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17 September 2010updated 12 Jun 2012 4:37pm

The NS Interview: Paul Johnson

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

By Jonathan Derbyshire

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.

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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