Robert Harris’s “Ghost”

I read this last night in one gulp, which shows the essential virtue of his writing. The story, for American readers, concerns Adam Lang, a Labour ex-prime minister who is holed up in Martha’s Vineyard with his wife and dwindling entourage, working on his memoirs while an ex-colleague plots to have him charged at the Hague for involvement in CIA torture. Yes, it’s Blair, and he even has a strange sinister wife. The ghost-writer, an old, loyal party hack, dies suddenly, and the narrator, an apolitical word machine, is drafted in at very short notice to replace him. The book is mainly damn good fun, full of vivid caricatures: the publishing tycoon, the girlfriend in television, the unspeakably boring yet sinister1 American foreign affairs pundit. There is also an excellent sense of the excitement of being inside a political campaign, best brought to life in a scene in which the narrator, inside a house under siege by the media, watches a huge television set watching the outside of the house while the commentators speculate on what’s going on and he listens to it actually happening in the room with him. This isn’t in the least bit a literary novel but that’s not its only virtue.

(spoilers follow after the break)

For much of the book we are led to believe that the dark secret is that the Tony Blair figure has been a CIA agent ever since he was at Cambridge, which explains the subsequent course of his politics; at the end it emerges that the agent, all along, was his wife, herself recruited at Cambridge by the foreign policy bore.

This is a very funny in-joke if you follow British politics, since Cherie Blair has always been considered the left-wing one of the two of them. But of course the mystery which the ghost-writer is confronted with—what does Blair/Lang actually believe in? Why is he in politics at all?—is one which any student of Britain in the last ten years has also been baffled by.

Benny Morris said to me that he really admired Blair as a politician and when I made the obvious face explained that he kept being elected, and this was, after all, the basic skill of any politician, as keeping people reading is of any writer. None the less, this begs the question of what he’s being elected for; and what strikes me about Harris’s explanation is that it brings in the CIA, which suggests that no politician would so utterly disregard British national interests in favour of American ones had be not been in some sense formally suborned. ‘Just name me one thing he did that Washington wouldn’t have approved of.’ says the Robin Cook figure who is trying to get Lang charged with war crimes:

“Let’s think.’ He held up his thumb. ‘One: deployment of British troops to the Middle East, against the advice of just about every senior commander in our armed forces and all of our ambassadors who know the region. Two’ — up went his right index finger — ‘complete failure to demand any kind of quid pro quo from the White House in terms of reconstruction contracts for British firms, or anything else. Three: unwavering support for US foreign policy in the Middle East, even when it’s patently crazy for us to set ourselves against the entire Arab world. Four: the stationing of an American missile defence system on British soil that does absolutely nothing for our security — in fact, the complete opposite: it makes us a more obvious target for a first strike — and can only provide protection for the US. Five: the purchase, for fifty billion dollars, of an American nuclear missile system, that we call “independent” but which we wouldn’t even be able to fire without US approval, thus binding his successors to another twenty years of subservience to Washington over defence policy. Six: a treaty that allows the US to extradite our citizens to stand trial in America, but doesn’t allow us to do the same to theirs. Seven: collusion in the illegal kidnapping, torture, imprisonment and even murder of our own citizens. Eight: a consistent record of sacking any minister — I speak with experience here — who is less than one hundred per cent supportive of the alliance with the United States. Nine—’

This is the one place where the conventions of a thriller let the book down. All that you really need to know to explain this behaviour is that Blair was interested in power and power comes from aligning yourself with the more powerful. People who are good at this understand it in the way fish understand rivers. There is no more mystery about Blair’s Atlanticism than there is about the way that salmon lie with their heads upstream. Britain is now an American colony because America is infinitely richer and more powerful than we are and people who want power here naturally orient themselves towards money and power elsewhere. Things might have been different had Edward Heath’s line into Europe been followed. But it wasn’t. Still, there’s no need for any formal arrangements in our subservience. If there is any powerful and sinister American puppet master in British politics, it’s not the station head of the CIA but Rupert Murdoch.

In fact, the thrillerish plot shows just how second-rate we have become. What sort of country explains its own history by reference to the machinations of a foreign intelligence service?

[1.] born Chicago 1949, graduate of Yale University and St John’s College, Cambridge (Rhodes Scholar); lecturer in international affairs at Harvard University, 1975—79, and subsequently Howard T. Polk III Professor of Foreign Relations, 1979—91; thereafter the founding head of the Arcadia Institution; President Emeritus since 2007; publications: Whither thou Goest: The Special Relationship 1940-1956; The Conundrum of Change; Losing Empires, Finding Roles: Some Aspects of US—UK Relations since 1956; The Chains of Prometheus: Foreign Policy Constraints in the Nuclear Age; The Triumphant Generation: America, Britain and the New World Order; Why We Are In Iraq.

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3 Responses to Robert Harris’s “Ghost”

  1. Mrs Tilton says:

    Pity. I’d rather hoped his newest would be another Cicero thriller. So, is the wee fucker packed off to the Hague at the end or not? Small chance we’ll see that in real life, but I think Harris could earn an honest bob giving us the thing vicariously, at least.

    BTW, is finding your new blog URL an IQ test? Cos if so, clearly I am one of the people that so worried poor old Kornbluth.

  2. acb says:

    He gets a less just comeuppance than that.

    I’m sorry about the URL. I hate Apache’s mod-rewrite with a burning hatred, but I think I have fixed it now. I have thought this before, I know.

  3. Rupert says:

    I found a copy of “Enigma” in my Swedish chicken shack writerly retreat. Even given my natural affinity for the subject, I thought the style exemplary. The trouble is, it’s so good it’s far too polished to get a grip on if you’re trying to prise parts out to see how they fit together. Especially when perpetrating clumsy prose, this is galling.

    But it’s a great book to read by torchlight, with a cold, starry countryside outside the wood walls and a distant morse signal riding the interference crashes on an otherwise silent shortwave frequency.

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