Veteran Spy Novelist John Le Carré Takes On Brexit in His Latest

The foremost spy novelist in English, John Le Carré, (nom de plume for David Cornwell), is still writing at 88, and this time he's using his brisk dialogue and careful plotting to remark on current events, chiefly "the sheer bloody lunacy of Brexit."  All the good guys in Agent Running in the Field hate Brexit ("the most important decision facing Britain since 1939"), along with hating the never-named and "pig-ignorant" Boris Johnson, Donald Trump, and all that threatens the rule of the European Union.  One of the novel's heroes rails against Trump as '"Putin's s---house cleaner," doing everything "that little Vladi can't do for himself: pisses on European unity, pisses on human rights, pisses on NATO.'" 

It's been said that Le Carré's constant theme has been betrayal.  In Agent, Le Carré makes clear that he thinks England leaving the EU is a betrayal — not of England, but of Europe.  In his previous novel, 2017's A Legacy of Spies, his premier spymaster George Smiley reflects sadly to Peter Guillam, his disillusioned lieutenant, over why they did the nasty things they did in their intelligence work.  Was it for world peace, he asks, "whatever that was?" 

"Or was it all in the great name of capitalism?  God forbid.  Christendom?  God forbid again….

"So was it all for England, then?" he resumed.  "There was a time, of course there was.  But whose England?  Which England?  England all alone, a citizen of nowhere?  I'm a European, Peter.  If I had a mission — if I was ever aware of one beyond our business with the enemy, it was to Europe.  If I had an unattainable ideal, it was of leading Europe out of her darkness towards a new age of reason.  I have it still."

What makes the thought that his sacrifices might have been for Christendom as disgusting to Smiley as if they'd been for capitalism?  Smiley's (Le Carré's) distaste for capitalism is one thing: both Europe and England had flowered into distinctive cultures long before there was such a thing as capitalism, and neither owes its glorious histories to it.  The same can't be said for Christianity, whose spreading flame was burning west long before there was such an idea as Europe.  Even the polite agnostics of Britain's patrician class cannot dispute that, if there was a cause whose effect can be said to have founded and made Europe, that qualifies as the indispensable thing that united a vast region into a civilization, it was the Christian faith.  The early convergence of the Faith and Greek thought, as then-Pope Benedict emphasized at Regensburg in 2006, "with the subsequent addition of the Roman heritage, created Europe and remains the foundation of what can rightly be called Europe."

A secular European like George Smiley wouldn't deny that reality, probably answering only that it took an Age of Reason to liberate Europe from a divided Christendom's bloody wrangling over the next world.  But as Smiley describes Europe's current darkness, and his longing to lead her into a new age of reason, he doesn't reveal what he thinks went wrong after the old one, or why enlightened Europe's light went out again.  His two recent novels suggest Le Carré believes the way out of darkness requires at least an end to national ambitions, and allegiance to a united Europe, or at least to the European Union, which is what makes Brexit and British nationalism so obnoxious to the author and his characters.

When Smiley tells Peter Guillam that, as a European, he wasn't spying merely for England — "whose England?  Which England?" — an obvious question springs to mind: then whose Europe? Which Europe?  The Europe of the EU technocracy?  The Europe of revisionist doubt and self-hatred, of mounting antisemitism, and unassimilated migrants bent on transforming the continent into an Islamic colony?  The Europe of empty churches, childless couples, and a pervasive anguish over the imminent planetary apocalypse?  

Smiley's ideal mission on behalf of the new age of reason, and what Le Carré describes elsewhere as Smiley's dream "of a second Reformation, and of a great, peaceful, democratic Europe," implicates two historical events that, the first time around, resulted in anything but peace and democracy.  And now that Europe and Christendom are no longer synonymous, what unifying institution is calling for reform, and who shall the reformers be?  The closest thing the West has to a universal religion is veneration of the environment, which has morphed from yesterday's recycling craze into a pagan cult of ritual sacrifices, abstention from meat and  childbearing, and dark warnings of how we're sinners in the hands of an angry planet, dangling over fiery annihilation by a slender thread

Even unbelievers recognize that wherever reason is enthroned to the exclusion of the human craving for transcendence, the results are never as promised.  "Far as I am from decrying reason," writes atheist Theodore Dalrymple, "the attempt leads at best to Gradgrind and at worst to Stalin. Reason can never be the absolute dictator of man's mental or moral economy."

Enlightened Britain never passed through the horrors that secularized France, Germany, or Russia set loose, but whether the European nations are united or not, the underlying spiritual sickness is the same.  Speaking through Smiley, Le Carré's picture of an independent England as an "England all alone, a citizen of nowhere," puts me in mind of the instinct that drives jumpy prey animals back to the herd.  In 2017's "The Paris Statement," the continent's conservatives saw how "[i]t is no accident that the decline of Christian faith in Europe has been accompanied by renewed efforts to establish political unity—an empire of money and regulations, covered with sentiments of pseudo-religious universalism, that is being constructed by the European Union."

At least we can be grateful that Smiley didn't tell Guillam he's a citizen of the world.  He still recognizes that Europe is Europe, distinct from everywhere else, even if he's foggy about why that's the case.  Certainly not because, as Raymond Ibrahim recently noted, Europe "came to be known as 'the West' because it was literally the remaining and westernmost appendage of Christendom not to be swallowed up by Islam."  Maybe it's just because Europe isn't, (God forbid again), America. 

Le Carré in his old age is angry, and feels his ties to England are loosening.  He didn't write Agent Running in the Field as a message novel, but if it has a message, it's "that our concept of patriotism and nationalism — our concept of where to place our loyalties, collectively and individually — is now utterly mysterious."  But if the simple idea of love of country, for a nation, for a culture, is so mysterious — so dangerous — the reason may be that the concept of patriotism has for so long been despised and condemned by creative people and progressives.  Writing about Tolstoy more than a century ago, Chesterton said, "The scepticism of the last two centuries has attacked patriotism as it has attacked all the other theoretic passions of mankind, and in the case of patriotism the attack has been interesting and respectable because it has come from a set of modern writers who are not mere sceptics, but who really have an organic belief in philosophy and politics."  Among modern writers, Le Carré, master of fiction, is all those things: interesting, philosophical, a genius who can depict the subtlest politics just by showing us a priggish bureaucrat who simply must torment his assistant.  But since Tolstoy's day, skepticism has had another hundred years to work its corrosive effect.  Can it be any wonder — a tragic one — that in his ninth decade the provocative and perceptive creator of Smiley's People forsakes the idea of loyalty and patriotism as a hopeless puzzle?

T.R. Clancy looks at the world from Dearborn, Michigan.  You can email him at trclancy@yahoo.com.

Image: German Embassy London via Wikimedia Commons.

The foremost spy novelist in English, John Le Carré, (nom de plume for David Cornwell), is still writing at 88, and this time he's using his brisk dialogue and careful plotting to remark on current events, chiefly "the sheer bloody lunacy of Brexit."  All the good guys in Agent Running in the Field hate Brexit ("the most important decision facing Britain since 1939"), along with hating the never-named and "pig-ignorant" Boris Johnson, Donald Trump, and all that threatens the rule of the European Union.  One of the novel's heroes rails against Trump as '"Putin's s---house cleaner," doing everything "that little Vladi can't do for himself: pisses on European unity, pisses on human rights, pisses on NATO.'" 

It's been said that Le Carré's constant theme has been betrayal.  In Agent, Le Carré makes clear that he thinks England leaving the EU is a betrayal — not of England, but of Europe.  In his previous novel, 2017's A Legacy of Spies, his premier spymaster George Smiley reflects sadly to Peter Guillam, his disillusioned lieutenant, over why they did the nasty things they did in their intelligence work.  Was it for world peace, he asks, "whatever that was?" 

"Or was it all in the great name of capitalism?  God forbid.  Christendom?  God forbid again….

"So was it all for England, then?" he resumed.  "There was a time, of course there was.  But whose England?  Which England?  England all alone, a citizen of nowhere?  I'm a European, Peter.  If I had a mission — if I was ever aware of one beyond our business with the enemy, it was to Europe.  If I had an unattainable ideal, it was of leading Europe out of her darkness towards a new age of reason.  I have it still."

What makes the thought that his sacrifices might have been for Christendom as disgusting to Smiley as if they'd been for capitalism?  Smiley's (Le Carré's) distaste for capitalism is one thing: both Europe and England had flowered into distinctive cultures long before there was such a thing as capitalism, and neither owes its glorious histories to it.  The same can't be said for Christianity, whose spreading flame was burning west long before there was such an idea as Europe.  Even the polite agnostics of Britain's patrician class cannot dispute that, if there was a cause whose effect can be said to have founded and made Europe, that qualifies as the indispensable thing that united a vast region into a civilization, it was the Christian faith.  The early convergence of the Faith and Greek thought, as then-Pope Benedict emphasized at Regensburg in 2006, "with the subsequent addition of the Roman heritage, created Europe and remains the foundation of what can rightly be called Europe."

A secular European like George Smiley wouldn't deny that reality, probably answering only that it took an Age of Reason to liberate Europe from a divided Christendom's bloody wrangling over the next world.  But as Smiley describes Europe's current darkness, and his longing to lead her into a new age of reason, he doesn't reveal what he thinks went wrong after the old one, or why enlightened Europe's light went out again.  His two recent novels suggest Le Carré believes the way out of darkness requires at least an end to national ambitions, and allegiance to a united Europe, or at least to the European Union, which is what makes Brexit and British nationalism so obnoxious to the author and his characters.

When Smiley tells Peter Guillam that, as a European, he wasn't spying merely for England — "whose England?  Which England?" — an obvious question springs to mind: then whose Europe? Which Europe?  The Europe of the EU technocracy?  The Europe of revisionist doubt and self-hatred, of mounting antisemitism, and unassimilated migrants bent on transforming the continent into an Islamic colony?  The Europe of empty churches, childless couples, and a pervasive anguish over the imminent planetary apocalypse?  

Smiley's ideal mission on behalf of the new age of reason, and what Le Carré describes elsewhere as Smiley's dream "of a second Reformation, and of a great, peaceful, democratic Europe," implicates two historical events that, the first time around, resulted in anything but peace and democracy.  And now that Europe and Christendom are no longer synonymous, what unifying institution is calling for reform, and who shall the reformers be?  The closest thing the West has to a universal religion is veneration of the environment, which has morphed from yesterday's recycling craze into a pagan cult of ritual sacrifices, abstention from meat and  childbearing, and dark warnings of how we're sinners in the hands of an angry planet, dangling over fiery annihilation by a slender thread

Even unbelievers recognize that wherever reason is enthroned to the exclusion of the human craving for transcendence, the results are never as promised.  "Far as I am from decrying reason," writes atheist Theodore Dalrymple, "the attempt leads at best to Gradgrind and at worst to Stalin. Reason can never be the absolute dictator of man's mental or moral economy."

Enlightened Britain never passed through the horrors that secularized France, Germany, or Russia set loose, but whether the European nations are united or not, the underlying spiritual sickness is the same.  Speaking through Smiley, Le Carré's picture of an independent England as an "England all alone, a citizen of nowhere," puts me in mind of the instinct that drives jumpy prey animals back to the herd.  In 2017's "The Paris Statement," the continent's conservatives saw how "[i]t is no accident that the decline of Christian faith in Europe has been accompanied by renewed efforts to establish political unity—an empire of money and regulations, covered with sentiments of pseudo-religious universalism, that is being constructed by the European Union."

At least we can be grateful that Smiley didn't tell Guillam he's a citizen of the world.  He still recognizes that Europe is Europe, distinct from everywhere else, even if he's foggy about why that's the case.  Certainly not because, as Raymond Ibrahim recently noted, Europe "came to be known as 'the West' because it was literally the remaining and westernmost appendage of Christendom not to be swallowed up by Islam."  Maybe it's just because Europe isn't, (God forbid again), America. 

Le Carré in his old age is angry, and feels his ties to England are loosening.  He didn't write Agent Running in the Field as a message novel, but if it has a message, it's "that our concept of patriotism and nationalism — our concept of where to place our loyalties, collectively and individually — is now utterly mysterious."  But if the simple idea of love of country, for a nation, for a culture, is so mysterious — so dangerous — the reason may be that the concept of patriotism has for so long been despised and condemned by creative people and progressives.  Writing about Tolstoy more than a century ago, Chesterton said, "The scepticism of the last two centuries has attacked patriotism as it has attacked all the other theoretic passions of mankind, and in the case of patriotism the attack has been interesting and respectable because it has come from a set of modern writers who are not mere sceptics, but who really have an organic belief in philosophy and politics."  Among modern writers, Le Carré, master of fiction, is all those things: interesting, philosophical, a genius who can depict the subtlest politics just by showing us a priggish bureaucrat who simply must torment his assistant.  But since Tolstoy's day, skepticism has had another hundred years to work its corrosive effect.  Can it be any wonder — a tragic one — that in his ninth decade the provocative and perceptive creator of Smiley's People forsakes the idea of loyalty and patriotism as a hopeless puzzle?

T.R. Clancy looks at the world from Dearborn, Michigan.  You can email him at trclancy@yahoo.com.

Image: German Embassy London via Wikimedia Commons.