March 17 2008


March 17 2008

A novelist’s revenge on Tony Blair


In 'The Ghost,' a (familiar) recently retired British PM is rumoured to be a CIA agent


If ever there was a solid Tony Blair voting bloc it was surely the massed ranks of British novelists. They loathed Thatcher (“Mrs. Torture," as the pre-fatwa Salman Rushdie used to call her), yet "old Labour," with its knuckle-dragging union bosses and old-school class warfare, wasn’t entirely their bag, either. Solution: Tony Blair’s Third Way. He was “New Labour,” just like Bill Clinton was New Democrat. It was all the rage for a while: perhaps even now in some cave or other Mullah Omar is proposing to relaunch himself as New Taliban.

If you had to pick a day when it all went south for Blair’s literary cheerleaders, it would be Sept, ll, 2001. That afternoon London time, as the twin towers were crumbling in New York, Jo Moore, a British civil servant, watched the TV and fired off an email to her colleagues in the Department of Transport: “It’s now a very good day to get out anything we want to bury.” That was the New Labour way: the dark arts of spin, media manipulation and modish rebranding. (Mr. Blair inaugurated some international summit or other with a rock version of God Save The Queen) But in the rubble of lower Manhattan the British prime minister found something that for once he didn’t want to spin, and in the end he was the one who got buried.

Initially, Robert Harris was with him, as he had been since the early days. Twenty years ago Harris was a protean “new left” voice on Rupert Murdoch’s Sunday Times and a freshfaced backbencher on the make called him up to propose lunch at L’Escargot. Very trendy, very metropolitan, and as Blair told Harris, “It’s absurd the anti-metropolitan bias in the

party. We’ve got to rethink all this.” And so he did. On election night 1997, Harris covered New Labour’s landslide victory from a seat across the aisle from the great man on the Blairs’ private plane. When he wasn’t counselling the young prince on the remaking of Britain, Harris was a bestselling author of historical fiction. His huge hit Fatherland is one of the great alternative-history novels: what if Hitler had won the war? (I mention it only because the Canadian Islamic Congress’s dossier on Maclean’s “flagrant Islamophobia” cites a ton of plot twists from my review of Robert Ferrigno’s what-if ? novel Prayers For The Assassin as if they were factual “assertions.” So perhaps some litigious entrepreneur might like to take reviewers of Fatherland to the “human rights” commission on the grounds that they’re flagrant neoNazis.) Anyway, having studied one great evil, Harris thought he saw another in the perpetrators of 9/11. And, for a while at least in the fall of 2001, his views on the enemy were so robust that The New Statesman and other leftie journals started nominating the poor chap as the runner-up to obvious psycho warmongers like yours truly for the Dangerous Idiot of the Week award.

And then came Iraq, and the millions of protesters in the streets of Europe, and the failure to find Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction. And, like so many other former cheerleaders, Harris soured on Blair. Few of his artsy pals, however, have exacted as exquisite a revenge on the prime minister as The Ghost. A friend who pre-Iraq was rumoured by many to be Blair’s choice for official biographer has instead written a roman à clef devoted to what the bien pensa?its regard as the “tragedy” of the Blair reign. The central

figure is “Adam Lang,” a recently retired British prime minister who came in like a lion and went out a-lyin’. The shelf of biographies in the Charing Cross bookstore begins with Adam Lang: Statesman For Our Time and works its way up to Would You Adam And Eve It? The Collected Lies OfAda?n Lang (“Adam and Eve” being Cockney rhyming slang for “believe”). Both volumes are by the same author, who evidently has undergone the same process of lucrative disillusionment as Mr. Harris. When first we glimpse the former leader, he’s on TV at a podium at the Waldorf-Astoria responding to news of another bombing. “You will all by now have heard the tragic news from London,” he says, “where once again the forces of fanaticism and intolerance...” At which point the narrator interrupts: “Nothing he uttered that night warrants reprinting. It was almost a parody of what a politician might say after a terrorist attack. Yet, watching him, you would have thought his own wife and children had been eviscerated in the blast. This was his genius: to refresh and elevate the clichés of politics by the sheer force of his performance.”

But what’s he like after the performance? “How was New York?” asks his wife, Ruth, when he lands on Martha’s Vineyard. “Great,” he burbles. “They gave me the Gulfstream Four—you know, the transatlantic one, with the beds and the shower.”

Golly. The real Blair always did have a very un-British presidential style, and no doubt the Gulfstream Four is more luxuriously appointed than the plane he and Robert Harris shared back on election night a decade ago, but is he really only in it for the status perks? Unfortunately for “Adam Lang,” the Gulfstream Four, belonging to a company called “Hallington,” was previously used to transport four al-Qaeda suspects British special forces illegally handed over to the CIA.

And so, facing possible war crimes charges if he returns to London, Mr. Lang finds himself holed up on the Vineyard out of season during a cold winter. It’s the prime minister himself who is out of season, abandoned by the crowds and unsure if they’ll ever return. And the entire novel is as chilly as the landscape, as if the cheerlessness of the bare branches and frost-heaved tracks has seeped into Harris’s pen. The Ghost is a title with multiple meanings: on the one hand, it’s the narrator—the new ghostwriter Mr. Lang hires to write his autobiography after the old one, ah, dies in mysterious circumstances. Yet it’s also the prime minister himself, not just in the sense that, out of office, he’s a wraith, the living dead transported vampirically from meeting to meeting in the Americans’ Gulfstream. In a more basic sense Adam Lang is less an enigma than an ectoplasm.

Which presents the ghostwriter with a bit of a problem. “That was when I realized I had a fundamental problem with our former prime minister,” the narrator informs us, as he sits down to craft the Lang “autobiography.” “He was not a psychologically credible character. In the flesh, or on the screen playing the part of a statesman, he seemed to have a strong personality. But somehow, when one sat down to think about him, he vanished.”

In The Ghost, Harris attempts to explore what for him and his chums is the great conundrum—why the most gifted progressive reformist prime minister the Labour Party has ever produced let himself and his country become the stooge of a right-wing Christian cowboy warmonger, and without getting anything in return. This is, to put it mildly, an unpersuasive analysis. The price of getting the British to hold down the lower third of Iraq five years ago was that Bush was prevailed upon by Blair to go tap dancing through the United Nations for an extra six months through the fall and winter of 2002/2003. During that time, Saddam snuck all his WMD off to Syria or wherever, and the “peace”

movement metastasized from a kook fringe to a great seething mass of global discontent. In other words,pace Harris, the bargain Blair drove was a crummy deal for Bush: he’d have done better to invade Iraq earlier and without the Brits. But, if you’re looking at it through the other end of the telescope, as Harris is, you need another explanation. And so the book swirls with rumours that “Adam Lang” was a CIA agent, recruited at university, planted in a safe constituency and groomed for Downing Street.

Harris is a skilled writer, and his tale is well told, right down to a surprise ending that reveals the totality of the novelist’s disenchantment with his old lunch companion. Adam Lang is an empty suit of a prime minister who performed a kind of ingenious conjuring trick on the British people. But is that really what happened? Some of us look at Blair the other way round: under New Labour, the hospitals, the schools, the roads, the crime got worse. But after 9/11 the phony-baloney control-freak nanny-stater got the big question right. Last November, asked to own up to regretting “the war,” Tony Blair told the BBC, “I can’t say what I don’t believe... If there’s anything I regret,” he continued, “it is not having laid out for people in a clearer way what I saw as the profound nature of this struggle and the fact that it was going to go on for a generation.” That’s what his old lunch pals never accepted, and so they searched for alternative explanations: empty suit, Bush stooge, CIA agent. “The enemy that we are fighting I am afraid has learnt,” Blair concluded, “that our stomach for this fight is limited and I believe they think they can wait us out. Our determination has got to match theirs and our will has got to be stronger than theirs and at the moment I think it is probably not.”

Tony Blair was a leader who ran out of followers. As skilled as The Ghost undoubtedly is, you can’t help feeling that the ectoplasm here may not be the prime minister but the British nation. M