Robert Harris and Politics

I have been reading Robert Harris’s novels.  I enjoyed his latest, Munich, but also had a good time with Conclave, Dictator and Pompeii.  Some time ago I read Ghost.  Fatherland was serialized on television recently.  Some of his books are set in real historical events.  The imaginary context for others has a similar feel, involving people and places familiar to us.  They have all required painstaking research, and we are left with the impression that the characters live in a world that is familiar to us, and that the events described could easily have happened.

In Harris’s historical fiction, the past comes alive by means of imagination and invention.  He gives the reader a perspective from which to engage with history.  Purists may complain that the distinction between fact and fiction is not always clear, but to my mind that doesn’t matter.  Clearly, Harris interprets past events in ways that serve the interests of the story he wants to tell, but he has no interest in deliberate distortion or falsehood, and goes to great lengths to maintain a feeling of authenticity.

Hilary Mantel tells us that imagination is always involved in the telling of history.  Subjectivity and interpretation is inevitable, and to present history as pure fact is naïve and misleading.  Writers like Harris and Mantel do not pretend their books are anything other than fiction, but by writing well and treating their sources with respect, they make it possible for us to enter into the world of the past and think helpfully about what it means and what it can teach us.

Harris’s novels centre on the nature and use of political power.  His imaginary characters, through whom the stories are told, are caught up in the political intrigues and power struggles of their day.  Munich describes Neville Chamberlain’s attempt to avert or at least postpone war at his meeting with Hitler in 1938.  We see the event through the eyes of civil servants Hugh Legat and Paul von Hartmann, caught up in this fateful encounter.  The main focus of the story, ostensibly on their relationship, is actually more about the international power-play going on around them, and how their personal fortunes are tied up with that.  The book carries us along like any good thriller, but also enables us to engage with the impact, risks and limitations of political power.

Dictator is about the political struggles of ancient Rome as the Republic fell and first Julius Caesar, then Octavian took power, seen through the experiences of the rhetorician and statesman Cicero and his secretary Tiro.  Conclave concerns a different kind of power struggle as the Cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church meet to appoint the next Pope.  Pompeii, which gives a dramatic account of the eruption of Vesuvius and of a romantic relationship developing in its shadow, is also about the political ambitions of powerful people in the cities affected.  In both Conclave and Pompeii, the action is told through the experiences of a main character struggling to navigate through the political complexities in which he finds himself.

Harris depicts the political world in which his characters are set as a dark place of intrigue, deception, personal ambition and the threat and use of force.  They face risks and try and avoid disaster at the hands of the powerful people around them.  The sub-plot (or is it the main one?) is the nature of political power itself.  Does Harris’s Machiavellian depiction relate to politics in general?  His novels cover a variety of scenarios, including Nazi Germany, ancient Rome, the Roman Catholic Church and contemporary international relations.  The dramatic value of presenting politics in this way is obvious, and perhaps this is all that matters, but it nevertheless raises questions about politics more widely.

Popular perception seems to suggest that politics is by nature as Harris portrays it.  Distrust and cynicism are widespread.  It might be less appealing to novelists, but it should be possible to see politics more as a matter of persuading others through reasoned argument and debate, where politicians are prepared to change their minds in the light of evidence and reason, and not condemned for doing so, where Parliament is a place of genuine debate and compromise rather than a struggle for power between two fighting factions, and where the desire for personal status and power takes second place to the search for the common good.  At a time when democracy faces severe challenges, Harris’s books are not only a good read, but also a stimulus to thinking about the nature of politics and the risks we all face when the hunger for power becomes dominant.

Peter Shepherd (October 2017)

Data Storm

The creativity of today’s games-makers and web-designers, and the impact they have on our lives, is astonishing.  People huddle over small screens, building cities, fighting battles, challenging unseen opponents, thrilled by success and frustrated at failure.  Others are communicating with their absent friends and colleagues, receiving and sending messages, pictures and videos, smiling and frowning in turn as their fingers swipe and click, liking, commenting, downloading and sharing.  Still others are exploring possible holiday destinations, comparing prices, reading about people, places or events, reading up on current affairs, checking diaries, confirming directions.  A few are at work, e-mailing, texting, creating.  Occasionally a conversation will take place with someone unseen.  All fully engaged intellectually and emotionally in what they are doing.

What a wonderful kaleidoscope of data now available to us!  Life has been enriched in all sorts of ways, the possibilities open to us have been expanded and our ability to make decisions, maintain relationships, entertain and educate ourselves has grown enormously.  Naturally, adjustments to this new world are painful for some, but the practical benefits are many.

Less clear is how our sense of personal identity is being altered, how our view of the world is being transformed and how the way we think and feel about relating to each other is developing.  Some of the people most closely connected to the corporations driving this technological revolution are expressing anxieties about the way it is changing us.  As we try to cope with such an ocean of data and opinion, the tendency is to select what we would like to see and hear.  Far from broadening our horizons, which is what we might expect, this tendency reinforces pre-existing ideas and prejudices.  The democratizing of information, where everyone’s voice is given equal weight, has the benefit of giving everyone the opportunity to be heard, but it also makes discerning what is valuable or true that much more difficult.  What is said with passion or humour often rises to the surface, regardless of the merit of its content.

Worrying too are the motives and prejudices of those who exercise power within this new world of information.  Advertisers, publishers, editors and owners of every age have been able to shape opinion and behaviour, but many of the limitations on such power have now been swept away by the global scope of the internet.  The presentation of data is largely in the hands of a few huge global corporations, and to some extent Governments, each with its own commercial or political agenda.  Often hidden behind claims of openness and freedom, those with the relevant skills and opportunity (or who can purchase them) can manipulate what, how and when we see and hear things.

Such control is rarely blatant or coercive, and may be exercised with proper consideration, but the power it gives is considerable.  To be in a position to influence a huge number people’s emotional response to what they see and hear, and the decisions they make as a result, even in a marginal way, offers huge benefits.  If it did not, those who devote large amounts of energy and money to acquire it would not bother.

There is a political dimension of all this.  We value the freedom democracy gives to enable us to choose and influence those who govern us.  To do that we need to know about the options available, to consider them rationally and then to make informed decisions.  The internet makes more information and a greater spread of opinion available, and enables easier participation.  On the other hand, however, if the mass of data available at our finger-tips bewilders us, and results in prejudices being strengthened rather than challenged, the consequence is likely to damage the operation of genuine democracy.  The ability to manipulate or present data so that they are noticed, without regard for their accuracy or fairness, can result in decisive political advantages.  For example, fears can be exploited, salacious gossip can be shared or rumours released at critical moments in a campaign.  The scope for this and the scale now made possible has been dramatically increased, and not only for those directly involved.  Internet corporations and foreign governments operating beyond the scope of a country’s framework of law have the power to undermine the proper functioning of democracy in these and other ways.

The internet is changing us and the world we live in.  The evidence is there for all to see.  It is impossible to say what its lasting impact will be, for good or ill.  At least we should be aware of the new dynamic at work, and its ability to change the way we think, feel and choose in unprecedented ways.  We may not be able to master the forces at work, but by opening our minds to what is happening we can perhaps avoid becoming passive victims.

Peter Shepherd (October 2017)