John le Carré’s 26th book, Agent Running in the Field, which, according to the publishers, is David Cornwell’s (le Carré’s real name) take on Brexit, suggests a dystopian future for European liberal democracies in a post-Brexit world.
Sadly likely to be one of his last, given le Carré is nearing 90, the master spy writer remains not just a peerless story-teller but also, as one reviewer noted, “the pre-eminent cartographer of international malfeasance”.
The collapse of the Soviet Union and end of the Cold War may have extinguished the backdrop for the George Smiley series that bought le Carré fame, but he has since found no shortage of nefarious activities in the West to chronicle, including big pharma, private offshore banking and arms dealing, together with the squalid role governments and their spy agencies play in such activities.
Agent Running in the Field was, according to Guardian reviewer Robert McCrum, motivated by le Carré’s despair and disbelief at what the protagonist, Brit spook Ed Shannon, calls the “unmitigated clusterfuck” that is Brexit – Britain’s act of self-immolation in which “the British public is being marched off a cliff by a bunch of rich, elitist carpetbaggers posing as men of the people”.
To what extent Ed’s views represent le Carré ’s own is unclear, but he is on record as stating that all his characters contain elements of himself. He has long been an outspoken critic of both the unfettered greed of neo-liberalism and of the radical shift in US foreign policy since 9/11. In 2003, as George W. Bush and Tony Blair were hell-bent on leading the West to its insane foray in Iraq, he penned an essay titled: “Has the US Gone Mad?”
When the Evil Empire of Soviet communism collapsed, le Carré’s focus switched from ideology towards the effect of money and greed on politics. His genius has always been to realistically capture a tawdry espionage service in a dysfunctional Britain desperately clinging to the last vestiges of old Empire Britain’s former power.
Constant themes that dominated the Smiley series remain in his all his canon – the ongoing decrepitude and impotency of Britain together of course with betrayal – particularly the treachery of the born-to-rule class. He is obsessed with sell out and the enemy within.
Given le Carré , like Graham Greene, has displayed prescient accuracy about numerous international events or trends, including the disaster that Iraq became, his insights on Brexit, Trump and Putin as expressed through the two main protagonists, Ed and SIS veteran Nat, are worth some analysis.
Ed, an idealistic gawky loner, who is a lowly clerk with high level security clearance, becomes obsessed with Donald Trump, who he views as neo-fascist. He sees unmistakable parallels between the rise of Hitler and rise in the US of Trump and white supremacism. And it is little better in Britain which is run by a “Tory cabinet of tenth graders” and the former “pig ignorant foreign secretary” – the man now firmly ensconced at No.10 Downing Street who will take Britain out of the EU.
Through his characters, le Carré asserts Putin and Russians have Kompromat on Trump. Former Russian spy, Arkady, describes him as “Putin’s shithouse cleaner”. Nat had years previously persuaded Arkady to betray the Soviets for Britain, which he portrayed as a more ethical society. But a disillusioned Arkady has transforming himself into an oligarch, albeit one who has ripped Putin off and lives in fear of retribution.
Arkady says Trump “does everything for little Vladi that little Vladi can’t do for himself: pisses on European unity, pisses on human rights, pisses on NATO. Assures us that Crimea and Ukraine belong to the Holy Roman Empire, the Middle East belongs to the Jews and the Saudis, and to hell with the world order.”
“And you Brits, what do you do?” he asks. “You suck his dick and invite him to tea with your Queen. You take our black money and wash it for us. You welcome us if we are big enough crooks. You sell us half of London. You wring your hands when we poison our traitors and you say please, please, dear Russian friends, trade with us.”
He tells Nat the Brits have sold him a “cartload of hypocritical horseshit”.
It is through Arkady that Nat learns of Operation Jericho and this is where concepts of post Brexit Britain gets interesting. Whether it is his own belief, or just a worst case scenario expressed through the character of Ed, is left to the reader.
Britain, having taken the disastrous step to leave the EU, mainly to satisfy the ego of Boris Johnson and his cronies, is so desperate to do a trade deal with the US it will, or may already be, prostitute itself to a ruthless Trump-controlled America. It is not just the National Health Service that may be up for grabs, but liberal democracy in the West.
Nat’s bosses are already involved in a covert mission designed to undermine democratic institutions in the EU in order to help dismantle the EU’s trading tariff system and open the huge block up to corporate America. The EU is also the only body strong enough to stand up to the new monopoly powers of new US corporate powers, Facebook, Google and Amazon. Also, if other nations follow Britain out of the EU, Johnson will claim leadership and justification.
“In the post-Brexit era, Britain will be desperate for increased trade with America. America will accommodate Britain’s needs, but only on its terms,” reveals one of Nat’s sources. “One such term will be a joint covert operation to obtain by persuasion – bribery and blackmail not excluded – officials, parliamentarians and opinion-makers of the European Establishment. Also to disseminate fake news on a large scale in order to aggravate between member states of the Union.”
This I suggest is le Carré’s theory of how the Brexit-Trump dystopia plays out – Trump, with the assistance and connivance of an emaciated vassal UK will, using all the US resources at his disposal, both overt and covert, and in parallel with a malevolent, unscrupulous and unscrutinised Russia, will do his utmost to bust up the EU. Using fake news, media manipulation, Cambridge Analytica replicas, spy agencies and other scurrilous methods, they will support right wing (fascist, anti-liberal) nationalist parties and movements that have Brexit-like agendas.
With friends like these, who needs enemies?
Le Carré , who worked for both MI5 and MI6 in the 1950s and 60s, including spying of left wing groups, says he is today out of touch with modern espionage, but I seriously doubt it. His previous books suggest he is both a meticulous researcher and well-informed. Sir Richard Dearlove, former head of MI6 – aka “C” – publicly attacked le Carré for his undue emphasis on betrayal within the spy services. Le Carré responded by noting that it was under Dearlove’s watch that the intelligence service became politicised, allowing Britain to justify entrance to the disastrous Iraq war on false evidence.
(Simon Louisson, a former journalist, reported for The Wall Street Journal, AP Dow Jones Newswires, the New Zealand Press Association Reuters and The Jerusalem Post among other media)