Any novel that can push everyday politics off the news pages is both unusual and welcome, but if the book is itself a political novel, it may belong there. The Ghost, by Robert Harris, is a political novel and a half, by an author whose first career was writing about politics before he turned to popular fiction.
Having made an international reputation and a small fortune from his 20th-century what-if novels Fatherlandand Archangel(dealing with Hitler and Stalin, respectively), Harris has recently written two historical novels set in Roman antiquity, Pompeii and Imperium. Although the latter was the first volume of a trilogy, Harris' latest book is entirely contemporary.
In the novel, a recently retired British prime minister hires a ghostwriter—the nameless narrator of the title—to turn his dreary memoirs into something publishable. This politician, Adam Lang, is a slick performer, but things went awry when he took his country into a disastrous Middle Eastern war, and he is now being denounced as a war criminal. He has a clever, domineering wife and an attentive, beautiful assistant, who turns out to be providing more than merely professional services.
All of which has lit a media firestorm in London, since everyone believes The Ghost to be a transparent roman à clef about the author's one-time friend Tony Blair. "A deposed PM, a pushy wife and his very devoted aide," nudged a Daily Mail headline. "Affairs of state," winked the Sunday Times. "The former PM in his new novel is strikingly similar to our ex-leader," observed the Independent lugubriously.
Naturally enough, Harris has denied that the book is a portrait of Blair, and he takes particular pains to insist that the affair between Lang and his aide is complete fiction. When Anji Hunter, Blair's friend since their teens and his close assistant for years at Downing Street, was asked to comment, she said, "I've not heard of Robert Harris or any of his books."
Some of us have not only heard of Harris but have followed the relationship between him and Blair for years, and a riveting real-life tale it is, of friendship, enthusiasm, and disillusionment. By way of disclosure, I should say that Harris is a friend of mine. I can claim no part in midwifing The Ghost, except that we lunch regularly at a pub in Wiltshire to rest from our labors, contemplate the passing scene, and comment sardonically on the politicians and writers of the age. I have thus observed his changing attitude to Blair at close quarters, but no inside information is needed to tell this story. All that's most fascinating can be found from what Harris has said publicly, and it is all the more telling because he personifies a whole generation's loss of faith in Blair.
The two men are near contemporaries, Blair 54 and Harris 50. Blair was the son of a self-made lawyer, educated privately in Edinburgh and at Oxford, Harris the son of a self-taught printer, educated at a public high school in Leicestershire and at Cambridge. Blair trained as a barrister, entered parliament in 1983, became Labor Party leader in 1994, won a landslide general election in 1997, and the rest you know.
It wouldn't have been at all surprising if Harris had also gone into politics, but instead he became a journalist. He spent some years as a reporter with the BBC (that's when the photograph of him with Ronald Reagan that hangs, in the English fashion, in his downstairs loo was taken). He wrote for one Sunday newspaper, the Observer, and then moved to another, the Sunday Times, as its highest-paid columnist.
Shortly before the 1992 election, an aide of Blair's called Harris to suggest a lunch. The two men discovered an affinity: Harris was depressed by Tory dominance after three election victories—soon to become four—and he saw Blair as the man who might rescue Labor. Two years later, after the Tory government had suffered a drastic loss of authority in the wake of a financial crisis, Labor leader John Smith died suddenly and was succeeded by Blair.
By that time, Harris had enjoyed a runaway success with Fatherland, followed by four more best sellers. He dropped out of journalism for a while, but he still kept up a running commentary on Blair's ascent. In 1997, Blair handpicked Harris as a sympathetic chronicler to accompany him in cars and planes on his triumphal campaign. (Harris told me afterward that, with all this unique and enviable access, he had never covered an election where he knew less about what was actually going on. The place to learn that nowadays is sitting at home in front of the television.)
Although Harris never joined the ranks of those who sycophantically praised Blair—and in some cases later venomously damned him—he did see him as an outstanding figure who could change the country. "These are revolutionary times," he wrote in 1997, a phrase I genially mocked in print, since it described exactly what they weren't. And yet at an early stage he was also perceptive about Blair's dangerous gift for being all things to all people and saying different things to different audiences. With a novelist's unconscious sense of dramatic irony, one might say, he wrote, more than 10 years ago, "Which of us, I wonder, will be the first to be disappointed?"
A twist in this particular plot was that Harris and his wife, Gill Hornby (whose brother Nick is one more best-selling author), are old friends of Peter Mandelson's, who is godfather to one of their four children. After adroitly switching sides from supporting Gordon Brown for the party leadership, Mandelson became Blair's consigliere; he joined the Cabinet after the election but was forced to resign, not once but twice.
On the first occasion, when Mandelson was quite simply in the wrong (over an undeclared loan), Harris stood up for his friend a little half-heartedly, saying he had been "a bloody fool," but the second time, in January 2001, he recognized and denounced a real injustice, as some others did also. Mandelson was framed up over a charge of intervening to secure British citizenship for a friendly Indian billionaire, though he was later cleared, simply because Alastair Campbell, Blair's unspeakable spin doctor, wanted to placate the media. There is a hilarious passage in Campbell's gruesome recently published diaries when he is "appalled at Robert Harris going on TV effectively saying I had pushed [Mandelson] out." This comes after several pages in which Campbell has described doing precisely that.
If Blair could behave like that to one of his closest friends, Harris reflected, what was he capable of doing to the rest of us? Some months later, shortly before the 2001 election, he began a column with the memorable words, "There is something truly loathsome about the modern Labour party," and he elaborated on this, from Blair's emetic speech launching the campaign in front of an audience of unfortunate schoolgirls ("I want not just to win your vote, but to win your heart and mind") to Campbell himself.
You might think that would have been the parting of the ways, especially since Harris saw from the start how Blair was taking us into a needless and disastrous war, and "in a way that casts doubt on both his judgement and his honesty." Still, as Harris has observed, politicians are less thin-skinned than journalists, and the two couples—Tony and Cherie, and Robert and Gill—had an informal supper at 10 Downing Street as late as November 2003. (That is private information.) But they meet no longer.
So, is The Ghost a portrait drawn from life? Harris elegantly if implausibly borrows Evelyn Waugh's prefatory note to Brideshead Revisited (another suspected novel with a key): "I am not I: thou art not he or she: they are not they," and he has repeated this claim in successive interviews. But denial is the flavor of the moment. That call inviting Harris to lunch with Blair in 1992 was made by Anji Hunter. She has often seen Harris since and attended his book launches. And when Harris gave a large and enjoyable lunch party for his 50th birthday last March, she was—unless my eyes entirely deceived me—there, too.
Her "I've not heard …" is pure New Labor. You have a restive populace unenthusiastic about invading a distant country that represents no clear and present danger? Campbell concocts a preposterous "dossier" of alleged intelligence about noxious weaponry cobbled together from the Internet. You are asked an awkward question about a new book? You say quite baldly, "I've not heard of Robert Harris or any of his books."
Having read The Ghost, I can understand the author's plea that "I don't want it to be thought that all I've done is written an extended profile of Tony and Cherie." Of course the book is more than that, and I tried to accept the author's denials—right up until the moment Lang complains bitterly that everyone thinks he's an actor, which is, of course, the old charge against Blair. Then a former ally turned nemesis says, "Name me one decision that Adam Lang took as Prime Minister that wasn't in the interest of the United States of America." He goes on to list the offending decisions, from a war fought "against the advice of just about every senior commander in our armed forces and all of our ambassadors who know the region" (and without "any kind of quid pro quo from the White House") to "collusion in illegal kidnapping, torture imprisonment and even murder of our own citizens."
That's what some of us have been saying lengthily and wearily with a feeling that no one was listening, and there's all the more reason for saying it again in gripping fictional guise. Whether or not The Ghost is a roman à clef, it's surely a roman à thèse: not only a page-turning thriller but a real political novel that eloquently echoes a sad and sour disenchantment.
Speaking on a BBC TV documentary last summer, Harris said: "I do think his time in office is a tragedy; because Blair was of my generation and this was our shot, if you like. I won't say that we've messed it up, but that it perhaps hasn't lived up to all the expectations of that rosy-fingered dawn of 1 May 1997." Those words might even have stood as the epigraph to his latest book, novel or not.