Flying with Tony, slaving with Joe

Reflecting on the pleasures of victory amidst the perquisites of success: Robert Harris traces his path from Hitler to Bletchley to Blair to Stalin. By Rob Brown
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The Independent Online
What The Sunday Times billed as Robert Harris's "unique access" to Tony Blair in the final stages of the election campaign certainly set some of the Labour leader's top minders on edge. And Harris did nothing to allay their anxieties. When challenged by one particularly jumpy campaign manager to explain his presence at strategy sessions, he replied mischievously: "Because my next novel is going to be about Stalin."

Only joking. The best-selling author of Fatherland and Enigma established himself a long time back as the most eloquent advocate of New Labourism in any of the British broadsheets. Which is a principal reason why he was invited to tag along as a member of Mr Blair's private staff while other political correspondents each had to shell out pounds 350 per day for a seat on Blairforce One.

The commentator's connections with the New Labour establishment are incredibly strong. As well as being friendly with Tony and Cherie, Harris is also highly chummy with Peter Mandelson.

"You do feel these people lurking in the back of your mind sometimes, but it's never deterred me from writing what I want to write," says Harris. "When I criticise an aspect of New Labour, Peter [Mandelson] either doesn't mention it or tells me that I've gone off message."

Mandelson tends to spend every third weekend chez Robert and Gill Harris. He wrote his own (non-fiction) account of the Blair revolution at their family home, a splendid Victorian Gothic pile in rural Berkshire which the author has joyfully dubbed "the house that Hitler bought".

Fatherland - a political thriller based upon the premise that Hitler won the war - has sold four million copies worldwide. It was greatly loved by neo-Nazis in Germany who, in the words of the author, "saw it as a blueprint rather than a warning".

It has been turned into a movie - albeit a fairly duff one which went straight to video - and has just been adapted into a 120-minute radio drama, scheduled for transmission on BBC Radio 4 early next month. And it is still selling at the rate of a thousand copies a week in Britain.

But, what did Harris's "unique access" to Tony Blair actually yield in terms of insightful journalism? The Sunday Times claimed it revealed the elusive personality of the man who now occupies Number 10. But, apart from telling us that Tony Blair snacked incessantly on chocolate and bananas to keep up his energy levels throughout the marathon campaign, it revealed precious little about the man behind the smile.

That isn't meant as a criticism of Robert Harris's talents. His powers of observation, narration and analysis are splendidly displayed in both his novels and his political commentaries. But maybe it showed that Harris has become too cosy with the New Labour elite to be capable of truly penetrating the inner court of King Tony.

"Well, I hope the piece I wrote didn't come across as though it had been written by a courtier," he replies. "But there's no doubt it was a dicey situation. I was very much there as Tony Blair's guest. His staff went along with it simply because that is what the boss wanted. If it had been up to some of them, I wouldn't have been there."

Doesn't he have any doubts about New Labour? Harris thinks hard and then concedes that he does sometimes worry about how this new government can possibly fulfil the hopes of liberals like himself and those of the right- wing scribe Paul Johnson. "Let's face it, we're not fundamentally on the same side. Paul Johnson is a reactionary Anglo-Catholic bigot. I like to think I'm none of those."

But Blair won't live to regret this brief, bold lapse into highly selective glasnost. Harris has done his bit and has absolutely no plans to pen a British version of Primary Colors. The subject doesn't turn him on enough.

"The horrible thing is: who cares about British politics?" he sighs. "A British general election nowadays is almost on a par with a state election in California."

Now that Tony is in Number 10, Harris's mind has switched away from British politics. His inside story of the Blair campaign was his swan-song contribution to The Sunday Times.

All his creative effort and imagination are now being focused upon his third novel, which he is determined to complete by the end of this year. It is about Stalin but will be set in the present day with key characters drawn from the shady ranks of unreconstructed Stalinists.

Harris spent a fortnight in Moscow and in Arkhangelsk on the shores of the White Sea absorbing the atmosphere of contemporary Russia. But most of his insight into Stalin's Russia comes from written sources. He's read every major biography of the man and scores of original documents.

"Stalin strikes me as much more interesting than Hitler," he says. "He was an infinitely more wicked man on a personal level. Hitler was petty bourgeois, but Stalin saw himself in the tradition of Ivan the Terrible, an Asiatic despot. Stalinism is an attitude of mind to power."

Harris, by his own admission, has an obsessive interest in power and what it does to different people. Working at the BBC for several years, he says, gave him a real insight into the workings of bureaucratic hierarchies. Some of the characters in Fatherland were drawn from real people he met in his time on Auntie's payroll.

"I'm fascinated by people who survive and flourish no matter what the regime. We all know the people who'll stay on top no matter what happens. There are also the faceless conformists and bureaucrats who keep their noses clean because they've got kids and a mortgage to pay. I can understand them."

Actually, Harris must increasingly have to strain his memory to establish any sort of real empathy with those of us still burdened by a mortgage. The lavish royalties from his first two books mean that he doesn't have to worry much about whether Gordon Brown or the Bank of England raises interest rates. Not a bad pickle to be in when you've just celebrated your 40th birthday.

Harris's life now largely revolves around the village of Kintbury near Newbury. Westminster - in the shape of house guests like Peter Mandelson - tends to come to him. But, if he fancies lunch in London, the train to Paddington station takes just over an hour. And his wife doesn't drink so she is happy to drive him back from a soiree in the Big Smoke.

One gets the impression that his home is the centre of his social life. Another frequent visitor, aside from Peter Mandelson, is his brother-in- law Nick Hornby, who co-owns the cottage next door. But Harris does not share his passion for football, so they tend to talk less about Arsenal than about their literary endeavours.

"One of the glories and frightening things about being a writer is that there's no career structure whatsoever," says Harris. "I sometimes find myself wondering: is this it? Am I just to go on repeating the same trick with varying degrees of success to the end of my life?"

It would seem so. One reason Harris wants to get stuck into his Stalin book is because he already has a theme in mind for novel number four.

As he sits in his oak-lined study watching the colourfully painted barges gently floating past on the quiescent canal at the foot of his garden, does he ever think back to his working-class upbringing in Nottingham and Leicester and count his blessings?

"I certainly feel fortunate," he responds. "But I take some satisfaction in the fact that I've never inherited anything and I've never had a pay- off."

Harris didn't get a penny when he resigned from the Observer in solidarity with his old friend and mentor, the political journalist Anthony Howard. But he was instantly hired by Andrew Neil, then editor of The Sunday Times, who perceived the need for a liberal-left columnist to offer some counterpoint to the general right-wing bias of his paper.

"I was the grit in the oyster really, but that's better than preaching to the converted, which is all the liberal press does," he says. "Besides, The Sunday Times is a much better employer than the Observer, or the BBC for that matter. Liberals in the media really are the ones who would sack you before Christmas."

Still, for all his gratitude to the pride of Wapping for paying his mortgage when that was a major preoccupation, Harris has never had any difficulty giving up his column to concentrate on his latest novel. Much of the thrill of being a columnist, he finds, has faded since the number of opinion- spouters in the press vastly proliferated.

"Being a columnist on a national newspaper used to mean you were quite a big cheese," he observes. "But now the op-ed sections resemble an awful dinner party with all these ghastly guests competing to make their opinion heard."

For now the party Robert Harris is most interested in is the Communist Party of the Soviet Union during the Stalin era.