17 December 2020

What le Carré’s people really think of Britain


The encomiums for the late John le Carré from every corner of the British media, and from large parts of the American, bear witness to a nearly global enjoyment of immersion in the le Carré world. His people, drawn from the beginning of his writing career with great artistry, are unillusioned, courageous and patriotic, but with an undertow of bitterness that the country whose security they are sworn to protect may no longer be worth the sacrifices they nevertheless stoically make.

It is that bitterness which, for this reader at least, keeps his novels on the shelf rather than becoming dog-eared with re-reading. His fiction was based very largely on a view of Britain – really, England –  as remorselessly declining in its weight in the world, in honest and efficient government and in character. His fictional people must clench their jaws and bear it. His real people – the great mass of his readers – appear to like this elegant despair over the state of their country, and amplify his themes in their own attitudes and conversation.

His view of British politics and society is not a mere general miasma: it can be real and pointed. In his last novel, Agent Running in the Field, he has one of the characters describe Brexit as, “an unmitigated clusterfuck bar none.” The Tory government (when he was writing, led by Theresa May) is “a minority Tory cabinet of tenth-raters. A pig-ignorant foreign secretary (Boris Johnson) who I’m supposed to be serving. Labour no better. The sheer bloody lunacy of Brexit.”

In a Guardian interview of last year with the Irish novelist John Banville, he makes clear that, in this case at least, the disgust he put in the mouths of his characters was his. The book’s political message, he told Banville, was “that our concept of patriotism and nationalism – our concept of where to place our loyalties, collectively and individually – is now utterly mysterious. I think Brexit is totally irrational, that it’s evidence of dismal statesmanship on our part, and lousy diplomatic performances… I think my own ties to England were hugely loosened over the last few years. And it’s a kind of liberation, if a sad kind.”

Yet the vote for Brexit, and a ‘concept of patriotism and nationalism’, was clear enough. They proceeded from a view that the British state should be responsible for ensuring the full citizenship of its people, and that their votes should go to a parliament and a government which is intelligible and responsible to the electorate – not to a European Union with a neutered assembly and government by an opaque, transnational elite. As the Marxist historian Perry Anderson wrote recently in the London Review of Books – “Democratic systems have effective oppositions that may one day govern. The European Union is organised in such a way that it does not”.

Le Carré’s view of Brexit is more vehement and more skilfully expressed, but is wholly consonant with and sets an example for, the derision of many remainers. It is one which pays no mind whatever to those who voted, in a majority, to leave because – as polls and focus groups showed after the event – the Brexiters believed the British state had let them down by contracting out politics to the EU. Europe not only has a flimsy parliament with no space for an opposition, but has developed no practical route for creating an assembly with both power and a claim on people’s trust as a legislature which might reflect their political choices.

The violence of le Carré’s rejection of Brexit – ‘unmitigated clusterfuck’, ‘sheer bloody lunacy’ – is the mark of a refusal to engage with what the citizens of his country actually believe to be in their long-term interests, and the real condition of the EU: now, as ever, the creation of a progressive elite who created a useful single market but cannot summon enough support to go further. Instead, there is only disdain for the ‘clusterfuckers’ and ‘lunatics’.

Such disdain and disenchantment – ties to England ‘hugely loosened’ – are le Carré trademarks. They combine to form a settled attitude which is reached with no recognition, or even mention, of countervailing argument. His opposition to the Iraqi invasion by the US, Britain and other forces was similarly shorn of balance. In his 2003 essay, The United States of America has Gone Mad, both George Bush and Tony Blair are seen as painting a false perspective in order to, in Bush’s case, get hold of Iraqi oil and in Blair’s, to tie himself to Bush’s chariot in the hope he could help steer it.

We cannot know what would have happened had no invasion taken place. There is a reasonable case to be made that Saddam would have, over time, successfully obtained nuclear, biological or chemical weapons; that he would have continued to fund terrorism; and that one of his sons, most likely Qusay, who had commanded repressions of Shi-ite forces in a 1991 uprising, and massacres of the Marsh Arabs in southern Iraq, would take over. But le Carré does not care to make it. Instead, ignoring that part of the joint project which was to depose a murderous tyrant in favour of an opening to democracy, he makes Bush into a madman and Blair into a poodle: influential portraits.

His fiction, and the films and TV series derived from it, are engrossing and enviably well crafted. But their ideological basis plays to, and plays up, the desire of his readership circles – le Carré’s people – to dismiss the actions of their governments as the work of ‘pig ignorant’ opportunists. My own vote was reluctantly for remain, on grounds of economic damage and in the belief that no British government would become part of a drive towards a United States of Europe. But it was, as I believe many others’ on both sides were, an ‘on balance’ decision. What else, given the stakes involved and the unknown knowns and unknowns of the future, could it be?

Le Carré’s popularity partly rests on his narrative grace. It owes as much to his erection of platforms of easy derision for those who see things differently from him and many among his following, and for the complexity of those issues with which the derided politicians must deal. It is enormously comforting to see the latter as devoid of one’s higher reasoning powers.

Beneath the subtleties of character and plot of le Carré’s novels is a banal insistence on degradation of a country which, since the last war, created and maintained a welfare state; retained and developed an uncorrupt and relatively efficient bureaucracy (and secret services); has risen to the responsibilities and challenges in the world forums like the UN, NATO and the G7; become among the most multicultural states in Europe and remained among the leaders in research and university scholarship and teaching. None of these are without a myriad of problems, some of which are now acute. But to see it, as the author and his characters do, as an exhausted lion led by venal donkeys, illuminates a strain of patrician loathing of those who cannot regard their country as a failed state.

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John Lloyd is a Contributing Editor to the Financial Times, ex-editor of The New Statesman and a co-founder of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.