Agnes Chambre sits down with parliamentarians to find out more about the human side of politics. This week, Labour peer Robert Winston on suffering from imposter syndrome and making the Duke of York fall off his chair.
What were you like at school?
Terrified. At secondary school I had butterflies every day. I usually felt really nervous because I hadn’t done my homework or I didn’t have my coat. I wasn’t stupid, but I didn’t get down to working very hard academically. I enjoyed the rest of the stuff. The school was wonderful for irrelevant and extraneous pursuits. But I was quite a nervous schoolboy and it took me a hell of a long time to get confidence.
Why do you think that was?
Perhaps because my father died when I was nine and I was suddenly going into this entirely male environment and I wasn’t sure how I related to it. I didn’t have a father figure who could have helped me over that difficulty.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
When I was seven, I wanted to be an engine driver. But, someone told me recently, when I was eight I said I wanted to be a famous scientist.
What’s an interesting fact your colleagues may not know about you?
I think I’m constantly in hiding. I’m constantly concerned I’m going to fall flat on my face. I’m terrified of being found out because I realise I’m not as good as people think I am, that’s what I mean.
I read you don’t like being in the public eye. Is that true?
No, I don’t. It’s odd because I’ve done all this television and stuff so I’m recognised all over the place. If I take taxis and the driver asks me about my work that’s alright, because it’s in the privacy of a taxi. What I can’t cope with are parties. I just want to get away from it, from being known to have an opinion, from people saying they’ve been to a lecture of mine. I try to shy away from that really.
What’s an interaction you won’t forget?
Some years ago, my youngest son and I had a furious argument about how David Miliband had let down the Labour party. He said ‘if I saw David Miliband now, I’d give him a piece of my mind’. And I said ‘I bet you wouldn’t have the nerve’. Three days later, I got a text message. ‘I’m sitting in the business lounge of Kennedy airport and I’ve just met David Miliband and told him what I think of him. He responded ‘oh you must be Robert’s son’.
Are you optimistic about the future?
Of course. But the problem is at the moment, we’re living in a 1933 moment and I think the world is a bit poised on the edge. Europe could easily break up and we would be partly responsible for that. The one obvious advantage of the EU is that we’ve been at peace. There’s a lot of instability in the world, at the moment, it’s pretty grim.
Do you think there will be a second referendum?
The Labour party is too frightened because it says ’we’ve got a mandate and we have to abide by it’. They say it’s a democratic election and my view is well the electorate was so massively lied to’. In the past MPs have taken brave decisions, unpopular decisions. Capital punishment is a good example where the public and Parliament were at complete odds. But I don’t think anybody’s got the bravery.
Have you ever spoken to Jeremy Corbyn?
I’m not sure I could say a civil word to him. I’m sure he’s quite a decent man. In a way it’s not his fault, he’s a symptom of the malaise. I’ve been looking at his speeches from the 1980s. I can’t see him getting better; he’s been here a hell of a long time to improve. I was one of the few members of the House of Lords here when Corbyn justified standing. It was bloody unbelievable. It’s a piece of history I’m glad I saw but it made me feel quite sick. There he was defending himself and then right at the back of the room, almost in the darkness, were John McDonnell and Seamus Milne, like puppeteers pulling the strings.
Would you ever resign the whip?
Never say never, but I don’t think so. I’m not sure what some of my family would say.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
It was from a man called Sandy Crawford. I had a massive argument with the chief midwife of the unit where I was working late at night because they had a disaster. The baby could have died and the mother was put into jeopardy as well. I went to town with the midwives: ‘This is outrageous.’ The following morning I was walking along the courtyard and my elderly consultant came up to me and said: ‘I hear you had a bit of an altercation.’ And I replied: ‘Yes, what happened last night was really worrying.’ He said: ‘I’ve learnt that a good unit is a happy unit.’ Fabulous reply, fabulous advice. That’s led so much of the work I’ve done. I remember one time when some experiment had gone wrong and we got a rejection letter, I was feeling really annoyed. I walked past the main lab and opened the door and heard gales of laughter coming out of the room. I thought ‘I’m going to walk off, they’re enjoying themselves, this is great.’ And I thought – this is exactly how it should be.
What mistakes did you make when you were younger?
I’ve made so many mistakes but I actually think that one of the most important things to do is to be a failure again and again. I think failure is something we don’t value enough. In order to succeed, you need to fail. But there are some mistakes that I do mind, where I could have done differently at human relationships. There are a number of those that I feel I didn’t value enough. And I probably could have done more academically than I did, by not being so lazy.
Yes, really. Last week, I spoke in Scunthorpe, Manchester, and many more places. And I came home at the Friday night thinking, ‘god, you’re awful, it’s so lightweight. Don’t you think you’re just repeating yourself and maybe you’re poisoning young minds?’
Do you really think that?
I do. It’s amazing, there’s a real lack of confidence about most of the things I do. I think it’s very strange. On Sunday morning I gave a talk at the Jewish book fair and it went well enough. But afterwards I thought, what are they really thinking?
Do you have any unusual traits?
I am a terrible cheat, I hate losing. Playing Scrabble, I look at the tiles when people aren’t watching.
When’s the last time you made someone laugh?
I made the Duke of Kent fall off his chair once with a very rude joke. He literally did fall off his chair. We were at a dinner and I was sitting next to me and I thought ‘do I dare tell this very risqué joke’. I told it and he collapsed.
Do you have any recurring dreams or nightmares?
I used to have a nightmare regularly, long after my father died. He used to wear the paisley pattern, one of the most popular patterns after the Second World War. For years, I used to be chased by fractal patterns and it was really scary. Sometimes I’d be running away from patterns and they’d be chasing me and I’d be paralysed. That certainly something I remember from childhood, but it has happened from time to time as an adult.
When was the last time you cried?
About five weeks ago, I had been giving a talk on food science with Raymond Blanc. Afterwards he had hundreds of groupies coming up to him, he was a real success. Outside, there was this young woman who was waiting for me. She stood there looking very nervous and she introduced herself. I didn’t know who the hell she was. Suddenly I realised she was trying to me that hers was the first embryo which had been biopsied to exclude a genetic disease, which I had managed in 1986. It was about five years of work. I said ‘gosh, I last saw you when you were this big and I took a cell away’. I said: ‘If the politicians had had their way, trying to ban our work, you wouldn’t exist now.’ After I’d finished talking, she was already crying and I was crying. It’s a very poignant thing to consider how close to failure we’d been, but we succeeded and there she was. I said at least when you have a child you won’t have that dreadful spectre hanging over you, because you are free of that defect now. It was quite a moving moment.