Professor Imre Leader
How would you describe your religious or ideological identity?
Jewish, but not practising and not believing. I go to a Passover dinner once a year at my parents’ house. In terms of world view, I like the West.
Did you grow up in a more religious household?
My great grandfather was a rabbi, my grandmother was religious, my father is a bit religious and I’m not religious at all. It’s a tapering effect.
Why do you think that might have been?
I thought that believing in God was a pretty weird thing to do from quite a young age. I was never forced to do anything. There was no parental pressure, my Dad went to synagogue maybe once a month. I had a Bar Mitzvah, but that was just a cultural thing, what was does. There was no sense of affirming that I believed in stuff.
Would you describe the UK as an equal and tolerant society, especially in relation to religion and belief?
Yes absolutely, that people can be in a non-State religion, non-C of E and be allowed to build a Catholic church or a mosque is pretty tolerant, there is never a hint of curtailment to that.
Have ever experienced any challenges to living in accordance with your atheist beliefs?
Not in England, I might if I lived in Saudi Arabia, but as it is, no.
How do you regard human rights? Has the Human Rights Act been a positive development for our society?
Too much interference. The way Britain was pre-EU, pre human rights, was a much better thing. Everything was fully safeguarded. I don’t think that the Human Rights Act adds to anything, in fact it detracts. Because there is now a whole nasty culture of making spurious claims. In the past if a warder attacked a prisoner then they could sue the prison warden, and that was correct. But now the prisoner can sue because he can’t vote, or because his right to get books out of the library is curtailed. That is the kind of culture which the Human Rights Act has generated and that is a very bad thing.
What do you think about faith schools?
If you mean something like a random C of E or Catholic school, that is obviously fine as long as the school wouldn’t promote something along the lines of saying that Catholicism is the best religion. I’m not saying that if they were doing that they should be illegal, but I think that provided they are not doing that they can be a good thing. Similarly I would have a problem with a school going against British culture, telling women that they should be veiled at all times. Again, I’m not saying that I would necessarily want them shut down, but it wouldn’t be a good thing. Whether we should allow it is a separate issue, but it is clearly a bad thing. In the same way that insulting somebody and telling them that they are ugly is clearly a bad thing, but that doesn’t mean that it should be illegal to insult them.
With faith schools, as well as the question of what we permit legally, there is the question of what we give public money towards. How do you feel about that? If I felt that something was bad, I wouldn’t want it to be publically funded. But equally, if a school has rubbish teachers I wouldn’t want it to be funded.
Do you think that religious businesses should be permitted exemptions from discrimination law?
It depends on what kind of thing it is. If it is a shop refusing a customer because they are gay, that is a problem. I see no problem with a shop saying to its supplier that they are not going to stock a card for a gay wedding anniversary. But a shop dealing with the public is different, and there would be a problem in that case.
Do you think that living in a Parliamentary democracy is a good thing?
It is a good thing, and nothing else remotely works. The unique exception being a benevolent dictatorship, but that isn’t feasible in the real world. I suppose that you could say that Singapore is a bit close to that, and it does work in the sense that people aren’t dirt poor or locked up for doing nothing. I personally don’t like the Singapore system, but if someone said to me that Singapore does work, I would see where they were coming from. I would disagree but not very strongly.
Do you believe that you have a moral obligation to vote?
No, absolutely not! If I don’t like any of the candidates, why would I vote?
Do you think that you have a moral obligation to at least consider the options?
It’s a sensible thing to do, I don’t see it as a moral obligation.
Is it a problem for you that the House of Lords has a role in making and changing law, but is not democratically elected?
Well does it work? If they spent their time blocking things which the House of Commons wanted to do because they didn’t like them, because they interfered with their land or privilege, then it would be a problem. But as it is they are a useful break on things. In Britain it clearly works. Which in no way implies that it would necessarily work in another country, but it does here.
What do you think of Church of England bishops being given a place as of right in the House of Lords?
It works. If I had the impression that the evil bishops spent their time trying to influence government policy and block things which they shouldn’t be blocking, then I wouldn’t like it. But that hasn’t happened, so it’s fine.
Is it a good or a bad thing that some decisions affecting the UK as a whole are made by the devolved administrations in Wales and Scotland?
With the devolved administrations, it doesn’t work because it is essentially rubbish. If you look at the quality of MPs in this country, they are a much higher calibre of people than local councillors. If you look at the people in the Welsh and Scottish administrations, they are much more like local councillors. They are rubbish and wasting people’s money. In practice it doesn’t work, it’s not a principled thing. In the same way that local councils are rubbish.
Can you give some examples of corruption in the EU?
Well, there are essentially two sorts of countries in the EU, the northern ones which work well, hardworking places like Germany, Britain, and Holland. Where if people are corrupt they get found out and go to prison. In contrast, there are places like Greece, Italy and Spain where everyone in politics is corrupt and nobody goes to prison. The odd one is France, which is kind of a mixture, there is a southern/northern split. The problem with the EU is that it includes a non-corrupt political system.
What sort of moral responsibilities come with power?
If you have political power you are supposed to do things for the good of your country, rather than for your party. So don’t change constituency boundaries just for the good of your party. If you are a country, you have some kind of moral imperative not to use sweat shop labour in India for example, but you also have a moral imperative to do well as a company, because that is how capitalism works. Capitalism is a good thing, which has brought freedom to a lot of people. There is a moral imperative to make the western system of capitalism work, but it doesn’t mean that it is acceptable to starve your workers. There are some moral obligations, but it doesn’t mean that you have to be nice to everyone all of the time, because that isn’t how capitalism works.
What moral obligations do all citizens owe to society?
Be nice to people, not to rip them off, not to be offensive, not to queue jump in bus queues. You would never want these things enshrined in law, but morally it is important to be nice to people.
Do you think that people in public life are representative of society as a whole, and if not, what should be done about this?
They are certainly not representative. Some groups aren’t represented, but worse than that, only thrusting, aggressive people go into politics, independent of gender or race. There is a problem with the kind of people who go into politics that is different from 30 years ago, when there were a lot of people doing it for the good of the country. Now these people are few and far between, the general calibre of MPs has gone down a lot in the last 30 years.
Have you ever felt so strongly a particular political issue that you have wanted to do something to try to change it? If so, what?
Yes, exactly once and I regretted it immediately afterwards. I was so annoyed with the EU that I went out and voted for UKIP. I came home and said to my wife that I have just voted UKIP, and she said what have you done you idiot. And I thought, oh no what have I done? I hadn’t ever before done anything like voting out of annoyance and rage,
In your dealings with public authorities have your beliefs been treated with appropriate respect, and have any needs arising from them been met?
Never arisen. I have never had anyone foisting their beliefs on me.
Is it important for you always to act within the law?
The Rule of Law is unbelievably important, it is what society is based on, democracy, the free press and the Rule of Law. Of course if somebody stabbed one of my children I would go out and stab them, I hope that I would have the strength to do that. Of course that would quite rightly be illegal and I would expect to go to prison for it, but I would still do it. There are lots of cases where I would do something against the law, not because I believe that the law in question was morally wrong, but there was some other imperative at work. For instance, speeding in order to get someone to hospital, or to see a dying loved one. I would expect to be punished. But I wouldn’t be acting in that way because I had a moral problem with the law. Breaking the law just because you disagree with it is wrong, because it undermines the Rule of Law.
I am talking of course about in a Western country where things are good. Obviously, the Rule of Law in Nazi Germany or even Qatar or somewhere now, well that would be very different. But somewhere like this country, where things are good and people aren’t locked up for no reason, in that case you should obey the law.
Do your beliefs require you to speak up for third parties, especially the vulnerable?
No, I have never been in that situation. I’d like to glibly say that I would, but I have never had such a situation.
Really? What about your dealings with students who need an advocate of some sort?
If a student was being bullied by a tutor, then I would go and talk to them straight away. I wouldn’t condemn them in public, but I would go and sort it out.
Would you say that the Rule of Law is applied fairly equally in our society, or do some groups experience either prejudicial or preferential treatment?
Generally applied pretty fairly. There are cases where prosecutions don’t happen where there is a worry that people will be perceived as racist, as happened in Yorkshire with the child abuse cases. Those things do happen but they are pretty rare. Also I think that once you get into court, things are incredibly fairly done. The judge will never try to sway the jury one way or another. The big worry would be someone not being prosecuted because they were powerful, a politician or something like that. And that wouldn’t happen in Britain.
What do you think of the general increase in police powers and state surveillance over the last 15 years or so?
I don’t think that they have increased in real terms. There are new modes of communication, email and things, so there need to be new ways of dealing with it. For instance, before there were phones there was no phone-tapping, but the introduction of phone tapping didn’t prove that there had been an increase in surveillance. The rules might be slightly different from 30 years ago, but it feels the same to me. When you read about complaints in the press from defence lawyers and things, they don’t seem to be all that different in level and nature from what was in the press 20 or 30 years ago.
Is there anything which you would like to add?
You didn’t ask whether I liked first past the post, which surprised me, and the answer is yes I absolutely do, because it works. It isn’t a principled thing, but the point is that it works. In Britain in the last 50 years, has prevented unpopular governments clinging to power, Major and Brown for example. I can imagine a PR system having messed it up and let them hang on it there.
Imre Leader is a Professor of Pure Mathematics at the University of Cambridge. His research work has concentrated on Graph Theory and Combinatorics, particularly in Isoperimetric Inequalities, Extremal Combinatorics and Ramsey Theory.