Paul Johnson, journalist and historian. Credit: Joss McKinley/New Statesman
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The NS Interview: Paul Johnson

“I suspect the sex abuse scandal has been greatly exaggerated”.

Did you always want to be a journalist?

I very much wanted to live in Paris when I was in the army, and I was quite determined to. I could have become a dress designer: Dior was willing to take me on as an assistant, but he did not have an immediate vacancy.

Kingsley Martin was the first editor you worked under at the NS. What was he like?
By the time I got to know him well, in the mid-1950s, he was rather past it. I think the quality Martin had - if you can call it a quality - was that he represented in his own indecisions and muddled thoughts the feelings of a very large number of people among Britain's educated classes. He reflected them in the hesitancies and ambiguities of the paper, and that's why it succeeded.

As a journalist, you've spent much of your life around politicians. Do you still?
Not much now, and I never go to the House of Commons. In the old days, if there was a new leader of the Labour Party or the Tory party, I would invite them to lunch and usually they came. But David Cameron I don't know, and must try to get to know him because he is a new kind. What do you think of him?

Some would say there's nothing there to know.
He's a clever fellow. Though one thing you learn from history is that collections of very clever people don't always make a good cabinet.

What do you think is the most important quality a politician can possess?
A combination of decency, integrity and good judgement. But those aren't any good in themselves unless they are backed up by courage. Courage is the essential element in any great public man or woman. This was where Margaret Thatcher scored: she was a very courageous woman, daunted by nothing. Churchill had absolute courage, too. He had this wonderful ability to pick himself up from the ground after a tumble.

Whereas Tony Blair, you've written, had very good manners.
He always writes you a personal letter in his own handwriting. I think good manners are an asset. When people talk about political correctness, the only element of any value is good manners. Unfortunately, manners are not all that common at the top nowadays.

You once advised Blair to stick close to the US. Wasn't that his biggest mistake?
No. I think that Blair was much better informed about foreign affairs than people will allow for. The other thing, which is more important, really, is that George W Bush was a much cleverer and much better-informed man than his enemies would make out. He and Blair together had a strategy that made sense and that they had the courage to carry through. Bush told me that he thought Blair was first class. And Blair always said he liked Bush very much. I think it was a genuine partnership.

The Pope is visiting Britain. Have you ever met him?
Yes - and I've got a great collection of photographs of him, me and Mrs Thatcher taken last year. I've also got a picture of me presenting John Paul II with a copy of my history of Christianity in Polish.

You were an admirer of Pope John Paul II, weren't you?
He was a very great man and that stuck out a mile. You could feel him radiating something, which I haven't noticed in anyone else in recent years. The present chap is very good in quite a different way, so I suppose the Church is lucky to have had two popes in a row who are quite different from each other.

How serious do you think the sexual abuse scandal is for the Catholic Church?
I think it'll blow over. I was educated by Dominican nuns, Christian Brothers and the Jesuits - and I was brought up in a very pro-clerical household, so I knew lots of priests and nuns - and I never heard anything like this. I was a very sharp little boy and I think I'd have known if a lot of it had been going on. So I suspect that it has been greatly exaggerated.

So you don't believe abuse happened at all?
I think the terrible thing that happened was when the Church first started to hand out compensation payments from clerical funds because, instantly, every ambulance-chasing lawyer in America was on to this - and that's when the number of cases multiplied. So I regard the extent of these abuses as very suspect.

Was there a plan?
I very much wanted to be editor of the New Statesman! But I never wanted to be prime minister, except maybe as a little boy.

Are we all doomed?
Oh no, I'm an optimist. I think the British are a very ingenious and clever people and, given a reasonable and decent leadership, we will get out of our present difficulties. And then you've got to consider how fortunate we are. We have now had increasing standards of living in this country for 32 successive generations. We've got a great deal to be thankful for.

Defining Moments

1928 Born in Manchester
1955 Joins the staff of the New Statesman
1957 Publishes his first book, The Suez War
1958 Marries Marigold Hunt
1965 Becomes editor of the NS; leaves 1970
1974 Serves on the Royal Commission on the Press
1978 Tom Stoppard's play Night and Day is dedicated to Johnson
2006 Awarded the US Presidential Medal of Freedom by George W Bush

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Catholicism in crisis

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times