Professor Stephen Hawking “Our attitude towards wealth played a crucial role in Brexit. We need a rethink”



Money was a key factor in the outcome of the EU referendum. We will now have to learn to collaborate and to share

Does money matter? Does wealth make us rich any more? These might seem like odd questions for a physicist to try to answer, but Britain’s referendum decision is a reminder that everything is connected and that if we wish to understand the fundamental nature of the universe, we’d be very foolish to ignore the role that wealth does and doesn’t play in our society.

I argued during the referendum campaign that it would be a mistake for Britain to leave the European Union. I’m sad about the result, but if I’ve learned one lesson in my life it is to make the best of the hand you are dealt. Now we must learn to live outside the EU, but in order to manage that successfully we need to understand why British people made the choice that they did. I believe that wealth, the way we understand it and the way we share it, played a crucial role in their decision. As the prime minister, Theresa May, said in her first week in office: “We need to reform the economy to allow more people to share in the country’s prosperity.”

We all know that money is important. One of the reasons I believed it would be wrong to leave the EU was related to grants. British science needs all the money it can get, and one important source of such funding has for many years been the European commission. Without these grants, much important work would not and could not have happened. There is already some evidence of British scientists beingfrozen out of European projects, and we need the government to tackle this issue as soon possible.

Money is also important because it is liberating for individuals. I have spoken in the past about my concern that government spending cuts in the UK will diminish support for disabled students, support that helped me during my career. In my case, of course, money has helped not only make my career possible but has also literally kept me alive.

On one occasion while in Switzerland early on in my career, I developed pneumonia, and my college at Cambridge, Gonville and Caius, arranged to have me flown back to the UK for treatment. Without their money I might not have survived to do all the thinking that I’ve managed since then. Cash can set individuals free, just as poverty can certainly trap them and limit their potential, to their own detriment and that of the human race.

Paying for my care as a severely disabled man, and my work, is crucial; the acquisition of possessions is not.

So I would be the last person to decry the significance of money. However, although wealth has played an important practical role in my life, I have of course had a different relationship with it to most people. Paying for my care as a severely disabled man, and my work, is crucial; the acquisition of possessions is not. I don’t know what I would do with a racehorse, or indeed a Ferrari, even if I could afford one. So I have come to see money as a facilitator, as a means to an end – whether it is for ideas, or health, or security – but never as an end in itself.

Interestingly this attitude, for a long time seen as the predictable eccentricity of a Cambridge academic, is now more widely shared. People are starting to question the value of pure wealth. Is knowledge or experience more important than money? Can possessions stand in the way of fulfilment? Can we truly own anything, or are we just transient custodians?

These questions are leading to a shift in behaviour which, in turn, is inspiring some groundbreaking new enterprises and ideas. These are termed “cathedral projects”, the modern equivalent of the grand church buildings, constructed as part of humanity’s attempt to bridge heaven and Earth. These ideas are started by one generation with the hope a future generation will take up these challenges.

I hope and believe that people will embrace more of this cathedral thinking for the future, as they have done in the past, because we are in perilous times. Our planet and the human race face multiple challenges. These challenges are global and serious – climate change, food production, overpopulation, the decimation of other species, epidemic disease, acidification of the oceans. Such pressing issues will require us to collaborate, all of us, with a shared vision and cooperative endeavour to ensure that humanity can survive. We will need to adapt, rethink, refocus and change some of our fundamental assumptions about what we mean by wealth, by possessions, by mine and yours. Just like children, we will have to learn to share.

If we fail then the forces that contributed to Brexit, the envy and isolationism not just in the UK but around the world that spring from not sharing, of cultures driven by a narrow definition of wealth and a failure to divide it more fairly, both within nations and across national borders, will strengthen. If that were to happen, I would not be optimistic about the long-term outlook for our species.

But we can and will succeed. Humans are endlessly resourceful, optimistic and adaptable. We must broaden our definition of wealth to include knowledge, natural resources, and human capacity, and at the same time learn to share each of those more fairly. If we do this, then there is no limit to what humans can achieve together.

• Stephen Hawking recently launched


“Unfortunately, these type of pests do get brought into our accommodation from residents arriving from abroad”

I remember my first day as a doctor in a large tertiary teaching hospital not too far from the prime minister’s home constituency. I was nervous – after two days of induction,

I was starting on-call Fri-Sat-Sun for general medicine and had just been told that the other FY1 in my firm had resigned and so I would have to cover until they found another one (that took three months). Those shifts were hellish. The very first patient I assessed was in ICU: a hospital benefactor with two consultants as children watching me hawkishly. I felt so out of my depth. During the course of that weekend I remember my clipboard running to six pages of jobs and my bladder becoming a rudimentary organ.

I returned to my room that first day at 11pm absolutely shattered. I was staying at the highest-tier single room hospital accommodation, and at £472 per month wasn’t exactly cheap. But it was deemed “BMA-compliant”.

I saw a cockroach in the toilet. It was a small one. I should have been shocked but I was so exhausted and demoralized that I just ignored it and went to sleep. I saw 2-3 cockroaches every day for the next three weeks and a number outside on the pavement and road of the development itself. Now of course I should have complained, but anyone who has started as an FY1 in a busy acute job knows you have to stratify your worries. But after three weeks I woke up at 3am as one was crawling up my right nostril and decided that was enough.

I emailed the trust accommodation manager and the response was as follows:

 “Our pest control contractor is convinced that what you have seen are beetles”. I disagreed and there were a few days of back-and-forth emails. I sent them photos, and the response was

“As with all pest problems, there is no quick fix. However, we are dealing with the problem as best we can and I hope that you will see an improvement shortly. Unfortunately, these type of pests do get brought into our accommodation from residents arriving from abroad. However we do deal with them when it is reported by our residents”

I was given 48 hours to leave my room for it to be fumigated and was given a temporary room. This reeked of cigarettes and had stains on the bed but at least there were no cockroaches. I got this email from the housing officer:

“Our pest control contractor is confident that after treatment there will no longer be any cockroaches. Please can you advise whether you wish to move back into Flat 38 once it has been fumigated or whether you wish to remain in Flat 53 at the increased price.”

For some reason, this was the most upsetting part. After all that, they were going to increase my room rent by £50 a month. I was a BMA member but was advised not to make a fuss so early in my career. I had a consultant who (despite winning teaching awards) didn’t care one jot when I mentioned this – this has made me appreciate all the seniors and juniors who genuinely care about their team. I felt so alone.

This was over six years ago and things are much better but it’s amazing how much I accepted it then, and now with the passage of time (and experience of working in NZ for a few years, appreciating how much better junior doctors are treated overseas compared to the UK) I realise how unacceptable this was.

So if you’re early on as a doctor or a medical student, don’t let people shit on you and don’t let the cockroaches (both real and metaphorical – I’m talking about you Jeremy) win.