2012 in review: The New Statesman's best interviews

Ricky Gervais on atheism, Boris Johnson on "lefty crap", Hilary Mantel on Bring Up The Bodies, Stuart Hall on Englishness.

Welcome to the sixth instalment of the New Statesman's 12 days of Blog-mas. (Yesterday's round up, of our best writing on identity, is here). 

A crop of new writers, comedians, activists and political figures entered the scene in 2012, and a crop of old ones re-emerged. Here are some of our best interviews - click the headlines to open them in a new window:

Terry Pratchett: Sex, death and nature

For more than 40 years, Terry Pratchett has used science fiction and fantasy to craft subtle satires. But the onset of Alzheimer’s has forced him to confront a stark question – what will happen when he is no longer able to write? He talks to Laurie Penny:

I Shall Wear Midnight, features a set piece in which the young heroine has to prevent the suicide of a man who has recently beaten his unmarried, pregnant, 13-year-old daughter so badly that she has miscarried – and bury the foetus. Harry Potter it ain’t. Yet the kids gobble it up, because one thing that Pratchett understands is that just because kids like stories doesn’t mean they like to be lied to.

So, the possibility of young readers seeing their favourite author on television talking frankly about his own death worries him not a whit. “Scaring the kids is a fine and noble thing to do,” he says. “I’m happy to tell kids to prepare for a short life. But it works like this – you can take them through the dark forest, but you must bring them out into the light.”

The unquiet mind of Hilary Mantel

A portrait of the author of the Booker-winning Wolf Hall. She talks to Sophie Elmhirst about memory, class, Bring Up the Bodies and the unsettled writer’s life.

Mantel wondered if she was being too demanding. But then she thought that to adjust her style in any way would be not only a loss, but patronising (“You simply cannot run remedial classes for people on the page”). Some will be lost along the way, but she doesn’t mind. “It makes me think that some readers read a book as if it were an instruction manual, expecting to understand everything first time, but of course when you write, you put into every sentence an overflow of meaning, and you create in every sentence as many resonances and double meanings and ambiguities as you can possibly pack in there, so that people can read it again and get something new each time.”

She can sound arrogant, Mantel, assured of her abilities and candid about them in a way that seems peculiarly un-English. But even the arrogance is purposeful. It is one of her pieces of advice to young authors: cultivate confidence, have no shame in being bullish about your ideas and your abilities. She was patronised for years by male critics who deemed her work domestic and provincial (one, writing about "A Place of Greater Safety" – the French 800-pager – dwelt on a brief mention of wallpaper). So she makes no apologies for her self-belief.

Ricky Gervais: “There shouldn’t be a word for atheism"

Spending time in the US has only made Ricky Gervais a more outspoken atheist. He tells Robin Ince why that's important.

"My atheism might be higher-profile than other people’s atheism, but it’s not high on my agenda. But it’s the thing they always pick out. I can do 30 tweets of my cat, a bath pic, a Karl [Pilkington] quote, plugging. The one tweet that’s . . . I mean, I don’t even know what an atheist tweet is. Sometimes they’re scientific tweets that oppose some of the “facts” in the Bible. And I get: “Why do you keep going on about atheism?” One of [the questions] is “Why are you obsessed with God if you don’t believe in him?”, and I want to say: “I’m not obsessed with God, I’m obsessed with people who want to do things in his name.”

Another one is: “Why are you obsessed with only the Christian God?” How many times have I stated that I don’t believe in any God? There are possibly 3,000 so-called deities. If we’re talking about monotheistic gods, I believe in one less god than you. When they say, “Why don’t you believe in God?”, I often say, “Which one?”

Chen Guangcheng: “Facts have blood as evidence”

Chen Guangcheng was forced to flee China in May after years of persecution. His advocacy on behalf of women and the poor in the face of China’s one-child policy has made him an enemy of the state. He talks to Ai Wei Wei.

The old approach began in the 1980s and continued until the end of the policy in 2002. It had slogans: “Sterilise when you should or lose your roof.” “Abort when you should or lose the house.” This meant that [the state] could seize a family’s home and food and resell them cheaply. If you refused to undergo ster­ilisation, your house would be destroyed by bulldozers and tractors. They would use a wire rope, called “seed rope” at that time, and this would be tethered to a beam on a tractor. One pull, and the houses would collapse. This is what they mean by the old approach.

Some people committed suicide. The government would ridicule such acts of desperation. The person in charge of the local party committee and the family planning committee has said that suicide was no problem – “I won’t take away the bottle if you want to take an overdose; I won’t take away the rope if you want to hang yourself.” So the 2002 law hasn’t changed much. The destruction of the value of human life has continued.

Ed Miliband: He’s not for turning

How will Ed Miliband remake capitalism when there is no money to spend? He speaks to Jason Cowley.

How do politicians capture that sense of thrilling possibility and make of it something of lasting value? How do you make the restructuring of capitalism a collaborative, patriotic, nation-building project? “I think that’s exactly the right way to put it,” Miliband says, tilting forward in his chair. “I think the Olympics is a very important moment for me – it was very important for the country most of all, but important for me because I think, for the first time in my life, I got a sense of what my dad [the Marxist academic Ralph Miliband] used to talk to me about, about the wartime spirit, his time in the navy. You can’t have a permanent Olympic Games, but I think there’s something about ‘what kind of country do we feel like’. Do we feel a sense of obligation to each other? Do people feel the benefits and burdens of life are fairly distributed? Those things are partly economic but they go deeper than that.”

Stuart Hall: “We need to talk about Englishness”

Born in Jamaica, Stuart Hall is the éminence grise of the British intellectual left and one of the founders of cultural studies. He coined the word “Thatcherism” and, aged 80, he remains one of our leading thinkers. He talks to Jonathan Derbyshire.

“Suez marked the end of an illusion about the end of imperialism,” he observes. “Hungary marked the end of an illusion – which I never shared – about the Soviet Union and communism. If you were on the left, you had to be independent of those two extremes. That’s the space I identified with. There were people in the Communist Party who were shocked and torn by Khrushchev’s revelations about what had gone on under Stalinism. There were a number of independent left people like me, many of them from the third world. And then some critical people from the Labour establishment, Labour intellectuals. They all came together at the Socialist Club.”

José Manuel Barroso: Why is Britain so closed to the EU?

Britain will be reduced to the role of a “Norway or Switzerland” in Europe if Eurosceptics push us into leaving the EU, warns the president of the European Commission, talking to David Miliband.

The new narrative for Europe should be about the need to have a responsible organisation, the need to be able to defend our interests and promote our values, like human rights. In the 21st century, this has not yet been able to mobilise people’s minds and hearts. What I want to underline – and this isn’t a way of escaping my own or the Commission’s responsibility – is that, for this to succeed, it has to be done also with leaders at national level. We have to . . . make the case for explaining in a rational – but at the same time passionate – way what we have to lose, globally. And we may be in the margins of irrelevance if we don’t do things together.

Boris Johnson: “I’ll tell you what makes me angry – lefty crap”

The London mayor regrets ever having agreed to an interview with Jemima Khan.

One of Boris's advantages over Ken might be that he knows every journalistic trick. He is extraordinarily conscious of how he will appear in print and of how his comments will be reported. Unlike Ken, he points out, he has no need for a Matthew Freud PR push at public expense. He is constantly vigilant, on the lookout for the tripwire. "That might have been my cagey look," he says, when I question his expression, "my mind scooting very rapidly forward, thinking: 'Where is she going with this one?'" If he's so canny, what does he think the headline for this interview will be? "The headline is obviously 'The man to win - why I back Boris, by Jemima'. That is the headline."

Ken Livingstone:“The world is run by monsters”

Jemima Khan finds the Labour challenger spoiling for a fight, with opinions on everything from “clinically insane” Margaret Thatcher to the “moral imbecile” running the BBC.

"I've got so many schemes ready for them," Ken Livingstone says with some glee. By "them" he means the Tories, with whom he will have to work if he wins the London mayoral election in May. "If I am re-elected it will be a devastating blow for them. They are halfway through their term. They want to get re-elected. Are they going to plough on with a strategy that clearly doesn't work?"

 
“You simply cannot run remedial classes for people on the page” Hilary Mantel tells Sophie Elmhirst. Portrait by Leonie Hampton
Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

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