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The NS Interview: Ruth Rogers, chef

“None of my staff would work for a chef who bullied and shouted”

Do you buy into the idea of male chefs v female cooks?
Our restaurant is 50-50. When we first opened in 1987, the trousers were so uncomfortable. I called up and said: "Why can't we have more comfortable chef's trousers?" And they said: "Well, 98 per cent of chefs are men and that's who we design for." It's certainly changed. The whole perception of the male chef in a big white hat, being a bully and shouting at people - none of the people I know, who work for me, would work in that atmosphere. We have a kitchen that's based on hope rather than fear: we're a family. When my partner Rose Gray died, I felt like a single parent, but I had 70 kids.

What is so special about Italian food?
Rose and I both loved Italian domestic cooking, the idea that you go to the market and you see what's there - seasonal, regional ingredients - and you go home and cook it. I couldn't live without olive oil, anchovies and parmesan.

The restaurant has a Michelin star - how important is that to you?
I'm sure there are things we could do which might win us a second Michelin star; I could get rid of the paper tablecloths. But when I have customers who come back - that's more important to me than any star.

Did you sack Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall for being too messy?
He didn't get sacked for anything he did wrong; he was brilliant. He was passionate, curious, an extremely sensitive chef. We had a summer, a year after we opened, in which we had to close the restaurant or get rid of some people. He was just the most recent person to come and work for us. But it was very sad, and I would have loved it if he could have stayed.

The River Café had a reputation in the 1990s as the "New Labour canteen". Is that fair?
This is something I'd like to dispel. Obviously you can't control who eats in your restaurant and of course the Blairs came here, but we never raised money for the Blairs, or New Labour. We never did anything here which was in any way contributing to New Labour. It was open for business and Tony ate here; Peter Mandelson ate here. So do a lot of people from other parties. That link was always something that was exaggerated by the media.

But you did raise funds for Barack Obama?
No, not here - at my house. A few of us in London raised money. I gave a fundraiser for Hillary Clinton in the early days and then I was so impressed when I met Obama in Chicago.

Are you still impressed with him?
I still totally support him, but I could go through the checklist of Afghanistan, Guantanamo, Wall Street - there's a long list of disappointments. I think he inherited a mess, a disastrous economy. It's the same thing here, the separation, the inequality between the rich and poor. It's devastating.

Which brings me to food: how healthy is our relationship with it, as a society?
Again it's an economic situation where you have the poor very badly fed. Obesity is not rich people eating too much good food. And I think the education system does not feed children in schools properly. It's like anything else: textbooks, painting the walls, the teacher's salary. The food we feed them is something that we should be deciding as a society.

Are you involved with any particular charity?
Refuge, the domestic violence charity. I feel we should all do charity, but I also feel that should be the message we get from our government - what it thinks about caring for our children, for pregnant woman, babies, old people, people in hospitals. It's the reason I pay my taxes and am willing to pay more tax.

So you're not a fan of the "big society"?
No, I'd have to say I'm a big-government person. I always think that when we have an earthquake, or a fire (again, I speak as an American) or a flood, we want helicopters and we need firefighters and we need policemen; we need all of those people. And it's the same with education or health.

"I'm willing to pay more tax" isn't something you hear from many business owners.
I just think that's what we need. I used to drive past the Marsden Hospital and see every day a sign that said "Our charity goals" and "We're trying to raise money for cancer machines". Why is health a charity? If anything should be a charity, it's the Ministry of Defence - and if they wanted another missile they should have to have a ball at the Grosvenor House hotel and everybody pay for it.

Do you vote - here or in the US?
Yes, both. I have two passports.

Was there a plan?
Becoming a chef wasn't something I planned . . . it just happened.

Are we all doomed?
No, the future is bright.

Defining Moments

1948 Born in New York State. Father is a doctor, mother a librarian
1968 Moves to London, where she meets her husband, the architect Richard Rogers. They have two sons, plus three sons from his first marriage and 11 grandchildren
1987 Founds River Café with Rose Gray. Rogers's youngest son, Bo, is just four
1995 Publishes first River Café Cookbook
1998 River Café wins its Michelin star
2010 Rose Gray dies of cancer

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.

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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