The NS PROFILE: Robert Harris

By Hillmore, Peter | New Statesman (1996), August 20, 2001 | Go to article overview

The NS PROFILE: Robert Harris


Hillmore, Peter, New Statesman (1996)


The erstwhile friend of Tony Blair has made his distaste clear in a way that Labour's spinners cannot dismiss

First, the good news -- or maybe it's the bad news. People are nice about Robert Harris. The only thing one can discover that is in any way barbed, or critical of him, is that he is fond of the music of the Seventies band Mott the Hoople. And, perhaps, that the late Sir Robin Day once took a girlfriend away from him. Harris telephoned his then girlfriend to invite her out. She couldn't because she was staying at home to work, she told him. Harris turned on the television to watch Wimbledon - and there was his love, in the Royal Box, with the aged, bow-tied satyr. Apart from that, nothing, just affection and praise. Even the Millbank smear machine was unable to come up with any damaging criticism when Harris defended Peter Mandelson and attacked Tony Blair. All it could do was drop the exceedingly weak hint that Blair was not actually a friend of Harris, and that the journalist had been to Chequers "only once". Golly gosh.

Newly elected to the Garrick Club and about to become a Daily Telegraph columnist, he still brings out the best in people. That he wears double-breasted blazers and, with disturbing frequency, cravats is seen as a touching affectation. Any disapproval of his fondness for driving an ostentatious Jaguar convertible has been dissipated by nicknaming him "Mr Toad". Tom Stoppard says there "isn't a writer alive who wouldn't want to have written" passages from Harris's books. Certainly, there is not a writer alive who would not have wanted to earn the kind of money that Harris has from his books. His first novel, Fatherland, earned him upwards of [pound]4m. (He is now the official biographer of that other English millionaire spywriter, John le Carre.)

His mentor, Anthony Howard, plucked him from Newsnight to become political editor of the Observer while Harris was still in his twenties, and describes him as "my greatest creation". Certainly, there is no protege of Howard - and they include Martin Amis, TinaBrown, Christopher Hitchens and James Fenton - who would not have wanted to earn that kind of praise.

Why, even when he publicly defended Mandelson, first over the Notting Hill mortgage and then over the Hinduja passport scandal, commentators explained it as admirable loyalty to friends (Mandelson is godfather to one of Harris's daughters) rather than a failure to recognise that power corrupts, and that Mandelson had power. It comes as quite a relief to discover that not everyone likes him. After all, in his 44 years, he must have made a few enemies. Which brings us to Tony Blair.

It is hard these days to decide what makes someone a supporter of Labour. You can, like Harris, become a member of the Garrick and still be Labour, vide Melvyn Bragg. You can, like Harris, be asked to write for the conservative Daily Telegraph and still support Labour. You can, like Harris, be extremely rich and still support Labour. Think of Lord Sainsbury and, er, Geoffrey Robinson. You can, as will happen to Harris this month, when the blockbuster film of his novel Enigma opens in Edinburgh, be a big player in the capitalist film-making business and still support Labour. Step forward, my Lord Puttnam.

It has become difficult to know which high-profile Labour person no longer supports the party - except for Robert Harris. The most eloquent writer to explain new Labour's ambition now spends his time explaining its perceived shortcomings. He is on the road away from Damascus. He has made his distaste eloquently and terrifyingly clear in a way that Labour's spinners cannot dismiss. No one could put a favourable spin on an article which begins, "There is something truly loathsome about the modern Labour Party", and ends by saying: "It is a dream come true. It is a nightmare." In between, the article, written in the Sunday Times just before the election and after the Tory defector Shaun Woodward had been foisted on the innocents of St Helens South, is full of unspinnable nouns, adjectives and verbs that drip venom: "skulking", "blathering", "revulsion", "sucking up", "cynicism", "duplicity", "toe-curling", "shabby". …

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