Sir: ‘The return of eugenics’ (2 April) links a new technology of gene modification to historic dreams of genetic purification. But we are of course more than our DNA; each of us is a unique person, each mortal, and each worth the attention of science and medicine to alleviate our suffering. This means we must not totally ban the technology of crispr-CAS9, which allows specific editing of even a single letter within our 3 billion-letter human genomes, because it opens many doors to medicine. The single distinction that would allow this technology to serve medicine without also bringing down the curse of rational eugenics would be a ban on all manipulation of cells that make sperm or egg cells; that is, the human germ line. That would allow the treatment and cure of a person by DNA modification, without reopening a punitive eugenic path to two kinds of people.
Department of Biological Sciences, Columbia University
Sir: Fraser Nelson is right to identify the developments in human gene-editing as being of profound importance to the future of humanity. However, gene-editing technology is extremely limited in its ability to change traits such as height and intelligence, because there are thousands of genetic variants that affect complex traits such as these, most of them not known. There are, however, technologies other than gene-editing to be worried about. Parents could select the embryo with the greatest genetic potential for height and intelligence out of a pre-implantation selection, for example. The technologies and information necessary for this are close to ready. If restricted to the rich, the implications for growing inequality will be dramatic.
Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics, University of Oxford
Sir: I couldn’t be more relaxed about Rod Liddle’s opinion of Boris Johnson’s suitability to be Prime Minister (2 April). But I must at once correct him on the idea that people travelling in Africa, as he and Mr Johnson apparently were, might consider wearing face masks and rubber gloves as a protection against the illness bilharzia. Bilharzia (schistosomiasis) is communicated to bathing humans via snails in rivers and lakes. He and Boris were perfectly safe in a car and their undoubted courage in refusing (as a courtesy to the native people) to wear special protection was born only of ignorance. They were in no danger. As Rod himself points out in defence of Mr Johnson, great men may often be careless of detail; but I thought (if only for the sake of Spectator readers who may contemplate an African trip) that I should correct this one.
No ‘Smith Square set’
Sir: Both David Cameron and George Osborne gained experience in the Conservative Research Department, but they did not form a ‘Smith Square set’ (‘The Conservative crack-up’, 26 March). Cameron ended his four-year stint after the 1992 election, departing with other leaders of his ‘brat pack’. Osborne, arriving two years later, could not get out fast enough, leaving in 1995 to join Douglas Hogg at Agriculture at the start of the BSE crisis (which I told him confidently would be the end of his political career).
If, however, both men lack interest in ‘the preoccupations of MPs’ they follow in a fine Tory tradition. In 1905 Balfour was deeply impressed with the knowledge of Hong Kong displayed by a stranger who turned out to be a member of the Keswick family. He would be a great asset in the Commons, Balfour told him. ‘Well,’ said Mr Keswick, ‘I may as well state at once that I have been a loyal supporter of yours in the House for the last five years.’
House of Lords, London SW1
The punitive Living Wage
Sir: Martin Vander Weyer is remarkably sanguine about the Living Wage (Any Other Business, 2 April). He should talk to James Forsyth who, as ever, was on target. When it is fully implemented at £9 per hour by 2020, the pay for those over 25 will have risen by some 50 per cent above the recent minimum wage, and with all the add-ons of social security, holidays, pensions and so on, the true cost will be over £11 an hour, higher even than in the USA. This unprecedented increase will bring a wage explosion, higher unemployment and reduced exports. There was a time when government would do anything to tame inflation. George Osborne, our inexperienced social interventionist Chancellor, has really let the inflation genie out of the bottle, and it will be hard to get it in again.
Lord Vinson (Former chairman of the IEA)
Ofsted is answerable
Sir: I enjoy Peter Jones’s column, and was particularly taken by the 26 March edition in which he considered the regulation of MPs and the political career of Cicero. He claimed that oligarchs will always look out for themselves, illustrating this by stating that ‘apparently’ Ofsted has never upheld a complaint about its inspections. While some might be flattered to be considered part of an all-powerful, untouchable group of rulers, I must confess that Ofsted has indeed upheld complaints about its inspections over the years. In the past two academic years, Ofsted has changed the overall judgment of 46 of its inspections as a result of its complaints process. To further promote openness, we have set up new scrutiny panels to consider inspections complaints. They include headteachers and other leaders who have no connection with us.
The inspectorate is a transparent and accountable organisation, and therefore falls very short indeed as an oligarchy.
Sean Harford HMI
National director, Education, Ofsted
A teleporting wife
Sir: So Sam Leith has a teleporting cat (Diary, 2 April)? My wife has similar powers. In the supermarket, she can move from aisle 1 to aisle 23 in the time it takes me to turn around and ask where the cakes are. I spend the next 40 minutes searching, only to be greeted by a fatigued ‘Oh there you are’ when she rematerialises.