Preview: Julian Barnes on Christopher Hitchens, David Cameron and Rupert Murdoch

The novelist gives a rare interview to Soumya Bhattacharya for the New Statesman Centenary Issue.

The Booker prize-winning author Julian Barnes has given a rare interview to Soumya Bhattacharya for the New Statesman centenary issue, out today, in which he shares his views on contemporary British politics and culture, recalls his time as a young literary editor on the New Statesman in the mid-to-late 1970s, and talks life, love and loss.

 

On Christopher Hitchens:

“He was the most brilliant talker I’ve met and the best argufier. At the Statesman he was largely gay, idly anti-Semitic and very left-wing. Then ripple-dissolve to someone who was twice married and had discovered himself to be Jewish and become a neocon. An odd progress, though he didn’t do the traditional shuffle to the right; he kept one left, liberal leg planted where it always had been and made a huge, corkscrewing leap with his right leg. I enjoyed his company but never entirely trusted him.”

On David Cameron and the Coalition Government:

“It seems perfectly possible that David Cameron will be remembered as the prime minister who ‘lost’ Scotland and took Britain out of Europe. But then, this is a government with rare powers: who thought you could manage to produce a fall in unemployment combined with a triple-dip recession?”

On culture in England:

“This has always been a comparatively philistine country [...] this has made the arts – and many artists – resilient and ingenious in the face of poverty.”

On Rupert Murdoch:

“Murdoch once sacked me when I was on the Sunday Times [...] I do believe in grudge-bearing [...] I think his effect on public life in this country has been malign.”

On death and euthanasia:

“I don’t want to be a nonagenarian waking up with broken ribs because I have been artificially resuscitated against my will.”

On the New Statesman, his first desk job in Fleet Street:

“I felt deep loyalty to the magazine and couldn’t believe my luck that I was working for it. There was even a ping-pong table in the basement.”

“They [Christopher Hitchens, James Fenton and Martin Amis] were very confident talkers. I was virtually mute in those days. I would sit through editorial conferences praying that Tony Howard [then editor] wouldn’t nod encouragingly in my direction.”

On Fleet Street in the 1970s:

“I found it a friendly and collegiate world, if over-male; and, yes, where you were going to drink was a daily subject of debate.”

To read the full interview, buy a copy of the New Statesman Centenary Issue, on sale now

Julian Barnes, photographed by Emma Hardy for the New Statesman.

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.

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When Theresa May speaks, why don’t we listen?

Not many Prime Ministers have to repeat themselves three times. 

Theresa May is the candidate of Brexit and market panic. She ascended to the highest office because, in the fraught weeks after Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, she represented a safe haven for nervous Conservative MPs, the dependable family mutual that remained open while all along the Conservative high street, her rivals were shutting up shop.

Her popularity, as revealed in high poll ratings outside Westminster, too, owes itself to the perception that she is a serious politician in serious times, happily installed atop the ship of state to guide it through the rocky waters of Brexit negotiations.

May’s premiership has been defined by market panics of a different kind, however. The first is in the currency markets, where sterling takes a tumble whenever she pronounces on Britain’s future relationship with the European Union, falling both after her conference speech on 2 October and after her start-of-the-year interview with Sophy Ridge on 8 January. The second is in the opinion pages, where May’s stock oscillates wildly from bullish to bearish.

In the first months of May’s government, she was hailed as an Anglo-Saxon counterpart to Angela Merkel: a solid centre-right Christian democrat who would usher in a decade of conservative hegemony. More recently, she has been compared to Gordon Brown because of her perceived indecisiveness and repeatedly accused of failing to spell out what, exactly, her government’s Brexit objectives are.

In a symbol of the splits on the right between the Brexiteers and Remainers, the Economist, that bible of free-market globalisation and usually a reliable tastemaker as far as Westminster groupthink is concerned, began 2017 by dubbing the Prime Minister “Theresa Maybe”. Though May’s Downing Street is less concerned with the minutiae of what goes on in the public press than David Cameron’s, the contention that she is indecisive was a source of frustration.

There is an element of truth in the claim that May still views the world through a “Home Office lens”. One senior minister complains that Downing Street considers the Ministry of Justice as a “rogue outpost” of May’s old stomping ground, rather than a fully fledged department with its own interests and perspectives.

Yet even the most authoritarian of home secretaries would struggle to secure a conviction against May on the charge of opacity as far as her Brexit approach is concerned. She has hit the same grace notes with the reliability of a professional musician: Brexit means freedom from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and control over Britain’s borders, two objectives that can only be achieved as a result of Britain’s exit not only from the EU but also the single market. This was confirmed on 17 January in the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech in London.

David Cameron used to say that he would never have “a people”. Certainly, there is no Cameroon tendency in the country at large to match the generation of council house residents that became homeowners and lifelong Conservatives because of Margaret Thatcher and Right to Buy. However, there is, unquestionably, a Cameroon people or faction to be found at almost every rung of London’s financial services sector or at editorial meetings of the Economist, though it as at the Times and the Sun where the treatment of May is at its most noticably rougher than in the Cameron era. 

Michael Gove, her old rival, is not only employed as a columnist by the Times; he enjoys the confidence and admiration of Rupert Murdoch. That the Times secured the first British interview with Donald Trump was a coup for Murdoch, an old associate of the president-elect, and for Gove, who conducted it. It left May in the unlovely position of making history as the first prime minister to be scooped to a first meeting with a new American president by a sitting MP in modern times. It also attested to a source of frustration among May’s allies that she is, for all her undoubted popularity, still ignored or doubted by much of the right-wing establishment.

That condescension partly explains why her words are often listened to briefly, acted on hastily and swiftly forgotten, hence the pound’s cycle of falling when she makes an intervention on Brexit and rising shortly thereafter. The Lancaster House speech was designed to break this pattern. Downing Street briefed the most potent paragraphs at the weekend so that the markets could absorb what she would say before she said it.

As a result, the pound rallied as May delivered her speech, which contained a commitment to a transitional deal that would come into effect after Britain has left the EU. Some financiers believe this arrangement could become permanent, which once again demonstrates how much they underestimate May’s ability to enforce her will.

Being underestimated by Cameron’s people, in Westminster and the City, has the unintended effect of shoring up Theresa May’s position. A prolonged and sustained bout of panic would increase the pressure for a soft landing, but its absence makes it harder for Labour to oppose her effectively, although it has largely acquiesced to the Tory plan for Brexit, at least as far as membership of the single market is concerned. 

Yet for all the plaudits that the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech attracted, for all her undoubted popularity in the country, she is in the anomalous position of being a Conservative Prime Minister who has priorities on the European stage other than the preservation of the City of London and to whom Rupert Murdoch is not a natural ally.

As such, she may find that her deadlier enemies come from the right.

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