The publication of a new novel by John le Carre is always a significant literary event. 'A Legacy of Spies' marks the final appearance of his most famous character, George Smiley, played memorably on television by Alec Guinness and on the big screen by Gary Oldman. In an interview with Jim Naughtie on Radio 4, the author, now 85, reflected on his upbringing, his own time as an intelligence officer, his travels (often in dangerous places) and, most strikingly, on the current international political scene.
Le Carre's father, Ronnie, was a charming, flamboyant fantasist and serial liar – a perfect background for someone who later had to practise the arts of deception. He describes his father as 'terrifically bent.' A love of the German language led le Carre to escape from his public school and spend time in Switzerland, then in Germany itself, the setting for perhaps his most famous novel, 'The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.' Several of his later novels were set in exotic locations and based on meticulous first-hand research. An eye for detail has always been a consistent feature of le Carre's writing.
The words he uses to refer to world politics at present are 'aimlessness' and 'fear'. As an enthusiastic European, he deplores the Brexit decision and the ascendancy of Trump in America. He contrasts the moral certainty and sense of national honour which motivated the fight against fascism during the second world war with the current atmosphere of drift, even hopelessness. Later, in the cold war period, the Soviet bloc, with its oppression and doomed economic system, represented a clear enemy for most people in the west.
Nowadays, there are no certainties and democracy itself seems under threat. Gangster capitalism flourishes in both Russia and the United States. Spiv City (London) is a welcome haven for money launderers. Ordinary citizens in the west have lost faith in their political leaders and many of the institutions that are supposed to uphold democratic principles. Fake news has undermined traditional conceptions of truth and even, in some cases, the law of the land.
An interesting question not explored in the interview, but implicit in the exchange, is whether young people today would be prepared to respond to calls for patriotism and loyalty in the face of a dire threat to the nation. They might be willing to pass on information to the authorities about potential terrorists but stop short of donning a uniform and bearing arms. The convictions and humanitarian concerns that led many people to sacrifice their lives for the sake of freedom have been weakened, and perhaps destroyed, by the sense of betrayal created by a succession of establishment failures.
Leaders are now regarded with deep scepticism: they talk the language of fairness and justice, but pursue courses of action driven by greed and the desire for power. If young people would no longer be willing to fight for queen and country, part of the explanation can be found in the track record of the political and economic elite.
Many newspaper reports begin with the phrase: 'According to a recent survey...' Usually little information is given about the sample size, the questions asked, the system of data collection, or the forms of analysis to which the 'findings' were subject. The word 'survey', however, confers a degree of 'scientific' respectability on the story. Questions about who commissioned the survey and whether they might have a commercial interest in the outcome rarely receive attention.
A recent example concerns the age at which men and women are supposed to become boring. For women, it is alleged to be 35, while men manage to be fun until 39. Increased responsibilities, marriage and relationships, the arrival of children and the demands of work are all said to contribute to a decline in adventurousness. It is suggested that people in their mid- to late-30s are less likely to stay out late on a week night, try out a new sport or hobby, make an effort to extend their circle of friends, learn a new skill, ask someone out, or change jobs. The possibility that they may have reached a stage of contentment with their life is not considered.
There is, however, some good news amidst the general gloom. People over 50 are apparently 22% more likely to book a spontaneous holiday and 11% more likely to go out for an expensive meal. Note the exact figures, again designed to suggest rigour and accuracy. The company which commissioned the survey is Airbnb, an online hospitality service arranging short-term (mainly holiday) accommodation in many countries. It does not own any of the properties but acts as a broker and takes a commission from both guests and hosts. Clearly it has an interest in promoting travel and encouraging new experiences.
This particular survey was widely reported, especially on the internet. In introducing it, the Metro newspaper rather surprisingly put inverted commas round the word 'research'. The effect of this apparent scepticism, however, was somewhat undermined by inviting its readers to take part in an online survey where the question was 'Is your life boring?' and the options were 'Yes', 'Yes, but I like it that way,' and 'No'.
Tony Blair still feels a compulsion to offer his advice on the issues of the day, most recently on the case for tightening the immigration rules. In an interview with BBC Scotland's political editor, Brian Taylor, he also admitted that at one time he was obsessed with the idea that the Scottish and English football leagues should be merged. This, he felt, would strengthen the bonds between the two countries and weaken the campaign for independence. Leaving aside the economic argument – only the income potential of Rangers and Celtic would have had any appeal to the money-men in England – quite how the tribal loyalties of fans (not to mention the driven personalities of football managers) could be used to promote cross-border harmony is difficult to conceive.
It is very hard to imagine what goes on in Tony Blair's head. Does he ever pause to reflect on the rapid decline in his public reputation following the revelations about the Iraq war? Perhaps he suffers from a Trump-type form of narcissism, in which everything is seen from his own perspective and interpreted to enhance his self-esteem. If he ever has a crisis of conscience, he should try to arrange to be in Scotland at the time. In a rare piece of good news for the SNP, it has been revealed that Scotland has more psychiatrists per head of the population that either England or Wales. But it is highly unlikely that our Tony would have to rely on the NHS.
He receives a dishonourable mention in Mick Herron's novel, 'Dead Lions,' in which the dialogue is razor-sharp. Two characters are discussing the death, in suspicious circumstances, of a low-level former intelligence agent. One expresses scepticism about the possible cause:
'Untraceable poison. Dying message. Seems a bit...unlikely.'
His colleague replies: 'Tony Blair's a peace envoy. Compared to that, everything's just business as usual.'