Preview: NS Interview with Gore Vidal

On David Cameron, Barack Obama and why he thinks America is heading for dictatorship.

On David Cameron, Barack Obama and why he thinks America is heading for dictatorship.

Melvyn Bragg has interviewed the American author Gore Vidal many times over the years – including for three separate South Bank Show films.

For his guest-edit of this week's New Statesman, Bragg called Vidal at his home in Los Angeles, where Vidal claimed to be working on perfecting "the telephone essay".

The resulting interview is a wide-ranging conversation, replete with Vidal's usual wit, that covers his life and career. But perhaps – as always – his political views are the most striking.

Here is what he had to say about the Republican Party:

These are the small-town enemies of everybody. They just dislike everyone. They couldn't come out and say: "We don't want a black president" – we've finally got past that roadblock. So what they did was set out to slaughter the opposition party, the Democrats.

Vidal's contention is that Obama's opponents, motivated by racism, have set out to discredit him:

Repetition. They keep saying he's really a terrorist and they even deny he's black. He's obviously brown in some way – a vicious way – because we know what they are like; those are terrorists.

This febrile political atmosphere, combined with economic turmoil, is a recipe for disaster:

I should not in the least be surprised if there were a kind of dictatorship at the end of the road, which seems to be coming more and more quickly as we lose more and more wars.

Vidal also gave his verdict on Britain's current Prime Minister:

Have you any opinion on our new Downing Street tenant, Mr Cameron?
You do like to adjust to types. You've got all the right types you should have for government in this adorable Tory. He's everything we thought Bertie Wooster was – and God knows we worship Bertie Wooster, in the form of Hugh Laurie.

And there is a warning for Britain, too, over the direction of its foreign policy:

Anybody who tries to hang on to America's coat-tails is going to find himself up to his eyeballs in, well, deceit and corruption. This is the crookedest place on earth – and I never thought I would go that far, having been to many other countries at least south of our borders.

You can read the full interview in this week's magazine.

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.