Monthly Archives: August 2010

No Longer With Us: William F. Buckley Jnr.

William Frank Buckley Jnr. was an American author and commentator. He founded the political magazine National Review, hosted the television show Firing Line from 1966 until 1999, and was a nationally syndicated newspaper columnist.

He wrote over fifty books on writing, speaking, history, politics and sailing, including God and Man at Yale, as well as a series of novels featuring CIA agent Blackford Oakes. Buckley referred to himself as either a libertarian or conservative, and was a practising Roman Catholic.

He died in February 27, 2008.

Here is an interview with him from my book, Singular Encounters.

Who has been the primary influence on your life, apart from Edmund Burke?

My father, whom I found entirely admirable and in many senses unique.  He was well educated but he was a self made man. His father was a sheriff in Texas, which was a pretty high position after the Civil War. But there was no wealth in the South, none whatsoever, so he worked his way through university, and when his father died, put the entire family through university too. He went to Texas, started a business, married at the age of thirty-six, had ten children, educated them all, and we grew up a happy and well-informed family.  He was an intellectual by inclination, a successful businessman, a wonderful father and husband. That’s pretty unusual.  The responsibility of ten children when you are in the oil business and knowing great fluctuations of fortune is something I’ve never had to go through, thank God.

What is it exactly that and American conservative seeks to conserve?

American conservatives are guided by the notion that there are some stable insights in the idea of America which are not subject to essential change. They might change in respect of modality, of emphasis, but not otherwise. In that sense we take the word conservative and use it a little bit differently from the way it might be used, say, in Russia, where they speak of the conservatives who want to restore Stalinism.  What we want to retain is understandings having to do with the division of power politically, and other understandings having to do with the recognition of two cities – the city of God and the city of man – as coexisting in modern society and each commanding a loyalty.

Many might regard your conservatism as a natural consequence of being rich. Is there any reason why a poor man should be a conservative?

I should think so. The value of conservative arrangements to a rich man is pari passu valuable also to a poor man.  A poor man suffers much more than a rich man from inflation, for instance, and a poor man has a much greater chance to change his own status in society with the upward mobility the conservatives emphasise. Nineteen percent of the people in the lowest quintals in America moved to different quintals during the 1980s, which is a significant achievement.  We’re talking about a society in which, by current standards of poverty, 90 per cent of the American people were poor in 1900, a figure that has reduced to somewhere between 13 and 14 percent.  That shows a tremendous upward mobility, which obviously caused a broad prosperity to a lot of people who didn’t have it. But just as you go up, so you obviously have a chance to go down. Now, if you say that rich people are better off than poor people, I’d day that that is so obvious it’s hardly worth commenting on.  But if I may say so, there seems to be more interest in genuine upward mobility in America than there is in Britain.

But do the rich become richer and the poor poorer?

No, it’s not true. I had a n interesting argument on this point with Kenneth Galbraith’s son, who said that, in nineteenth-century England, who said that the disparity between the most and least rich was greater even than in America today.  The answer to your question is that more people are getting richer, but there is a compensating elevation in the lowest quintal.  What you really have is a structure to be compared with a mobile, a string to which various things attach.  The whole string goes up.  There is no other way to account for a reduction from 90 per cent to 13 per cent in the poor over a period of ninety years, and that 13 per cent reduces to 10 per cent when you take into account the market value of perquisites or necessities handed over by the state.  The static analysis from which Liberals tend to suffer is the assumption that, every time you earn one dollar, somebody else loses a dollar.  It doesn’t work that way. If you earn one dollar, it’s likely that somebody else is also going to earn one dollar.

Milton Friedman says that he’s no longer willing to say that there’s no such thing as a free lunch, this being the aphorism most associated with Miltonic economics. The reason he’s not now willing to say it is that, if I give you a sweater in exchange for a shoe, we’re both better off.  Applying that dynamic analysis is distinct from the static analysis; you find a general elevation of standards.  Obviously there are lacunae, but these don’t affect the secular drifts.

You and Galbraith are friends, yet the public perception is that you are miles apart politically.

The common ground is civility, geniality.  The public perception that we’re miles apart is correct, he would be the first to emphasize it and I would be the next.  If Kenneth’s views had prevailed in American policy in the last forty-five years, first, we’d be broke, and secondly we’d be a Soviet satellite.  But he happens to be a wonderful writer, a wonderful friend, wonderfully genial, very gifted, and has a nice sense of humour, therefore I delight in his company.

It seems you have made only one attempt to enter active politics, when you stood for mayor of New York.

I stood for mayor only to make pedagogical points.  I was never a candidate in any serious sense.  In fact I predicted that my vote would be one per cent or less the day I announced my candidacy, but it was an opening to ventilate points of view that I had been ventilating for years through other media.  If, from time to time, through direct political exposure, you can get free access to the media to put forward points of view, it doesn’t make sense to turn it down.  It can’t happen frequently. For that reason I ran, but I considered it then, and still do, to be an act of criticism rather than an act of political candidacy.  In Britain can be simultaneously a critic and a politician, but not here, here we have no safe seats.

Is the impression accurate that the very talented tend not to enter politics and that consequently our lives are ruled and shaped by the best of the mediocre?

I think it is, but I’m not entirely certain that this is upsetting.  If one makes the general commitment to democracy that most of us are prepared to make, one has to recognize the virtue of temporizing.  The intellectual and the very gifted man tends in the direction of hubris, total self-absorption and the conviction of his own correctness.  For that reason he is probably a little less flexible than a democratic politician ought to be.  I know that I always have to guard in National Review against judging a politician against the pragmatic measure, because the tendency is to insist that the paradigm is the correct way to judge him, and if you do that, you are engaged in the politics of evangelism, and that isn’t very productive.  You do get extraordinary figures that come in, but they tend to extraordinary with reference to criteria other than those which singled out a Churchill or a Lincoln.  Nixon is an extraordinary man. Reagan is an extraordinary man. Yet they are extraordinary in a strictly political context.  They wouldn’t be extraordinary in an academic context, or in most other secular contexts.  So you do find among the so-called mediocrities remarkable men.

It sometimes seems that the politician able to give the best performance on television is the one who wins the day.

There is no question that a lack of success on television can be critical.  One doesn’t necessarily have to be telegenic, but if one repels on television, then that puts a quietus on a political career, even as it would in Hollywood.  Most American voters get their news from television.  You may have sent eh recently published report that fifty percent of voters did not know the name of a vice-presidential candidate on a Democratic ticket. Pretty disappointing. So the capacity of television to influence public opinion is a thousand times as high as any previous competitor, and that works, I think, mostly against the common weal.  Demagogy tends to attract more attention that statesmanship.  Therefore I would guess that, given the rapidity with which the public can be influenced, it can more easily be influenced in a negative than a positive direction.

Has there been a degradation?  The philosophical and political argument here tends to centre on the constitutional amendment that changed the composition of the Senate.  After 1912, the responsibility devolved from the legislators to the people.  Ken Galbraith is very insistent that the quality of the Senate is improved.  I tend to resist that, making, however, a concession for the fifty years after then end of the Civil War when senators were very much the creatures of big-business bullies who were buying up legislators.  But if I were to take the period between 1800 and 1850 and the period between 1900 and 1950, I would certainly prefer the quality of the first to the second.  My reason is that the sense of security that came with being selected by the legislators – allowing you to have a name for yourself and be less dependent on whim – encourage people of a certain character to think of themselves in the Roman sense as having a patriarchal responsibility to discharge.  Remember that, in those days, people didn’t think of politics as a full time career.  There were a few like Clay and Calhoun Webster who did, but it was a little bit infra dig. As a matter of fact, when Lincoln wondered if he would go back to Congress, he actually consulted his friends about whether it would ruin his reputation to look so greedy as to want to go to congress for a second term.  A single term was considered about right, but certainly not three or four terms.  Now it’s a vocation.

In what important respects does American conservatism differ from the conservatism of the British Conservative government?

Conservatives in the British government are much more influenced by class than we are.  In America we conservatives tend to welcome change which would cause a little alarm in Britain.  Here, if we find out, let’s say, that sixty-five per cent of the upper quintal have arisen from the third quintal or the second quintal in the past generation, we would feel that is terrific. No corresponding sense of pleasure communicates itself to me from reading the British press.  That’s one reason why Thatcher is not really all that popular with the old-time Conservatives in Great Britain, who think of themselves as guardians of a perpetual caste into which only a certain rash of newcomers is welcome.

How do you evaluate Mrs Thatcher?

I am very much in favour of Mrs Thatcher.  I was an early enthusiast.  It’s true of her, as it is of anyone who is around that long, that they develop, and what was once a rather amusing affectation becomes a horrible affectation.  So certain of her traits – and I’m talking now not only about personality but about her traits as a leader – rasp in a sense that they didn’t five years ago.  But she has been a clear and positive leader, her priorities have been acceptable, and she has moved with uneven but general success in their direction.  Inflation and unemployment are now going down a little bit, so I think history will think of her as somebody who did a lot to revitalize an economy that had lost a lot of faith in itself.

Many would say that the problem with Mrs Thatcher is that she doesn’t appear to have compassion.

They’re right. She doesn’t. Interestingly enough, the same charge has been made against Ronald Reagan, even though he is an effective populist speaker in a way she is not.  I have found it extremely difficult, in my personal experience, to know the extent to which someone is compassionate generally from the public behaviour.  I know men and women who seem icy cold but they are very philanthropic, but she doesn’t give an impression of being one of those.

She had a very good working relationship with Reagan.  The same chemistry doesn’t seem to operate with Bush.

That’s probably because Thatcher and Reagan thought of themselves as compelled by and ideological appetite to reorient their countries in a direction they thought correct.  They were missionaries.  George Bush is not a missionary, he is a consolidator.  Thatcher and Reagan said that their countries had been going in the wrong direction for a number of years and they’d got to do something real fast to turn them around.  That created an affinity of purpose compounded by what turned out to be a rather unexpected affinity of temperament, for they’re very different people, she so precise and meticulous, he sort of sprawly and communicative almost by osmosis sometimes.  Yet I know from conversations that there was a genuine sense of I like her and I think she likes me.  That was absolutely genuine.  It was not put up for public display.

As to which of them was dominant, Reagan’s just a subtle creature in that he tends to agree as a matter of manners but two weeks later will simply take his own course.  The notion that Reagan was a creature of other people’s thinking is historically incorrect.  I’m not saying that he wasn’t influenced in the general sense in which everybody’s influenced, but he genuinely made up his own mind.  Once when he was briefing the congressional leaders at six o’clock while American parachutists were in the air, Mrs Thatcher came on the line and said, ‘Ronald, I’ve done a lot of thinking about the situation in Granada, and we must do nothing for at least three months.’  He said, ‘You’re quite right, Margaret,’ but he was moved exclusively by the possibility that the Cubans were listening in to the conversation.  He wasn’t going to have American paratroopers shot down by Cuban fighter planes.  Her feelings were hurt on that occasion. She was rumpled.  However that would be an example of him giving her the general impression that she was a dominant figure in any action, when in fact he was perfectly prepared to act.

Is the ‘special relationship’ fact of myth today?

I think it’s a fragile fact.  It’s a fact that we speak the same language, that we haven’t warred against each other for 150 years, and the slight geographical isolation of Great Britain, gives it just that little detachment from continental embroglios that makes for an affinity with our much more general geographical isolation.  It is fragile in the sense that we are the great super-power and Britain is one no longer, yet Britain considers itself in almost every respect brighter than America: more stable, more mature, more at home with democratic institutions, and more at home with the stability of the cast or semi-cast system; which causes a certain amount of friction.  Now the Brits are prepared to make certain broad concessions.  For instance, in the new introduction to the OED, they concede that all the important work of a lexicographical character is being carried on by Americans and recognize the great resources of America.  But with that recognition goes a very considerable contempt for what are considered distinctively American manners, vulgarities, excesses, violence, so that the admiration that makes for the special relationship with America is a detached admiration and one that is really condescending.  Still, it’s useful and practicable and is to be encouraged.  It occasionally figures very strongly, as, for instance, during the high-point of the Macmillan-Kennedy association.

Is the British Conservative party right to resist the level of freedom of information you now have in America?

Yes, it is. I oppose the idea that an extension of democratic government presupposes instant familiarity with details of government which are not crucial to the general understanding.  Your fifty-year rule strikes me as much more sensible than our overnight rule.  Our overnight rule, of course, has limitations, but we have been permitted, for example, to read conversations by Richard Nixon which are useful to the Trollopes of this world but I wouldn’t say they were useful in enhancing a kind of alarmed and democratic society in which , while acknowledging that certain things go on, some measure of satisfaction should be taken in the fact that knowledge is not documented every day.  To read fifty or thirty years after Churchill’s death about some of his unattractive vanities is, I think, a satisfaction to which I’m entitled because I’m historically curious, but I do no feel that democracy functions better by having freedom of information that could have told me about Churchill’s private conversations while he was still living and contending for office.  So privacy has public usefulness which is, I would say, better guarded in your country than in mine.

The Practice as opposed to the theory of conservative values in Britain seems to have entailed poverty at the level of living in cardboard boxes and beggars in the street.  How is that to be avoided in a conservative scheme of things?

My information is different from yours. My information is that in Great Britain people are thinking that political class recognizes that England is subsidizing on a perpetual basis an indolent non-working class and chooses to do so rather than stoke up economic energy.  We had that attitude here and there, towards Appalachia, for instance. I once wrote, thirty years ago, that John F Kennedy went to West Virginia and guaranteed the coal miners that they could continue to not make coal for a living- which was what it amounted to.  I see that happening on a larger scale in Britain.  It brings about a certain tranquillity: we’ll have ten per cent unemployed an we will just bear the burden.  Now I may be completely misinformed, but if so, so are some of my English friends who have told me that this is pretty well the way it’s going.  I happen to think it is wrong for psychological reasons, and it is obviously wrong for economic reasons because somebody who is unproductive is not adding to the common pool.  I tend to be enough of a puritan to believe that people are not happy unless they’re producing something.  It can be an intangible, like mother love, they’re producing, but it has to be something.  And the answer, of course, is that to get movement going in that direction, you’ve got to put people on the assembly line towards productivity.

They’ve got to find this out in East Germany very soon, because that engine is going to be pushing right at them in a way it’s not going to push in Romania or Poland, which both have more lackadaisical habit.  In East Germany, with $125 billion invested in equalization of the mark, people are going to find out that the working day is much closer to eight hours than three. Mutatis, mutandis. Applying that to Great Britain, you would certainly simply not tolerate the perpetual dole without some effort to cause people to seek out work where work’s available.  By American standards the British are lazy.  Not by Indian standards, or East European standards, but then even the Japanese are lazy by American standards.

Has your Catholicism had a significant effect on your political thinking?

I hope so.  Catholicism, somebody once said, has everything to say about some things, and something to say about everything.  I don’t think that’s true.  I don’t think it has much to say about peanut butter.  But I think that a believing Christian always has a second perspective.  I’m going to write a book the year after next on why I’m still a Catholic, and by my standards, I will spend a fair amount of time on it.  It’s a faith that I have never attempted to conceal.  I think it’s simply incorrect to wed that faith to particularities of political positions.  For example, the notion that we should stand up under all circumstances against the Soviet Union is highly rooted in my belief in Christianity, and I quarrelled very openly with the Bishops who argued against a nuclear deterrent, and quarrelled with the Pope on that silly speech he gave on capitalism in Mexico.  But on the big issues – the incorrectness of a political society attempting to occupy the place of God – I think that’s a very liberating concept.

Have I ever been disillusioned with Catholicism?  I’ve often been disillusioned with what the Catholic Church has done or not done, but if you mean have I ever felt a weakening of faith, well, I lie down until I get over it.  Christians call it Grace.  And Grace is not earned, it’s adventitious.

In your new introduction to God and Man at Yale, you suggest that the interests of the state and those of civilisation were sometimes at odds.  What brought you to this conclusion?

I think it was the indecision of prominent American universities to act in the way that Swiss universities had acted during the crisis of 1948 over Czechoslovakia, or as they did subsequently in Hungary.  There were affirmations by the faculties denouncing this new act of Soviet oppression and servitude, whereas we were bound by the protocols of academic freedom against that kind of action.  I remember the president of Yale never spoke to me again after that.  He was a classicist, became a baseball commissioner, and died tragically of a heart attack a couple of years ago.  He declined to permit the Yale University Glee Club to sing in a one-hour ceremony celebrating the birthday of Solidarity, on the grounds that it would commit the university to a political cause.  I thought that so flatulent and silly that I was provoked to write that book, which amusingly enough is referred to as my novel in the current Spectator. You can see how serious that interviewer’s research was.  The offence I took that provoked this book was a John Stuart Millsian notion that, as long as one believed in a position, one could not consider that position as having been fatally condemned.  It would mean presumably that if one person believed the genocide against the Jews in Germany was excusable, one must consider that an open position.  I thought that nihilistic.

The Notion that a student going to Yale oughtn’t to be helped in the direction of civilised thought but is told there is no distinction between the Declaration of Independence and the Communist Manifesto as to which is the more virtuous, the more enlightened instrument, I find more a pose than a serious and thoughtful position.  They took the view that any position taken by a faculty was not of anyone’s concern.  That may be true in graduate school, where you’re hiring a researcher, but and undergraduate school should undertake to teach some of those values which were learned by a civilisation after very hard work and to assume that a society doesn’t have an interest in projecting what it has developed over two millennia is simply a dereliction of duty.

How does one apply in the political arena principles derived from faith?

Well, you don’t.  It’s not a simple exercise.  If there are certain tings you shouldn’t do, you’ve got to ask yourself why you should not do them and who said not.  Kant can plead his autonomous idea of ethics, but overwhelmingly we are taught these are religious prescriptions, whether under the Koran, the Talmud, the Old Testament, or the New Testament.  Certain kinds of behaviour are not tolerated.  You have to refine the question a long way to decide whether you have crossed that line, but to be preoccupied with that exercise is the important thing.

What do you feel about the aftermath of Vatican II?

I think it was a terrible mistake.  Having said that, I accept Vatican II as probably divinely instituted, but the lengths to which Vatican II has been taken are not the responsibility of Vatican II.  For instance, there is nothing in Vatican II that says you should forsake the mass in Latin.  There’s quite a lot in Vatican II which says you ought not to forsake the mass in Latin.  In fact it has been almost universally forsaken.  That was the doing of the bishops.  There’s nothing in Vatican II that says the suspension against eating meat on Firday shall end, but it did end.  There seemed to be no constitutional resistance built up in the clergy to these huge changes in the liturgy, and that surprised a great many people.  Certainly the notion that the vernacularization of the religious language would breed more Catholics is simply wrong – wrong judged against any criterion.  The loss of vocations, the laicizations, the diminishing number of people in church stabilized at about sixty per cent of the level of 1963.

What is the chance of unification of the Christian churches?

Slight, in part because faith has been highly diluted.  Paradoxically I think the unification of the Christian Churches is a development that would more likely come about after a maximisation rather than a minimisation of faith.  To the extent that you become a fervent Methodist, you become a little bit more anti-Catholic tan you were before.  If you become pro-Harvard, you become a little bit more anti-Yale.  That’s true through a certain stage but if you then reach beyond that stage, your common concern is for the teaching of Christ more than for the denomination differences that divide.  We certainly haven’t reached that second latter stage, and we’re not far advanced into the second stage.  There are still denominational enthusiasts.  Southern Baptists in America are one example.  The Mormons would be another.

Does the new religious fundamentalism in America and what might be called the church of the extreme right worry you?

It doesn’t worry me at all.  In the first place, the so-called extreme-right fundamentalism was the workaday understanding of America throughout most of my life.  I had the big deal in the moral majority on my programme, begging to find out what it is that I could be furious with him about.  Did he believe in persecuting homosexuals?  No; but he didn’t believe a homosexual should teach in a situation in which peer pressure was an aspect.  Well, I agree with that.  Pretty soon I fond myself thinking, what is is that these people want that Americans think of as extreme?  It suddenly occurred to me.  What they think of as extreme is what they totally accepted up until I was about forty-five or fifty years old – you know, people had a right to teach religion in schools, if it was acceptable to the community; pornography was not available at the local kiosk; commercial establishments were closed on Sunday.  All that stuff considered absolutely preposterous was absolutely routine and acceptable right up until 1955, 1965, so I’m not in the least worried about it.

A lot of people regard sex as the as the motivating force in their lives, whereas the Catholic Church regards it as a means of procreation, not to be used for gratification.

What you say is not so in the Catholic Church.  The Church has no ban against sexual congress during pregnancy.  To say that procreation’s a primary objective of the sexual act is no different from saying that the primary purpose of eating is to stay alive.  It is, but that isn’t mostly why you and I eat.  We have to do that to stay alive but that doesn’t dictate in the least our appetite for cuisine.  I would say it’s rather healthy of the Church to the extent that it indirectly attempts to diminish the sex act as the principal Freudian compulsion in one’s life.  Individuals are often moved primarily by the sexual drive, but (a) it doesn’t mean they ought to be, (b) it doesn’t mean they can’t be persuaded from being so.  After all, there are celibate orders that are very successful, and it by no means suggests that subordinating the sexual drive is to deprive it of importance or that there isn’t great joy or gratification to be got from it.

But isn’t it a fact that the Church appears to begrudge sexual gratification?

On the surface it gives that impression, especially, for instance, in the Humani Vitae encyclical where it suggests that, if you’re not willing to run the risk of pregnancy, you ought not to have sex.  In that respect it certainly does.  But it’s simply not practised, even by Catholics who have no reluctance about going to communion.

At one point you were part of the CIA, which has had a bad press over the years in connection with such events as the murder of Allende in Chile.

Criticism of the CIA should restrict itself to things it didn’t do well, but I don’t think it ought to be criticized for anything it may have sought to do.  In my judgement, the historical records are very clear that the assassination of Allende had nothing to do with the CIA.  I’ve written nine novels about the CIA, and if I had to summarize in a sentence what I sought to say about them, it would be that, in an apocalyptic world, the nation and mandate of counter-intelligence is a moral need which can’t be quantified.  I mean by that that certain challenges arise which require and indicate the advisability of a certain action being taken which cannot discreetly be applauded.  An assassination, for instance.  Supposing you have Idi Amin, who’s got hold of an atom bomb, and the CIA in the field finds out that at midnight he’s going to dispatch a bomber with instructions to drop it over Jerusalem.  The CIA man says he’s got a man there wit a sniper rifle.  Does he pull the trigger and abort the mission?  If I were US president, I would tell him to go ahead and do so, but under no circumstances would I, as a theorist, ask you to come up with a set of conditions under which it is Ok to order a private assassination, because there are too many imponderables to make it possible to quantify such a thing satisfactorily. For that reason, I think counter-intelligence is an art form and has to be judged more pragmatically than aprioristically.

There are people all over the world who are astonished by an American government committed to democracy at home yet seemingly eager to league itself with the most repressive dictatorships.

There’s absolutely no question that the containment policy of the United States invited abuse.  There are even jokes about it: the president of Venezuela in 1956 is told that he doesn’t qualify for more US aid than he is getting because it isn’t enough of a communist problem, so he goes out and imports communists.  At a more serious level, I’ve always found very liberating a distinction drawn by Senator Fulbright, and he was speaking from the other side of the political fence from my own when he said it.  He said that the American government has no proper quarrel against the practices of any government in the world; however odious, unless it’s a government trying to export it’s policies.  I apply that, for instance, to the landing of the marines in the Dominican Republic in 1965 on the orders of Lyndon Johnson.  Lyndon Johnson was convinced that Juan Bosch was going to make the Dominican Republic another Cuba. So the marines landed there, cleaned that situation up, but ignored entirely the western half of Hispaniola where Papa Doc was torturing people to death every night.  We don’t have the power to follow the Wilsonian mandate of making all the world safe for democracy.  The logical distinction is to contain aggressive hideosities, such as the Soviet Union has been foremost in committing during the past forty years, and that seems a clean division on the relevant possibilities of the state.

What about the moral dimension, especially where one is preaching morality in one’s own country?

I’m glad you use the word preaching.  The American people have very definite moral responsibility.  John Quincey Adams said the American people are friends of liberty everywhere but custodians only of their own.  He said that in 1828, so he was reminding us that we are for good people everywhere, but cant and don’t have the power to take responsibility for them.  For instance, I am very sympathetic to the idea of any American who refuses to buy any product from South Africa.  It may be mistaken as a mater of policy, but I’m sympathetic with the idea.  I’m totally unsympathetic with the American government attempting to boycott South Africa.  There they are violating the Fulbright distinction in a way that is impractical and wrong.  So the moral impulse to preach, inveigh and hector is and ought to be exactly that: a moral backed by whatever economic power and individual has, expressed usually through boycotts.

Yet it sometimes seems to the outside world that no degree of violence or repression is enough to cut off American aid.

It happens in part, I suppose, because of a notion that we recognize de facto power.  If Perón is in charge of Argentina, we do business with Argentina.  This is in part because that is the way nations work.  It’s also in part because there are mutual interests.  We want to import certain Argentinean things; they want to import certain American things; so the question becomes, is the United States going to stand in the way of this exchange?

In fact we’re required under law to pass judgement once a year against individual countries as to whether they are or are not free.  If a country is not free, the president must suspend all aid to that country unless, in the exercise of hi judgement, it is strategically necessary to override this recommendation.  They can go further and have what they call state-specific prohibitions which are levied against south Africa, against Vietnam, against Korea – countries with which even the president doesn’t have the power to authorize trade. This strikes me as a not ill-considered way of doing things, as long as the president does retain the power in ambiguous cases to continue to do business.  For instance, our handling of Pinochet’s situation in Chile, however long his reign, was I think sensible.  Chile regraduated into a democratic situation.  There was damage done, but in historical terms, not huge.  It was a comparable state to Franco’s Spain.  It would have been very wrong to have attempted to slow down the economic rejuvenation of Chile, which made it’s return to democracy likelier.

Have the lessons of Vietnam been adequately learned by America?

I don’t think they have.  I wrote a piece recently in which I said that President Bush, in going slowly on Lithuania, is probably correct in saying he is reflection the will of the American people.  I think he is making a mistake, strategic and moral, but he is undoubtedly influenced by Vietnam: that is, if the American people aren’t a hundred per cent behind you, don’t do it.  The lesson of Vietnam is incompletely learned in part because it became so complicated along the line.  The relevant school of thought was, if you want to win the war you can do it, but be tough.  The second school of thought was that there was no way to win the war because it was a war that pitted you against indigenous forces.  And the third was, it’s a war you should never have gotten into in the first place. A little bit of each of these lingers in the American mind.  They haven’t sorted it out, nor are they likely to, given the recent retrenchment of the communist empire.

At the time of Vietnam, I felt we should get on with it, and I felt it important for two reasons.  No. 1, strategic, and No.2, that our commitment to Vietnam, having been made by three presidents in such unmistakeable accents, meant the credibility of America’s guarantees everywhere in the world was very much at risk.  Every guarantee that we made in NATO could in the future be held to be of no account, given our failure to make good our guarantees to Vietnam.  What we tried to do, in effect, was blame it on Vietnam: they were the ones that collapsed, we didn’t desert them.  In fact we did desert them.

Oh, yes, I do believe it was a war we could have won.  And I believe it all the more now.  It is increasingly documented that the war against Vietnam was against an invading force.  The notion that it was a war against an indigenous force is simply incorrect.  It became increasingly a war against an indigenous force as communist pressures against the peasants began to work.  If you start executing everybody who doesn’t co-operate with you, you get a lot of co-operation.  There were a lot of Lidice operations that took place in South Vietnam, but the time to move would have been very early, in 1965, 1966.  After that it became progressively difficult.  But the great risk was China.  We now know that china would have welcomed an American victory, but, of course, neither Lyndon Johnson nor Nixon was willing to bank on that, and therefore we exercised certain restraints we would not have exercised otherwise.

What led you to the imaginative work of writing fiction?

What led me specifically was an offer of a contract by a publisher.  I had no reason whatsoever to suppose I could do it successfully, but I didn’t want to do it on a gamble of which I was the only creditor.  Therefore they gave me an advance on the following terms: I would send them the first 100 pages.  If they liked what they read, they would guarantee the full advance.  If they didn’t, I’d keep one third.  They did like it and it was a bestseller.  That was Saving the Queen.

One review spoke of Saving the Queen as ‘a hotchpotch of snobbery and twaddle’ are you wounded by such criticism?

Criticism like that would not wound me, because it’s utterly incorrect.  If it was subtle criticism and I thought it correct, that would very much arrest me.  But I’m utterly unaffected criticism that I think is motivated either by ignorance or malice.  I pay no attention at all.

Your book Overdrive was attacked by critics and readers, not on literary grounds but more for the personality that came across.  Even friends like John Leonard called it a piece of self-indulgence. You seemed unaware of the offence such a book might cause.  Was it a miscalculation? Did you regret it?  Were you chastened by the experience?

No to all of those.  It was self-indulgent in the sense that it was easy to write in terms of research required, but it was bought by the New Yorker, where it was thought to be an interesting book.  I had a tremendous amount of mail, all of which was very gratifying.

As one of the top journalist in the United States, your column is syndicated to over 300 publications.  Journalists often see themselves as opinion makers, but can they form opinion in any real sense?

I don’t think you can form opinion, but what you can do is open doors.  I’ll give you a recent example: how to handle drug policy.  When I wrote The Unmaking of a Mayor, I was resolute that drugs should be proscribed.  In the past eight to ten years I’ve come to the conclusion that it wouldn’t work.  Now, this is very different from coming to a position saying I had no write to proscribe them.  I continue to reserve the right to proscribe, but empirically I’m instructed this doesn’t work, so I have been talking in the last few years about examining the possibility f legalizing drugs under certain circumstances.  What I have done is not so much form opinion as open a door to ventilate that alternative to people who might not otherwise examine it.

Have you reached a stage in life where because people expect you to say something controversial, you do it for effect?

No, I certainly haven’t reached that stage, because I have a Weltanschauung, and certainly won’t spend any of my time trying to make an awkward fit.  If I take a position simply to be mischievous and am forever asked to integrate that opinion in that Weltanschauung, it would cause me much more pain than the momentary satisfaction I got from it the day before. So I just don’t do it.

A lot of Jewish voters in the United States identify the right with anti-Semitism.  Was that a factor when you ran for mayor of New York?

That’s an interesting question. It’s certainly a factor that, in 1965, the Jewish vote was very -conservative. I think three percent of Jews voted for me – a very small percentage.  I would guess that the automatic assumption in the Jewish community that the right was anit-Semitic had begun to attenuate around the late 1950’s.  We had something to do with that in National Review. By 1965, I don’t think it was by any means the universal conviction.  In 1965 maybe a third or a half of the Jews thought there was a lurking anti-Semitism in the American right, but no more.

But was there an anti-Semitism in the American right?

I would say yes, among older people. You see, the cultural anti-Semitism, which was almost universal, was killed among middle-aged and younger people by Hitler, but persevered among those in their seventies.  My father, for instance, as a cultural anti-Semite, and so, I hate to say, was just about everybody.  But that, I think, was simply turned around by the experience of 1942-45 among people in who it was so deeply set.

Are you at all optimistic about peace in the Middle East?

I’m not an optimist.  It seems to me that we aren’t really any closer to a natural solution than we were three years ago, and the unsettled state of Isreali politics makes a movement there extremely problematical.  I predict at least another four to five years of stalemate.  After that I can see one of two things happening: either Isreal, through a cheer sense of fatigue, attempts to come to a solution, or the Arab states in effect abandon the whole Palestinian cause on the grounds that it costs them too much time and effort, and the Palestinians become a nomadic people.  The existing animosity is extremely expensive and time-consuming, and if there is no sense of progress, it might simply go in a different direction.  Now obviously there are factors that are weighing in on the scene. The great Isreali night mare had been that the Arabs would simply exceed them in population, which is the source of Rabbi Kahane’s party.  That seems to be temporarily relieved by the present prospect of 500,000 Jews coming in from the Soviet Union, which should greatly help redress that balance within Isreal.  But it’s not going to bring about the kind of comity people want.  A lot depends on the attitude of the younger people.

Your proposal in the New York Times that, to stop the spread of Aids, victims should be tattooed on upper forearm and buttocks, produced a predictable outcry, but your biographer suggests you delighted in the resultant tempest.

Not at all.  This is one of the thousand instances in which dear John Judis didn’t exercise elementary perspective.  In the first place, it came from an open conversation between me and Alan Dershowitz, a professor of law from Harvard.  The question was how do you protect people who are uncontaminated from people who are contaminated and know they are? He said, well, the way, of course, was to prosecute them, make it a felony for anybody to have sex or exchange blood, exchange needles, share needles if they knew they were contaminated.  I said that is hardly going to help the uncontaminated community because, by the time you prosecute, those people are going to be dead anyway.  I went on to say that presumably you’ve got to have some way of warning the uncontaminated person that this other person has this communicable disease.  In the old days there was a sort of smallpox mark that made it easy for nurses or doctors to know tou had had a smallpox vaccination, so I suggested you might, for instance, have tiny tattoo marks.  This was interpreted as wanting to tattoo people who had the disease for purposes of exhibitionism.  My only motive was to give them a mark which could be inspected in private by somebody who might then be spared.  But after I saw the fuss, I said, OK, I withdraw it, because people who can’t distinguish between the use of barbed wire in Auschwitz and barbed wire to keep cows away from bulls can’t distinguish between the use of a tattoo do damn somebody and the use of it so save somebody.  I wonder how many people would be alive today who are now dead because my idea wasn’t accepted.

In 1971 you pretended you had a further set of Pentagon papers.  Why did you indulge in a game like that when it was something you couldn’t sustain for more than a few days?

It was to make a particular point. Reading the Pentagon papers we were convinced that the there were other papers that were not exhibited, and the idea came to me, let’s forge these papers, simply make them up.  I couldn’t have believed that they would be so successful.  I had six papers for instance, ostensibly addressed or written to Admiral Radford, and when he read them he said, I don’t remember these in particular, I cant say they’re not true.’  In that sense it was almost dangerously successful.  Whereas I had thought it would last about six hours, it lasted five days before I finally had a press conference.  But I perhaps overproved my case, because attention turned to the scandal rather than to the pedagogical point we were attempting to make.

Were you shocked when the truth about Nixon became apparent?

By the time the truth became apparent I was not surprised at all, I thought the accumulation of evidence, showing he was implicated, had become overwhelming.  I came out in favour of his resignation five months before the so-called burning tape.  George Bush, then head of the Republican party, and I made a gentlemanly bet:  George Bush said that Nixon would still be in office at the end of the year, I that he would not.  Gerald Ford swore on my programme that Nixon was innocent nine days before he became president, so that was the part of the loyalist wing in the Republican party that, in my opinion, refused to see the evidence.

We spoke about your admiration for Ronald Reagan, but your biographer, John B. Judis, writes: ‘Privately Buckley despaired over Reagan and the last years of his term’, and goes on to suggest that the Iran-Contra scandal ‘incapacitated Reagan.  Was this a temporary crisis of faith or did your view of Reagan change radically?

I thought the Iran-Contra mess a terrible lapse in Reagan’s own record.  Irrespective of his not having had person knowledge of the details,that I should have happened in his administration was definitely a blight on his record.  But I don’t remember ever saying that this caused a revision in my general attitude towards Reagan.  I think he was incapacitated from November 1986 until the general pick-up in his popularity began about twelve months later. On account of that, 1987 was a lost year for Reagan.

You are regarded as an opponent of so-called Women’s liberation. Why?

The part of the feminist movement that upsets me is the part which urges and indiscrimination which is extra natura.  To suggest that men and women are in every sense equal is in my judgement correct before the law and in terms of opportunity, but it’s absolutely incorrect to suggest they are organically equal.  Men and women are just different.  It has nothing to do with equality.  Under the circumstances, a certain attitude towards women is logical and appropriate, and that includes a disposition to agree that certain occupations aren’t appropriate to women.  I don’t think women in trenches are a civilised idea.  And, as an aesthetic matter, I hate the approach towards genderless nouns such as ‘chairperson’.  The disappearance of the masculine as doing double gender duty is an aesthetic affront against literature.

Many American men, as compared with European men, seem dominated by their wives.  What is the principle reason?

I think what you say is right if you compare it to Europe.  I’m no sure it’s all that right compared to England.  At least, my impression is that there are henpecked men in England as there are here.  American women tend to be more strident in marriage.  Americans are more outspoken ant every level, and there is no reason why that shouldn’t be so amongst American women.  But the nature of marriage imposes more natural commitments on the man than on the woman.  It’s a very stupid man who doesn’t take fully into account what his wife wants to do, but a marriage tends to be unsuccessful when the sense of authority is so disputed that there isn’t a natural dominance by the women over certain aspects of the marriage, or by the man over certain aspects of the marriage.

Isn’t the movement for the renewal of the idea of family unity doomed to fail in a modern context?

No. it’s having a hard time, but marriage as an institution has been rediscovered in America.  In the last two or three years, liaisons that would otherwise have tended to be simply that, have ended in marriage; so there continues to be in civil and religious marriage some sense of satisfaction that apparently couples don’t get from cohabitation.  There are a lot of civil accretions around cohabitation that may have something to do with influencing matters in one direction or the other, but by and large the idea of marriage continues to exercise a certain romance and certain sense of security.

What do you see as the basic cultural differences between America and Europe?

The basic cultural difference is a completely different historical tradition.  The memory of the European is much longer tan the memory of the American.  America is far more transient in its habits.  I read somewhere that, on the anniversary of the liberation of France, somebody asked a farmer what life had been like under the Nazis.  He said, ‘Very bad, very bad,’ then paused and added, ‘but nothing like what it was under the Swedes in the seventeenth century.  That was terrible.’  That kind of thing is amusing to an American.  We couldn’t remember conditions fifty years ago, let alone three hundred years ago.  The distillation of tradition in Europe is responsible for attitudes, loyalties and hostilities that tend to wash out more in America.

In 1984 you met Neil Kinnock, whose views on nuclear disarmament you found naïve.  Have your own views changed in the light of Mr Gorbachev’s initiative on disarmament?

Not at all.  They’ve been re-enforced.  If Mr Kinnock had had his way and other countries had imitated him, there’s no reason at all to suppose that Gorbachev would have released Eastern Europe.  He would have had every incitement to do the contrary and to renew the passionate goal to subjugate Europe.  And Kinnock would not repeat today the arguments he used then, because he knows, among other things, that they lost him an election.

Might the trend towards disarmament in the Soviet Union reinforce the perception of those who see America as the greater threat to world peace?

It’s so Orwellian in its stupidity to suppose that we are a threat to Europe that it’s hard to answer on a rational level people who make the charge.  God knows, a lot of them do.  I simply have to believe there are Europeans – I’ve not met them – who think the United States has a dark design to subjugate Europe or start a war because wars are such fun.  They must exist, but they can’t occupy me intellectually because the idea is so perverse.  When we called the Reagan administration’s contemplation of an arms agreement with the Soviet Union a ‘suicide pact’, we were much concerned with getting talked into a situation which a credible nuclear deterrent no longer existed.  That threat has now disappeared.  As Richard Pearle has said, the Russians are angling to get a situation in Europe from this total détente which they haven’t succeeded in getting in forty years: the absence of the nuclear deterrent demanded by NATO.

With the prospect of German Unification, the collapse of the Iron Curtain and the emergence of Japan as an economic super-power, do you see American influence waning in the world?

Yes, I do. After the war we were consuming fifty per cent of international production.

That’s already cut in half.  The Economist reminds us that we are still the most productive nation.  It takes the American thirty-one minutes to make what it takes the Japanese and hour to make.  So we’ve got a lot f resources, but it’s true that we’re very self indulgent and the young generation is not being taught to work hard enough or learn industriously. You can’t be all that optimistic about the per capita competitive situation between a country whose schoolchildren work three hours a week on homework and a country whose schoolchildren work thirty hours a week.

You are said to have a long-running feud with Gore Vidal, who characterized you as ‘the Marie Antoinette of politics’.

It’s not really a long-running feud since I haven’t mentioned his name in twenty years, nor he mine that I know of.  The reference is to an exchange we had on television in 1968, followed by a law suit.  His case was thrown out of court; mine was sustained.  I accepted damages and an apology from Esquire magazine for publishing his piece, but I wrote a long essay on that whole episode, published it in 1969and said I wouldn’t speak any more about it.

I have seen it suggested that you are most disliked, not for your views, but for the figure you cut; for applying conservatism ‘with the fastidious grace of a Regency man against a mantelpiece’.

I don’t give much time to that because I am as I am.  Judis talked to a lot of people who knew me when I was ten years old, and none of them charge that between ten and thirty I tried to ape anybody or anything.  I had a cosmopolitan education, for which I had no responsibility.  I too have read this business about me, as being a conservative, casting a sort of non-proletariat figure.  I don’t know how I capitalized on it, except by here and there writing autobiographical essays acknowledging how I live. If you drive around in a limousine, there’s no way of disguising it.

Why do you so vigorously oppose the idea of Utopia as an ideal to strive towards?

The idea obviously is to live commendably in the eyes of the Lord.  Utopia is not of this world, in my judgement, and I think we are all going to be judged with some reference to how hard we tried and how honestly we behaved.  Given the human predicament, none of us is going to do too well on that, but certainly the struggle ought to be to do as well as you reasonably can.

You’ve sailed the Atlantic, been down to the Titanic, have even played the harpsichord in the concert hall.  What drives you to do these extraordinary things?

I’ve sailed the Atlantic twice and the Pacific once, and will sail it again in November.  That’s a combination of adventure plus something that I can write a book about. I’ve sailed all my life.  Going down to the Titanic was an invitation that few people have had so I didn’t think twice about it.  Playing the harpsichord is a great strain, because we don’t have the time of the natural talent to learn quickly and I’m struggling now with a chromatic fantasy, which is rough.  I’ve played all my life, but only sort of episodically, yet the dream of playing something tolerably well in and exigent situation is a challenge.

Would I be right in thinking that underneath the polemical controversial exterior there is a less self-confident and more mellow William Buckley waiting to get out?

Well, I don’t think those are contradictions.  A lot of people have observed that my public persona is different from my private persona.  All I can say is that, when I appear in public, I try hard not to be demagogic, and a failure to be demagogic may suggest that you don’t care about what people think, though obviously I do care.  That’s why I’m in this business to begin with.  Inevitably people are a little different in private from the way they are in public.  All I can say is that this is not intentional.

Have you any regrets in your life?

No.  I can’t imagine having elected any other profession.  Somebody once said, ‘If you had worked in this other direction, might you not have become president of the United States?’ The answer is that the chances of it happening are so infinitely small that I really can’t take seriously people who plan to be president.  That’s simply a star falling in a particular direction. And I don’t think I’m temperamentally suited to have been one.  I’d like to have been one in the sense that I have confidence in my own judgement, so that would have been good.  If you feel you know the correct approach, it gives you a lot of confidence.  On the other hand, you might feel that in a democracy the correct approach would be politically unpalatable.  In that event you’d be frustrated, so you go back to your little typewriter and think, at least I feel I want to be here.

Britain and Palestine

Writing in the third person, this is what I said in my book, The Boy in England, about my experiences as a child during the years of the British Mandate in Palestine. Here I am, aged eighteen, leaving my home in Haifa, and on my way to England by sea.

The image he had of the English was confusing to his young mind. He had known them mostly as a colonising power, whose soldiers had a licence to deal roughly with the civilian Arab population.

Memories were still vivid of British soldiers breaking down doors in the early hours of the morning, pushing and shouting at people as they rounded them up into lorries to be transported to large open spaces such as games arenas; there to have to endure the stifling heat of summer with no food or water for many long hours.

The experience had left the boy mentally bruised and haunted. Even as a child he had been aware of the demeaning nature of the treatment. Could these soldiers have been the true representatives of their country in moral and ethical terms? He asked himself the question again and again. If they were, how could he hope to survive among such people? What chance would he stand of assimilating easily into his new environment?

Then another memory asserted itself. It was of being in Nazareth with his grandmother and great-aunt. At the far end of their garden was a pine tree under which he used to sit and read voraciously. He tackled any book he could lay hands on, whether it was in French or English. Under the pine he had read many classics of European literature, as well as such modern writers as Thomas Mann and Pearl S. Buck, the American author who wrote about life in China. The historical romances of Alexandre Dumas and Rafael Sabatini had absorbed his imagination, but he felt even more at home with the dramas of William Shakespeare – though Shakespeare sent him off to consult the dictionary more than most other writers. He loved George Bernard Shaw for the worldly humour of his insights and Oscar Wilde for the brilliance of his wit.

The English language itself was not something he had difficulty relating to. He felt impatient to reach a point where it came to him with ease and turned him into a competent writer. This had been the ambition he had harboured from a very young age.

His dream of England was of a place of learning where he might one day establish himself and perhaps become well known in whatever field he had chosen. He desperately wanted to like England, to dispel any ill feeling that lingered as a result of the maltreatment received by his family, along with the rest of the Arab population, during the years of the British Mandate in Palestine.

But the contrast between the splendour of the language and the brutality of the soldiers continued to create turmoil in his mind as he kept his lonely vigils on deck, making the first two days at sea hard to bear.

To learn more about British policy in Palestine in the mid-1930s, and the Israeli treatment of the Palestinians since the creation of the State of Israel, read Taki‘s ‘High Life’ column in the latest issue of the Spectator (14th August).

It is an eye-opener, and Taki must be applauded for his courage in highlighting this humanitarian outrage.

Salvador Dali: A Fairytale

In the late 1970s I had an interest in a company that I formed, in Abu Dhabi, with a Bedouin by the name of Salem al-Saman. Its raison d’être was a boutique in the newly opened Hilton Hotel, which was earmarked to sell luxury items of high value.

Running the boutique was a handsome young Englishman by the name of Jonathan Mermagen, whose social exploits in the region became legendary. His popularity with beautiful air hostesses and visiting dignitaries was the talk of the Gulf. A great friend to this day, I must confess that he and I enjoyed ourselves no end at the time.

My task was to source watches from Switzerland and commission items of jewellery from exclusive workshops that supplied the world’s most famous outlets with beautifully crafted artefacts and various objets d’art. Simultaneously, I was securing watch agencies on an exclusive basis and a selection of luxury goods for the boutique.

The most successful purchase I made was a line in gold jewellery, designed by the Spanish surrealist artist Salvador Dali exclusively for Piaget in Geneva. The items comprised necklaces and bracelets of pure gold that had Dali’s imprinted motif strikingly displayed.

As soon as Salem al-Saman saw the jewellery he became curious to know its provenance and the identity of the designer. I explained that the designer was a cousin of his from Spain. I was speaking metaphorically, for the Gulf Arabs always regarded the Spaniards as their cousins.

Many years later, when Salem was vice-president of the Abu Dhabi Chamber of Commerce, he made a visit to Barcelona to help promote trade and goodwill between the two countries.

One afternoon, as he happened to be waiting in the lobby of his hotel, he noticed a large crowd of press photographers jostling in the entrance to get a shot of someone who was just arriving. Amid the commotion and the flashlights, he saw a colourful-looking man with long moustaches and piercing black eyes making his way into the hotel.

Salem was highly intrigued and signalled to the concierge to ask who this celebrity might be. The man swelled with pride as he told him he was seeing the great Salvador Dali himself.

The name rang a bell, though for a split-second Salem could not recall the connection. But people from the desert regions have sharp memories and he was no exception. Suddenly, it came to him where he had heard the name before.

He sprang to his feet in his flowing white Arab robe and began to push his way through the crowd, determined to greet the man who I had once told him was his cousin.

‘At long last the cousins meet!’ he declared, taking Dali into an Arab embrace.

Salem had succeeded in startling and bemusing an artist who had startled and bemused many others throughout his career. But Dali responded at once with equal exuberance, and the Arab from the desert and his ‘cousin’ posed to give the assembled cameramen a unique photo opportunity with beams of satisfaction on their faces.

That evening, Salem had an invitation to dine with the famous surrealist and they spent the time engrossed in conversation. Dali was especially riveted by Salem’s account of how he had sold his entire line of gold jewellery in the desert emirate of Abu Dhabi. They ate and drank together late into the night and forged a warm acquaintanceship.

Salem met Dali on many later occasions and visited him not long before his death. It was a fairytale of a story that forever afterwards had an entrancing effect on me.

Salem, however, took the whole incident in his stride, as desert folk normally do, and thought nothing of its extraordinary aspects. The encounter had been, for him, simply a meeting of distant cousins, whose destiny had set them apart till the day came for them to meet and explore their common heritage.

No Longer With Us: Lord Goodman

Lord Goodman, born in 1913, was a British lawyer and political advisor.

He was educated at University College London and Downing College, Cambridge, and became a leading London lawyer as Senior Partner in the law firm Goodman, Derrick & Co (now Goodman Derrick LLP). He was solicitor and advisor to politicians such as Harold Wilson.

He died in May 1995.

Here is an interview with him from my book, Singular Encounters.

Your mother seems to have been the dominating influence in your childhood. Was your/other a shadowy figure by comparison?

He wasn’t a shadowy figure, but he was the less positive figure of the two. He was a very gentle, mild man, and I think he was a bit diffident about intruding, but we were as devoted to him as to my mother. My mother was enormously encouraging. She had all the pride of all the Jewish mothers put together. I don’t think she had great ambition for us, but she was a woman with a good sense of values and she obviously wanted us to be happy and successful, because if you’re not successful you’re rarely happy. She was always there for us, and if ever we had any kind of problem or trouble, she solved it without fuss. She was a very remarkable woman. She had been a schoolteacher originally, and a competent pianist. She taught Mrs Gaitskell Hebrew. She saw me beginning to become successful. I hadn’t been enobled and hadn’t even become the chairman of the Arts Council before she died, but I had had modest success and it gave her great pleasure.

I don’t look back on my childhood as the happiest time of my life, because I hadn’t really found a balanced situation there. There were uncertainties about relationships with people, about the extent to which one promoted one’s own activities and so forth. Anything that isn’t positive causes doubt and doubt causes unhappiness. I certainly wasn’t an unhappy child. I loved being a child; I enjoyed being at school. I was particularly fond of cricket, and I became an adept tennis player – I even got a tennis colour at University College London. I had a passion for reading, and I loved music. My father used to take us off to concerts on Sunday afternoons, and all of this conduced to happiness. Anyone looking at me would have said I was a happy boy.

I was educated at a grammar school established by one of the great trading companies, and it was a very good school. We had everything: a good swimming bath, the river on which we could row, an excellent sports ground. It didn’t ape the public schools, but it tried to extract what was best in them. I was particularly influenced by the English master because, for some reason, I was his favourite pupil. He played a great part in my life, and persuaded me of the glories of English literature.

If I had a son, I would not myself send him to a boarding school. I think that’s a folly. It separates a boy from his family altogether and in a sense it antagonises him, because a young child has to determine for himself why he’s been exiled. I’m not at all in favour of boarding schools, but I would send a son to a good day school. There are several, like St Paul’s, or University College School, or Mill Hill. Children require a certain amount of understanding, humane discipline, and a good school provides it.

My parents were always tight for money. My father was not a good businessman, but he contrived to get enough to give us a comfortable childhood. I didn’t have a luxurious childhood, but I managed to travel a bit. I remember that I wanted to go to Paris, and when I spoke to my father he said, ‘Well, what can you manage on?’ So I replied rather optimistically, ‘I could do a week on £5.’ He produced a five-pound note and off I went. I found myself very strained for money after about four days, but it was very enjoyable. Then I wanted to go to Rome, because I’ve always had a particular interest in Roman affairs and Roman law and Latin, which was a language I had a great affection for. So when I said I wanted to go to Rome, he asked for how long, and I replied a fortnight. So he produced £10. I stayed at a little pension called the Pensione Bus, where I had a semi-pension rate, which meant that I got breakfast and dinner but not lunch. Without any great hardship, I dispensed with lunch for a fortnight, and then had a piece of good fortune when, wandering through the Coliseum on almost my last day, an elderly American gentleman, seeing me carrying an English guide book, approached me and asked if I spoke English. When I confirmed that I did, he asked if I would mind showing him round the city, and we struck up quite a friendship. He turned out to be an American ex-judge who had come over on the melancholy errand of bringing his wife’s ashes, which he had promised to bury in Rome. He became very friendly indeed and took me out every day for another fortnight. I was therefore able to stay four weeks.

I always knew that I probably wanted to be a lawyer. There’s a conventional range of occupations for middle-class Jewish boys: you become either a lawyer, a doctor or an accountant, and I certainly never wanted to have anything to do with figures and I didn’t want to be a doctor. Therefore being a lawyer seemed a reasonable alternative, and I’ve always had a great affection for word’s.

You had a successful if comparatively modest career in the army. What were the values that emerged from this for you?

I’d been very spoilt as a boy. My parents’ influence was protective to the point of mollycoddling, and the army was a revelation. It introduced me to the human race and showed me what excellent qualities existed there. I never met any unkindness. I was in the ranks for a while, then I was commissioned and went up to a command headquarters, where I got some modest promotion and that was that. But I enjoyed it very much. I learned how important it was to get on with your fellow men.

The idea I was living on borrowed time during the war would have been a philosophical meditation in which I didn’t indulge. I never felt at all apprehensive, although I was a member of a very active anti- aircraft battery and we operated throughout the blitz on London, then in various other parts of the country, and were out during the bombing night after night. It never entered my head that I might be killed. I suppose, in a way, that I regarded myself as too precious a person for anyone to kill me. It was a form of vanity. I’m not heroic, but I don’t think I’m particularly cowardly either, and although I had several quite narrow escapes when, on various occasions, bombs fell too close to be comfortable, I can’t remember being worried.

You have been honoured by both Labour and Conservative governments, which seems a very unusual thing indeed.

If I had been a determined Marxist or a passionate Conservative, I don’t think the other party would have employed me. I was evidently a neutral in these matters, and not really interested in politics. The reputation I had, for what it’s worth, was that I was apolitical and that, on the whole, I didn’t have violent prejudices one way or the other. My sympathy was towards liberal causes. For instance, I always took a strong line about South Africa and made several critical speeches. A liberal cause usually had only to heave into sight to find me supporting it, but not every liberal cause. I didn’t believe in some of the more argumentative ones.

I don’t feel that I have strong political convictions. I believe we should have a world where there is, on the whole, little interference with personal freedom. We should live in a world where everyone is entitled to be educated, in which everyone is entitled to be looked after health-wise. I do believe, to that extent, in what many people would call a socialist society, but not to the point of submerging other beliefs. It’s true that I have a distaste for politicians, largely because I’ve met too many not to. I almost worshipped Jennie Lee, but she was an exception. And Nye Bevan was an extraordinary man, as was Hugh Gaitskell; and, in a strange sort of way, Ted Heath is extraordinary. These are all people who have qualities which rise above narrow political dogmas.

Where honesty in politicians is concerned, I don’t think it’s possible to be totally honest in any human context, but it’s even more difficult if you’re trying to persuade hundreds of thousands of people to adopt your views and vote for you. It would be imposing a tremendous moral strain never to exaggerate in the slightest degree, arid exaggeration is a departure from honesty. Someone with a distaste for duplicity might well be as honest a politician, or indeed anything else, as you could hope to find. In fact, that might be a great encouragement to people to vote for him. This was certainly the basis of Mrs Thatcher’s support at the start of her regime. People were persuaded that she was a change in the political scene, and that she was an honourable woman.

I have come to feel that our present democratic electoral system could be improved by ensuring that a greater number of people influence the elections. Certainly it could be improved by a system of proportional representation. One can be very dogmatic about this, because there are considerable dangers in a proportional representation which might, in the end, produce no government at all. But on the whole, I think we ought to have experimented with it. One of the things that can happen the way things are is that you can get such an overwhelming majority that no institution is safe, and that, of course, is a dangerous trend. We have seen the abolition of the Greater London Council, which clearly did very good work although it was open to objection because, in certain areas, people with extreme views got into power and did rather silly things. But they didn’t do things silly enough to justify its demolition, and its destruction was a result of a system which allows one party to hold a majority of a size the Conservatives have today.

The cardinal point about Conservatism is that it binds the Conservatives together with one simple precept, which is a respect for property. And one reason why the Labour Party doesn’t command that respect is because, by and large, it hasn’t got the property. The respect that the Conservatives have for the initiative of the individual all turns on wealth, and there’s no harm in that, but since it’s a respect for a man who can amass wealth, it overrides any respect for intelligence, health or any other consideration. The Labour party is meanwhile a very disorganised, disunited group, but it seems to be getting better. They have been able to shed their more extreme element, and that gives them a better chance of recognition. I think they will come back into power, but when I don’t know. It’s not impossible it’ll be at the next election.

At one point you undertook the task of trying to reconcile the difficulties in Rhodesia, and it looked as though you had managed to get an agreement.

I did get an agreement. What really happened was that the British government sent me out to negotiate with the Smith government, which meant, in effect, Ian Smith himself. I negotiated with him and we were able to evolve a constitution acceptable to him, tolerably acceptable to the more powerful voices in his government and not wholly rejected by anyone. Then, when it came to it, one of the imperatives was that it should be acceptable to the entire population, black and white. Well, that was rather a silly requirement. There was no hope, when one came to think of it, of an agreement negotiated wholly between two white men being acceptable to the blacks. Smith was a wholly honest man, may I say. I never found him at all devious. He was obstinate, but the moment you had worn down his obstinacy and he agreed something, that was the end of it. He never went back on his word. The reason why the initiative failed was that the British government had defined a negotiation as something between two whites. They couldn’t, in their wildest moments, have expected that that sort of negotiation was going to be either welcome or tolerable to the black population, which represented more than ten times the white population. When it came to it, Mr Smith assured us that it would be acceptable to the blacks, his reason for believing being, as he said, that his chiefs knew and respected him, would not betray him and would certainly vote in favour.

Now, Smith had lived in Rhodesia all his life and the Foreign Office had sent me out with a Rhodesian expert who had never before been to Rhodesia. As a result, no one warned me that the idea that the chiefs could control the tribes was completely wrong. The tribes controlled the chiefs. When the chiefs went back into the tribal lands, they were told to vote no, and to a man they did. The first mistake was to have employed someone, like me, who had never been to the country. My parents were born in South Africa, and I had been in South Africa many times, but never in Rhodesia. I knew nothing about the country. The second mistake was not to have sent me out with a genuine expert, because there were means of establishing that the proposed agreement was unacceptable to a great number of blacks.

The imposition of sanctions certainly worked in Rhodesia. That was a major reason for their seeking a settlement. When I arrived out there, people I’d never met before came up to me and tugged at my coat and said, ‘Please, please, get an agreement.’ The shops were almost empty of consumer goods. And sanctions are working in South Africa today. Very much so. I was in South Africa last October and the one thing perfectly clear was that they were obsessed with the fear of sanctions, and were producing literature and arguments, all specious and all designed to show that sanctions didn’t work and ought to be dropped. It was clear evidence that sanctions were working.

I don’t think Mrs Thatcher is right at all to ease sanctions. There has been no relative improvement at all, they’ve hardly changed anything. Apartheid is as intact as ever, with only a few minor changes. It would be folly, having got this far, to cease the one thing that is having an obvious effect on them.

What is wrong with South Africa is that, in terms of demography, it’s an idiocy. There are something like thirty million blacks being governed by three to four million whites. In demographic terms, it’s an outrage, and the whites have used their power in the most disgraceful way. South Africa is a heartbreaking place. There are various housing estates, including one called Crossbow which houses three quarters of a million to a million blacks. It’s thick with mud, and they live in the most improvised and rudimentary constructions made up principally of bits of iron, bits of tin, bits of cardboard. There is a water tap for every four houses, and no sanitation, just a bucket system. They manage somehow to keep these places relatively clean, but as conditions for human beings to live in, they are intolerable. The irony is that most people in Cape Town have never seen the place, even though you pass it on the way from the airport. There’s a callous indifference to human suffering that makes the present regime an outrage and makes reform an urgent necessity.

If you were to argue that the one man, one vote principle cannot work because the blacks are not educated enough, then I don’t know that one can say with complete confidence that there isn’t a large percent- age of the electorate in this country who are similarly unequipped to have a vote. The requirement to justify a vote is that a man would understand what is good for him. One saw it in Rhodesia. When they came to taking a vote on the proposed settlement, the blacks to a man turned it down. Their instinct told them that anything warmly approved by Mr Smith was not to their benefit.

As for making South Africa safe for democracy, who are you asking that it should be safe for – the three to four million or the thirty to forty million? I tend to think a secure solution is possible. Nigeria, for instance, is quite competently governed. You’ve got to remember that the difference is this: it is one thing to be governed by people of your own race, quite another to be governed by people of another race whom you have justifiably come to regard over the years as hostile. That is the basic consideration.

There is no reason to suppose that introducing democracy will stop the violence of black against black, but equally, there’s a strong reason to think it won’t stop unless democracy is introduced. My own feeling is that the black outrages against black are quite a different thing from white outrages against black, and that they won’t cause the same resentment. The black population of South Africa is very large, and it has been kept in a depressed position by the whites. Years ago there was a minister of education who said something to the effect that they would give them such education as they needed to carry out the simple humble functions they performed. That was a calculated insult.

Do you find that being the focal point of enormous pressure, as you were in Rhodesia, is something you are able to cope with easily?

I don’t think I’ve ever felt under an intolerable pressure from other people’s opinions. Perhaps I have an excessive and rather conceited faith in my own opinions, but I was never tortured by doubts. You couldn’t achieve anything if you were tortured by doubt. On negotiation, I’m immensely patient. In personal relations, I’m not so sure, but negotiation should be a continuous process until you have reached a conclusion. You should listen very carefully to what the other side have to say, and make quite sure that they realise that you do understand their point of view and that, if you are rejecting it, it must be for valid reasons.

I would consider myself to be a good listener in negotiation, and in normal life I’m not an impatient listener. Of course, in this world one has to listen to a great deal of nonsense, but I’m very tolerant of nonsense because I’m tolerant of the fallibility of human beings. I wouldn’t say that estimating your opponent is a very profitable activity. What you have to do is to estimate the strength of your case and the strength of a case which comes midway between the two cases, and ultimately it’s your job to propound a tolerable solution acceptable to both sides, or all three sides. But you arrive there by instinct. It’s not a calculated process.

The legal profession in England seems in turmoil at present, with one group trying to preserve its privileges and the other to trespass on them. Is it a matter of principle more than the scramble for money and power it appears to be?

It’s not a scramble for money. I once said that the strange feature of the English legal system was that, although lawyers didn’t enrich themselves, they could succeed in beggaring their clients, and this was an anomaly. I don’t think it’s a struggle for power either. It is really a struggle for prestige. It’s as simple as that. The Bar have a built-in conviction that they have a superior status, but they fail to recognize, first of all, how numerically inferior they are. In actual practice, there are between 3,000 and 4,000 barristers – and that’s probably an exaggeration – as against 60,000 solicitors, so it is obvious that if they are going to have a conviction of superiority then it must be a strong one because numerically they would be in difficulty. In fact the traditions of the Bar are really no longer appropriate for the twentieth-century situation, even less for the twenty-first. By this I mean their wigs and gowns, and their use of Latin, which very few of them understand or can construe. The whole edifice is built on a fraudulent tradition of custom – a firm conviction that a custom that has retained privileges for them and has maintained them in a superior position in relation to the rest of the legal profession exists by order of the Almighty. To some extent it stems from the class system in this country, but the strange thing is that a great number of solicitors and a great number of barristers all come from the same class, the upper middle class. They’ve been educated at public or independent schools, and most of them have been to Oxford or Cambridge, so there isn’t a great divergence of class. Nevertheless the Bar believe that their practices and traditions are better and finer. It’s largely based on the Inns of Court, for which they have a sort of masonic affection.

Meanwhile there’s very little doubt that our legal system is weighted against the poor man if he’s engaged in a battle. We like to pretend that there’s no advantage in retaining a better lawyer, but of course there is a great advantage, and I don’t know how that is going to be changed. There will have to be a more expansive legal aid system, and the reform now taking place, whereby you will be able to use a single advocate, will greatly cheapen the matter. Although the Bar deny it, it’s a matter of simple arithmetic. It is bound to be cheaper to employ one man rather than four.

But won’t it be very difficult to make the people who have money less privileged than those who don’t?

There are some things in which, by the decree of the Almighty, the rich are less privileged. They’ve no privileges in relation to fresh air; they’ve no privileges in relation to sea-bathing. Shortly they’ll have to discover that they’ve no real privilege in relation to justice.

But if you’re rich, you can go where there is fresh air. If you’re poor, you’re stuck where you are.

I’m not so sure. If you’re born on the seashore, you get fresh air; however rich you may be, you won’t be able to get more. I think that the extent to which money and justice are related is a bad thing, but it is much less so here than in the United States, although France is better than we are. They have something I have a special preference for, which is what is called a civilian system, that is to say, a Roman law system. I was trained as a Roman lawyer, and I lectured on Roman. Dutch law at Cambridge. It is a system which doesn’t depend on precedent. The English system means that you go back over every case decided since the year dot to see what cases have been decided in your favour. The Roman law system doesn’t depend on precedent at all, but on principle, and if the principle is with you, then you win the case. This, of course, is much, much cheaper than a precedent system. I would say there is quite a lot of reform that needs to be done in relation to the English legal system.

Why is our legal establishment so against introducing the American system of contingency fees in this country?

They’re against it because they think it’s infra dig. They consider it undignified for lawyers to work under circumstances where they’re paid only if they win, but there are other objections that are raised. One is that it is unfair to the losing party because he can’t get any costs. Once you start a litigation on a contingency basis, at the end of the day, if the assisted person wins the case, the defendant has no means of recovering the costs. It’s well controlled in America, more so than you would think from the impression that is being conveyed here by the people opposed to it. For instance, there are strict rules that the lawyer may not take more than a percentage of the win – 15 or 20 per cent. And there is a rule in some states that the court must feel that there is a prima facie chance of success. A man cannot undertake a completely hopeless cause for the purpose of advertising himself, or perhaps forcing a settlement from someone who isn’t very sure. It is, like every human institution, open to objections, but I would say that the objections fall down by the side of the alternative, which is that a poor man can’t sue at all.

When you dismissed as ‘poppycock’ the Bar’s fears for the independence of the judiciary under the Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay’s plans for reform, yours seemed almost a lone voice, and the general reaction was one of closing ranks.

It was only the Bar. The Bar, as I said, is a tiny profession of about 4,000 active members. There was no closing ranks among the 64,000 lawyers. What it came down to was the vehemence of the Bar’s opposition and the pretensions they give to themselves, despite their small numbers. If you have an agreeable monopoly, it isn’t difficult to evolve a highfalutin principle to enable you to maintain it. There is no principle that enables the Bar to maintain a position which is ruinous to every litigant.

Yet they maintain that the cost will not be reduced.

That is to maintain that Mount Everest isn’t there. As I say, it’s a question of arithmetic. It is manifestly cheaper to employ one person than to employ at least three and possibly four doing the same job. If the problem were approached with determination and integrity, it would become enormously cheaper. As for the notion that standards will go down, what standards? They have sold the myth that they are superlative advocates, but if you go to the Law Courts on any morning and pass from court to court, the thing that will horrify you is the bumbling nature of the advocacy. There are half a dozen superlative advocates, Robert Alexander being one. There are a few others. Jeremy Hutchinson was a superlative. But the number can be counted on the fingers of one hand, and to keep to this pretence as the means of maintaining a disastrously expensive monopoly makes no sense.

Doesn’t it remain iniquitous that most people will be deterred from sueing because of the horrendous costs?

That is not so much a reflection on the law of libel as a reflection on our legal system. I quite agree that the costs involved are prohibitive, but there are ameliorations now under consideration, a very important one being that the action could be brought in the County Court, where the case could be conducted by a solicitor alone. This could have a dramatic effect on reducing the costs.

I haven’t myself represented many people in libel actions. I doubt if I’ve been involved in twenty libel actions that went to court in the whole of my career. I’ve always deterred people from becoming involved. A client is perfectly entitled to ignore my advice, of course, but if I thought the conduct of the action was in some way a persecution or an impropriety, I just wouldn’t do it. There’d be no reason why I should. I’ve refused to act for a client very many times. I am under no obligation to do things I don’t approve of.

When, in 1957, I undertook to represent Aneurin Bevan, Richard Crossman and Morgan Phillips after the Spectator accused them of being drunk on a British delegation to Venice, I agreed because the clients, and particularly Nye Bevan, who was quite a close friend, regarded it as very serious. He said, ‘I was sent abroad to represent the Labour Party at an international conference, and now I am told that while I was there I conducted myself like a drunkard.’ He took a very serious view of it, and he was entitled to.

Isn’t it a mistake to pick twelve people from the public at random to decide in a technically complicated case, such as the Guinness one now?

You underrate them. First of all, if you have twelve people, statistically there are bound to be two or three of average, if not above average, intelligence. If they don’t understand the case, it’s because the counsel who are explaining it to them are inadequate. My own belief is there is almost no case that a jury, given proper advice and instruction, cannot deal with better than a judge alone. There is something about a jury that inspires confidence. They will arrive at perverse verdicts, but never at insane verdicts.

Oddly enough, a judge’s going over the top in his summing up is often the reason why a jury takes the other side, especially if they feel that the judge is loading the case too much. They are twelve people, not twelve fools.

Lawyers never seem very popular as a group.

I would say the general dislike is justified for the very simple reason that you go in search of a lawyer only when you’re in trouble, and that is why lawyers are not loved. You won’t find that doctors who specialise in cancer are the best-loved members of a community, and there’s more reason for loving them than a lawyer who is going to try and extricate you from an unhealthy marital situation where your wife intends to take half your property. That’s why they’re not liked. It’s not because they are rich. If you look at the 1,000 richest men in England, or even at the 10,000 richest, you won’t find a lawyer among them. Lawyers do not make money. That is a simple fact. Certain barristers make huge incomes because they’re in great demand, but that is a rarity. It’s for the same reason that Placido Domingo gets higher fees than any other tenor. A highly accomplished barrister, like Robert Alexander, gets very large fees, which is only fair. On an average, lawyers are by no means extravagantly paid. I took three law degrees and obtained first-class honours in all of them, and I wouldn’t say that the rewards that have come my way are even comparable with what I’d have got if I’d become a merchant banker. I never wanted them to be.

When Lord Mackay was disciplined recently by his Church in Scotland for having attended a requiem mass for a deceased colleague, did that make you wonder whether there was a case for saying that someone like Lord Mackay, who holds high office, should not belong to such a narrow, restrictive Church in the first place, that the latter is incompatible with the duties and requirements of the former’?

The Church one belongs to must be a subjective consideration. No one can know what arguments propel me to remain Jewish. These are decisions that one makes for oneself, and they are decided inside you. I understand that Lord Mackay has now left that particular Church, and I must say I heard the news with great relief, but I wouldn’t seek to impose my own view about what are the right religious precepts for a man of skill and judgement. In many ways, the fact that he remained a member of the Church of his fathers was a very creditable thing. It’s true that it’s a Church which appears to be redolent of prejudice, bias and rather absurd notions, but even so, you can’t condemn the entire Moslem peoples for believing some of the idiocies they believe; you can’t condemn all Jews for believing some of the idiocies we are supposed to believe. These are matters of personal opinion, and so long as he is doing no damage to anyone else, no one has any right to interfere. You must remember that one of the great requirements of our present society is that people should have a faith, and I think that many of the difficulties and tragedies we encounter today are due to the absence of faith. Almost any faith is better than none. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that, if you believe in cannibalism, that is a desirable thing, but whatever notions you may hold about religious precepts, to have some that are firmly held in your mind must be a good thing.

You are widely regarded as the best chairman the Arts Council ever had. Have its aims improved or declined since your time there?

As you know, at the moment there is a rumpus going on because it’s proposed by the minister of the arts, who is not a very experienced person, that the Arts Council should have a very reduced function and that regional arts associations should take on the major task of subsidising the majority of companies. I think this is wholly mistaken. To introduce local associations into the matter will be to introduce politics with both feet. I had quite a lot of experience in dealing with local authorities. Some were very good but a great many of them were awful, and the extent to which politics were brought in has, I’m afraid, had considerable support from this government. They view everything from a political viewpoint and don’t think anyone should be promoted to any office of importance unless he is a member of their party. Things haven’t improved; they’ve got worse.

A Labour government would have appointed a Tory to the Arts Council. Jennie Lee certainly would. You see, I’ve never been a member of the Labour party. When I said that what was wrong was the government policy of not countenancing non-Conservatives, someone remarked, ‘Ah, but what about you? Is it not true that they appointed a person of liberal sentiments?’ The answer to that was given by someone else, who said there was no party that wouldn’t have appointed me.

On the subject of art for the people, especially opera, is there not a case for saying that most of the people who are contributing to the subsidies are providing an agreeable entertainment for a fortunate minority in London?

Well, that is an unavoidable consequence. If you were to say that no minority interest is to be subsidised because it isn’t enjoyed by everyone in the country, then culture disappears. It is perfectly true, as I remarked many years ago, that one of the essential liberties of a free Englishman was freedom from culture, and if he doesn’t want culture, he needn’t have it. But that’s no reason for depriving anyone else of it. The number of people who want to go to the opera is greatly exaggerated. A lot of people would like to go, and a lot do, very cheaply. You can get, if not a seat, a position from where you can hear an opera for £2. At Covent Garden it’s extremely uncomfortable, but if you’re a young enthusiast, you don’t have to pay £100.

My feeling is that, if you provide cultural material only on the footing that the whole world can afford it, there are innumerable things that won’t be there. Education would disappear. You have to accept that a large part of desirable human activity is wanted only by a few special people. But those special people are very special. They dictate the shape and form of the country’s culture and education, and I don’t think there’s any terrible injustice. The injustice is for the state not to provide the money. When you think of the cost of a single battleship or a nuclear weapon, it’s absurd to say we couldn’t afford a few hundred thousand or even a few million for cultural activities. Yet there is a bitter resistance to this, and it comes from very rich people. That is because most of them would rather go to gaol than sit through a performance of The Ring.

The boycotting of Wagner by many Jews after the war was, incidentally, an absurdity. It’s ridiculous to regard music as untouchable because it was composed by a man who was an anti-Semite because he believed his illegitimate father was Jewish. The important thing to remember is that music has a quality and a standing of its own.

You once said: ‘It is an article of faith with this government that anything remotely progressive in politics should be stamped out. It would have been too much to expect them to keep the Arts Council immune from this.’ A great deal of anger seems to lie behind this statement.

It’s something about which I do feel strongly. The Arts Council was founded on two principles, one being that, although it accepts money, it accepts no political direction or dictation as to how to use the money! The corresponding and comparable principle is that, in giving its money to its various beneficiaries, it imposes no degree of political control. In fact, it has subsidized many very left-wing adventures since there are not a great many right-wing adventures because intellectuals are rarely right wing. And what the Arts Council has to do is protect the integrity of intellectual and cultural thought, and if it proceeds to stamp on everything that it or Mrs Thatcher thinks has any appearance of culture, then it destroys an institution of international value. I do believe that! in the main, intellectuals veer towards left-wing opinions. By left-wing opinions one means opinions that are not maintained by anyone who has a bit of money.

One of the complaints made by the orthodox supporters of the arts on the right is that right-wing plays are never put on. The answer is simple. There aren’t any right-wing plays. Go and search for them. You might trace a tendency towards right-wing drama in, say, John Galsworthy, but he was essentially a liberal, and if you see one of his most famous plays. The Silver Box, it was a cry for the dispossessed.

As for working to persuade the unconvinced of the validity of the importance of art and artists, I don’t know that I would persuade them. My father used to say that one of the principles of life is that a young donkey grows into an old donkey. I would make no effort. It’s quite impossible to inculcate a belief by argument. You can only do it by providing culture that the young can absorb and come to love.

In the area of education and the mounting failure of the educational system, more money should be provided and less introduced. We could then be as well educated as the French, for example. We’re a long way behind them at the moment. Happily we were never as badly educated as the Germans, because they were educated to tolerate enormities and outrages that would not be tolerated in England. There’s a lot to be said for our system. It’s one that encourages liberal ideas and makes it possible to live with liberal thoughts in a world where most people are illiberal. On that score, I’m a great admirer, and I can think of no other country in the world where I would wish to live, except perhaps one or two of the original British dominions, like Australia or Canada.

But what can be our grounds for optimism when we haven’t enough teachers in the schools, university funds are constantly cut, students are saddled with debt before they even begin their careers, some of our fellow citizens live in cardboard boxes on the streets . . .

I think that is an exaggerated statement of certain outrages that are very limited in number. You see, the number of people living in cardboard boxes is tiny, and they are nearly always drug dependent, and it is impossible to eradicate the drug desire. They are people who find it impossible to organise a sane life and provide themselves with a roof, but I don’t think that is a prevailing mood in any substantial number of people. England is more humane, more civilised than almost anywhere else. I won’t say that the Jews are universally popular, but they are not persecuted, and the only man who tried to mount a campaign of anti-Semitism was brought to a sharp halt.

Did you ever encounter anti-Semitism yourself?

As a Jew I’ve had rich rewards, and I don’t believe that being a Jew has interfered with them in any way. I’ve had appointments, I’ve had honours, and I can regard myself as being very fortunate indeed. I can’t attribute any misfortune of mine to anti-Semitism. It’s impossible to say that there weren’t people who, when, they came to review the situation, didn’t feel they’d rather appoint a Roman Catholic or a Presbyterian than a Jew, but I’ve not encountered it.

We seem a lot more restrictive than the Americans on accessibility to information, Do you think freedom is divisible in some way?

Freedom is-‘indivisible. I think the rules should be applied with common sense. If a man divulges the time at which he takes tea and that he takes three cups and he’s given two pieces of sugar, that is not a secret. On the other hand, if he proceeds to divulge the reasons why a particular civil servant wasn’t promoted and things of that sort, then that can be very injurious to someone’s career and is something in which there can be no public interest – or shouldn’t be, unless there’s some scandal associated with it.

The government’s latest piece of legislation does not provide public interest as a ground for defence. I think this is very difficult, because any civil servant who feels that there is a profit in divulging the secret would be able to present a case that it’s in the public interest. I’m not at all sure that you should be able to betray your trust because you believe there’s a public interest. It is for the government to determine what is the public interest, not an individual civil servant. It can’t be determined by anyone else. The trouble is there’s a great deal of hypocrisy about these claims, especially by the press. The claim to freedom is really the claim by the newspapers to publish titillating information that will sell more copies. That’s what the claim for freedom derives from, not from any lofty motivation. I think one has to have that in mind when considering the strength and nature of the claim.

You have known many national leaders of different political persuasions and all sorts of people in positions of authority and influence. Is that a world you find attractive?

I don’t find people of influence more attractive because they have influence. It is usually that they have attained influence because there is some rather arresting quality about them, and, of course, that is bound to be an important consideration in assessing your interest in them.

I have not admired very much people who are evidently self-seeking, but it would be wrong for me to indicate who such people are. I admired Hugh Gaitskell very much. I also had a considerable admiration for Ted Heath, although of recent years he has been much influenced by a sense of pique. The politician I admired most was Lloyd George. He was a man who made his own way from the most humble background by employing quite exceptional persuasive and oratorical talent. He was one of the great orators of the day. And it’s a source of great satisfaction to me that he was a solicitor.

To ask if he was a womaniser has nothing to do with anything. You might as well ask did he like curry? That a man likes women is so idiosyncratic a matter that it doesn’t bear examination. I don’t think he did his career any harm, because the investigatory journalism of our day didn’t then exist. Had it existed, Lloyd George would have been ruined within hours.

No, I don’t think the British are more hypocritical about sex than other nations. I don’t think they’re more hypocritical than the Americans, and the Europeans are also hypocritical in the sense that they have decided to conceal their feelings about it. The French are liberal to the extent that it would be unlikely that a Frenchman would be ruined because he had a mistress, but it would now be equally unlikely that an Englishman would be ruined for the same reason. There’s a general loosening of moral standards that is very welcome.

You knew Harold Wilson.

Yes, as well as anyone could.

He now appears to be a rather discredited politician, with the whole political establishment seeming to have deserted him.

I think that’s because he was an unsuccessful politician in the sense that he lost the ultimate election, and he is not the easiest man to support. He was an extremely kindly man, but he also had some massive faults, and one of those was that, before he did anything, he got into the habit of looking over his shoulder to see what the effect might be before he decided. That is a very grave defect in a politician, who should go boldly ahead and do what he thinks right. I liked him very much. He was very kind to me, and I’m not sure that he’s wholly discredited.

If he now seems not to be respected, that is because the organs of respectability are Tory organs. The Times, the Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mail are all Tory papers, the assessment of these people is a Tory assessment, and Harold Wilson was the most hated one of all because he was the one who provided the greatest risk to their beliefs and policies. I would say that has a lot to do with his present assessment.

Any desertion by his own party was on purely pragmatic grounds, because the public wouldn’t support him. I’m not even sure that his own party have deserted him. It’s easily said, but if Harold Wilson returned to leadership, he’d have a much greater chance of success at winning the election than Mr Kinnock. Harold Wilson was absolutely hated by the Tory press. The Conservative party has one inflexible principle which distinguishes it from the Labour party. Whereas the Labour party has all sorts of notions which add up to a policy or don’t, the Conservative party-has one notion only, which is to preserve private property. They saw in Harold Wilson a really dangerous threat to their well-being.

What view did you take of the alleged MI5 plot to oust Wilson?

It wasn’t an MI5 plot, but it was a plot by a few cowboys in MI5, and it certainly took place. My own offices were raided twice and I hadn’t any notion why until much later, when I discovered that they had been searching for documents that might in some way incriminate Harold Wilson. We had no such documents. I don’t think any such documents existed. But there certainly was this disgraceful activity on the part of a few hot-headed fanatics, who saw in Harold Wilson a danger to their whole scheme of life. Of course, we didn’t know of this until long afterwards.

What advice would you have given, had you been asked, on Harold Wilson’s so-called ‘Lavender List’ of honours?

I did in fact offer some advice, I won’t say to whom. It was an extremely unwise and reckless list, and my advice would have been not to go ahead with it. It couldn’t have mattered two pence to Harold Wilson whether some unworthy businessman -was going to get a knighthood or a peerage, so he had no great personal advantage to get out of it. He had a certain weakness towards particular influences, and he didn’t have the strength of character to resist them. I think the ‘Lavender List’ did him great harm, but I’m equally sure that there was no element of corruption in it and that he was doing it because he thought he was obliging someone or other. He should have had a stiffer resistance to obliging people.

Ted Heath, too, is not highly thought of at present.

If Ted Heath is not highly thought of at the moment, it’s because he has attacked the existing Conservative front. I’ve known Ted Heath since he was a schoolboy, and I met him in a rather unusual situation. I was a very junior partner in a firm in which my senior partner had a passion for rose-growing. His ambition in life was to become the president of the National Rose Society, now the Royal National Rose Society – everything being royal these days. He achieved his ambition in the last year of his life, but before that, while I was still in partnership with him, he used to go regularly down to Broadstairs where he had a patch of ground where he grew his roses. Being rather a thrifty man, he said to me one day, ‘You know, it’s too expensive to keep coming down here. I’m going to build a little cottage.’ He got his plot of ground and he had the cottage built by Mr William Heath, Ted’s father, and that’s how I got to know him, and we’ve been, I won’t say close friends, but very good friends ever since. My impression of Ted was that you didn’t have to know him long to know what was in him. He’s not a complicated character. He’s good natured, honourable, sympathetic and kindly. Obviously he has the usual vanity of a man who has been prime minister and wants to be prime minister again, and he has a number of massive faults, but they’re more than counteracted by a great number of massive virtues.

Aneurin Bevan was a great hero of mine when I was a student. Do you think that, had he lived, he might have mellowed and perhaps even risen to be prime minister?

One of the great tragedies of the post-war story was the deaths of the two people who would have made a significant impression on the Labour party. The first was Hugh Gaitskell, the second Nye Bevan. Had Nye lived, he might easily have become the leader.

Gaitskell was a man of moderate comment but absolutely rigid principle, and he compares very favourably with the rest of the Labour party leadership. In my view, he was an outstanding figure. First of all, he was an extremely nice man, secondly he was very articulate, and thirdly he was a man of firm purpose but moderate speech. He would have made a very good prime minister.

Michael Foot, though a great admirer of your powers, once spoke of what he regarded as your ‘stunning political naivety’. Do you think of yourself as politically naive?

I think of myself as politically disinterested. That may amount to naivety. Michael Foot himself is a man of great naivety, and his greatest naivety was to believe that he could possibly become the leader of the Labour party. He is a scholar and a man of great integrity, but he was mildly corrupted politically by a feeling that a great prize was within his grasp.

You describe yourself as a subscribing Jew, comfortable with the Jewish faith and race, hut not formally practising. Do you ever feel uncomfortable about Israel or the Israeli position vis-a-vis the Palestinians.

Mine is one of the loudest voices of protest. I paid various visits to Israel recently and sought every opportunity to tell the government how wrong I thought their policy was in relation to young Arabs. And I do feel extremely uncomfortable about it. I think it is very wrong that a community and a race, if you like, that claims to be fully civilised has been shooting young Arabs by the hundreds. I have no doubts at all that the policy of the Shamirs and Sharons is a reactionary policy that should have no support from liberal Jews.

As a former soldier, did you feel indignant when the Jewish underground, in their fight ‘against the British Mandate, killed British soldiers in Palestine immediately after the war?

No, I didn’t feel indignant. It was one of the unhappy inevitabilities. One very much wished that it hadn’t happened, and particularly the episode of the sergeant. All of that was very horrible to a British Jew.

Would you say that the Middle East problem is just too intractable to find a solution?

Oh, it’s easy to identify intractable problems. You’ll find one in Cyprus, one in Northern Ireland, one in Nigeria. There are intractable problems, and one just has to wait and do the best one can to oil the machinery. There is perhaps more likelihood of a solution in the Middle East than elsewhere, because the Arab world is quite practical. What they have never been able to recognise is the enormous benefits that a civilised Israel would bring to the Middle East, but I think that is the sort of recognition which one can hope will come about.

The Israelis, however, have now adopted a policy which I think is thoroughly unfortunate, and that is apparently to accept that they have an empire-building function. The worst position you can have between two conflicting nations is when one of them believes that they have God’s support for empire building.

You said in a recent interview that you have always had a sense of being an onlooker, which sounds strange, coming from someone who has been so thoroughly engaged in so many things.

I’ve always had a sense that I’m not as seriously committed to an course of conduct as other people. I know in my own mind that I’m ready to find a solution that isn’t necessarily the orthodox one. In that way I regard myself as being more of an onlooker than many other people.

As for my reaction to emotional upheaval, I would be very ashamed of panic or loss of control. There are a great many things that induce irritation in me, and I think they’re the orthodox things. I have a deep sense of justice and thorough intolerance of injustice, especially when it is to the weak and in particular in relation to children. This is a catalogue of rather obvious virtues, but I don’t think I’m given to the more sensational emotions. I don’t boil with fury and go out and attack people with axes. I’d require a lot of provocation before I attacked anyone with an axe.

I’m certainly not intolerant of mediocrity, since you ask, or one would have to be intolerant of ninety-nine per cent of the human race. Nor would I arrogate to myself the right to judge everyone. I’m intolerant of inadequacy where someone is doing a job that requires a special talent which he hasn’t got, and then, like most people, I get a little irritated, but I certainly wouldn’t arrogate to myself the right to determine whether someone is mediocre or not.

Do you ever feel loneliness?

I don’t need people all the time. I’m perfectly happy to spend the afternoon reading a book, or watching a television programme, or going to the cinema or to the theatre. Last night I heard a wonderful performance of Verdi’s Requiem. That gives me delight. I don’t need other people there holding my hand. But that is one of the great advantages of the arts: they are a consolation for loneliness.

Do you ever regret not having married?

I can’t say I regret not having married, because I could have married. I had some interesting opportunities. There have been women who have been influential in my life. I don’t intend to particularise them, but certainly I can think of three. It would be impossible for me to mention them. That would be breaching their privacy, not mine. I do regret not having children. I have a great affection for children, and would have enjoyed very much playing some part in bringing them up, but you can’t have everything in this world.

On a television interview you said you did not want to reveal to a million viewers your reasons for not marrying. Isn’t this creating a needless mystery?

It’s not a needless mystery. It is a belief that, in certain aspects of one’s life, one is entitled to privacy. I do not owe the world an explanation of my personal and private life, and I don’t intend to give it one. If it’s a mystery, it’s quite a healthy mystery, and scholars can investigate it for the next hundred years. I certainly don’t intend to elaborate on it. It’s not a sinister mystery, I assure you.

Have you felt more drawn to religion with advancing years?

No, I haven’t. I regard most religions as superstitions, and I certainly haven’t been drawn towards any particularly active superstition as I get older.

You have led an exemplary life, have defended and championed the underdog, yet you must have been, like everyone else, exposed to all kinds of temptations. Did you ever succumb?

Succumbed to temptation? I don’t think consciously. If a temptation rose up in front of me, I would walk round it. I’m sure there are many areas of my behaviour which I now regret, and many decisions I’ve made that I think were wrong. It would be a very strange human being who didn’t believe that, but I don’t think I’ve consciously succumbed to temptation. I don’t think I had many wild oats to sew. Some people sow enough wild oats to make it an agricultural problem, but I had no great interest. I wasn’t addicted to drink or drugs. I smoked heavily at one time, but gave that up. I’m probably beginning to sound altogether too virtuous. I had encounters with women which gave me great comfort and pleasure, but that’s all I can say about it. I’ve not been devoid of human feelings.

There are certainly things that I’ve regretted, but not burning issues, not things that wake me in the middle of the night, shrieking in my bed. I have a high degree of complacency. On the whole, I think I’m reasonably satisfied with myself. That is not a virtuous thing to be, but it does make life easier.

Stanley Hoffman

Stanley Hoffmann is the Paul and Catherine Buttenwieser University Professor at Harvard, where he’s taught since 1955. He has been the Chairman of Harvard’s Centre for European Studies from its creation in 1969 to 1995.

Hoffmann was born in Vienna in 1928. Living and studying in France from 1929 to 1955, he has taught at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques of Paris, from which he graduated, and at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales.

At Harvard, he teaches French intellectual and political history, American foreign policy, post-World War Two European history, the sociology of war, international politics, ethics and world affairs, modern political ideologies, and the development of the modern state. His publications include Decline or Renewal? France Since the 30s (1974), Primacy or World Order: American Foreign Policy since the Cold War (1978), Duties Beyond Borders (1981); Janus and Minerva (1986), The European Sisyphus (1995), The Ethics and Politics of Humanitarian Intervention (1997), World Disorders (1998) and Gulliver Unbound (2004). He is co-author of The Mitterrand Experiment (1987), The New European Community (1991) and After the Cold War (1993). His Tanner lectures of 1993, on the French nation and nationalism, were published in 1994.

He is currently working on a book on ethics and international affairs.

Here is an interview with him from my book, Singular Encounters.

You lived in France as a child and your education was French. Did you, do you feel French?

Yes. Less than I did ten or twenty years ago, because time passes and I don’t have that much leisure to go back. And in recent years my work has been much more in international relations, largely because international relations is a full-time job these days and frankly many more students are interested in international politics than in those of France. I’m not a historian, but a political scientist, and in political science the number of people interested in France is very limited in America for the time being. Basically I still feel at home in France and have most of my friends there, but French politics and intellectual life have known more exciting periods than the present. I was much more engage in the 1960s than I’ve been in the 1980s.

What effect did barely knowing your father have on you as a boy and later in life?

I don’t know. It is extremely difficult to talk about a negative. Undoubtedly it had a profound effect, but I can’t really say how profound since I don’t know what I missed. I wasn’t aware of missing my father. I didn’t have many friends when I was a child, and the few I had either had no fathers or else my impression was that relations between their parents were pretty awful.

How did you manage to avoid the attention of the Gestapo and the Milice during the war period?

It was complicated because my mother and I were not Jews. She had converted, and I was baptised a Protestant, so most people had no idea of whether we were Jews or not. What people did know was that we were foreigners, and that was just as bad. If you were Austrian in 1940-3 it meant that, at the time of the Anschluss, you had refused to become a German citizen. The danger was always much more from xenophobia than from anti-Semitism because nobody could have proved we were Jews. The answer is really that we were in Nice, and Nice was first Vichy, then Italian, and the Nazis didn’t come until September 1943 after the Italians dropped out of the war. We stayed for three more months, and I had wanted to stay because I was in the last year of high school. But my best friend was arrested and never came back, and after three months of hearing of so-and-so being arrested and so on, my nerves just gave in. We spent the last nine months or so of the occupation in a small village we knew near Montpellier. What we didn’t know until after we got there was that there were by then as many German soldiers of my age as there were French peasants and shopkeepers. But the soldiers turned out to be perfectly harmless, and there was no Gestapo. In a sense it seems amusing to have felt secure among a thousand German soldiers, but one certainly felt more secure than in Nice, because there was no police.

You have said that you owe to the period between 1938 and 1944 ‘all my convictions about human nature, the fragility of the political order and the resilience of societies’.

Watching something like the collapse of the Third Republic, then the collapse of Vichy and the descent into quasi civil war in France at the end; was quite an education. Also, all of my mother’s relatives who had lived in Vienna till the Anschluss came through Paris on their way out in 1938, 1939, and that taught one a lot about the fragility of political regimes. And society! What I thought was extraordinary was the way in which, despite all those shocks, people and public services just went on. French society managed to survive the switches from the Third Republic to Vichy to a fascist period to the very effervescent turmoil ofthe liberation, and in fact got rejuvenated as a result.

That has always made me sceptical, and I may have had that in mind when I wrote what you quote. Americans in particular tend to overestimate the success of totalitarian regimes in changing societies fundamentally. They can cow them, intimidate them, repress them, oblige people to live a sort of double bookkeeping and lies, but the idea that totalitarianism reduces people to atoms and destroys all social institutions strikes me as a bad guide for understanding what actually goes on. It seems to me that somehow society, compressed and repressed, goes on living. It’s not entirely reassuring, by the way. It’s reassuring if you think of the limits of totalitarianism, but it also means that societies are extraordinarily plastic and can follow one leader one day, another the next, with amazing and sometimes frightening speed.

In the same article, of the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939 you wrote that, when the news broke, ‘Britain and France could no longer weasel out.’ It is a phrase that might offend a European, especially as it comes from someone born in Austria who later became an American citizen. Why did you use it?

Because I’m not in agreement with appeasement and am very much annoyed at the whole trend of historical literature, mainly British, which is now rehabilitating appeasement. Paul Kennedy is one example. I’m struck by all the volumes that have come out, essentially explaining that the poor British really had no choice and Munich wasn’t so bad a calculation after all; that Britain was in decline and over-committed, so what else could she do? The French, after all, had an alliance with Czechoslovakia and were much worse off after Czechoslovakia was destroyed than they were before, so it seems to me, as I’ve written elsewhere, that the Americans and the Soviets were just as guilty of appeasement as the British and French. There’s enough blame to distribute all around. But in the particular instance of Poland, Britain and France were on the first line. They were the ones who had to decidewhether to go to war or not.

You have said it was the lonesco play Rhinoceros that best encapsulated for you the way so many people were transformed into monsters. Why were so many transformed in this way?

It wasn’t so much the transformation into monsters that I had in mind as a refusal to recognise what was going on in the beginning at the start of the play, when people find there’s nothing special about seeing a rhinoceros in the street, and all they argue about is whether it’s an Asian or an African rhinoceros. It’s called the shock of non-recognition, and the British, I think, were particularly good at it. The French knew more or less what they were dealing with, but they were afraid, and that’s a different problem. The British refusal to see that the Hitler phenomenon in the 1930s was something radically different from anything they had dealt with in the past continues to strike me as amazing.

I recently read the memoirs of Felix Gilbert, the historian, and he has some interesting pages about how he went as a refugee to England in the late 1930s and found it unbearable. He would explain what was happening in Germany and people would be very nice, very empathetic, then essentially behave as if it couldn’t be quite as bad as that. That is what I had in mind: the refusal to see that there was something quite new which might shake everybody up, and therefore that any attempt at dealing with it by such traditional methods as compromise, bargaining and appealing to the man’s good feelings was doomed. I don’t think everybody turned into a monster, thank goodness, but many had too much understanding for the monster and started explaining: ‘What else could he do? He has good reasons. And look how awful our regimeis.’ There was not so much identification with the aggressor as too much willingness to give him the benefit of the doubt.

But what could the British have done? Neither they nor the French were prepared militarily.

In the early 1930s, neither was Germany. Up to Munich the German army was not in very good shape. At the time of Munich, the German military commanders were very unwilling to risk war. They didn’t think they could win. It seems to me that, at the time of the Rhineland, Hitler could still have been stopped without very much damage to anyone. I think 1936 was really the turning point.

You have said that Catholics probably made up the biggest part of the resistance, along with the communists, and that it took people with faith to flight against the Nazi faith. Did you have faith yourself?

No – in the sense that I was neither a Catholic nor a communist. I’ve never been much of an ideologue, and I’m certainly not a religious person. Yes – in the sense that if I asked myself whether I ever believed this would end badly, I always thought, to use the famous cliche, that there was light at the end of the tunnel. I don’t think I ever thought otherwise, probably because I was a child. Children have blind faith that everything will be all right: the Allies would win the war and things could not but go up. The darkest moments were immediately after the Japanese entered the war, when they started conquering Singapore. But I don’t think I ever doubted for a minute that we would survive and the Allies would win. Though maybe if you had asked me whether I thought so in those couple of weeks before we left Nice in the dark in December 1943, after that friend of mine had been arrested, I’m not so sure. I was worried more about personal survival than the outcome, but by then it was clear that the Germans had lost.

Why exactly did you leave France?

I left France in 1955 out of choice. Frankly I did it only for career reasons. I will try to spare you the complications of French Law, but I had planned, like all my classmates and friends, to become a civil servant. But the French have a law that says that, if you are a naturalised citizen, you cannot become a civil servant for five years, and the minute you enter the ecole d’administration by concours – by competitive exams – you are a civil servant. So, after graduating, I had to wait five years, and during those years I got myself a doctorate in law, came here as a visiting graduate student for a year, and thought, for academic reasons, not for others, that this was wonderful. When I got back to France I was all set to take the competitive exam to the ecole d’administration, but then discovered they had changed the deadline for applications. They had advanced it. I would have had to wait another year.

In a sense it came as a blessing. During my year in America I had really concluded that I didn’t want to be a civil servant but wanted to teach. Then the question became what and where. In France, my doctorate being in law, I would have had to become a law professor, again by competitive exam. And it so happened that I wasn’t interested in law, or not, at least, in most aspects of law, and that the milieu of the competition for law exams was absolutely dismal. They were the dullest people I’ve ever had anything to do with. So when Harvard had the good idea of asking me to come back and teach, I came.

Do you feel fully assimilated into American life?

No. After all, I don’t live in America. I live in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I’m saying not that Cambridge isn’t America but that it is a small corner of America which is very cosmopolitan and, in some ways, closer to Europe and untypical. I was in southern California last week, and my impression is that there is a bigger cultural difference between there and here than there is between here and Paris. It has something to do with distance, with space, with people’s concerns. The biggest cultural difference is probably the lack of historical baggage. I am sure there is some, but people don’t carry it the way the Europeans carry history.

I don’t feel terribly American, and if you ask my American friends or colleagues whether they look on me as an American, they’ll probably say no. It’s not tangible. I can only answer with impressions and anecdotes. I have a very brilliant colleague, now a dean, who to me is the quintessence of America: immensely bright, unbelievably hardworking, full of energy, a specialist in European politics. He was chairman of my department for several years and was always deeply uncomfortable with me, even though he knew I was supportive and helpful and so on. I think it’s because there was something wonderfully, humourlessly straight about him, and I’m rather on the sardonic side. I like making fun of things and don’t obey the rules in meetings. I interrupt or deflate people, or make jokes because most meetings are so deadly that, if nobody’s there to crack jokes, who would survive them? But you don’t do that with Americans. It’s a matter of cultural style, and my style is French, there’s no doubt about it.

You’ve sometimes seemed to suggest that much is to be learned from both individual and national psychology. Do whole nations really have psychological stances of a sort on which policies and decisions can he based?

I’m not a great believer in national character, but I do think that there are styles, combinations of beliefs and ways of doing things that differ from one country to another and which one has to note. The French don’t look at the world in foreign policy the way Americans do. The two countries are fascinating because you are dealing with two melting pots. Both have a sense of mission, yet neither understands the other. So I do think there are differences. The word character is not the one I would use; I would say style and beliefs. Character is profoundly individual and you find individuals of every possible character in every nation. But there are national ways of doing things which then shape expectations and behaviour. The French civil service and the American civil service have very little in common, for instance. American ideology has to do with democracy, liberalism, progress, but you don’t really find the same consensus in France because the French are always divided on all sorts of things. There is very little division in America, except at traumatic moments like Vietnam, and afterwards it disappears again.

You obviously admire America and its institutions.

Not all of them. I’m not an admirer of American society. I admire some of the institutions. The universities, for example, I think are extraordinary. I admire the American enthusiasm for learning and the really extraordinary capacity for assimilation which continues. That is why I’m not terribly worried about the hispanization of America, since I’m sure these people will be absorbed the way the Irish, the Poles and the Italians have been. But I do not admire the callousness and the complacency that most Americans have about things like poverty, misery, social security issues. The indifference to homelessness is appalling, quite extraordinary.

I don’t admire American politics very much either. Americans have a profound hostility to the idea that there are some problems only the state can solve. They still have this belief that everything can be solved by what Mr Bush calls a thousand points of light, by voluntary cooperation. That’s just not true. It’s very striking to Europeans who come here: the neglect of so many problems that are simply swept under the rug on the assumption that a dose of economic growth will take care of them all. No, I’m not an unmitigated admirer of American society.

How do American universities compare with French ones?

French universities are a disaster. Thousands and thousands of students are parked and weeded at the end of the fast year by anonymous exams which throw half of them out. It was a system built for a very small number of higher-education students that has not been well adapted to the age of mass education. They’re underadministered, underpaid, underorganised; the libraries are in dreadful condition; and as long as they continue to have a separation between other institutions and the grandes ecoles, which are indeed very good but deal with something like two per cent of the higher-education population and are highly vocational, it will remain the same. They’re a little bit like Harvard Law School or Medical School. They train elites for elite positions while ninety-eight per cent are in these enormous parking lots known as universities. As long as you have that separation, you’re not going to get a good system, and there is still an enormous resistance to change, to making them more competitive with one another, giving them more autonomy or, above all, giving them more money, because basically people don’t trust them.

Americans perhaps measure success more in terms of material wealth than any other nation. Isn’t there a danger in this of cultural, spiritual and even moral standards being sacrificed?

I wish I were convinced it was a uniquely American phenomenon these days. My impression is that it has become rather widespread too in the prosperous Europe which has emerged since the 1960s. On the other hand, one tends to exaggerate the degree to which intellectual achievements are not respected in America. American intellectuals are not paid, that’s for sure, but they have concocted a myth that they are victims compared with European intellectuals, and I don’t think it’s true. There are different definitions of intellectuals. Certainly the French have a whole tradition of intellectuals as the conscience of the nation, but while the Americans would never take a Sartre seriously as a political guru, they would take him seriously as a philosopher. The notion that Americans dislike, distrust or don’t take their intellectuals seriously is wrong. They don’t pay them, but, you know, my French colleagues are no better paid than I am.

American business allows a greater degree of flexibility than the European when it comes to fast practices. As a common example within existing law, a man can bankrupt himself, cause misery to small investors and re-emerge six months later without loss of stature. Can that be justified?

I don’t think it can be justified, but what I’m not sure of is whether it couldn’t be true in Europe too. American business practices are often quite scandalous, but there is a reaction. How successful it will be remains to be seen. Americans may sound very naive, but they plan to introduce and teach ethics in business schools, and that is new. For instance, somebody left a huge sum of money to the Harvard Business School – $30 million, I think – so the future leaders of American business will know something about ethics. The interesting thing about this country is that, whenever you have a great excess in any direction, there will be a reaction. The reaction may not be equal to the excess, but you can always count on self-examination and on some people doing something about it.

That’s certainly one of the biggest differences from France, where people rely on the state. Sometimes that’s fine where only the state can do something, for people couldn’t voluntarily organise something like the French social security system. On the other hand, one shouldn’t expect people in France to get together and take big initiatives to solve anything, because they don’t do it. Even when they do, the funny thing is that they expect a subsidy from the state. But in America you can expect people to get together and say, ‘We must do something about this.’ It isn’t always successful, but they do it. There’s a habit of collective self-reliance, which is quite different, and that is one of the good aspects of America.

The American dream comes true in so far as any individual, irrespective of birth or origin, can attain greater heights than anywhere else in the world, but has that dream on the whole brought happiness?

Depends on what you mean by happiness. Happiness is certainly in part a product of one’s social success or standing, but it’s also a problem of individual character and individual life; and many people are miserable for reasons to do with private life. I was struck, again when I was in southern California, by the degree of middle-class opulence. But New York at this point is a pretty depressing place, as are parts of Boston. Everything in America pertaining to blacks, and relations between blacks and whites, is a very depressing story. In that respect the legacy and the weight of slavery and of discrimination are enormous. My field of study is not American society, but it is very clear that in many parts of the country black society has completely broken down. Those blacks who would like to do what the Jews and now the Asians are doing, are seen by their fellow blacks as traitors. It reminds me, in some way, of the European working class at the end of the nineteenth century, in the sense that individual success is betrayal and the successful feel guilty if they leave their class behind and become middle class. Asians do not feel this at all, because there the ethos is individual success.

Is it true to say that American women have, in taking over more leading roles, tended to emulate men at the expense of their own gender and lost much of their identity?

No. It is very difficult to generalise about anything American. It may be true of some, but it isn’t true of others. There are lots of women in America who are indeed feminists, who have achieved positions they didn’t have before, whether in universities, which were not very open to women at the teaching level, or in politics, or in business, and who seem to me not to have given up anything. They have now acceded to positions that men used to have, but they haven’t been defeminised in the process.

Have the feminists achieved their goal? First of all, I’m not sure they were united about their goal. As far as I can see, there is a big split in the American feminist movement. But it is true that this was a very male society in which lots of positions were closed to women and they have certainly, slowly, achieved something. If you take a university like Harvard, the proportion of women on the faculty remains very small, and it’s not through lack of talent. Discrimination takes complicated forms in academia, as you may imagine. No academic will ever recognise that he is sexist or a discriminator. The tendency is to apply to women standards which are harder than those one applies to men. Unconsciously, not deliberately. Plus the tendency to like only certain kinds of women: those who are very feminine, those who play the old game of being charming and friendly and who smile. If a woman is tough, aggressive and too intelligent, there will be quite a reaction.

Hasn’t the law reached a stage in America where it almost favours women?

I wouldn’t say that. Both in respect to minorities and to women, what the law says is that you must make an extra effort; that there are intelligent people out there and you must make more of an effort to find them. I think that is entirely right. The law does not say you must adopt different standards, however,

Where divorce is concerned, women have actually found that ease of divorce often is a boomerang, that they’re much worse off than before and it’s not always been to their advantage. They’re beginning to have second thoughts about the way in which the law works in a society which is riddled with lawyers to an unbelievable degree. That’s one of the big differences with Europe. In this society, law is essentially a horizontal affair of contracts and relations between people. In France, the law is essentially a command that comes from above and is applied to groups, but with very little relationship between groups. Here you can’t make a move without consulting a lawyer. That’s very good for the legal profession, but it entangles people in much too much conflict. I see this even in the university. You cannot adopt a resolution on anything without consulting a battery of lawyers because of the risk that you will be sued. The price is a heavy one – except for the lawyers.

Europeans look on with incredulity as American governments preach freedom and democracy while propping up vicious dictatorships in Central and South America in an apparently cynical form of vested interest.

I’m not sure that’s the wrong view. After all, nobody is consistent, and    people live with a remarkable amount of contradiction in their beliefs and lives The American faith in democracy coexists with a deep and unconscious sense of superiority over Latin Americans. There is a hidden national contempt: we know better. Basically that’s how Americans see Central and Latin Americans. I’m struck by a complete lack of empathy, a real mutual dislike, though Latin Americans are much more outspoken about it. Americans don’t like to admit they think some people better than others. That’s not part of the ethos. But it’s there, and then, of course, you start justifying all those interventions in terms of exporting democracy, though most people know it’s nonsense.

What do you think will be the result of German reunification? Has the German psyche changed?

Nobody’s very comfortable. Interestingly enough, the Germans aren’t either and when one talks to young Germans they are very ambivalent. They see themselves as West Europeans and are not sure that the cousins they are suddenly absorbing deserve to be absorbed. They are almost more frightened than anyone, because they know a lot about their own past. All the French I meet take more or less the same line, which is the Pascal wager: we must bet on their being good because, sotto voce, we have no alternative. The Americans, who are farther away, are quite open about their reservations. Basically they are very dubious. On the other hand, I wouldn’t talk about psyche, because many nations go through phases of madness. The French nineteenth-century view of Germany was that it was a nation of romantic dreamers, and then came Bismarck and Hitler and everything in between. Psyches change. The French went through episodes of great brutality.

William Shearer recalls that after the First World War the Germans had a liberal democracy, the Weimar Republic, but couldn’t work it, and the result was Hitler. Can history repeat itself?

I’m always reminded of a quote from my ex-colleague and ex-friend, Henry Kissinger, who was asked apropos of Vietnam whether Nixon’s administration would repeat the mistakes of the previous one. He said, ‘No, we are not going to repeat their mistakes, we are going to make our own.’ I don’t think that history repeats itself. For all the flaws, the Germans have gone through much more soul-searching than, for instance, the Japanese have about the Second World War and about a fascist past. I always have a great deal of trouble dealing with Germans of my age and older, but I have enormous sympathy for the younger ones whom I’ve seen over the years, who strike me as very decent, who have learned a lot and have thought a lot about what went on, so I’m not too worried. I’m more worried about pure power factors: the fact that, in a sense, it is not good in Europe for any one country to be much more powerful than the others. That’s never good. It induces fear in the others and a certain amount of hubris in the one who is too strong; and in that respect a sort of disequilibrium is created. But I don’t think that is necessarily going to lead to another Kaiser or another Hitler. The times are not the same.

The safety of Europe perhaps depends on Russia feeling safe, but after all that’s happened, how can the Russians possibly have any confidence in the Warsaw Pact?

I don’t think there’s a Warsaw Pact left. What is likely to make them insecure is not threats coming from the West but their own internal conditions, and that is a huge worry. Frankly, whatever scenario one can imagine for the immediate future of that enormous country, I don’t see them becoming a threat to their neighbours in Europe. For a very long time they will be so busy dealing with one another. There are perhaps three scenarios. One that somehow Gorbachev makes it and reform continues. Another that there’s disintegration and civil war, which is what many of the visiting Russians now talk about. And a third, that there is some sort of Bonapartist nationalist Russian reaction, restoring law and order in a country which is certainly not used to disorder. In all three cases, it seems to me, they’re going to have their hands full with their own problems.

I really don’t know what the chances are of Gorbachev surviving. I’m not a Soviet expert, and in any case. Soviet experts are divided. Until a few months ago I thought his chances rather good. I’m not sure any more. His greatest strength comes from the fact that there isn’t any visible alternative, but that may not last forever. If you really do have a period of ethnic unrest and economic decline, the demand for somebody with muscle could become irresistible, especially if the army then joins in; though I think one exaggerates the degree of autonomy of the Soviet army. So I don’t know. Probably poor Gorbachev himself doesn’t know.

As for the way the Soviets view the prospect of a united Germany and its relationship to NATO, I wouldn’t feel that deep down they want a Germany that could play one side against the other and be a huge untied giant in the middle of Europe. They don’t have many cards left, and the only card they have is a boomerang, which is the presence of their troops in East Germany. Now, of course, those troops are not going to be too popular there, and if the Germans finally recognise the Polish border, then the Poles will undoubtedly ask their Soviet troops to go home. The next thing is that you have 300,000 Soviet soldiers isolated in a united Germany, and if I were a Soviet general I wouldn’t like that very much. My guess is that, in exchange for accepting the inevitable, they will ask for various limitations on the size of German forces, for no nuclear or chemical weapons in Germany, and for lots of economic aid. I don’t see what else they can do. From talking to American officials who deal with this point, the interesting thing is that their impression is that the Soviets haven’t had time to define their bottom line. Things have moved so fast, and they’ve been so preoccupied with their internal problems, that they haven’t yet had time to think that through. Sooner or later they will have to.

Many of the Russians one sees here, those who come from Soviet institutes, make a very strong case for a Germany in NATO, the reason being that they’re afraid of the Germans and think that a Germany contained by Europe and the United States is much better than an uncontained Germany. They make a strong case sometimes for the maintenance of lots of American troops in Europe because they don’t look at the United States as an enemy any more but are worried about the Germans.

On the American side, the American public is deep down still very distrustful of the Soviets, but the government less so. After years of dealing with Gorbachev and his people, the government seems to have come to the conclusion that they are no longer the enemy. But America is an ideological nation – probably the last among the advanced countries – and there is a long residue of deep public dislike of the Soviet regime. If tomorrow Russia becomes a democracy with a constitutional system like America’s and lets all of its nationalities go, then there would be a change of opinion, but I don’t see a profound friendship developing between the United States and the Soviets as long as the regime in the Soviet Union is what it is; as long as you still have a command economy and an apparently all-powerful president and so on.

Is the Russian president less powerful than the US president?

Probably much less, but the impression remains that he, has all the emergency powers and can use them to take over the government of Lithuania, or to block demonstrations in Moscow. The American president couldn’t do that. The Russian president may be much weaker deep down, because the strength of the opposition is much greater, but formally he has powers that no America president has, so there are still lots of people who suspect he’s a new tsar fn the making.

Where did the communist revolution go so wrong? Must all revolutions end in bloodshed and tyranny because, in effect, they are civil wars?

They don’t end in bloodshed and tyranny because they are civil wars, but because they set up ideals and expectations that cannot be met except by tyranny. It was the same with the French Revolution. No revolution that I know of has ever been able to achieve liberty, equality and fraternity all at the same time. Certainly the Soviets’ attempt at simultaneously achieving massive economic development, liberation from exploitation and the reform of human nature could not have been made without resort to the state, which is the one thing Marx left pretty vague. Once you have to reform people by state decree, you are on the path to the guillotine or the purges and the gulags, and that is not the best way of reforming human nature. The problem is not so much civil war as demanding too much of people. I’m basically a reformist, not a revolutionary. You can demand too much.

To what extent is the political stability of Eastern Europe going to depend on the provision of capital?

That’s a great deal of the problem. You’re dealing with countries most of which have no democratic structures or traditions. Whether they’ll be able to create some will depend very largely on whether the stores are empty or well stocked. Turning bankrupt communist economies into successful market economies is very chancy. On the other hand, even if you had more successful economies, it wouldn’t necessarily solve all problems. What I worry about is the lack of democratic traditions and the resurgence of all kinds of ethnic problems that will always provide scapegoats when something doesn’t work properly. The sudden enthusiasm for the market as the answer to everything worries me, because it isn’t. What happens when they discover that the totally free market isn’t necessarily any better socially than a command economy, that it creates inequalities that go way beyond what people can tolerate?

How far is it the cost of nuclear weapons that has driven the Soviet Union into perestroika? Has the West in effect won an undeclared economic war by forcing Russia to spend more than it can afford?

I don’t think it’s that, though certainly they spent a hell of a lot there, and it has a great deal to do with the fact that, as many critics of the Soviet system point out, they never really succeeded in developing a civilian economy in the first place. The one thing they did know how to do was run a war economy. That was the only part of the system which went reasonably efficiently. But the basic failure was the failure to know how to run a consumer economy in an age in which people’s expectations could not really be contained much longer. Even if they had diminished their military budget by a third or a half, it would have remained the problem. I would say it’s a victory of one economic system over another, but I’m not sure if that can be put down to the fact that we broke their backs on military spending. One has to remember that we practically broke ours as well. There is remarkably little gloating, except on the far right, the reason being that Americans realise that, though they won the Cold War, they’re not in good shape either. They’re the biggest debtor, they have a huge deficit, they have a backlog of unresolved social problems that is enormous. And while they’re in comparably better shape than the Soviets, they’re not. God knows, in good shape.

Writing about Gorbachev’s initiative on arms reduction you said: ‘If only this country, America, had a wise and bold president engaged in new thinking of his own.’ What did you mean by that exactly?

It seemed to me, in arms control in particular, that the long-time American tendency to haggle about insignificant details was slowing down the process enormously. In fact America’s hand was forced by the Soviets once the Soviets started conceding things which absolutely nobody thought they would. The whole nuclear field has bred a group of people who have turned what is essentially guesswork about deterrents, which is based on common sense – ‘I shall not take excessive risks because I can’t know what will happen if I do’ – into a science in which every weapons system has to be here or there. I always thought that utter nonsense. It didn’t make any difference whether we had 15,000 warheads to their 12,000 or they had 15,000 to our 12,000, yet people have invested their whole careers in the question, and for a long time, particularly in the 1970s and early 1980s, American policy was hostage to those people. Then, amazingly, the Soviets started climbing away from all that, which obliged the Americans to follow. I would not have predicted it.

How was it that all the experts were taken by surprise by the recent changes in Russia and Eastern Europe?

Because we have taken the totalitarian model too seriously. There’s been too much kremlinology, too much of a belief that, if you understand what goes in the Kremlin, you don’t have to find out what goes on in the Soviet Union, because, after all, there was no such thing as Soviet civil society. Nobody realised the degree of anarchic discontent among nationalities, among consumers, among workers. Nobody really understood what was going on. Nor did anybody pay enough attention to the generational phenomenon. Gorbachev expresses a generation of apparatchiki who came’ to the conclusion that the system was bankrupt. He was not alone. This was really a whole group of people who said we cannot go on like this; a little bit like the whole generation of French politicians and civil servants m the 1980s who came to the conclusion that Europe was the only way in which France could resolve its problems. Different scales, but the same sort of phenomenon.

The possession of nuclear weapons by the super-powers does not seem to have prevented wars anywhere except in Europe and America, so what now stops us from supposing that they are irrelevant to warfare?

Because I’m not at all convinced that smaller powers will use the same reasoning. I’m worried about the little ones, so to speak. I’m worried about powers which, unlike the Soviet Union and the United States, are locked in a real life-and-death situation. It was never a life-and-death conflict between the super-powers, never the Soviet Union versus the United States, but always a conflict about somebody else – about Vietnam, about Western Europe. Nor did either one really, it seems to me, ever want war. The United States is basically a peaceful country with hotheads, and the Pope’s reasoning about the Soviets, that they would willingly sacrifice as many people as they lost in the Second World War to gain world hegemony, has always struck me, if you will pardon the nastiness, as something only a Pole could say; and a Pole who hates Russians, not Soviets. On the other hand, India, Pakistan, Libya and what have you, especially Israel’s Arab neighbours, are the countries that worry me. I don’t buy the notion that somehow the possession of nuclear weapons brings wisdom. The reasons why no war ever broke out among the five powers that officially have nuclear weapons are not reasons that one can expect to be reproduced mechanically all over the world.

There is much less sympathy among Europeans than among Americans for Israel. Do you see any long-term solution to the Arab-Israeli question?

Of course, we can all dream and speculate. It seems to me that, if Israel managed to change its electoral system, it would be a first step. The present system is like Weimar, doomed to paralysis. I’m a great opponent of proportional representation because I think it makes government impossible. On the other hand, I’m not even sure that a system like the British, the American or the French would necessarily lead to a victory of those people in Israel who want peace through compromise and acceptance of a Palestinian state. They are still a minority, and I’m very pessimistic. I have been there often, I have written a lot about it. I have almost given up writing about it, because I find it so gloomy a topic that one can only repeat oneself. Yet there is increasing questioning of Israel in American society, much more than there used to be. I think there are three factors. First, for a long time there was a very powerful argument, which sold extremely well, that Israel was the best bastion of democracy and anti-communism in the middle East; so that was a Cold War aspect. Secondly, there is an enormous amount of guilt in American society about the way they treated the Jewish problem in the 1930s: how the United States could have helped more, but didn’t. And thirdly, you have deep American dislike of the Arabs. I don’t know why, but it’s there.

To many people in Europe the methods and ideology that now serve Israel bear a disturbing resemblance to those from which the Jews themselves suffered.

I couldn’t agree more.

What makes the once oppressed turn oppressor?

I wish I had an answer. I used to think it was essentially the weight of the past: having been victimized so long, you have a desire for absolute security, which, as Kissinger used to say, makes everybody else insecure. That is maybe part of the story. I am told by Japanese experts that many Japanese still see Japan as a small vulnerable society which cannot open its borders – cannot do this, cannot do that – because in the past they have been very vulnerable.

I find Israel such a painful subject. It is so difficult to argue about. Some of my best friends are Israeli, and many, of course, are in the peace movement and find it equally difficult to justify. I don’t know. Maybe it’s that everybody is capable of acting like a master and a victimizer when his turn comes, especially if he has suffered a lot. Alas, it seems to be part of human nature. I am convinced that if you could only play a sort of mental experiment and have the Palestinians and the Israelis living more or less peacefully side by side for a couple of years, then each would realise that the other is not only not an enemy but extraordinarily similar in many respects. The problem is getting to that point. I do not see it happening. That’s what worries me.

Can common ground ever truly exist for the application of ethics in international relations? With South Africa, for example, it seems easy to advocate sanctions from the comfort of New York or London when someone else pays the price.

I’m struck by the fact that, if you take the particular issue of sanctions, it was the black organisations themselves that supported the idea, knowing full well that the argument made against sanctions, that it would hit the blacks first, had a large amount of truth in it. I’m more struck m this whole area of ethics in international affairs by the differences in ethical systems: the clash between self-interest – ‘I must get what I want’ – and ethics, which almost inevitably goes beyond self-interest. That strikes me more than the differences between, let’s say, an Islamic and a Christian view of the world, or an American and a communist view. Those differences seem to me a minor problem. Deep down there are not that many ethical clashes. We need to look at the clash between ethics and non-ethics rather than any clash of different ethical ways of looking at the world.

But aren’t we facing two rather different concerns that could make everything else seem quite insignificant? With the destruction of the environment and ever-multiplying numbers of people, mightn’t the human urge to reproduce turn out to be the greatest enemy of all?

Yes, but both questions have something to do with the whole issue of development. It is reasonably clear that, in countries that do develop, the population increase slows down. It is also clear that the destruction of the environment is something many countries consider indispensable to their own development. Even when you talk about conflicts which are not between states or nations but against nature, they have a way of turning into conflicts among nations. For instance, environment could easily turn into a conflict between developing nations saying, ‘Look, we are simply doing what you did in the nineteenth century, so who are you to preach abstinence to us?’ and the advanced countries. The same with population. Clearly many nations say, ‘Why should we accept lower numbers? We are fewer and poorer than you.’ So I think the potential for conflict of a traditional sort among nations is very high over those issues. The notion of everybody forming a common front to save the environment or limit population is something that is, if I may say so, a view only scientists could hold.

You’ve said that the world has become disenchanted with ideologies, but can any society last long without at least notional ideals? Unless they have some generalised sense that the future will be better, aren’t they bound to generate a new conservatism manipulated in the interests of the most powerful sectors of society?

You’re right. On the other hand, there’s a big gap between having a programme and not degenerating into complacency or cynicism or conservatism, and having a messianic ideology which one thinks will produce a new man and can be exported to others. I hope that will come to an end, because it’s very dangerous. Yet I think there is a possibility lying somewhere between conservatism and cynicism and the great ideological Utopias that were essentially products of the eighteenth century.

I have read that you thought it likely that, had you gone into politics, you would have been ‘obnoxious and a failure’. Why should you think that?

I don’t have any patience. If, let’s say, I ever became an adviser to a president, as so many of my colleagues seem to want to do, I would find the atmosphere in Washington not much to my liking. I have many colleagues who have done it, and it requires an enormous patience. It also requires bureaucratic skills, which means manipulation, buttering people up, intrigue, telephone calls and meetings. All of this – for what? The attraction is usually the attraction of power or influence, but it’s not what interests me most. I just don’t have the talent for it. I like speaking my mind, whether it’s politic or not.

Some people just love power. I’m not saying that I don’t like a measure of it. Any academic likes to have some little margin of power, at least over the conditions in which he lives, and I like being head of this centre and so on. But that’s in order to have an interesting life, not to govern people, tell them what to do and have the sense I am shaping history. Whether or not writers about politics have any effect on the real world is a question I’ve often asked myself. It’s like throwing a bottle into the sea. You never know. I never thought it was measurable.

From time to time I’m told by American foreign service types that my books have influenced them. Since I know perfectly well that American foreign service types have very little influence themselves, I take it with a grain of salt. Basically I don’t know, and I don’t care. The influence one has as an academic is on one’s students. If they take seriously what one writes and then use what they’ve learned in later life, one has some influence. But who knows? Certainly I write because I hope it will be read and that people will think about it. Basically I write because there is a puzzle that I want to solve.

You once said that a lack of historical reflection breeds the illusion of quick remedies, citing Germany’s reinforcing authority in the face of terrorism. What alternative is there if terrorist gangs are using machine guns in public places, a the Baader-Meinhof gang were doing? Wasn’t your observation the sort of thing to make the public at large wary of intellectuals?

What I meant was that it is perfectly possible to fight terrorism without limiting public liberties. I don’t think there is a clear-cut choice here or that the only way you can do it is by suspending constitutional guarantees. It seems to me that, on the whole, both Germans and Italians handled it reasonably well. I did not sympathise with the lawyers who screamed bloody murder the minute their clients were in gaol, but neither did it seem to me there was any need for emergency legislation suspending this or that constitutional provision, I feel that’s a mistake. For instance, to take a recent example, I think the Bill that the French Parliament just passed against racism is a mistake. It’s a Bill which isn’t going to be applied, because if you applied it you would have to institute censorship. It seems to me that there are ways of dealing with this other than by regulating speech. You have to regulate acts. Certain acts are not tolerable, period. On the other hand, you don’t have to condone emergency  police powers, or endlessly lengthen the period in which people can be detained without a warrant or things of that sort.

In what sense does history matter? Many schoolchildren today in Britain and America seem ignorant of basic facts of their national or recent history. How worrying is this?

Ignorance is always regrettable. On the other hand, there are lots of people who do know some history, and you are usually going to find them in leading circles – in politics, in academia, in the intellectual world. Therefore what these people know or don’t know of history becomes quite important. They will probably have to deal with people who remember only too much history, and will be at a great disadvantage if they don’t.

History is a matter of interpretation, and there are two aspects. One is ignorance versus non-ignorance, and the other, among people who are not totally ignorant, is difference of interpretation. There’s not much you can do about that. In fact, what makes history interesting, certainly to a non-historian like myself, is that you do have endless battles and re-examinations and different ways of looking at the past. But I am more worried by the fact that so many people don’t know any of it at all, including lots in high places, and not only in America. I teach in France from time to time, and have a sense that, largely because of a number of curricular changes in the past thirty years, the amount of historical grounding that French students have is on the way down. History has been replaced by mathematics.

There has been a lot of talk about a ‘United States of Europe’, but this seems to ignore very simple facts – a dozen separate histories and a dozen separate languages.

I don’t see a United States of Europe comparable to the US of America. The countries are too different. But there is such a thing in politics as creation and innovation, and it is perfectly possible to find a half-way house between sovereign national states, on the one hand, and a federal system on the other; and I hope it will be found. I think they are marching toward it, partly because it is very much in their interest. The British too – certainly after Mrs Thatcher disappears from the scene – will come to the conclusion that national objectives cannot be reached by national means. All one has to do is to listen to visiting French politicians who come over here. They remain as French as can be, but realise that the national objectives can’t be achieved simply by unilateral means; that it is in their interests to make those national objectives compatible with those of their neighbours because nothing will be gained by fighting.

You have cited Mrs Thatcher as an obstacle to European unity. Can this obstacle be overcome, and how long will it take before a Europe emerges that is not fragmented by what you call ‘mentalities’ – different sets of assumptions and attitudes?

I believe it’s beginning. To put it unkindly, Mrs Thatcher is probably a transitional phenomenon, if a respectable one. Britain, after all, has been a great power, and it does take a long time for a great power to accept seeing itself as essentially one no longer. She is probably the only person in Britain who still believes in the special relationship with the United States. Certainly nobody here believes in it, and my impression from talking to British civil servants, of whom there have been quite a number here over the years, is that they do not share Mrs Thatcher’s views of the world. My guess is that she will be exactly as de Gaulle was for France: somebody whose role in history is essentially to restore national self-esteem, and after that it becomes much easier to accept sacrifices of sovereignty. You can’t do it otherwise, and in that respect I have a certain sympathy with her, though not with her social policies.

‘Being a permanent denouncer of recurrent mistakes is after a while no fun,’ you said a few years ago. Have you resigned yourself to a life of no fun?

No, no, no. It often is fun. I was thinking there of my writings on American foreign policy. As somebody who is not in the government and has no intention or desire to go into it, I can only be a critic, but it seems to me that in much else of what I’ve been doing, especially in my work on France, I’m not just a critic. I’m trying to offer interpretations and analyses which are something more than criticising other people’s mistakes.

You spoke in an essay of dualities between your private and public personae. How can they be at odds?

I probably give people the impression that I’m much more on top of things and sure of myself than I am. Let’s put it this way. The private self is much less on top of things than the public one.

You’ve achieved a great deal academically. Do you have any secret ambitions in other directions?

In another life I would have just loved to take some time off to sing. I have a good voice, I’ve never done anything with it, and I adore classical music and lieder in particular. Secondly, I would have loved to have become a movie reviewer. I’m a great movie fan, but nobody has ever taken me seriously. I’ve been condemned to being a political scientist.