The NS Interview: Imran Khan

“David Cameron should not have owned Tony Blair’s war”

Do you hope to be president or prime minister of Pakistan one day?
Not president, prime minister. I don't hope - I'm convinced that in the next election my party, Tehreek-e-Insaf [Movement for Justice], will win. In every university, it is by far the most popular party in Pakistan; it's the party of the young.

What is the political atmosphere like?
What you have today is a media that you can no longer control, a supreme court that is independent, though it is under attack, and a young generation who all want a change.

Is there a sense of rebellion in the country?
There is a general movement for change, reflected in the public support for the chief justice [ousted by General Pervez Musharraf in 2007]. Ordinary citizens realise that they want to get rid of a corrupt system.

Who is responsible for Pakistan's corruption?
The collective political mafia. They're in politics for one reason - it's the biggest business. Look at Nawaz Sharif [the ex-prime minister] and Asif Zardari [the current president] and the sort of properties and businesses they've got.

What did you think of General Musharraf?
By taking us into the war on terror, he probably did more damage than anyone else to the people of Pakistan.

What's your solution to the war in Afghanistan?
There has to be an exit strategy; Nato has to leave Afghanistan. Otherwise more and more people will be dying, most of them innocent.

Are they not dying at the hands of the Taliban?
Whether they're dying at the hands of the Taliban or the government does not matter, as the war is not being won. All the Taliban have to do to win is not lose - and they're not losing, because more and more areas are coming under Taliban control.

Has Barack Obama had a positive impact?
President Obama had a golden opportunity. I wrote an open letter to him when he became president, saying that he should not own George Bush's war in Afghanistan, that it was a tried and failed strategy. He has done exactly what he should not have done. David Cameron should not have owned Tony Blair's war and Obama should not have owned Bush's war.

You were educated in Britain. What are your fondest memories of that time?
The summer, because the summer in Pakistan used to be boiling hot. And the cricket. I also loved London - it was such a melting pot.

How were you influenced by your relationship with your mother?
I was very close to her, and then seeing her suffer [she died of cancer in 1985] had a big impact on me. Until then I had no real pain in my life. Also, a lot of my value system came from her because she was very political: she had lived under colonial rule and was always anti-imperialist.

You're now a parent. Do you want your sons to follow in your footsteps?
I would want my sons always to be political, because human beings are political. It means caring about your environment and the people you live with. I want them to raise their voice against injustice in society.

What about cricket?
I would want them to play sport, but not necessarily at the level I played. Sport teaches you to struggle, it strengthens you. It's a great character-building experience.

Who's your favourite cricketer?
I don't really follow cricket that much these days. But Sachin Tendulkar is still the best batsman. And the two young Pakistani players Mohammad Asif and Umar Akmal are oozing with talent.

What does your faith mean to you?
A complete faith in God changes you as a human being. You become human, in the sense that you become selfless, you're more compassionate and you become more just - you feel you're accountable to a higher force.

Did your political ambitions cost you your marriage to Jemima Khan?
I don't look upon life like that. Life is a journey, and marriage works if two people are on the same journey. Sadly, my ex-wife could not live in Pakistan after a while - she found it very difficult. I have the greatest admiration for how much she tried, but you come to a point where [you realise] it was not meant to be.

Do you keep in touch with Jemima's brother Zac, now a Tory MP?
I campaigned for Zac. He's like a younger brother. He has a great sense of justice; he is the sort of person who should be in politics.

What would you like to forget?
It's all part of life - I have no regrets.

Are we all doomed?
No, I'm a great optimist.

Defining Moments

1952 Born in Lahore
1971 Makes his Test debut against England at Edgbaston
1972 Begins BA in PPE at Oxford
1992 Leads Pakistan to Cricket World Cup victory, then turns his focus to social work
1995 Marries Jemima Goldsmith; they divorce in 2004
1996 Launches Tehreek-e-Insaf party
2009 Placed under house arrest ahead of anti-government protests

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 23 August 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan

DAVID YOUNG FOR NEW STATESMAN
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An English tragedy: how Boris, Dave and Brexit were formed by Eton college

It's said that the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton. Was Britain's relationship with Europe wrecked there?

The brief window in which it was cool to be an Etonian has closed. That period was marked not just by Etonian success and visibility – in politics, on the stage, in the media, even on the balcony of Buckingham Palace – but also by a new-found unabashedness in expressing pride at having attended King Henry VI’s Thames-side ­college, founded for 70 poor scholars in 1440. David Cameron summed it up when he said he was “not embarrassed” that he had gone to “a fantastic school . . . because I had a great education and I know what a great education means”.

All this was quite strange and ­perturbing to me, as an alumnus of an older era, the 1970s, when being an Etonian seemed decidedly uncool. When asked which school we had attended, my contemporaries and I muttered that we had been to a comprehensive near Slough. It was perturbing because I always had my doubts about Etonian confidence, or arrogance.

The closing of this window can be dated precisely to the early hours of the morning of 24 June. At that moment, it became clear that David Cameron had taken an insouciant, arrogant and disastrous gamble, in the interests of maintaining Conservative Party unity, by calling an unnecessary referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union that he believed he was sure to
win. The window closed even more tightly a week later, when Boris Johnson, having helped to lead the Leave campaign, suddenly declared that he was no longer standing for the Tory leadership – the glittering prize for which he had apparently abandoned his principles and betrayed his friends.

If the Battle of Waterloo had been won on the playing fields of Eton, it now appeared that Britain’s relationship with Europe, and even its continued integrity as a nation, had been wrecked there. It was no surprise that there should be a turning against Eton, with gleeful opinion pieces from the left-leaning commentariat mocking everything from Tom Hiddleston’s backside to the commitment to public service of one of our ablest MPs, Jesse Norman.

I find this reaction as shallow as the ­excessive pride that preceded it. Maybe that is not surprising, as I both love and feel dissatisfied, even disappointed, by the school where I spent five years of my boyhood and then two and a half years teaching English literature as a young adult. The feeling of let-down is more than personal. Eton has something to answer for, at a national level. A few years ago, I wrote these words: “I’ve often wondered whether this famous Eton confidence could be skin-deep: certainly people such as Boris Johnson and David Cameron do not lack chutzpah, but the confidence to believe you deserve the high position does not necessarily mean you possess the other talents – humility, for instance, and the ability to listen to others – needed to honour it.” Now the 11 Eton pupils who managed to secure an interview with Vladimir Putin have trumped even Cameron and Johnson
in the chutzpah department, but not necessarily added lustre to their alma mater.

I had a chance to reassess the ambivalence I feel about Eton, and to reflect on the role that this ancient and eccentric place has played in our national crisis, when I attended a reunion at my old school just three days after the dark night of 23 June.

This was not a reunion of old boys but a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Eton English department, an institution for which I feel affection and profound gratitude. As a boy, I was inspired not only to read voraciously and widely – the novels of Thomas Hardy, Henry James, Dickens, William Faulkner; the poetry of Coleridge, Wordsworth, Emily Dickinson, T S Eliot, Charles Causley, Louis MacNeice, Henry Vaughan; Shakespeare at his most intense – but also to analyse, think and feel simultaneously. Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country and Dickens’s Hard Times opened my eyes to conditions as far from my comfortable Home Counties upbringing as you could imagine, to the realities of racial segregation and working-class ­deprivation; opened my heart, too, I hope.
I was being challenged to reflect on my privilege, even be discomfited by it – not just blindly perpetuate it.

For those reasons, I was honoured to be invited back to teach, initially for just a year, in the department that had given me so much mind-and-soul nourishment. I was not the most confident or organised of teachers, but pupils I bumped into years later said they had enjoyed and gained something from classes in which discipline was not always the tightest. A debate I set up to discuss the miners’ strike turned into a riot. Above all, I enjoyed directing motivated and talented boys in productions of Journey’s End and Death of a Salesman which moved audiences.

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Inspiration, warmth and a streak of anarchy are, perhaps, not the qualities you associate with Eton. But they were present in the English department, which started as a sort of anti-establishment challenge to the hegemony of classics. Angus Graham-Campbell, my laconic head of department, summed up the department’s signature virtues as scholarship, exuberance and irreverence.

The English department was not exactly typical of Eton as a whole. It was, I suppose, the haven for sensitive and artistic souls, for subversives and mavericks. Eton had other, for me less attractive, sides. I particularly disliked Pop, the self-elected club of prefects who strutted their stuff and lorded it over underlings in brightly embroidered waistcoats – the club to which Boris Johnson (but not David Cameron) belonged. This was more Game of Thrones than “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock”.

Eton, above all, was intensely male, intensely hierarchical and intensely competitive. Like Boris, I was a King’s Scholar; successors of the original 70 poor scholars, we lived apart from other Etonians in ancient quarters close to the 15th-century chapel, wore gowns and competed more for academic honours than for social kudos. Like Boris, I won the Newcastle Scholarship in classics and divinity, a strange 19th-century leftover that involved composing verses in Greek iambics, reading the Gospel of Matthew and the Acts of the Apostles in Greek and answering a paper on the doctrine of the Atonement – all in the term before A-levels.

I was proud of my academic achievements. But having had a chance to reflect on the Etonian male culture of competition from the outside, and then seeing it from a different angle when I went back to teach there, I began to doubt how healthy it was. I realised that coming top of the form and winning prizes had mattered far too much to me. It had even affected my choice of A-levels; I was good at classics and felt fairly confident of being the biggest fish in that smallish pond, rather than swimming in the broader waters of history and modern languages. Surely what mattered was finding yourself, your passion and your vocation?

I was artistically minded and Eton provided wonderful opportunities in drama (the groundwork was being laid for the flowering of acting talent we have seen recently) and music; but “creative writing” and painting, encouraged up to the age of 14, were suddenly put away as childish things when you reached adolescence (this, mind you, is not unique to Eton). From the age of 15, I never even considered choosing to go to music, art or drama school rather than taking the well-worn path to an Oxbridge scholarship. Achieving that seemed to be the pinnacle of Etonian success, and the only thing my worldly housemaster ever cared about.

Certainly no one talked much about happiness or emotional health. Eton’s pastoral care seemed close to non-existent. I kept my unhappiness to myself, with unhelpful consequences. For four of my contemporaries in college, who committed suicide in their late teens or twenties, the consequen­ces were more dire.

This may be sounding too much like a personal lament, or a reprise of Cyril Connolly’s theory of permanent adolescence in Enemies of Promise. I found my way eventually to what I wanted to be and do (it involved a lot of psychotherapy and a wonderfully liberating year in Barcelona). But I think my criticisms of Eton have a bearing on our national tragedy.

The atmosphere at the Eton English department celebration a few weeks ago did not lack the appropriate exuberance and irreverence, and the setting in the provost’s garden, surrounded with sculptures by Rodin, Jacob Epstein and Henry Moore, was exquisitely beautiful. Yet I could not help sensing the unquiet ghosts of Dave and Boris stalking the corridors behind us. I imagined them locked in an immature male rivalry that has ended up inflicting incalculable damage on a nation. Now Dave has decided to quit the political stage, leaving rather little in the way of legacy behind him.

Perhaps Boris, the King’s Scholar, could not forgive Dave for winning the ultimate prize. However, in taking revenge, he found himself hoist with his own petard, before somehow managing to emerge with a lesser prize, which some see as a ­poisoned chalice.

It all made me think of that supremely pointless sport, the Eton wall game. I played once or twice before giving up, repelled by the sheer unpleasantness of being ground into either brick or mud, and the tedium of a game in which the last goal had been scored in 1909. As a Colleger, though, I supported our team of brainboxes, drawn from the 70 scholars to play against the brawn of the Oppidans (the rest of the school, 1,200 of them). No doubting that it was antler-to-antler stuff, or like the contests of male musk oxen that knock each other senseless.

Eton remains archaic in its attitude towards women. It is still a boys-only boarding school (though a small number of girls, mainly the daughters of teachers, have been pupils there), and the staff are overwhelmingly male. Being largely cut off from women and girls for much of your boyhood and adolescence does not seem to me an ideal recipe for emotional health, or for regarding women as equals.

The school that has educated 19 prime ministers may provide a brilliant academic education and countless other opportunities, but it can leave its pupils emotionally floundering behind a façade of polish and charm. The effects of that emotional impoverishment can be far-reaching indeed. I am encouraged that the new headmaster, Simon Henderson, has signalled a change of tone at Eton, with more stress on “emotional intelligence” and “mental health”. That change is long overdue.

Harry Eyres is the author of “Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet”, published by Bloomsbury

This article first appeared in the 15 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The fall of the golden generation