NS Interview - David Hare

Our most important political playwright thinks the cabinet has far too many ''deadheads'', but he st

Word filters through that David Hare does not want to discuss politics. Our conversation should focus, I am told by a nice press agent, only on his work. Since Hare is usually billed as the greatest living political playwright, this is like hearing that Mr Kipling does not wish to mention cakes. Whatever will we talk about? I need not worry. In the 90 minutes we spend together, Hare turns his attention, cutting as a chainsaw, to a cabinet of "deadheads" and a Home Secretary who should "be hounded out of office". Neither British television ("terrible") nor Rory Bremner ("the unfunniest man in Britain") escapes his scorn.

For someone so charming and successful, Hare seems very angry. Although his screenplay for The Hours has earned him much reverence and, most probably, an Oscar, he remains bitter about British negativity. The Americans, he says, are vastly more enthusiastic about the resurrection of Virginia Woolf and her novel Mrs Dalloway, on which the film turns.

"Someone here wrote a piece about Woolf not being worth reading. That incredibly parochial attitude is typical. In America, Mrs Dalloway is at number nine in the fiction bestsellers. It's almost as if we're so disempowered here that we don't want our own little patch to be invaded by anything as vulgar as popularity."

The film, adapted from Michael Cunningham's novel, seems actually to have elicited a confetti of plaudits and award nominations for Hare, its director, Stephen Daldry, and its stars, Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore and Meryl Streep. So why worry? The fact that he patently does so taps back to older fury. David Hare, it seems, has been angry for all of his remembered life.

He was brought up in Bexhill, East Sussex, the only son of an anxious mother and of a footloose P&O purser who spent his rare trips home, Hare says now, betraying his wife. "He was almost totally uninterested in us. He'd come back with a great wad of money, peel off some notes for my mother and fuck off again. My mother wasn't his only life, but I was too young to have a sense of that."

In The Hours, the toddler son of Moore's character, a child instinctively aware that his mother is suicidal, offers an echo of how Hare used to be: a "little boy intuiting that something was wrong but not knowing what it was". Similarly, Moore's despairing friend is a cameo based on Hare's old neighbour, a model and contented citizen "until the day she walked into the sea and killed herself".

Half a century on, Hare's unhappy childhood and the stultifying suburbia in which he was raised inform his work and character. He remains a slayer of ghosts and less spectral adversaries, some not a million miles from Millbank. Hare's dissection of modern life has not seemed comfortable for a Labour hierarchy since his influential trilogy, written in the early 1990s, presaged a decade in which institutions would be scrutinised and found wanting: Racing Demon addressed the Church, Murmuring Judges the judiciary, and The Absence of War demolished the 1992 Labour election campaign. "It shows me as an arsehole," Neil Kinnock is supposed to have complained, though Hare thinks he said "numbskull".

Anatomical hair-splitting aside, the work was a savage indictment of old Labour. Now war is on the near horizon, and new Labour grows whiskery. Time, allegedly, for the sequel. Newspaper reports prophesy that Hare's forthcoming play, to be performed at Nicholas Hytner's National Theatre, will be a state-of-the-nation dissection of Blair's Britain.

"That is absolutely untrue. I'm in a workshop now. What's the point of doing that if you know what you are going to write?" Made-to-measure dramas are a particular bugbear of Hare's. "The reason British television is so absolutely terrible now is that the idea of drama from the BBC - and we can't hope for anything from ITV or Channel 4 - is to give writers a remit. If Greg Dyke wants to know why the BBC is on its arse artistically, it is because of that. No one is being trusted to make a programme without a pre-packaged idea. It's nonsense that [my play] is all about Blair, but if you want me to talk about Blair, I will."

It is a verdict more of sorrow than of anger. "I find the [left's] mindless hostility to Blair incredibly irresponsible. I don't see how you can argue for a social democratic government and not be implicated in its failure. An awful lot is going wrong with this government, in terms of educational, asylum and foreign policy. We are entitled to disagree, but I find this astonishingly easy hatred [of Blair and Brown] irresponsible."

Such scruple does not, alas for David Blunkett, extend to the Home Office. "The reason I hate Blunkett is his total irresponsibility in the attitude to prisons. Most criminologists would say that 25,000 people at most should be in jail. Putting 75,000 in prison is grossly irresponsible. Then there is this equanimity in the face of numbers rising all the time. It would be a resigning issue if he had a trace of integrity, and I think he should resign.

"Children are being brutalised. There are more and more women in jail. Totally unnecessary. And there is no attack on this from the Home Office. It is the most terrible dereliction of public duty and something he should be hounded out of office for."

Hare has an alternative. Give young talent a break. "An awful lot of deadheads are being allowed to hang around. I don't understand why Blair doesn't put a 30-year-old woman in to run the Home Office." Perhaps he is thinking of Yvette Cooper? He will not say. I mention David Miliband, another high-flyer. "Why not make him Foreign Secretary? Go ahead. It's sort of stupid not to."

Who are these ministerial deadheads? Few escape censure. "Tessa Jowell will make a speech [about culture], but it's profoundly offensive to the artistic community to have told them, for instance, that they can't march in Hyde Park. Nine-tenths of the people she is meant to help [Hare included] will be on the anti-war march.

"They [the government] don't have any understanding about what the artistic community is. [The problem] is not about funding; it's about a way of life that would include culture. Tessa Jowell is smart enough to see that Simon Rattle is good publicity for Britain, but so are loads of other people. John le Carre [an eloquent polemicist against the war on Iraq] should be honoured, instead of which no one listens. The reason they respect Simon Rattle is that his is a morally neutral art."

With the exception of the Chancellor, Blair's leading ministers incur Hare's blanket condemnation. "They're a dull lot. It's not a brilliant cabinet. The Blairites are a dreadful lot, aren't they?

"I met Alan Milburn the other day," he muses. "I don't understand why someone of that intelligence [Blair] doesn't want more interesting people around him."

The greater mystery is why Blair escapes opprobrium. The reason is Palestine and the Prime Minister's wish, genuine in Hare's view, for a solution. Hare's one-hander, Via Dolorosa, performed by him and revived last year, bravely vaunted the Palestinian cause at the risk of pro-Israeli wrath. "But, by and large, my motives were questioned only by lunatics." And Arnold Wesker? Hare's withering expression suggests he needs no lectures on Gentile misconceptions. Nor should he. Hare is married to a Jew: the fashion designer Nicole Farhi, whom he met when she designed the costumes for Murmuring Judges. Divorced with three children, he had previously had a number of affairs with glamorous women, but his marriage, in 1992, is said to have given him stability and contentment.

"It is idyllic," he says, deadpan, as if to close the subject. But he carries on. "It revolutionised my life. Via Dolorosa was partly written out of respect for what I think is the best in Jewishness. For her [Farhi], Judaism is not about race but moral values. She and her family wanted integration with other people [rather than] the idea of Jewishness protected by territory. It's a complicated argument about assimilation and identity, but I can't imagine anyone more Jewish than her. Yet she is not a blind supporter of every Israeli government; indeed, she is deeply critical of the present one."

Via Dolorosa left him with "an emotional volatility about [Palestine]. I tend to judge people by their behaviour towards it. So Bush, for me, is the Unforgivable . . . No one does anything about [the Palestinians'] plight. I think Blair understands that. That is why I refuse to let go of him completely . . . I've always believed he is a believer; a person of conviction."

Such praise is rare. For those he admires (including his mentor Richard Eyre, Hytner and Daldry), there is unequivocal loyalty. But it would be fair to think that, in politics at least, those enjoying Hare's qualified approval form a narrow pantheon. The Prime Minister is among them. A new Hare play, subject unknown, will emerge soon from the ether. Tony Blair might be wise to hope the benediction lasts.