This week's big questions: Should bankers benefit from Help to Buy? Do you feel spied upon by the Government?

This week's big questions are answered by the novelist Justin Cartwright


Your new novel occupies a world of a medieval espionage, romance and intrigue. How does all that relate to the modern world?

Strangely enough, it relates closely in some areas. The rhetoric of the Third Crusade – from both sides – is very evocative of the language of the Jihad today, and the sense that Saladin had of invasion and violation by the Crusaders was as strong then as it is now amongst Muslims; he tells Richard in one exchange that he has no right to be in his lands. As regards romance, I am not sure that it has changed fundamentally over the last thousand years; the chansons de geste, at which Richard the Lionheart was particularly adept, suggest that love and romance are inseparable from being human.

It’s reported that bankers are among the keenest to benefit from Help to Buy. What do you make of that?

Bankers are programmed to benefit from any financial gain they can; it was ever thus, but now there are plenty of opportunities which the lay person is not necessarily aware of it. A startling fact, for example, is that Barclays Bank has paid its employees more than its shareholders in recent times. The idea that bankers are in it to benefit their customers and clients seems to me a myth; they are in it to benefit themselves.

Inequality of wealth, with bankers at one end of the spectrum earning 145 times more than the lowest-paid, is highly divisive and dangerous. My own experience of bankers is that they have a sense of entitlement because they believe that they are doing the real  work of the world and in this way they are keeping the wheels of commerce and industry turning.

The new head of MI5 defended its surveillance methods this week. But do you feel spied upon by Government?

I feel slightly spied upon by my own computer; I have only to write something or email something and I am bombarded with advertisements and offers I don’t want. It makes me wonder what else I am revealing. I once looked up the notion of infantilism for a piece I was writing and found myself in a morass of pictures of men who liked to dress up in nappies and be fed a bottle by nanny. As for surveillance, I see myself as way too unimportant to occupy MI5, and as far as I know I have never done anything that would attract their interest. But on principle I think that invasion of privacy, whatever the possible gains for the secret services, should be avoided.

Kevin Pietersen is upset by footballer Jack Wilshere’s contention that the “only people who should play for England are English people”. Where do you stand?

Of course this is a loaded question for someone like me who was brought up in South Africa. I have to say that I don’t have any innate eagerness to align myself with Pietersen, but the point he made about successful English sports people, like Mo Farah and Chris Froome, is a good one; it is now unthinkable that we could ban people who were not born in England.

What I would be against is having a team of mercenaries who are rushed through some phony qualification process as Zola Budd was all those years ago. She married another Afrikaner and returned to her roots. Jack Wilshere probably thinks that Englishness contains some unique and identifiable property, but this has never been true. Where dear old Pietersen is struggling to establish himself is as truly English, Andrew Strauss, just because he was at Radley, has somehow escaped questions about his Englishness. It’s complex. But football’s problem is not, as Wilshere and Gerrard seem to think, because of foreign players, but because schools don’t play properly organised and competitive sport and as a result our football is hopeless.

Are you in favour of statutory regulation of the press?

No. As the son of a newspaper man who was always in conflict with the government in South Africa, I think I can see clearly where this can lead. Also, although I think politicians are frequently maligned and under-valued, it is true in my experience that they are, in the very nature of politics, unable to think long-term and so find it very difficult to resist jumping on the nearest bandwagon.

The BBC has been subjected to an astonishingly destructive and even vindictive criticism from parliamentary committees which undermined the BBC. It suggests that politicians should be kept out of the process, both because they are opportunistic and partisan in the causes they fight, and because they are too prone to pandering to the press.

The more important issue is that regulation by statute will inevitably lead to less freedom of expression, which is a glory of this country.

Are there echoes of Thatcher’s Britain in the rush to buy Royal Mail shares?

Not really, except that it is inherently a Tory idea. There is evidently a fine opportunity for George Osborne to balance the books, but this is different: it is not an attempt to change society as Mrs Thatcher was trying to do, but a useful financial bonus, and perhaps some kind of sweetener for the squeezed middle.

Justin Cartwright’s latest novel is ‘Lion Heart’, published by Bloomsbury

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