the Companion of Honour, a much-esteemed decoration. A good few people were at Buckingham Palace to collect their awards that day, and among them was Lord Rothschild (who tells me this story and was glad to have it out in the open). A philanthropist, he was being rewarded for public services. Rothschild was at the front of the line, Hobsbawm at the back. All of a sudden Hobsbawm started shouting in front of everyone there that his decoration was more important than Rothschild’s and they should change places. A palace official had to explain that Lord Rothschild’s decoration was in the gift of the queen and so had priority over Hobsbawm’s decoration from the prime minister. 

Gurdon was educated at Eton, most famous of British schools. Years ago, he was bottom in his science class there and keeps the master’s report framed in his office at the Gurdon Institute in Cambridge: “He will not listen, but will insist on doing his work in his own way. I believe he has ideas about becoming a Scientist; on his present showing this is quite ridiculous, if he can’t learn simple biological facts he would have no chance of doing the work of a Specialist.” When an experiment doesn’t work, Gurdon says that he tells himself, “The schoolmaster may have been right.”

Compare and contrast, as the exam questions used to put it, with special emphasis on what is to be learnt here about the use or abuse of privilege.


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