"Like Rome, Governments Need That Five-Year Sacrifice and Sweeping Away"
Harris, Robert, New Statesman (1996)
Portrait by Philip Sinden
Were you ever tempted by a career in politics?
When I was in my teens, I was very interested in politics - the mid-1970s were an exciting time in that respect. Back then, I was thinking of becoming a Labour politician. (And of course my time would have coincided exactly with New Labour, so I have some sort of feeling about the whole experiment, in a way.) But then I went to university and became aware that one was either one thing or another. One was either a writer, with all the things that went with that, or one was prepared to make the compromises--not only in terms of lifestyle but also in terms of what you could say--and be a politician.
In the end, I am unhesitatingly a writer. I would not want to be a politician.
Yet it is clear from your novels that you regard the profession of politics as an essentially noble one.
It may not be the case today, but certainly up until the past 30 or 40 years, anyone with any talent often tended to gravitate towards politics. Although to survive and prosper in politics you have to make compromises and do deals that, sooner or later, will catch up with you, nevertheless there is something noble about it.
Do you agree with Enoch Powell's line about all political careers ending in failure?
I think that's indisputably true, because there is a false assumption built into the whole rhetoric of politics, which is to think that somehow things could ever be solved. Every politician and political party connives in this falsehood. The National Health Service is not a problem that can ever be solved, because people are always going to get sick and die. I have sympathy with the view of Francois Mitterrand that politics is not a crusade, it is a profession.
That is what attracts me about Cicero: he was a practitioner of the humane art of governance. There were few politicians more skilled, yet he was crushed by the forces around him.
One career that hasn't ended yet is that of your old friend Peter Mandelson. What do you make of his return to government?
It has been an absolutely remarkable resurgence. Peter is a professional--a supreme professional. He can run things and see things quickly in politics, and so he has been brought back--clearly because he is very good at what he does.
I don't think that he has burnt out as a politician, and that is very unusual. I think that's partly because he doesn't have a wife and family, so he's perennially fresh.
Your new novel, Lustrum, is set in ancient Rome, as was Imperium. What is it about the period that interests you?
I think there is a wonderful parallel with our own world. I'm trying in these two novels to show some of the universal rules and laws, the dramas and excitements, treacheries and intrigues of politics, in order to suggest that nothing has really changed. …