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The NS Interview: Antonia Fraser

“The preoccupation with class is the bad side of Englishness.”

Do you feel English, British or something else?
I feel English but, for some reason, I never use the word British, except if someone complains when I'm filling in a passport form. My family is Irish. When I go to Ireland, I feel Irish. Quite a lot of people are like that -- you feel two things in contradiction with each other.

Who is your favourite figure from history?
I would like to have met Charles II. He liked women; he admitted the Jews by law; he was very tolerant with the Catholics; he tried to be tolerant of the Quakers. He put up with verbal assaults from them with good humour.

He was half French and spent time in France and the Netherlands. Is he an argument for multiculturalism?
Surely Englishness can include multiculturalism? After all, for better or for worse, we today are the product of an empire from the last century. I don't think "English" means only people who were born in Britain.

Do you feel nostalgia for a lost England?
There are periods in which I would have liked to have lived. But, as a woman, you would have had to accept that you were going to have a lot of children, so I wouldn't like to have lived much before the age of proper medicine, with regard to childbirth.

When was England greatest?
It's difficult to say, but I think that England was at its most heroic in 1940. After all, the Second World War was a defensive war and we were extremely brave.

Who is the greatest Englishwoman?
The obvious choice is Elizabeth I, for her ability to suffer adversity and come through a pretty awful childhood, beginning with her mother's execution.

What about the greatest Englishman?
It might be nice to choose a writer. I think that Rudyard Kipling is an interesting figure, in the originality of his thought. He was both English and multicultural.

Is monarchy still a useful concept for England?
Yes. You've only got to see what happens in other countries to think how lucky we are. I'm a great admirer of the Queen and I believe in a limited monarchy. I don't think we should have lots of minor royalty -- it's bad luck on them and it's not very good for the monarchy. Recently, I received my decoration, my damehood, from the Queen and she looked fabulous, strong and fit. I thought: "You're remarkable."

Will you be watching the royal wedding?
Definitely! I plan to watch it on television. A couple of friends will probably come round. We can drink a glass of champagne.

You don't use your title on your book covers. Was that a conscious decision?
Yes. I made a conscious decision not to in 1969. My parents are also quite famous but you don't see anything about my parentage there.

I thought, "I'll be Antonia Fraser." I remember that when Mary Queen of Scots was published, a schoolboy said to me, in that deliciously open way, "You just make use of your title, as the daughter of a lord." I was able to hold up the book and say: "Find my title there." I didn't have a photograph, either.

In your memoir, Must You Go?, you say that you and your husband Harold Pinter were in the "bohemian class".
I got so fed up with people saying, "You're an aristocrat and he's an East End Jew," as if, at 42 and 44, we had remained exactly what we were when we were born. The preoccupation with class is the bad side of Englishness.

Did you approach writing the book in the same way as one of your biographies?
It was a heady moment when I realised that I was the only source and I didn't have to read through references and give bibliographies. Then I real­ised I was the biographer, dealing with the creative artist. I saw that every time Harold picked up a pen, I had noted it.

So you felt that you were helping his legacy?
I didn't think so at the time, absolutely not. It's not the way you think, when you're living happily with someone. Particularly not me. I was busy helping Oliver Cromwell and people like that. It's only when I looked back that I realised how interested I had always been when he started to write and in whatever he told me. I don't think many biographers have lived with a creative artist.

Was there always a plan for your career?
It was my plan. My mother thought I should go into the Foreign Office, which would have been a complete disaster, first of all for me and then for my country.

Is there anything you'd like to forget?
I'd like to forget some of the clothes I wore as a teenager.

Are we all doomed?
No. Optimists have a better life.

Must You Go? is now available in paperback (Phoenix; £8.99)

Defining Moments

1932 Born in London to the biographer Elizabeth and Frank Pakenham, politician, who became Earl of Longford in 1961
1956 Marries the Tory MP Hugh Fraser; they have three sons and three daughters
1969 Her first biography, Mary Queen of Scots, becomes a bestseller
1975 Begins affair with Harold Pinter. They marry in 1980. Pinter dies in 2008
2010 Publishes Must You Go?, a memoir of their life together

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

Getty/Julia Rampen
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View from Paisley: How the Conservatives are wooing Labour's Scottish heartlands

Not so long ago, Conservative activists in Paisley could expect doors slammed in their faces. A referendum has changed that.

Tony Lawler, a Labour activist, was recently knocking on doors in the Scottish town of Paisley, when he came across a disgruntled resident. “I’m really disappointed in Douglas Alexander,” the potential voter complained. “I haven’t seen him. He used to be in Morrisons.”

Douglas Alexander, of course, has gone. He was the longstanding Labour MP and onetime International Development secretary who lost his seat in 2015 to a 20-year-old rival, the Scottish National Party’s Mhairi Black. He does not plan to stand again. But when I visit Paisley, a short train ride from Glasgow, I find that memories of him linger on. 

Two years after Alexander’s defeat, I meet Lawler and other local Labour activists in Morrisons, where Alexander used to hold his surgeries. As checkouts beep and trolley wheels roll over linoleum, they point to an empty table in the corner of this hallowed ground: “He used to sit just there.”

In 2015, the SNP’s victory in this former manufacturing town seemed to epitomise the earthquake in Scottish politics. But as the Labour activists know too well, no political fortress is undefeatable. And in Paisley, the home of one of the oldest workers’ festivals in the world, the party with the most to gain is one that previously never dared to canvass in the high street – the Conservative party. 

The town the Brexiteers forgot

In 1988, the historian Sylvia Clarke reflected on Paisley’s lost industries, wondering what was next for the former weaving towns. “Paisley as a tourist centre?” she wondered, in Paisley: A History. “Paisley as a place for visitors to come to, rather than a send-out of goods and emigrants?” 

For all Paisley’s industrial decline, it’s a pretty place. The town is in the running for the 2021 City of Culture, and has the second biggest number of listed buildings after Edinburgh. When I visit in the middle of April, blossom floats on the trees, and a river meanders through a neighbourhood of old, stone houses. It takes a moment to notice weeds tightening their grasp on the window frames. When I try the door of the ancient Paisley Abbey, it’s locked.

Perhaps if Paisley had been located the other side of the border, in Sunderland or Northumbria, it would be voting Leave and flirting with Ukip. But in the most deprived areas here, Labour activists tell me the EU referendum tally was still almost 50-50, and overall the town voted Remain.

There is a view that Brexit is an English concern. “We haven’t picked up anything about the EU referendum,” says Lawler of his doorstep conversations. “What people are talking about is the independence referendum, Jeremy Corbyn and the kids’ ward.” Scotland’s health secretary, Shona Robison, is due to make a decision on whether the specialist ward should be moved to a large hospital in the First Minister’s Glasgow constituency, against the wishes of many Paisley residents. The hospital in question is nicknamed “the Death Star”.  

Another concern, reminiscent of small towns across the UK, is the decline of the high street. When I walk down the historical shopping area Causeyside Street, I find mother and daughter Kate and Linda Hancy packing up what remains of The Pattern Café and Gift Shop. The wallpaper is a glorious Paisley print, but the scented candles are in boxes and a spray soap bottle hangs from a chair. After two years of trying, they are closing down.  

“People just don’t have money to spend,” Kate says. “A lot of people have been on the same wage for more than five years.”

Linda chimes in: “The cost of living going up but wages aren’t the same. I work in a supermarket, and people come in and say ‘How did I spend this much money?’ A lot of people are paying by credit cards.”

The Hancys voted to remain in the UK, and the EU. Although they knew Alexander, they have never met Mhairi Black, and feel devolution, if anything, has made politicians less accountable. “Why are we picking 1,2,3,4,” demands Kate, referring to Holyrood's voting system, which rejected first past the post. “Why can’t we pick one like we used to?”

Without the EU to blame, the most obvious culprits for Paisley town centre’s decline are the out-of-town shopping centres, where cinemas are opening just as historical ones in town close their doors.

Gavin Simpson, owner of Feel the Groove, a new record shop, remembers the 1980s, when a new release would have shoppers queuing round the block. However, he believes the town is over the worst. (As we speak, a customer comes in to reserve such a record and cheerfully warns Gavin that “even if I ask for my money back, don’t give it to me.”)

One thriving business is the longstanding butchers, Wm Phelps. Manager James Peacock tells me it is down to the trustworthy Scottish produce, which is carefully tracked and labelled. But the business has also embraced globalisation.  After noticing a large number of South African customers, Peacock began selling boerewors and biltong.

The other referendum campaign

If Paisley has been spared the divisions of the EU referendum campaign, its “buddies” – as residents are known – are still reeling with the repercussions of an earlier referendum, that on Scotland in the UK. In 2014, the town voted for independence, although the county overall opted to stay in the UK. 

The town is home to a particularly brash strain of indyreffers, including the “Smith Commission burners”, three SNP councillors who gathered in front of the council headquarters to burn a copy of the report setting out new powers for Scotland. One of them, Mags MacLaren, went on to manage Black’s constituency office.

But if the Paisley independence movement has been well covered, less is known about its opposite - the rise of pro-unionism. 

Of the three mainstream parties opposed to independence, it is the Scottish Conservatives, with their unconventional leader Ruth Davidson, who have most effectively capitalised on the pro-union message. In the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections, the Tory Jackson Carlaw captured the West of Scotland constituency of Eastwood, which had been held by Labour since its creation. 

In Holyrood, the Scottish Tories benefit from proportional representation, which allows voters to choose a constituency MSP but also rank parties. 

According to Paul Masterton, the Tory candidate for East Renfrewshire, and the secretary of the Renfrewshire and Inverclyde Scottish Conservative Association, the Conservatives are now getting huge numbers of first preference votes, including in neighbourhoods like the suburb of Ralston, where both Black and Masterton are from. So who are these voters? Masterton describes them as “New Labour voters who were happy with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown but didn’t like Jeremy Corbyn and get tied up into knots by [Scottish Labour leader] Kezia Dugdale flipflopping on the union stance".

The 2016 election saw the Scottish Conservatives surge to second place in Scotland – a superb comeback for a party once ridiculed as being rarer than pandas. The next electoral test is the local council elections. In Paisley, even Labour activists acknowledged the Conservatives were likely to be the most notable winners.

“For a long time we simply didn’t go out in Paisley," says Masterton. "We were written off and we allowed ourselves to be written off.”

But the referendum has changed this. “What I found was that last May, people weren’t shutting the door in your face," he adds. "Once you started the conversation they were far more receptive to that.” 

Like the Labour activists, Masterton argues that the constitutional question matters more than Brexit. “When Theresa May said ‘now is not the time’, I think a lot of people across Paisley did a small quiet fist pump,” he says of a second independence referendum.  

Ironically, after the early election is called, the Scottish Conservatives do everything they can to mention the prospect. “Don't mention the 'i' word,” crows a recent press release about the “SNP indyref ban”. Davidson tweets: “Nicola doesn't want to stand on her record. She knows the country doesn't want her #indyref2.” A Panelbase survey commissioned by The Sunday Times Scotland published shortly after the early election was announced finds support for the Conservatives at Scotland at 33 per cent, 18 percentage points higher than in 2015. 

What you stand for

For now, Paisley remains a Scottish National Party stronghold. George Adams, the MSP with an office off the high street, proves elusive – Labour activists confirm his reputation as a hardworking local. Black’s aide turns down my request for an interview for similar reasons, but I bump into her that evening at a protest against cutting child tax credits in Glasgow’s George Square.

Black, an admirer of the left-wing Labour figure Tony Benn, once said she feels "it is the Labour party that left me". I ask her if she, like her Labour predecessor, holds surgeries in supermarkets. Black says she’d considered it, but given the sensitivity of some of the issues, such as benefit problems, she thought her constituents might appreciate a more private space. “The main thing that crosses the door in my offices is Universal Credit changes,” she explains. She says she has raised her concerns about the children’s ward.

As for the independence debate, she argues that the Scottish government have been “incredibly compromising” since Brexit, but adds: “A lot of folk want another chance at the question.”

Black is standing for re-election. With a majority of more than 5,000, and neither of her previous challengers in the running, she’s likely to keep her seat, even if buddies' discontent over local issues rumbles on. 

Still, as I have discovered, the 2014 referendum continues to reverberate in towns like Paisley. It has divided friends and neighbours on constitutional lines, galvanised new strains of politics, and brought a Labour heavyweight crashing down, with no appetite to return. 

The Tories believe their unionist message is enough to flip seats like East Renfrewshire, once Conservative, then Labour, and now an SNP marginal. As the SNP's shine wears off, could Paisley, with its long tradition of the left, one day follow? It no longer feels implausible. “The one thing about the Scottish Conservatives - and this is true whatever you like us or not,” says Masterton. “You know what we stand for.”

 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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