By Amol Rajan | A feisty debate between Robert Fisk and the author Professor Sir Lawrence Freedman brought The Independent Woodstock Literary Festival to a close on a high note last night.
The absence of a debate on the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians in the US presidential elections was “shocking”, Fisk told a packed hall at Blenheim Palace, the grand 18th-century home in Woodstock, Oxfordshire, which hosted the festival.
“America must pull its military forces out of Iraq and the Middle East, leaving the peoples of the region to decide their own future,” said Fisk, an author and Middle East correspondent for The Independent. He said the US and its allies had “built a new Iron Curtain from the ice cap to the equator”, and added that the result of the elections on 4 November “would not make the slightest bit of difference in the Middle East”.
“America’s uncritical support for Israel is going to continue,” he said.
Professor Freedman, of King’s College, London, however, provided stiff resistance, arguing that the United States must play a constructive role in the region and around the globe.
The debate was one of a series of discussions with leading figures from the worlds of literature, the arts and politics that have engrossed audiences since the festival began last week.
Only a few hours before Fisk and Professor Freedman’s appearance, the acclaimed historian, Simon Schama, spoke to The Independent columnist Deborah Orr about his new book The American Future: A History, which accompanies a current BBC series.
Hundreds watched Schama lament the collapse of American self-confidence under George Bush. The historian, who spent much of his career at Oxford but is now based at Columbia University in New York, made no attempt to hide his view that the Democratic candidate, Barack Obama, could help renew the ideals that inspired the birth of the American nation.
Speaking in the splendour of the palace Orangery, Schama described Mr Bush as a “comical little front man” for what ought to be considered the “Cheney administration”.
Schama also derided the Republican presidential candidate, John McCain, for running a divisive campaign that would backfire in states that didn’t already support him.
And he said that vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s comment at a rally last week that Mr Obama “is not a man who sees America the way that you and I see America” had racist undertones that made it “morally repellent”. It was, Schama said, “code for depicting Obama as the Other”.
In one of the early highlights of the festival, the Conservative Party leader, David Cameron, took to the stage on Friday in an apparent attempt to cast himself as the heir to Tony Blair. In an interview with Simon Kelner, editor-in-chief of The Independent, Mr Cameron, who celebrated his 42nd birthday last Thursday, declared: “I’m a very straightforward person.”
The comment invoked Mr Blair’s assertion that he was “a pretty straight kind of guy”.
Other prominent speakers to draw large crowds included the typically forthright war correspondents Martin Bell and Ann Leslie, novelists Elizabeth Jane Howard and P D James, 85 and 88 respectively, and two Independent columnists: novelist Howard Jacobson and chef Mark Hix.
Dame Ann, promoting an autobiography which includes compelling details about her time on the front line, issued a hurried apology after uttering a four letter expletive in Woodstock’s Church of St Mary Magdalene.