In a Guardian interview last year with his fellow novelist John Banville, the late John le Carré expressed dismay at the coarsening nature of political debate in Britain, particularly on the subject of Brexit. “Mob orators of the sort we have,” said Le Carré, “the Boris Johnson sort, do not speak reason. When you get into that category, your task is to fire up the people with nostalgia, with anger.”
Last week’s embarrassing eruption of jingoistic posturing by the government and parts of the media fell into exactly this rhetorical space. In the attempt to ramp up talk of a no-deal outcome to trade negotiations with the EU, Westminster briefings gave licence to absurdly inflammatory headlines such as “gunships to guard our fish”. An unnamed government “source” suggested that Angela Merkel wished to see Britain “crawl across broken glass” before a deal was done. Ms Merkel’s refusal to subvert the EU’s negotiating protocol and speak directly to Boris Johnson on the phone was put down to a Lutheran distaste for the prime minister’s morals. The template for this bellicose, hyperbolic and essentially unserious tone was the one laid down by the prime minister himself, during his muckraking days as Brussels correspondent for the Daily Telegraph.
Interviewed on Sunday’s Sophy Ridge show, the Spanish foreign minister, Arancha González Laya, suggested it was all “for the gallery” stuff. She is surely right. In the lead-up to the same day’s crucial phone call between Mr Johnson and the head of the European commission, Ursula von der Leyen, it was briefed that the chances of no deal had risen as high as 80%. But the prime minister followed up the accumulated sound and fury by duly conceding to the EU’s fundamental demand: the need for future regulatory divergence between the EU and Britain to be managed by a formal mechanism. As has been apparent from the outset, the EU will not countenance a trade deal with a significant neighbour who retains the option to subvert the single market with impunity. Just as he did on the Irish border question, Mr Johnson has railed and blustered, but eventually given in. Britain has its own valid concerns about how the impact of divergence will be measured and how the arbitration mechanism will work in the case of disputes. There will be negotiations over these issues in the coming days.
So much for gunboat diplomacy then. But the shabby theatrics of recent days diminish the government and, most importantly, the nation it represents. Any negotiation of this magnitude and complexity will involve a degree of smoke and mirrors, and the adoption of positions that may or may not be sincere. Yet the willingness of ministers, MPs and unnamed sources to pander to xenophobic stereotypes needlessly alienates allies we need to work alongside. It promotes and justifies an insular, autarkic idea of nationhood and the desire for unsullied sovereignty. This is a vision belied by the very substance of the talks the prime minister continues to be engaged in. It amounts in the end, as Le Carré accurately diagnosed, to a cynical attempt to “fire up” people by infantilising the national conversation.
What would George Smiley, Le Carré’s finest literary creation, have made of these crude simplifications? A secular priest in a spies’ church dedicated to complexity and ambiguity, Smiley could give a masterclass to the present prime minister on the subject of principles and compromise. Sadly, and damagingly for Britain’s interests, Mr Johnson remains dangerously addicted to pulp fiction.