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High Profile

Changing Roles

Interview by Jenny Taylor

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You were adopted at four months of age. Am I right that you have no wish to find out who your birth parents are?
Yes. I mean, you couldn't be a journalist if you weren't nosy and I am inquisitive by nature, so I'm fascinated by the question; but the reason that I haven't pursued matters is that to do so would be to imply to my [adoptive] mother that she wasn't, you know, my whole and complete mum, and as far as I am concerned she is. So, to satisfy my curiosity would be selfish.

In a sense, though, your own personal history goes back only one generation - or do you regard your adoptive parents' forebears as part of your story?
I do, I do, very much so. All my grandparents are now deceased, but I think of them as having in­flu­enced me. But I acknowledge that it's curious looking at my children and wondering what part of them comes from my wife's family and what comes from who knows where. But that's something that's been internalised.

Does a sense of history matter to you?
Well, yes. I am absolutely fascinated by the past. I am absorbed by biographies and draw a lot of lessons from historical experience about how, you know, life should be lived, both individually and collectively.
I know that I was born in Scotland. I grew up in Aberdeen and I have the outlook of some­one shaped very much by Aberdeen and its values. I think that my attitudes are Scottish, even though they may not al­ways be apparent. I think that I am provincial, in the way that some people are rural and some are cosmopolitan.

What are Scottish attitudes exactly?
Well, the first thing is, I think, that Scots like a strict sep­aration between work and play. I don't know wheth­er you'd call it 'Puritan' or 'Presbyterian', but there's that sense that you work tremendously hard and then you stop and open a bottle and it's time for merriment.
I think there's an emphasis on education as a means of self-improvement, both individually and collectively. The idea that someone, whatever their background, could be liberated and could benefit their community through education I think was quite pronounced.
Other Scottish characteristics? A tendency to­wards sentimentality, particularly after al­cohol has been tak­en. A love of natural beauty. A love of song and poetry. A determined bel­lig­er­ence when rous­ed, particularly by injustice.
I think that, by dint of being Scottish, I sit slightly out­side some of England's social codes and structures and look at them with a degree of distance - but also admiration. Generally, Scots are assumed to be sniffy ab­out the English, but I rather admire them.
But there are also ways in which being adopted has af­fected the way in which I look at the world. I'm very conscious of the fact that it was because I was extraordinarily fortunate in the people who adopted me that I had all sorts of opportunities that I might not have had if I'd found myself with different parents. I know that a huge am­ount depends on the circumstances in which you grow up, and that knowledge has had a bearing on me in all sorts of ways, some of which I'm sure I'm un­aware of.

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You have expressed an affinity with Alan Bennett, who discovered a love of books and ideas that was somewhat at odds with his parental home. Have you had a sense of being almost a cuckoo in the nest?
I'm aware of that, yes. I mean, my parents loved me unconditionally, but some of the opportunities they gave me have allowed me to do things with my life that they wouldn't have wanted to do and so I've gone down a different path. Some of the things that interest and ex­cite me don't interest or excite them - and yet my cap­acity to be enthused and fulfilled by these things is all down to the solid, caring foundation they gave me.

Were you a swot?

I was, yes. At school, I was a terrible swot. At university, I wasn't particularly studious - I spent a lot of time do­ing other things, rather self-indulgently. It wasn't that I was more rounded, I was just less disciplined.

You have been described as 'knowledgeable in an age of anti-intellectualism, a rare politician who would actually own up to liking books more than football' - and yet your background is clearly - what? Working-class?
I wouldn't say it was working-class, no. It's always difficult to be precise. My father was a fish merchant, so he was a small businessman. He worked with his hands, gutting and filleting the fish alongside the other people he employed, but at the same time he kept the books. My grandfather started the business and my father ran it, until it went under when I was 15, 16. I still remember the smell as he lit the wood chips in order to smoke the fish. It was quite old-fashioned, I suspect, even then.
My mum worked as a lab assistant, then she worked in a jewellery shop and then she worked with deaf children. One of my sisters was deaf, of course.

You're making a name for yourself as an original and nuanced thinker. What do you trace that back to?
Oh gosh! I don't know how original I am, actually. I don't think I am particularly. I'm very much a magpie, synthesising other people's thoughts. As for, you know, the shape my brain takes and the way in which I work, the influences are the people who taught me at school. There were individual history and English teachers in particular who influenced the way that I think and the enthusiasms that I have.

I enjoyed your recent book Celsius 7/7,1 but I noted that the historian and travel writer William Dalrymple called it 'a confused epic of simplistic incomprehension'.
Well, I mean, you know, even to be noticed by William Dalrymple is a compliment, because he really is a brilliant writer. But the thing is that the book deals with Is­lam and the Middle East and that's an area that a lot of people approach with very, very heightened feelings, on either side of the debate. You don't write a book that has a polemical twist to it without expecting that some people will have a go at you.

It wasn't intended to be a work of academic weight - you know, I don't have a first-rate mind and I fear I can't produce that - but other people who are intellectually respectable supported the argument of the book, and they weren't just saying, 'Good on you for having a go, sonny.' Ed Husain, who wrote The Islamist,2 rather flatteringly said, having read my book, that he wasn't sure that he needed to have written his own. Overall, I was pleased by the general reaction. There were people in the Gov­ernment who read it and complimented me on it, and I think it was a contribution to the debate.

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For 10 years, you were one of Britain's top journalists, with the freedom to sound off from the sideline. Then David Cameron challenged you to come onto the pitch -
Yes, exactly.

How have you found the transition?
Sometimes I'm brought up short by it. It takes a while to get used to any new role - I'm not sure I'm al­together used to being a politician even now, and there are asp­ects of being a journalist that I miss. Being a journal­ist is great fun: every day [you and your colleagues] are remaking a product, and there's a certain buccaneering energy and enjoyment. Life as a politician means that you have to exercise a greater degree of responsibility.
But it's just sort of growing up. It's like the difference between school and university - or, more critically, the difference between university and work. There are some people who are born journalists, and I wasn't really sure that I was one. I'm not sure that I'm a born politician, but if you spend all your time saying to people, 'Why don't you do X and Y?' and then one of them says, 'Well, why don't you?', it's very difficult to say, 'Er, no.' It's terrifying but also, you know, a challenge.

So, what are you in politics for?
I have a real sense that there's a once-in-a-lifetime op­portunity for a group of us to change the country for the better. I was very struck by the fact that there were friends of mine, some very talented people who could have been doing other things, who had thrown themselves into politics at a time which meant that they had the chance, if they formed a government, to make some decisive changes that would make Britain a better place. And the chance to be part of that team, at that decisive moment, and move things in the right direction was compelling - and particularly because I'd spent most of my time as a journalist getting aerated about things the Government were doing wrong. And sometimes praising them for what they did right.

Tell me something specific you want to put right.
Well, critically the - you know, I'm very lucky in that the area I am responsible for, education, is an area that I care about, for all sorts of reasons. There are some pol­iticians who really engage with the details. One I greatly admire, even though he's on the other side, is [Lord] Adonis. He doesn't just bring a powerful critical intelligence to the whole question of transport networks, he loves trains. In the same way, I'm fascinated by what we can learn internationally about how we can im­prove our education system but I also like spending time with teachers, I like being in schools.

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But what needs to be put right specifically?
Well, one of the things that has struck me is, I've got a friend from a working-class Asian background and one of the things that struck her is that there has been this increasing tendency to assume that the best that's been thought and written, the full range of glories of our civilisation, can't be introduced to children because it's too hard, it's not for the likes of them. There is a sense that children should be steered towards what is relevant rather than what is stretching.

What do you mean by 'the full range of glories of our civilisation'? That's an amazing expression.
Well, I find - I mean - a huge range of things. I worry that when children are introduced to scientific knowledge, they are encouraged to think of it purely in terms of current-affairs debates, not to be awestruck by the scale of what the great scientists of the past have discovered. With poetry, I worry that children are encouraged to see the process of appreciating it as a means of acquiring marks in an examination by identifying particular effects, rather than recognising that the beauty and music of the English language have been used by some of the greatest minds ever to say things about us and our condition that you can't convey by any other means.
The other thing I dislike is the way in which teachers are seen as agents for meeting a set of government-sponsored criteria about how society should be. People don't become history teachers because they want to teach critical thinking skills. People become history teachers because they're entranced by history and it's changed their lives and they want to communicate that enthusiasm to the next generation.

I think this question of history is absolutely crucial. What do you see as being the story of this nation?
Well, I do believe that what's been called 'Whig history' still has an enduring relevance, because it's a genuinely liberal, and Liberal, story. Britain is an amazing place: throughout our history we have been one of the freest countries in the world. The reason why tens of thousands of people want to come here every year is because you can breathe, speak, op­erate entirely freely here.

Now, that isn't an accident. The reason why we're free, and why Australia and Canada and America are free, the reason why in countries that are less free, like Zimbabwe, freedom still survives through an acknowledgement of the importance of contested elections and an independent judiciary, is because of what happened in this country over a thousand years. And I think that it's through studying history - or certainly being aw­are of this story - that you appreciate why this country, relative to all the others that have existed, is such a wonderful place, and why it is that other countries that have comparable liberties are the way that they are.

Why has our sense of our national history been eroded?
Well, I - gosh! I think that there are some people on the left, the radical left, who think that the only virtues that are worth acknowledging are universal virtues, and so they don't recognise that there are specific virtues that have something to do with our past and that grow out of the institutions that we've been fortunate enough to have here. The other thing is that there's been a growing sense of cultural relativism over the last hundred years: the idea that to say that there are particular ways of living or organising society that are better is wrong. Well, I think it's not just my view, it's the view of most people that there are better ways of living - and we are fortunate enough to have in­her­ited one of them.

Without wanting to go over the top, you know, am­ong the things that have kept this country free are some of those institutions that tend to be subject to mockery, like the Royal Family and the churches. We shouldn't lightly cast them aside.

When you were young, you were interviewed for a job in the Conservative Research Department and rejected for being 'insufficiently Conservative'. Do you think you have become more Conservative since then?
I don't know. I mean, when you get married and (crucially) when you have children, your attitude towards certain things changes and you do become more conservative in some ways; but you also become more collectivist. So, I think there were some ways when I was younger - certainly in my twenties - in which I might have been more radical and libertarian and so on, and I think I've become more conservative in some ways - but also, probably, less individualist in others. And that can take one into territory that doesn't fit on the left-right spectrum but on a different one.

In 2003, you said you were in love with Tony Blair. Was that just a ploy to help to decontaminate the Tories?
No, it was genuine. I thought he was becoming more Conservative. The thing that people will always have a go at me for is that I was one of the most energetic supporters of Tony Blair liberating Iraq. I thought: There are all sorts of people on the right who are having a go at him, but if Margaret Thatcher were doing this, they would be cheerleading.

It's important, if you're in journalism, to be intellectually consistent. I thought he was doing the right thing. I think he did the right thing. I've got all sorts of criticisms of the Labour government from 1997 to now, but I do think they did the right thing then. Say what you like about Tony Blair - and about George Bush - there aren't many democracies in the Middle East, and one of them is Iraq and it's because of what they did.

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You seem to have a great passion for Israel. There are 31 references to it in Celsius 7/7, and not one to England. The book is almost obsessively Jewish-focused.
I think the reason for that is that Israel is the front line, as it were. The most determined Islamist assault on a democracy has been against Israel, if you look at what Hamas, Hizbollah, Islamic Jihad and others have done. The reason that Islamist fundamentalists talk about a 'Zionist-Crusader alliance' is because they see Israel as a Crusader state and, just like the [original] Crusader kingdoms, they believe it will survive only for a couple of generations and then they can reclaim what they see as Muslim lands for the Caliphate.

But overall what the fundamentalists are trying to win is not territory but an ideological triumph within the Islamic world and then beyond. I want to assert my belief that there is a distinction between Islam and Is­lamism and that it is not just possible but a proven reality in the lives of the majority of British Muslims that you can be both a true and faithful Muslim and an ex­emplary British citizen. Most British Muslims just want to have the nobility of their faith recognised.

So, Islam is a noble faith. But is it wrong?
Well, I worship in a Church of England church, and I do so as someone who was brought up in the Church of Scotland and believes themselves to be, you know, a Protestant. And therefore I have a particular set of bel­iefs, but they're mine and I have a particular respect as well for people who have sincerely held religious belief in other areas, and some -

But would you say that your religion is true?
I believe it.

You believe it to be…?
No, I believe it. And I'm - I'm…
I am very conscious of the fact that, as a politician, anything I say about religion, let alone my own belief, has an impact. For example, when you have a debate ab­out life issues, if you proclaim religious belief people say, 'Ah, we know where he's coming from' and they don't engage with the argu­ments. Therefore, I always try to argue on the basis of moral traditions which may have been influenced by religious thought but which stand in their own right. It's far more likely that my views will win adherents if the debate is conducted on that basis. Other people in the church may disagree with me, but that's where I stand.

Am I talking to a future prime minister of this country?
Absolutely not! I've had the chance to work up-close and personal with David Cameron and to see him operating and he's got It, that indefinable quality a prime minister needs: grit, determination, composure, you know, wis­dom. There are some of us in the Shadow Cabinet who know that we don't have It, and I know that I don't.