Arts feature

Robert Harris on Boris Johnson, cancel culture and rehabilitating Chamberlain

Nigel Jones talks to the writer Robert Harris about Blair, Johnson and Polanski, cancel culture and his quest to rehabilitate Neville Chamberlain

22 January 2022

9:00 AM

22 January 2022

9:00 AM

Robert Harris has long been on a one-man crusade to reverse history’s negative verdict on the architect of appeasement. He argues that it was Neville Chamberlain’s duty to go the extra mile for peace and give Britain the moral authority to fight Hitler in the second world war. ‘There seems to be a general feeling that he couldn’t have done much else. He bought us precious time.’ Now the appearance of an acclaimed Anglo-German Netflix film Munich — The Edge of War, starring Jeremy Irons as Chamberlain, and based on Harris’s 2017 novel Munich, gives him the chance to bring his quixotic campaign to a mass audience.

Born in 1957 and growing up under the shadow of the war, Harris admits to being obsessed with the conflict, an obsession that brought him rewards and riches in 1992 when his first novel Fatherland— a dystopian vision of a united Europe ruled by the Nazis — was a runaway hit. The rewards included an old rectory home in the Thames Valley and the opportunity to abandon a career as a journalist to become a full-time writer of fiction.

Harris had already made a factual BBC documentary on the 50th anniversary of the 1938 Munich conference where Chamberlain agreed to the Nazis dismembering Czechoslovakia and returned home flapping a piece of paper signed by Hitler promising ‘peace in our time’, only to have war break out a year later. Harris was helped in the documentary by Chamberlain’s parliamentary private secretary Sir Alec Douglas-Home — another future prime minister — who had been present during the meetings between his boss and Hitler.

‘He told me that Chamberlain annoyed the Führer by appealing to the German people over Hitler’s head. They didn’t want a war either.’ In attempting to restore Chamberlain’s battered reputation will Harris detract from Churchill’s towering stature as the man who fought and won the war? ‘I don’t think so. In 1940 when Churchill had replaced him, Chamberlain was the decisive voice in the cabinet voting to continue the war after the fall of France. But the British people had to be convinced that there was no alternative to war and Munich gave Chamberlain that moral authority.’

Harris’s clout as a famous author opened doors in Munich normally kept firmly closed because of German embarrassment about the Nazi past. ‘The movie was filmed at the Führerbau, the actual building where the conference was held, which is now a music college, and when I was researching the book I spent an hour in Hitler’s apartment where Chamberlain met him, which is now a police office. I think I am the only author who has been allowed to do so.’

Harris has had a happy relationship with the silver screen, with several of his novels turned into successful movies, partly thanks to his friendship with the veteran director Roman Polanski who in 2010 filmed Harris’s novel The Ghost in which yet another PM, Tony Blair, gets a bloody comeuppance for the Iraq War. The Ghost is sometimes seen as Harris taking revenge on a former friend with whom he was once personally and politically close. Does he ever see Blair these days? ‘Well, I still get a Christmas card, though I’m not sure that he’s aware of that. And I believe that Cherie said she liked the film because she got to sleep with Pierce Brosnan and Ewan McGregor!’

One Polanski film that we haven’t had a chance to see in Britain is J’Accuse, his 2019 adaptation of Harris’s novel about the anti-Semitic Dreyfus case in the 1890s An Officer and a Spy. The movie, for which Harris wrote the script, fell victim to the #MeToo movement, failing to get distributed thanks to Polanski’s 1977 conviction for a sexual offence with an underage girl in the US. Diplomatically, Harris won’t be drawn on that specific row, but typically — as with him balancing Chamberlain and Churchill — he tries to see both sides of the question: ‘I like to hold two things in my head at the same time. I think that’s a mark of maturity. We must cherish freedom of speech and expression in a liberal democracy while disagreeing with and disapproving of aspects of an artists’ life.’

The only moment in our interview when Harris abandons balance and his usual urbane calm to show a flash of anger is when he cites the recent vandalising of the statue by Eric Gill outside his old BBC workplace at Broadcasting House as an example of the current cancel culture of which he certainly does not disapprove: ‘It was a chilling sight that he [the vandal] was allowed to attack the statue for half an hour without being stopped. Gill had a repulsive private life but he was also a great artist.’

Speaking of private and public lives turns our talk to the present travails of one more prime minister who he knows well: Boris Johnson. For a man of the left, Harris takes a surprisingly indulgent view of the PM’s peccadilloes, refusing to join the ranks of other hacks — the Hastings and the Heffers — whose work with Johnson as colleagues turned them into Boris-haters: ‘I knew Boris well and always liked him. Never had a bad experience with him. But of all the journalists I know he’s the one I’d least like to be Prime Minister!’

Harris thinks that Johnson will be gone well before the next election because of what he calls the ‘rolling chaos’ of the PM’s life that ‘will go on and on. He can’t change his essential character. If he survives partygate, something else will come along in the spring. On the other hand he’s clearly tough and will put up a fight. He won’t give up what he’s got that easily.’

Despite his current distance from Blair, Harris still has a high regard for his former friend.

‘He came across as a normal human being. He liked a drink, liked a pretty face. I think he even sneaked the occasional cigarette. The most successful prime ministers — and I’d include Blair as well as Harold Wilson, along with Thatcher and Churchill — is that they always see the bigger picture and the need to compromise without being bogged down in petty details.’

One thing that Harris shared with Blair is Europhilia. When I first interviewed him in 1997 he said that he supported the EU despite its close resemblance to the Nazi plans for a united Europe under German domination envisaged in Fatherland. ‘Yes, but modern Germany is nothing like that. Militarily it’s a joke.’ Nevertheless, Brexit must have come as a deep disappointment? ‘I don’t like anything that limits people, stops easy travel, makes it hard for young people to study and work in Europe and so on. But I don’t think that we’ll ever rejoin because a large chunk of the electorate — about 40 per cent — would never accept it.’

Harris is currently putting the finishing touches to a new historical thriller. Titled Act of Oblivion and due out in September, it concerns the regicides who killed King Charles I. It has made him think about the pendulum swing between puritan Roundheads and Cavalier libertines that has characterised British politics — and prime ministers — ever since. Are we on the cusp of another such seismic swing to puritanism after a long period of libertarianism? ‘I don’t think that the British people are that puritanical — which is why the puritan revolution failed.’

But with arch Cavalier Johnson teetering on the brink, aren’t we likely to see a new puritan era in the person of Sir Keir Starmer, who so closely resembles a Roundhead witchfinder-general in full cry? Surprisingly, for an erstwhile New Labourite, Harris reveals that he has never met the Labour leader, though he approves of him freezing out the Corbynistas and thinks that he has a fair chance of getting into government in alliance with the SNP.

Gloom descends as we contemplate what that would mean: the likely dissolution of the UK. And in the wider world Harris fears the retreat of robust liberal democracy, the malign aspects of social media, and the prospect of more war over Ukraine: ‘Human beings seem programmed for conflict. You get long periods of peace and progress and then the old Adam resurfaces and we start fighting all over again.’

Then, as if not wanting to end our encounter on such a dispiriting note, Harris suddenly brightens. ‘I’m an optimist!’ he proclaims.

‘This is a 2 a.m. type conversation but the young people I know don’t feel this way at all. There are a lot of other good things going on.’

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Munich — The Edge of War is on Netflix and in selected cinemas.

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