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
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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

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