Master of intrigue John le Carré on his latest villain: Brexit


Once, walking through an English garden might have given John le Carré refuge from the world of espionage and intrigue he's so often written about. Not anymore.

Here, said correspondent Mark Phillips, "you'd think the world was not so bad a place."

"You would think that, yes!" said le Carré. "And, of course, it's the kind of garden, in my imagination, where Brexit was born! A gentleman owns everything he beholds and sees this paradise about him and thinks, 'How can we let those bloody foreigners in?'" 

Le Carré is 88 now. And 25 novels, 10 films and six TV adaptations later – he has new villains: The people trying to take Britain out of the European Union.

"I'm talking about Brexit," he said. "I'm talking about the difference, which Americans also know very well, between patriotism and nationalism. A patriot can criticize his country, stay with it, and go through the democratic process; a nationalist needs enemies."

Le Carré's feelings about Brexit are well known: He's against it. He's joined street demonstrations demanding the chance to vote again in a new referendum, now that the potentially-damaging consequences of Brexit are better known. 

But the problem, he says, is bigger than that.

"I think to have abandoned our allies, effectively, in Europe, to have actually turned them through the rhetoric that's thrown around into enemies, that's something quite extraordinary."

And he's not shy about getting those opinions into his new book, "Agent Running in the Field."

But, even then, he saw that the future looked a lot like the past: "It doesn't matter what new circumstances occur. It's the same show running in the background. It's the same people running it. I mean, you look at the new so-called Russian security service, it's just the KGB in drag."

And the Russians are back in his latest book, making trouble again. 

Phillips asked, "Do you feel you've kind of come full circle? The first time we spoke was when history was allegedly ending. You were moving onto other stuff. And here you are again, talking about the same sort of things."

"Yeah, well, first of all, I never subscribed to the view that history had ended," he replied. "And, in fact, statistically, the size of intelligence services in every country has grown enormously since the end of the Cold War. It's the same game but played for different purposes and by different rules."

There's still plenty of history to go around. Le Carré has not mellowed with age, and American politics don't get an easy ride in his new book, either. He writes: 

"In Ed's world there was no dividing line between Brexit fanatics and Trump fanatics. Both were racist and xenophobic. Both worshiped at the same shrine of nostalgic imperialism."

Le Carré has tried to stop writing, and speaking out, but says he couldn't. When asked if there is yet another novel in him, he said, "Yes, there is very much another novel in me. And it gnaws away."

Another novel, and more. After the recent success of a TV version of "The Night Manager," and after the successful run of a new TV treatment of "The Little Drummer Girl," Le Carré is now working on more TV treatments for some of his early spy novels.

There's still a lot he wants to say.

Le Carré said, "Britain is famous – used to be – for common sense and centrist [ideas].  It's gone."

"So, what do you do?" asked Phillips.

"Well, agitate!" he replied. "I keep on writing. I'm 88. So, my range for the future is strictly limited."

"You'd better get cracking," Phillips said.

"I'd better get cracking!" he laughed. "I have no time. I have no time to die, either, but I suppose I'll have to."

"Not yet, let's say."


Read an excerpt from "Agent Running in the Field" by John le Carré

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"Agent Running in the Field" by John le Carré (Viking), in Hardcover, eBook and Audio formats, available via

      Story produced by Mark Hudspeth. 

This is "Face the Nation," November 17

Calendar: Week of November 18

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