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The Real Men of England

Everett Collection
Patrick Stewart as the Soviet spymaster Karla and Alec Guinness as the British spy George Smiley in the BBC’s adaptation of John le Carré’s novel Smiley’s People, 1982
Interviewer: Where does this pessimism come from?
John le Carré: From my observations.
Les Nouvelles Littéraires, September 1965

In the official morality of states, treason and patriotism are poles apart, as starkly opposed as love and hate, right and wrong. David Cornwell, writing as John le Carré, has spent more than half a century blurring that sharp opposition, making it unstable and obscure. And now, at the age of eighty-one and in his twenty-third novel, he has finally brought the poles together. In A Delicate Truth, treason is not merely compatible with patriotism. In order to be a patriot, the novel suggests, it is necessary to betray the state.

A Delicate Truth is simpler than almost any other le Carré novel because he is no longer in the swamp of moral ambiguities. He has crossed all the way over to the far side and stands, perhaps for the first time, on firm ground. There is no longer a dark and difficult game to be played. The three central figures of the book are all genuinely, almost sentimentally, patriotically British. And for each of them, that sentiment creates an unambiguous imperative: he must betray the secrets of the British state. In much of le Carré’s previous work, treason arises from personal complexities and emotional entanglements. Here it is the inevitable consequence of true patriotism. His old traitors betray the state because they are, by nature, deceitful. These new ones betray it because they are, by nature, honest.

The three main characters of A Delicate Truth are true believers in their country. The diplomat Kit Probyn—a “low flyer,” not a brilliant operative; an extrovert, not a gray man; happily married, not cuckolded; emotional, not icily cold—differs from le Carré’s most famous creation, the spy George Smiley, in almost every respect. Except one: his patriotism. Smiley, from his introduction to the world in le Carré’s first novel Call for the Dead, published in 1961, is “a sentimental man” with a “deep love of England.” So is Probyn. He has, we learn in the second sentence of A Delicate Truth, “very British features.” A little later, he drives through Gibraltar, one of the last outposts of the old British Empire:

A wave of patriotic fervour swept over him as centuries of British imperial conquest received him. The statues to great admirals and generals, the cannons, redoubts, bastions, the bruised air-raid precaution signs directing our stoical defenders to their nearest shelter, the Gurkha-style warriors standing guard with fixed bayonets outside the Governor’s residence, the bobbies in their baggy British uniforms: he was heir to all of it.

Later, Probyn, in happy retirement as Sir Christopher, presides at a village festival in Cornwall and revels even in the kitschy quality of the whole affair. He is well aware that “it’s Merrie bloody England, it’s Laura bloody Ashley, it’s ale and pasties and yo-ho for Cornwall”; but, he asks rhetorically of himself and his wife, “if this isn’t the land they have loved and served for so long, where is?”

Equally, Toby Bell, the much younger sometime spy and now rising star of the Foreign Office, is motivated by a straightforward patriotism. We might expect him, as the upwardly mobile “gifted, state-educated only child of pious artisan parents from the south coast of England,” to be driven, as indeed his friends are, by the desire to climb into the ruling class and make money. But he is in fact a patriotic idealist who wishes to “make a difference” by playing a part in “his country’s discovery of its true identity in a post-imperial, post–Cold War world.” This patriotism differs from Probyn’s in being forward-looking rather than nostalgic, but it is all the more potent for that. As his mentor Giles Oakley puts it, Toby could become part of the “new elite…the real men of England, unspoiled.”

The third patriot in the story is Jeb Owens, a captain in the British special forces, who has served in all his country’s recent wars—Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Iraq, Afghanistan. He is the perfect soldier who never swears and hardly ever drinks. He is a natural leader of men—even Probyn, his social superior, defers to him without question. He prides himself on doing his duty. He tells his wife, “I fight for my country.”

The very structure of the novel contains, rather uneasily, a notion of what that country is. The unease lies in the confusion of Englishness with Britishness. Le Carré is an English, not a British, writer. It is Oxford colleges and Cornish cliffs, not Welsh coal-mining valleys or Scottish shipyards, that bring a tear to George Smiley’s eye. But in one of the minor oddities of A Delicate Truth, le Carré tries to evoke a larger British identity by including characters from each of the four “nations” that make up the United Kingdom. Probyn and Bell are English, Owens is Welsh; Owens’s wife is from Northern Ireland and one of the villains of the piece, the junior Foreign Office minister Fergus Quinn, is Scottish. This feels strained and schematic, but it draws attention to the importance for le Carré here of the notion of a homeland, a country that ought to be served by those who represent it.

Le Carré does not mock this patriotism, even the faintly ridiculous nostalgia for empire that gives Probyn hot flushes or causes his Foreign Office colleague Diana to speak “in the heroic anachronisms of the Punjabi officers’ mess.” For the point, in the world of A Delicate Truth, is precisely that all of this patriotism has become a heroic anachronism. The British state has itself become anti-patriotic, in that it stands in the way of the interests of its people. The emotion that made sense of all the murky double-dealings of the old le Carré spies and preserved a sense that they were still on “our side”—Smiley’s “deep love of England”—now compels Probyn, Bell, and Owens to become enemies of the state. It is almost, in this story, as if Britain has been occupied by an alien power and its patriots are compelled to revolt against its puppet government.

Probyn, Bell, and Owens are brought together by a single incident in Gibraltar in 2008. Probyn, chosen precisely because he is a “low flyer” coming toward the end of an undistinguished diplomatic career, is summoned by Quinn and sent to Gibraltar on a secret mission. He is to be the minister’s eyes and ears in an operation to capture a senior jihadist. Owens is the leader of a small British special forces unit taking part in the operation. But it is clear to readers almost from the beginning that the real driving force is an American-based private defense contractor called Ethical Outcomes. The mission is being run by “a rabble of American mercenaries, aided by British Special Forces in disguise and funded by the Republican evangelical right.”

The projected capture proceeds in darkness and confusion. Probyn is spirited out of Gibraltar, told that everything has gone as planned, and rewarded with a plum posting and a knighthood before he retires. Three years later, in 2011, Owens suddenly reappears in Probyn’s life, an angry ghost, telling ugly tales of a calamity in Gibraltar. Probyn and Bell, who was Quinn’s private secretary at the time of the operation but kept out of the loop, are forced to become spies. The twist is that they have to conduct their covert operation against their own government, to discover what really happened in Gibraltar and how it has been covered up.

In the classic Le Carré thriller, the aim of the loyal agents is to find out the enemy’s secrets and to prevent the enemy from discovering the secrets of the British state. But Probyn and especially Bell have to discover and expose a secret guarded by the institutions of the British state itself: the truth about the Gibraltar debacle. The enemy is not just the American contractors Ethical Outcomes. It is also Probyn and Bell’s employer, the Foreign Office, which is engaged in a cover-up. Even more disturbingly, it becomes clear that the ordinary forces of national security, the army and the police, are willing to go to extreme lengths to ensure that Owens’s tale is not told. Bell ends up operating in his own beloved country like an agent behind enemy lines, making secret recordings, using untraceable cell phones, adopting false identities. He becomes in effect a double agent, with the difference that the two opposed blocs in question are not the state and its enemies but the state and the truth. Bell must secretly serve the latter by penetrating the secrets of the former.

What’s new here is not the idea that covert operations suck the state into moral swamps. In The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, the book that made David Cornwell rich and his alter ego John le Carré famous all of fifty years ago, the spymaster, Control, explains to the protagonist Alec Leamas “the ethic of our work”:

We do disagreeable things, but we are defensive…. We do disagreeable things so that ordinary people here and elsewhere can sleep safely in their beds at night. Is that too romantic? Of course, we occasionally do very wicked things.

These wicked acts, he reflects, will look almost exactly like the wicked acts of the enemy, in this case the spies of the Soviet bloc:

Our methods—ours and those of the opposition—have become much the same. I mean you can’t be less ruthless than the opposition simply because your government’s policy is benevolent, can you now?… That would never do.

Control’s cynical ruminations capture, of course, the contradictions of covert warfare, not just in the cold war but in the so-called war on terror that provides the context for A Delicate Truth. In a recent essay in The New Yorker, le Carré calls The Spy Who Came In from the Cold “a very British story about very British secret manners,” but in this respect at least it applies to all those who conduct covert wars. Le Carré established in popular culture the idea that, when it comes to “secret manners,” there is little outward distinction between the actions of each side’s spies. They all trade in ruthlessly “disagreeable things”: murder, betrayal, contempt for the ordinary law. What distinguishes the sides, therefore, is merely the ultimate intention. Their guys do wicked things to further the schemes of malign states; our guys do equally wicked things in defense of relatively benevolent governments.

This idea was resurrected in more recent times. In the War on Terror, it is necessary to be just as ruthless as the terrorist opposition, just as willing to go beyond the bounds of law and morality. Here too these disagreeable things—torture, kidnapping, assassinations, acts of terror that mirror those of the enemy—must be done “so that ordinary people here and elsewhere can sleep safely in their beds at night.” If the rest of us are to enjoy nocturnal serenity, somebody else must be out there, wide awake in a different kind of darkness, doing secret evils in obscurity.

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