John le Carré – Not The FCO I Knew

This review was published in Tribune


The Delicate Truth  by John le Carre, Viking, £18.99


John le Carré is a key pillar of the English elite. He is an old Etonian,  Oxford groomed, a former diplomat, and essential to keeping the English control mechanism show on the road. This elite – what Hazlitt called ‘the thing’ – is not homogenous. It learnt long ago that controlling power needs non-conformity as well as compliant acceptance. Unlike religious or ideological systems of elite rule – all power to the Pope or Politburo – capitalist systems of elite domination need propagandists who mock and purport to expose the system. Thus cry the real power-wielders, “Us, an elite? Good heavens no!  How can this be so when we have the products of Eton (Le Carre), Winchester, (Seumus Milne), or Westminster (Tony Benn), regularly lacerating us and saying what wicked chaps we are?”

Each time le Carré claims to expose the wickedness of big pharma, hedge funds, Russian oligarchs, arms traders and now in his latest novel, the wicked collusion of the FCO with killer mercenaries the objects of his attack come back stronger. He has to resort to such caricature and exaggeration that no one takes his charges seriously but just enjoys turning the pages or watching Rachel Weiz, Bill Nighy and Ranulph Fiennes in films made from his books.

Even le Carré’s nom de plume which means ‘the square’ in French is an amusing jest. How can anyone who says the British are up to no good be square? This playfulness has been at heart of many of his novels and the latest is no different.  There was an early le Carré which got into part of the heart of the cold war and the rather feeble efforts of British spies to inform their masters about Soviet intentions. It is hard to know of a single example where they succeeded. Stalin’s takeover of East Europe was foretold by George Kennan in a Foreign Policy article. Khrushchev’s 20th CPSU speech on Stalin’s crimes had been circulating widely in draft form in the communist world but came as a surprise to Whitehall. Russian tanks rolled into Budapest, Prague and Kabul without British intelligence knowing what was going on.

Instead le Carré focused on the hangover caused by his fellow Old Etonians like Guy Burgess and Donald MacLean who like so many thought the Soviet Union was the only bulwark against fascism. Unlike Soviet admirers such as the Fabian Webbs, Eric Hobsbawm or Denis Healey who joined the communist party at Oxford these OEs, with all the effortless superiority of their formation, thought they could actually help their cause by handing over documents to Moscow.

They were traitors but the much larger group of Stalin apologists in liberal- left political life and key institutions like unions, universities, and the media did far more damage to Britain and prevented the emergence of an authentic British social democracy after 1945.  Orwell once wrote that if a bomb exploded under the main stand at Twickenham in the 1930s the chances of fascism arriving in England would be blown sky high. Le Carré thinks if he explodes a novel underneath Whitehall-banking-global capitalism shenanigans all that is rotten in the state will be exposed and rendered harmless.

If only. His latest book is a good example. The villain is a New Labour Foreign Office minister. Time for a  confession here as I worked for 8 years as PPS and minister at the Foreign Office in the years of a confident Labour government before Iraq and impending Brownism and bank crisis robbed the Labour government of confidence and morale. Le Carré’s Labour minister is beyond belief. He wears £1000 Lob shoes on each foot when in my experience, Marks and Spencers offers the upper range of shoes that junior ministers could afford. He is allowed to meet alone and by himself order an FCO diplomat to go and indulge in criminal activity with private American security goons in Gibraltar. There is more chance of a baby with the runs being allowed to crawl without a nappy over a Persian carpet than a minister being allowed to say or do anything without his private secretary being present.

It is impossible to list the inaccuracies in this scene setting section of le Carré’s novel. Of course most spy thrillers are fantasy. But le Carré is meant to be revealing the real truths about how the British state works. He is not read as a David Baldacci or Daniel Silva. He is read because we have been told he really does know what is going on. On the evidence of this book from eight years reasonably intimate connection with the FCO he simply doesn’t.

That is not to say the book fails as a yarn though there are pages of longeurs about life in a Cornish village that might boost the Cornish tourist industry but could have been cut. The pace quickens towards the end with the wicked state bumping off awkward people. Perhaps this happens but I doubt it though it is true that recently William Hague shamefully denied to a British coroner the evidence that would have allowed details of Russian involvement in the killing of a British citizen, Alexander Litvinenko, to come to light and a true verdict to be delivered. But the present FCO has all but given up on human rights as Hague has turned this great office of state into the international department of the British Chambers of Commerce, elevating mercantilism at the expense of democracy and British values.

For le Carré fans and like James Bond films we have all enjoyed his output over the past half century, this book provides plenty of cynicism from officials and details of club-land which always matter to Old Etonians. But might he write a final book that exposed the real nature of the British state with its cautions and cowardices and complexes which cannot be reduced to stock villains and callous wickedness. In the end he writes fiction not fact. He is a fully paid-up member of the elite he purports to expose. Le Carré is part of what’s wrong with Britain and its ruling and its contrarian elites.


Denis MacShane is the UK’s former Minister for Europe.

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