For a man who believes that the current political climate in Britain is like Munich in 1938, Robert Harris is an unusual kind of optimist.
Power, and the scramble for it, are of course this political thriller-writer’s speciality. His work has explored conspiracy, scandal and assassination in ancient Rome, modern Russia, the French Third Republic and the Catholic church. (His new novel is set over 72 hours inside the Vatican as the cardinals plot and haggle behind closed doors to choose a new pope — “a bit like the Labour party”.)
Four weeks into post-Brexit Britain and the author of Fatherland, the bestselling novel that imagines the consequences had Hitler won, firmly believes that the nearest parallel to the perilous state of our politics is in pre-war Germany.
His argument is that once power is transferred outside parliament — whether through a referendum that is not rubber-stamped by a Commons vote, a leadership contest not decided by MPs, or a prime minister being booted out of office — we risk losing the safeguards that have spared Britain from power grabs by psychopaths.
“At any given time there’s always a percentage of the population that’s psychopathic and the important thing is to keep their hands away from the levers of power. By and large the parliamentary system has done that. Oswald Mosley never got a seat. The fascists never got a toehold, nor did the communists. The parliamentary system has been a bulwark of democracy that has served this country well. The moment you go outside it, especially in this culture of social media, all manner of strange convulsions can sweep across in politics.” He believes that time has arrived. “That sense of the House of Commons as our cockpit of democracy is passing away.”
Harris, who says he holds the Conservatives in contempt for “the way they sprung their infighting on the nation and infected us all with their psychosis” does not support a second referendum. “But I would like to see a parliamentary vote on [this one]. If we don’t have one, and it simply goes through like this, then I think that does strike a blow to democracy, especially when you elide it with the collapse of the Labour Party because of extra-parliamentary forces. That’s a fundamental blow to the constitution and is exactly the sort of rule by plebiscite that dictators in the 1930s used. That is not simply being like Ken Livingstone and dragging Hitler into the conversation. I’m afraid that’s precisely what happened — parliamentary democracy was abandoned in favour of plebiscites then diktat. What could be the next issue that might be settled by plebiscite followed by order in council?”
Since the vote to leave the European Union he said that he could not ignore the feeling “that this is what it felt like to be alive in 1938 in the Munich crisis. You really have to go back to the 1940s to find [the same] sense that all bets were off, all the familiar safeguards were removed. A hurricane is blowing through British politics, and all the old structures that looked so solid will be swept away like matchwood.
“But I’m an optimist. I’m sure we’ll all come to terms with it.”
I’d hate to meet him on a glum day.
All these ominous parallels with Nazi Germany are undercut by his calm, affable manner. We’re talking over a pub lunch near his home in the Berkshire village of Kintbury, where Harris, 59, lives with his wife, Gill Hornby (sister of Nick) and their four children in a vicarage bought after the success of Fatherland.
He has started research for a new book, set in the 1930s, and is finding “no shortage of material” in the news.
“The old allegiances have been broken and people would now be ready to vote for an anti-Westminster, populist party in a way they never would before. I don’t want to draw glib comparisons but it’s clear that whatever powered Brexit and the rise of Corbyn are, paradoxically, the same forces powering Trump in the US. It’s a disillusionment with the established order, allied with new technology and social fluidity.” Exactly the kind of febrile conditions, he argues, in which “one could see the possibility for some new charismatic leader and a new form of politics”. Once again, “it’s a bit like the 1930s”.
That doesn’t sound very optimistic, I suggest. “Life goes on. The human spirit is resilient. It’s a good time to think about history and to reflect on how other societies have coped with this.”
The former political journalist, who dedicated 12 years to a trilogy on the rise and fall of the statesman and orator Cicero, also sees parallels between Britain and the Roman republic, Brutus and Michael Gove.
“What went wrong with the Roman republic was that power moved on to the streets. The occupation of the Forum. The whole structure of the Roman Republic was no longer capable of dealing with the realities of what the world had become and therefore the whole thing broke. A pretty sophisticated system disappeared and didn’t come back for nearly 2,000 years.”
Now, as then, he says: “You sense the modern world has slipped beyond the control of politicians.”
As for Gove’s doomed bid for leadership, traducing Boris Johnson, he adds with a wry smile: “When Caesar was assassinated I think Brutus got stabbed in the hand by one of the other assassins so he was trailing around with a bloody bandage. When the assassinations start, you never know where the blows are going to land.”
Asked for the nearest historical equivalent to Corbyn, the embattled Labour leader, Harris hesitates. “I can’t think of anyone in ancient Rome. They would never have risen to the top. He’s rather like one of those absolute monarchs that inherits it, like Czar Nicholas II, well-meaning but ineffectual.”
He is deeply troubled by the current state of the Labour Party. He grew up in a council house in Nottingham, the son of a printer who read Joyce and a mother who loved classical music. Both left school before 14. Harris went to a comprehensive school before winning a place at Cambridge. He despairs that a working-class boy in his place would now have much less chance of success.
“I am not prepared to be lectured by the likes of Seumas Milne [Labour’s communications director] and the Wiccamists who run Momentum about the working classes.”
He is as scathing about Corbyn as he is about his former close friend, Tony Blair. The current leader is about as useful at the dispatch box as a “centre-forward with only one leg,” he says. “The problem with Corbyn is not the policies because there are no policies. They are simply soothing bromides for everybody. The problem is his sheer incapacity for the demands of the job, which require speed on one’s feet, cunning, skill in debate, wit, decisiveness. Almost everything it is necessary for a political leader to possess he does not possess. People say he’s like a geography teacher — he’s not qualified to be a geography teacher.”
Blair will never be able to admit mistakes over Iraq, Harris says, because “he’s such a charismatic, messianic leader. If you have that sense of being almost a divine instrument, you can’t turn around and say ‘I was wrong’ because it’s denying who you are. There’s a very strong mystical element in Tony.”
He exasperated by the tendency within the hard left of Labour to dismiss all critics as “Blairite” — as the leadership challenger Owen Smith, knows only too well. “Even I am [denounced] as a Blairite. I’ve written a novel and screenplay and written endlessly against Tony Blair. What else do I have to do, for God’s sake?”
His commentary on Twitter has proved a hit but he concedes that political discourse, when reduced to 140 characters, “is often reduced to a taunt”. “I feel extremely sorry for all those bright, young female MPs and the abuse they get.”
He has been on the receiving end of this bile, with some threatening to burn his books and accusing him of not liking Mr Corbyn because “he’s not a tool of the Rothschilds”.
Labour is in its death spiral, Harris believes. He predicts that if Mr Corbyn defeats Mr Smith to be re-elected as leader the party will be permanently locked out of power. “And the terrifying thing is that for people like Milne this represents a victory for socialism because this will start the break-up of the system. I detected an underlying hope that Britain would vote for Brexit just because of the chaos that would ensue.”
A former Labour donor, Harris renounced his support for the party after it appointed Mr Milne, the millionaire former public schoolboy, as its communications director. He tweeted: “Council house born. Comprehensive-school educated. Voted Foot, Kinnock. But not for private-school apologists for IRA and Stalin. Sorry.”
Still, he agrees it’s an interesting time to be a historical novelist. “I’m just fascinated by this natural element, power, and how it is controlled and guided by mortals. There are times when it is in control and those are relatively peaceful times. Then there are times when it leaps out of control and falls into the hands of the noisiest, the most certain and most extreme and those are difficult times.”
He quotes a line from Robert Conquest, the British-American historian known for his work on Stalin’s purges of the 1930s. “He said that a healthy society is one that has little interest in politics, and almost the index of an unhealthy society is when everybody starts getting involved. I know we’re not supposed to say that but it is the case.”
Robert Dennis Harris
Born March 7, 1957
Education King Edward VII school, Melton Mowbray. Selwyn College, Cambridge, where he was president of the union and editor of the student newspaper Varsity
Career Journalist at the BBC and Observer, columnist at The Sunday Times andThe Telegraph. Bestselling author of historical fiction
Family Married to Gill Hornby, the author and sister of Nick Hornby. Four children
Buried or cremated? Buried
Cicero or that other great orator, Melania Trump? Cicero. Although Melania exerts a certain compulsion
House of Cards or Yes, Minister? I’m afraid to say, House of Cards
Champagne socialism or Corbynomics? Champagne socialism every time. In France the socialists have no problem with drinking champagne
Scoop or Stalingrad? Scoop
Sistine Chapel or Westminster Cathedral? Sistine Chapel
Bottle of red or pint of Old Peculier? Bottle of red
Optimist or pessimist? Optimist