The NS Interview: Robert Harris

“Like Rome, governments need that five-year sacrifice and sweeping away”

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 François 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. The Roman Republic was an incredibly sophisticated operation in terms of its political structure. Indeed, if you were to overlook the slight flaw that you had to own property and not be a woman, you could argue that the Roman Republic had a much more effective democracy than we do ourselves.

The elections were annual. Judges were elected. Whereas we currently live in a country in which we have an unelected head of state, an unelected revising chamber, an unelected prime minister and a whipped House of Commons - which means that the ordinary backbencher has no opportunity to influence the course of events.

It sometimes feels like one doesn't really live in a functioning democracy, which is why I find ancient Rome rather appealing.

You take the title of the novel from a ritual purification that occurred in Rome every five years. Do we need something similar?

I think so. In Rome, it was seen that this ritual purging, with the census coming in and clearing out the senate every five years, was needed. And yes, we're definitely about to have one.

Although I'm no Conservative, I do think in a way a change of government is to be welcomed, because this lot do seem to have run out of ideas. We need that sort of five-year sacrifice and sweeping away to see whether we can find something new, some fresh way forward. I feel we have now run into a dead end, and I think that there is generally a strong feeling of that
in the country.

Is there a plan?

None whatsoever. I've just gone on from day to day and have done what seemed interesting to me at the time. I remember when I was about eight or nine years old having a very powerful conviction that I would be a writer, and I don't think that's ever varied. But no plan.

Are we doomed?

Obviously, in one sense we are; but on the whole I am an optimist.

Interview by Jonathan Derbyshire
“Lustrum" is published by Hutchinson (£18.99)

Defining Moments

1957 Born in Nottingham
1975-78 Studies English at Cambridge
1978 Joins the BBC as a TV correspondent
1982 Co-authors A Higher Form of Killing, the first of several works of non-fiction
1987 Becomes Observer political editor
1992 Fatherland, the first of several novels
2001 Enigma is adapted for the cinema, with a screenplay by Tom Stoppard
2003 Wins Columnist of the Year at the British Press Awards
2007 The Ghost, a novel allegedly based on Tony Blair, is published