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Sensemaker: The extra mile

Monday 14 December 2020

What just happened

Long stories short

  • John Le Carré, who mined the Cold War for faultlines in human nature, has died aged 89.
  • Troops stormed a school in northern Nigeria where Boko Haram terrorists had kidnapped students, only to find them missing. 
  • Russian hackers reportedly broke into several federal computer networks via software that is also used by the UK government (more below).

The extra mile

Whisper it, but the EU may slowly, wearily be blinking. Brexit talks are back on after a rough patch and could go to 31 December. Overnight mutterings from Brussels indicate that after a weekend of careful expectation management and crazy talk of navy gunboats, the team led by Michel Barnier may now be willing to:

  • drop its insistence on a formal regulator to police UK adherence to level playing field rules;
  • accept a mechanism by which tariffs or other sanctions imposed by either side would be negotiated rather than automatic;
  • assess the UK’s rules on labour, environmental and other standards by their outcomes rather than how closely they mirror the EU’s.

Remainers may wish the EU had never been put in the position of having to consider cake-and-eat-it demands from an English nationalist government wanting access to the Single Market on its own terms, but there we all are. It’s hard to know what’s bluff and what’s real without being in the room, and it might be hard even then, but lessons from the past 72 hours seem to include:

  • The only deadline that matters now is 11pm UK time – midnight in Brussels – on New Year’s Eve. That is when the transition period legally ends, and British MPs have been told to be available to ratify a deal.
  • Barnier, Boris Johnson and Ursula von der Leyen are negotiating and not to be taken at face value. A better commentator might be Simon Coveney, the Irish foreign minister, who suggested yesterday that Johnson is busy “managing domestic political considerations, divisions within his own party, [and] sending strong signals to the EU that the U.K. isn’t going to offer too much flexibility at the last minute to get a deal”.
  • Last Wednesday’s Johnson-von der Leyen dinner in Brussels was clearly a bust diplomatically but may have served as a useful reality check for any negotiators hoping to get away for Christmas. 
  • If Johnson still thinks he can slide a cigarette paper between von der Leyen / Barnier and Angela Merkel or Emmanuel Macron, he should think again. He offered yet again yesterday to go to Berlin if that would help. Merkel said not to bother.
  • Barnier’s playbook seems to be to hold out for what the EU27 considers essential protections for the Single Market, then give ground (water?) on fish. 

The pound was up about one per cent overnight. Expect bookies’ odds on a deal to shorten slightly. If it comes it will be threadbare and fudged, but better than chaos.

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Soriot’s wild fortnight
You might have thought Pascal Soriot, CEO of AstraZeneca, had spent the past two weeks fretting over his company’s confusing Covid vaccine announcements. Not so, or not only that. He’s been holed up in a Sydney hotel room negotiating the $39 billion purchase of Alexion Pharmaceuticals to turn his company into one of the world’s top ten drugs giants. Alexion makes drugs for rare blood disorders. The Sydney stay was forced on Soriot by Covid: he was quarantining en route to a family reunion. The ironies are many and overlapping – even though AstraZeneca has stumbled with the rollout of its vaccine, it was only in a position to go looking for a big acquisition because of a 25 per cent stock price increase since March, thanks to Covid. 

New things technology, science, engineering

Russian hack
Trump administration officials have admitted several federal government departments including the US Treasury have had their networks hacked by “Russian state-sponsored actors”. The hack has been going on since at least the spring and gave the hackers free access to government email accounts. Unlike the hacks that let Russian foreign and military intelligence into Democratic party email servers in 2016, these did not apparently rely on hoodwinking humans. The NYT says they’ve been traced to the same Russian intelligence units but were much more sophisticated, using digital tokens that persuaded the servers hosting the networks they were genuine. The hackers seem to have exploited regular updates in network management software provided by a Texas firm called SolarWinds that also does work for the UK government. According to the company’s website it helps “central government departments manage complex IT environments to ensure UK government IT security”. We trust GCHQ is across this. 

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Ice whopper
A monster iceberg that broke off the Antarctic ice sheet three years ago is on course to collide with South Georgia, the UK-administered island in the South Atlantic. Iceberg A68a is 93 miles long and 30 miles wide, which is about the same size as the island. It’s 650 feet thick and nine-tenths under water, which means if there is a collision it will occur offshore where the ocean floor shelves upwards. But still, it may surprise South Georgia’s penguins.  

The 100-year life health, education, living, public polic

Vaccine protest
Let’s hear it for Professor Vasiliy Vlassov, a leading Russian epidemiologist and signatory of an open letter condemning Russia’s rush to roll out its Sputnik V Covid vaccine before completing large-scale clinical trials. The undue haste was a “violation of the most important testing standards” driven by politics, and could endanger Russians’ health, Vlassov wrote. We are slow to this story, but then so is everyone else. The BBC’s Russian service reported last Thursday that the letter was sent to the Lancet in October. It’s not clear if the Lancet published it. Here is the Moscow Timessummary. It’s hard to exaggerate the risk Vlassov took writing this letter. We wish him well. 

Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Gustave Perna 
And so to a vaccine that completed its trials in an orderly fashion and poses a risk to no one. A few weeks back Gayle Smith of the One Foundation suggested at a Tortoise ThinkIn that the US had forgotten what it was capable of when it worked together – but might remember when the time came to vaccinate hundred of millions of Americans against Covid. That time has come. General Gustave Perna of the US Army is in charge. He seems to relish the task of shipping out vaccines in civilian planes at minus 70 degrees C to hundreds of vaccination centres. I have a hunch voters of all stripes could get behind him.

The week ahead

14/12 – Covid self-isolation period in UK is cut from 14 to 10 days; European Parliament committee hearing on EU-UK trade relations; Manchester Arena attack inquiry continues; court hearing for 32 charged with historic child sex offences in Kirklees, West Yorkshire; ONS publishes statistics on deaths of homeless people in England and Wales in 2019; Welsh first minister publishes new “Coronavirus Control Plan”, 15/12 – select committee report released into unequal impact of coronavirus on BAME people; ONS publishes UK labour market statistics, 16/12 – update due on England’s tiered Covid restrictions; ruling expected on death of Ella Kissi-Debrah from asthma attack; Supreme Court hands down judgement on Heathrow Airport third runway challenge; government runs no-deal “stress tests”, 17/12 – YouTube, TikTok and Facebook attend select committee session on anti-vaccine disinformation; Bank of England interest rate announcement, 18/12 – Heathrow staff strike over “fire and hire” plans, 19/12 – one-year anniversary of disbandment of the Independent Group for Change.

14/12 – US begins Covid vaccinations; Electoral College meets to certify presidential election results; former government adviser Keith Schembri testifies at inquiry into the assassination of Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia; 15/12 – French national lockdown due to end, 16/12 – Germany enters new lockdown; EU high representative Josep Borrell hosts talks with Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya; two-day meeting of WTO General Council begins, 17/12 – Vladimir Putin gives end-of-year news conference; US Food and Drug Administration to discuss authorisation of Moderna Covid vaccine, 18/12 – Nike publishes second quarter results; Tesla added to the S&P 500 index, 19/12 – Ireland’s Christmas Covid restrictions begin; Sports Illustrated award ceremony takes place online.

Opinion: Matt d’Ancona
Le Carré’s last mission

“An unmitigated clusterfuck bar none.” Thus does one of the main characters in John le Carré’s final novel, Agent Running in the Field (2019), pithily summarise Brexit.

The book’s narrator, Nat, describes the Conservative government of 2018 with equal venom: “A minority Tory cabinet of tenth-raters. A pig-ignorant foreign secretary who I’m supposed to be serving. Labour no better. The sheer bloody lunacy of Brexit.”

That “pig-ignorant foreign secretary” is, of course, now Prime Minister in real life, desperately trying to extract a last-minute trade deal from the “clusterfuck” of Britain’s departure from the European Union. It is a measure of le Carré’s determined topicality that his final espionage thriller involved not only Brexit, Trump and Russian meddling in the Western democratic process, but even EU trading tariffs. How much further enmeshed with the reality of day-to-day politics could a fiction writer in his late eighties possibly have been?

To the very last, he raged against the dying of the light by remaining implacably vigilant; furious at the indignities to which his country was being subjected by bogus patriots, spiv nationalists and sloganeering charlatans.

Last year, I wrote a piece for Tortoise about le Carré’s significance as a “Condition of England” novelist: a writer who, for six decades, provided a compelling running commentary on the state of the nation, its transformations, ambiguities, and treacheries. From Suez to the sewers of today’s populist Right rhetoric, he was always observing, tracing every oscillation between hope and disillusionment.

When I learned of his death last night, I felt a sense of personal loss that was also a moment of disclosure: that, when all is said and done, he is, and has long been, the writer that I turn to most often and instinctively to understand politics, statecraft and their very specific character in this country.

As it happens, and as if to drive home the point, I had been watching an episode of Smiley’s People (1982), the second BBC dramatisation of le Carré’s novels to feature Alec Guinnness as George Smiley. But my debt stretches back much further.

I can still remember my parents discussing the plot of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy when it was first published in 1974. Much too complex for a child, of course, but magnetic all the same: Merlin, Witchcraft, Gerald the Mole, Karla the Moscow spymaster, “chicken-feed”, lamplighters, the scalphunters, the Circus. What magic was this?

It is true that le Carré does not write often about politicians, and, when he does, he is scathing: see, for instance, the portrayal in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy of the minister Miles Sercombe, whom Smiley’s adulterous wife, Ann, once described (“proudly”) as the only one of her cousins “without a single redeeming feature”. Sercombe’s baldness, we are told, “gave him an unwarranted air of maturity,” an absurdity compounded by a “terrible Eton drawl” and his “fatuous Rolls, the black bedpan”.

Yet – for all his mockery of the political class itself – every one of le Carré’s 26 novels is, in some shape or form, about power and its exercise: about the endless, nuanced interaction between principles and ambition; between decency and (a favourite word) “larceny”; and – most complex of all – the extent to which foul deeds are justified by noble ends.

In this sense, he used the secret world as a stage upon which to explore both questions of national character, and the personal dilemmas confronted by those who find themselves embroiled in clandestine activity. Often, the price they pay is grievously high.

In Smiley’s People, it is a terrible role reversal that ensures the final defeat of Karla – “He controls the whole of Russia, but he does not exist” – as Smiley tracks down his longtime adversary’s mentally ill daughter to a Swiss clinic: “On Karla has descended the curse of Smiley’s compassion; on Smiley the curse of Karla’s fanaticism. I have destroyed him with the weapons I abhorred, and they are his. We have crossed each other’s frontiers, we are the no-men of this no-man’s land.”

Through the eyes of Smiley and many other characters, le Carré was a pitiless chronicler of national decline. In Tinker Tailor, the unmasked Soviet mole, Bill Haydon, tells Smiley that his own treachery was driven by a gradual recognition that “if England were out of the game, the price of fish would not be altered by a farthing”.

Given this metaphor, there is a bleak symmetry in the fact that, on the very day that the author died, government sources were briefing the media with the pathetic line that, if the EU and UK negotiators failed to reach a deal, gunboats would be deployed to “protect our fish”.

As a former officer of MI5 and MI6, le Carré had no time for traitors (he famously refused to meet Kim Philby in Moscow). But he never allowed his characters – or his readers – to take refuge in lazy jingoism. He understood that patriotism is meaningless if it lacks depth, reflection and a measure of uncertainty.

Nor was he a nostalgist: quite the opposite, in fact. The fall of the Berlin Wall awoke in him a great hope of a monumental rebuilding of the East – quickly dashed by what followed the historic events of 1989. In The Secret Pilgrim (1991), we are told of “Smiley’s aphorism about the right people losing the Cold War, and the wrong people winning it”.

Indeed, in novels such as The Night Manager (1993) and The Constant Gardener (2001), le Carré was quicker than most to foresee that the post-Cold War landscape would be inherited by a smug coalition of governments and corporations; that worship of reified “business” would infect public policy; and that the same breed of privately educated, endlessly charming Englishmen who had once defended the old order of the Empire and then the West against the Soviet bloc would smoothly switch their allegiance to this new and unaccountable cartel of states and plutocrats.

“The privately educated Englishman is the greatest dissembler on earth,” says Smiley in The Secret Pilgrim. “Nobody will charm you so glibly, disguise his feelings from you better, cover his tracks more skilfully or find it harder to confess to you that he’s been a damn fool.”

How true, yet again, that seems today, as Boris Johnson gurns his way through a crisis that will determine the trajectory of this country for decades. Not for nothing is one of le Carré’s (best, if lesser-known) novels titled Our Game (1995): a reference to Winchester College football. A fear of privileged men reducing the fate of nations to playtime runs through his work: in Tinker Tailor, Smiley imagines the mole Haydon “[s]tanding at the middle of a secret stage, playing world against world, hero and playwright in one: oh, Bill had loved that all right.”

In the end, the character of Smiley himself is le Carré’s most precious bequest to the world. He is a true public servant, reserved but never docile, unashamed of his erudition, ironic to a fault, sleeplessly aware that the world is full of lethal complexities and that those who pretend otherwise with their slogans and demagoguery are not to be trusted.

To the end of his life, le Carré understood that resilience in an age of pulverising technological and geopolitical change would require greater integrity than ever, greater wisdom, greater reflection. In Smiley, he imagined a profound form of Englishness that is worth preserving, not in spite of, but because of, its ambiguities. As Control, his mentor and boss, tells him after his first and unsuccessful attempt to ensnare Karla in Delhi: “I like you to have doubts…. It tells me where you stand.”

In le Carré’s penultimate novel, A Legacy of Spies (2017) – a coda of sorts to The Spy Who Came In From the Cold (1963), the book that made his name – Peter Guillam, Smiley’s closest disciple, tracks him down to a library in Freiburg. Unbidden, the elderly spy tries to explain why he did what he did with his life.

“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 was heartless, I was heartless for Europe. If I had an unattainable ideal, it was leading Europe out of her darkness towards a new age of reason. I have it still.”

Those final, spare words read today – amid the infantile bedlam of Brexit – less like an elegy for something unrecoverable than le Carré’s mission statement for future generations. It’s a fine one, too. RIP.

Thanks for reading, and do share this around. 

Giles Whittell

Photographs Getty Images