Is that so unlike English colonialism?
Hm, I can see the hypocrisy in this. Maybe that’s easier to see in others than at your own back door. I absolutely take your point, but in China you’re looking at the systematic eradication of an entire race, with all the attendant human rights abuses. That exercised me at the time and continues to do so. I think there’s something inhumane about some of the political courses the government in Beijing takes for the homogenisation of China. That particular incident was deeply felt in Typhoon.
I feel rather similar about the Basque question and the Scottish question. There’s much more petty nationalism involved, far more people who need an ideology, something to believe in, something to set themselves in opposition to somebody else, because a lot of us are at heart competitive animals. There’s a lot of that top dogging going on in Basque nationalism, and they dress it up in cultural and linguistic clothing, but the Basque country has its own judiciary, police service, education, dual signage – everything you’d want, but it’s not enough. I think that’s the petty bit: the want to get one up on the other guy. Let’s face it: The historical grievances happened hundreds of years ago. What are people really agitated about? I think it’s a way of getting into a fight. I don’t profess to be an expert on these things, but even the Irish question is…
Well, let me stop there and say: “I’m not an expert.” I live in London, the most polyglot city in the world. What does it mean to be British? It’s fluid and changing all the time. The whole concept of national identity and boundaries is blurring all the time with the Internet and the cheapness of travel. It’s intellectually and spiritually nourishing to hark back to it, but it’s not helpful to anybody, particularly when you start blowing them up.
How have those fluid identity politics affected intelligence work in general and your work in particular?
Post-9/11 counter-terrorism has changed the intelligence service in the sense that there’s much more co-operation between the two. If you have a cell in Munich and a cell in Leeds then SIS is liaising with the German services because people with EU passports can move freely across these national borders. Also, with the internationalisation of terrorism you get into the whole black prison rendition thing, which is a big part of A Foreign Country. The intelligence services are reacting to these changes all the time, and that’s the big conversation between readers and writers of contemporary spy fiction.
The cold certainties of the Cold War were so beautifully calibrated and explored by people like le Carré, who wrote about two educated Western men whose mothers’ milk happened to have two different ideologies, but how do you get inside the mind of somebody perpetrating 9/11, 7/7, or the Atocha bombing? How do you understand that level of fanaticism? It’s brainwashing. It’s North Korea with a suicide belt, and it’s very difficult to make people like that realistic or even compelling, except in their death wish. That’s the problem for the modern spy writer, which I think the old guys did not have, and I think it’s why The Trinity Six is by far and away my most successful book. It’s a Cold War nostalgia book. It hits all the nodes of the Cold War: Berlin, Vienna, Moscow, London. It’s about the Cambridge spies. It puts readers into a comfort zone. And it was intended to do that.
Has Putin got in touch with you yet?
Ha! Fuck no. I don’t know what you’re talking about…
So who’s the Judo black belt in the Kremlin who will “reign for as long as his health holds up? Why else did he change the constitution? Twenty years? Thirty?” Is it fair to say that “there’ll be no change in Moscow during that time”?
Yeah, that was a bit too much, wasn’t it? I shouldn’t have made him do Judo, but I think the circumstances have changed. I remember when the Arab Spring was in its full torrent, Tunisia had gone, Egypt had gone, Libya was on its way, and John McCain was on the news, saying: “It’s only a matter of time before this has a knock-on effect in places like Russia, which is another police state slash totalitarian regime.” I remember thinking: “Nah, you’ve gone a bit far.” Actually, he might be onto something. If you look at what’s happening to Putin now, you’ve got what seems to be a fairly serious groundswell of opinion against him. All it would take for him to be history is for that movement to expand exponentially, which it could very easily do, and that’s a wonderful thing, because I think he’s a monster. I’m not sure he wouldn’t be replaced by another monster, but he is overseeing a kleptocracy – cronyism and murder – all to sustain a power base and a high level of financing.
Putin had a social contract with the Russian people 10 years ago, when he said: “Look, the crazy days of Yeltsin and the oligarchs taking all of our natural resources and wealth are over. I will bring all that to an end. I will get the gangs under control. I will establish some sense of social order and justice. At the same time there will be a burgeoning middle class. The roads will be fixed. The hospitals will get better…” He’s done the first bit to suit himself, to establish himself as the tsar. The second bit hasn’t been fulfilled at all, so whatever was said in The Trinity Six was written before this fantastic moment, when the people had their say in the Maghreb. There’s nothing to stop that happening anywhere, even in China.
I’m all for people getting educated about what’s going on in their own backyard. That comes back to what I was saying about cynicism about politicians in the UK. We’re so jaded here because we know exactly what they’re like. We know that they took cocaine at university, we know who they’re sleeping with, and we know that they make their wives take their speeding points. We’ve seen behind the curtain, and that’s a great thing, though it makes being a politician in this country an impossible job. You’re forensically watched, examined, and judged all the time, whereas these hard men like Gaddafi and Putin and whoever’s in charge in China this week will have you locked up if you take them on. Here the politicians are in danger of being locked up, which has got to be the right way around.