How have your research and writing affected your thoughts on the EU on the one side and the UK’s isolationist political course on the other?
Blimey! I don’t think I have anything interesting to say about either. There were specific issues flying around at the time I wrote The Spanish Game, the main ones being 9/11 and its aftermath, the West piling into Afghanistan and then lining up to go into Iraq. I was living in Spain, where the Basque question was always in the headlines, and I was in Madrid for the Atocha bombing, which was initially blamed on ETA and then discovered to be done by a bunch of al-Qaeda fanatics. If I’m writing realistic spy thrillers about 21st century Britain and 21st century intelligence services and the attitudes of the British government to these things then yes, I have to remain politically thoughtful, but I wouldn’t say I’m a political animal. I think a lot of people in my generation are now quite jaded by the political process.
I was watching Martin Amis on Newsnight a while ago. He said a very interesting thing that initially sounds pretentious but makes total sense: “What is happening in politics now is what has happened in the arts over the last 50 years. It’s called ‘post-modernity’.” Everything gets turned around. In architecture they put the pipes on the outside of the building, and now everybody can see the inner workings of the political world. We know so much about these people, there is no longer any sense of mystique, of an ideology which might tilt the world on its axis. You had a sniff of that with Obama, which is why I think there is so much liberal disappointment in him. We believed in his idea of change, but of course he collided very hard with some serious economic and political problems and has done his best, in my view.
In the European context, I don’t think anybody thinks David Cameron is a particularly spectacular or a potentially great man, nor Sarkozy, nor Merkel. I think we all think they’re quite second rate, but I’m trying to get away from the profound cynicism that affects, say, le Carr[endif]–>’s fiction – the idea that if you put on the uniform of a civil servant or a spy, if you inhabit an institution, you are by definition corrupted in some way. I don’t believe they’re all a bunch of crooks, but the danger with that in fictional terms is that you populate your books with bland, idealistic people. It’s the shits who are the really interesting ones. That said, Smiley is an admirable man, but le Carré is very careful with him. You don’t get to see the bad stuff Smiley has done. He’s congenial, battered by his wife, and he’s overseen the decline of the British Empire. Thomas Harris does the same thing with Hannibal Lecter, who only ever eats people who are even more objectionable than him.
Speaking of objectionable eating habits, do you still think of yourself as a Scot?
Ha! To be honest with you, no, I don’t. I feel uncomfortable in Scotland because of my educational background, my accent, my Englishness, even though my blood is almost entirely Scottish. I find a lot of the Scottish attitude to the South prejudiced, borderline racist, and it really annoys me. I have lots of Scottish friends and I grew up in Scotland, but there is an instinctive rejection and resentment of the English which makes me feel uncomfortable.
How do you feel about Scottish independence?
I’m a democrat, and if it goes to a vote, and if the majority of Scottish people, having thought it through, think that independence is the best thing for them, then there should be an independent Scotland. I don’t have any strong umbilical feelings about the Union.
How did your respect for the democratic process affect the writing of The Spanish Game?
Well, the Basque question, at least before the ceasefire, was more dynamic and dangerous, and it was more present in everyday life, because a lot of the Basque people really do feel a genuine historical and cultural grievance, even though there has never been a separate Basque state. The Basque region was treated so annihilatingly by Franco, there’s real ill will towards Madrid and the rest of Spain. The other main difference is that people were getting kidnapped and killed in the name of Basque independence, and there’s no comparable Scottish equivalent. It seems to me that there’s a lot of petty nationalism bound up in the question of Scottish independence. Of course, there’s a legitimate historical grievance, but in a modern context there’s no reason for it. So let’s just get on with it. Let’s work and look after our families.
Is the conflict between individual conscience and ideological compromise not at the heart of every one of your books, be it set in England, Spain, Russia, or China?
I never thought about it that way. I think the Uyghur have a legitimate grievance against the Han Chinese. That’s about a land grab, an act of colonisation by the Chinese.