John le Carré: Traitor or Patriot?

“El Brexit es la mayor idiotez perpetrada por el Reino Unido”

“Brexit is the greatest act of stupidity perpetrated by the United Kingdom”

For many years I have followed with interest how some elements of the European press present the UK. Whenever there is a major event, it is fascinating to compare the treatment of it in our media, with how it is treated, for example, in the Spanish media in particular. Spain and Spanish being my lifelong passion, it was natural that I should plunge into a long article in a well-respected Spanish newspaper: devoted to an interview with John le Carré, originally conducted in August 2019 when he was on holiday in Mallorca, the article appeared in October 2019, with some new material from a telephone interview, to mark the publication of le Carré’s novel Un hombre decente (Agent Running In The Field).

The article portrays le Carré as a “living classic of British literature, and a model of the stubbornness and sincerity with which he has defended his sense of ethics and of a more just society”. His new novel is described as a “spy story with Brexit hanging over it, in which the author does not hide his anger when he writes about Brexit or the government of Boris Johnson, upon whom he heaps all sorts of insults”. Indeed, during the interview, le Carré struggles to concentrate on his book without changing the subject, and his anger flares when he thinks about what is happening in his country.

In fact, the updated part of the interview was conducted by telephone the very day after le Carré took part in an anti-Brexit demonstration in London; since the hope of the UK remaining in the EU (which had lingered during the summer of 2019) had by now disappeared, he considered that the very survival of the United Kingdom was in danger.

When asked whether he had ever imagined the Europe we live in being subjected to the crisis provoked by Brexit, le Carré repliesthat it was inconceivable:

“Without the slightest doubt it is the most idiotic act and the greatest catastrophe that the United Kingdom has ever inflicted on itself since the Suez invasion in 1956. In my opinion it is a self-inflicted disaster, for which we cannot blame anyone else, neither the Irish, nor the Europeans… We are a nation which has always been at the heart of Europe. We may have had conflicts, but we are European.”

He describes as horrifying and dangerous the idea of the UK trying to replace access to the world’s greatest trading bloc with access to the US market, what with Trump’s “instability and egomaniacal decisions”. According to le Carré it is madness; he neither believes in it economically, nor understands how the country has reached this situation, in which “we have a Mickey Mouse Cabinet made up of second-rate people.”

The novelist then refers to the fact that, with advancing age, he has become more radical, more anti-war, desperately concerned by ecology and climate change. He worries that the lives of his 14 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren are in danger, as indeed is civilisation itself. Significantly, while he goes on to talk about his most famous character, George Smiley, spending the last years of his life in Germany, he cannot help expressing how difficult it now is to be both British and European. He says that the demonization of Europe by what he calls the “horrible British press” seems unstoppable, and points out that 80 per cent of the British media is in the hands of oligarchs who live in fiscal paradises. Asking “Who benefits from Brexit?”, he can’t answer the question, other than to comment that people who live in a fiscal paradise and can bet against the pound – managing investment funds and being able to see which way the wind is blowing – can make a lot of money. Le Carré asks himself whether this is what makes these press oligarchs support Brexit. He explains that one should remember we are dealing with second-rate people – starting with Johnson – and hopes that Europeans understand this: “This is not our first eleven but our third eleven”.

When questioned about the Withdrawal Agreement drawn up between the United Kingdom and Brussels, he replies,

“The new agreement is a betrayal of Northern Ireland: one more nail in the coffin of the United Kingdom. The interesting thing is what Boris Johnson is going to do now, because he has behaved like a schoolboy in being unwilling to sign the letter to Brussels. He is a little boy masquerading as a prime minister.”

He says that the main thing is to avoid a “no-deal” Brexit, so he supported the measures Parliament had taken to request an extension.

When the interviewer asks le Carré whether he has lost all hope of a second referendum, he repliesciting Brexit fatigue and the unpopularity of the establishment. He says that Johnson is becoming ever stronger, and that he may even defeat the move to prevent a no-deal Brexit. Le Carré describes the situation in very dramatic terms:

“We are confronting an increase of neo-Fascism: the greatest terrorist threat currently in the United Kingdom comes from the far right: that is what the police say. These people have poisoned the atmosphere. First they played the old songs of Europhobia, and then they created those feelings of xenophobia through the popular press, and now they are exploiting it.”

He laments the fact that our traditional stability and common sense are dormant and that political discourse has disappeared.

Concerned about the possible disintegration of the United Kingdom,le Carré says that what we are saying to Northern Ireland is that they should “Go fuck themselves”, which he believes brings closer the possible reunification of Ireland, and Scotland taking advantage of the situation, such that the United Kingdom is dismantled. He considers that Johnson is a person who has no relationship with truth, who voted against many of the things he is now offering, and that he has achieved a worse deal than the previous one (May’s deal), which is depressing.

After an exchange dealing with the possibility of Russian involvement, le Carré says that we suffer from a horrible propaganda system; he repeats the accusation that most newspapers support Brexit, and adds that they demonise the Irish Prime Minister and all of Europe, but that their main enemy is Germany. He remarks that the newspapers constantly refer to the ‘Dunkirk spirit’, and to how Europe “abandoned” England. He deplores this, and suggests that we are in the hands of manipulators, with Russia collaborating in the manipulation; he says that Russian involvement in the Referendum has not been completely recognised, even though there is growing evidence. He then suggests that it was absurd to hold a referendum in the United Kingdom, where after all, we have a parliamentary democracy:  by way of comparison, do we hold a referendum on the death penalty and then start to hang people in the streets?

“The key to parliamentary democracy is for competent people to be chosen to represent your community. What has happened to us? What has happened to our tradition of being a moderate, decent, pragmatic people? There is a smell of autocracy. I’m furious about all this; this is not us.”

In the last part of the interview, le Carré and the interviewer discuss the Cold War and the lack of any idealism except for zeal for Brexit. However there is no leader with sufficient strength to show us the reality of what is happening, and there is an absence of moral courage. The novelist states: “Thanks to a massive public relations operation, Russia gives the impression that it is in control of everything, but in reality it is bankrupt and its economic situation is terrible.” However, he says it is conducting a policy of territorial expansion – for example in Ukraine – and presents a united front against the United Kingdom, Europe and the United States. “Putin has no scruples and only thinks in terms of conspiracy”.

So, given the criticism le Carré makes of Brexit and Johnson’s government, is he a traitor, undermining our country and our government to the Spanish press? Or is he a patriot, one who really cares for his – our – country?

That will depend on your opinion of Brexit.