John le Carré Knew England’s Secrets

He revealed more about the country’s ruling class than any political writer of his era.

John le Carré is pictured sitting at an armchair with a notepad on his lap in March 1965.
Terry Fincher / Express / Getty

Writing about John le Carré is intimidating. Writing an appreciation after he has died feels doubly so. In some ways, this fear says much about the England that le Carré was so masterful at capturing: the class consciousness and fear of straying beyond your place. Le Carré inhabited an England beyond my horizons, not just the cloak-and-dagger one, but the one that exists at Eton and at Oxford and in many parts of London, lands that remain foreign to most of us. To write about him, then, is to risk exposing yourself—for missing the subtlety of a particular line of dialogue, or the joke woven into a novel that others can see because they know and you don’t.

Many of us relied on le Carré to reveal our own country to us. Through his novels, we got to spy on England’s crumbling ruling class. In A Perfect Spy, seen by many as le Carré’s autobiographical masterpiece, he writes that our rulers are not bad people, just “men who see the threat to their class as synonymous with the threat to England and never wandered far enough to know the difference.” Le Carré is not only an English shapeshifter, a man who bridges classes and professions, but one who knows the world beyond England too.

Because of this, le Carré, who died of pneumonia yesterday at 89, is a hero for many Englishmen like me, those who move between the subtle strata of England’s classes, each heaped on top of the other, the lines between them difficult to discern. The son of a con man who smuggled his son into the English upper class through boarding school, le Carré went on to be a student at Oxford, a teacher at Eton, and, of course, a spy, before becoming a writer. Even as David Cornwell—the novelist’s real name—he was a romantic figure, the liver of an unobtainable life, one of us and one of them. Who hasn’t secretly wanted a tap on the shoulder to see whether you would be prepared to serve Queen and country; to have country houses, where one could read medieval German poetry and deal with Hollywood filmmakers; and to live during the Cold War, when Britain still had an idea, and a side—when it was still just about able to convince itself that it was not the “poor island with scarcely a voice” that le Carré identified.

The thing about le Carré is that he was so penetrating. Reading a le Carré novel often feels more revelatory about England, and the world, than any op-ed. Because he was writing fiction, he captured the real motivations of men—and they were usually men—who drove politics, and so got to something we journalists usually cannot. Almost every le Carré novel I have is full of pages whose corners are folded down to mark something that I thought was especially great and that I could squirrel away for a future piece to make me look clever or well read.

In A Perfect Spy, he writes of America, “No country was ever easier to spy on … no nation so open-hearted with its secrets, so quick to air them, share them, confide them.” Presenting the country as the opposite of England, rather than its logical extension as is often assumed, he continued: “They loved their prosperity too obviously, were too flexible and mobile, too little the slaves of place, origin and class.” Driving through Ohio, welcomed into homes and college campuses to report on American decline and rebirth, I remember thinking of these lines.

Or listen to him on political fanaticism in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, writing of Karla, the Russian spy chief: “Karla is not fireproof, because he’s a fanatic. And one day, if I have anything to do with it, that lack of moderation will be his downfall.” It is an insight that has stuck with me since.

Yet the most penetrating observations in his espionage novels were not about foreign adversaries or global conflict—they were about decaying old England. “They are the body corporate I once believed was greater than the sum of its parts,” he wrote of the ruling class in A Perfect Spy. “In my lifetime I have witnessed the birth of the jet aeroplane and the atom bomb and the computer, and the demise of the British institution.” It is impossible not to read those lines and think of Brexit and the disastrous response to COVID-19.

So who are the ruling class? “The privately educated Englishman is the greatest dissembler on earth,” le Carré’s most famous character, George Smiley, says in The Secret Pilgrim. “Nobody will charm you so glibly, disguise his feelings from you better, cover his tracks more skilfully or find it harder to confess to you that he’s been a damn fool.” Who today can look at the former premier David Cameron, or current Prime Minister Boris Johnson—both the products of Eton and Oxford—and not smile reading these lines?

To watch Johnson in particular—a cosmopolitan with a bohemian multicultural background, born in New York, named after a Russian, great-grandson to an assassinated Turk, who nevertheless presents himself as the most English person of all—is to see the shadow of Jerry Westerby, the tragic hero in The Honourable Schoolboy, another outsider inside the upper class, like le Carré himself. Westerby’s speech is full of “good old boys” and the like. But, as le Carré writes, there is a “hardness buried in the lavishness.” And, as with all le Carré’s characters, a romanticism underneath the world-weary cynicism.

Le Carré also presents a bygone Englishness that many of us wish still existed. How, for example, does Smiley react to his ultimate victory in Smiley’s People? “Did I?” He responds to the news that he has prevailed over his nemesis. “Yes. Yes, well I suppose I did.” Oh, how Johnson must wish he could find a way to reenact that scene with Brexit, or the coronavirus. Did I win? Oh, yes, I suppose I did. England’s tragedy today is that it has allowed the part of the understated victor to slip from its grasp; now it must beat its chest in a way Smiley would loathe.

In fact, the reality is that the English upper class doesn’t just con its fellow countrymen, but the wider world as well. I’ve lost count of the number of times European diplomats and officials have told me of the brilliance of the old British civil service before Brexit. Even as the wool is pulled from their eyes, they still don’t see that they’ve been conned, that the British foreign office was never a Rolls-Royce, just richer and better dressed than it is today. Even now, a certain type of Englishman, eyebrow permanently raised, can prosper mightily abroad by presenting this same cultured cynicism and easy wit.

Smiley is the central hero of le Carré’s works, and like le Carré himself, the kind of hero a certain part of England loves: calm and pudgy and resolute and cultured, driven by inner passions that he must occasionally escape to the countryside to soothe lest they overwhelm him. “George doesn’t alter,” le Carré writes in A Legacy of Spies, his final Smiley novel. “He just gets his composure back.” He is a cynical romantic with a terrible domestic life who commits himself to England for reasons he is never quite sure of—a player of the great game, but wise to it. He is an outsider uncomfortable in any social class, but capable of moving through them all. To be English, after all, is to always feel a little bit out of place, even in England.

Smiley—and, by extension, le Carré—also embodies a different England. In A Legacy of Spies, Smiley looks back on his career and what it was all for. Was it for world peace, whatever that is? “Yes, yes of course.” But that’s not really the answer. “In the great name of capitalism? God forbid. Christendom? God forbid again.” So was it all for England, Smiley wonders. Perhaps. He is a patriot, but a moderate one. And, anyway, he asks: “Whose England? Which England? England all alone, a citizen of nowhere?”

This is le Carré the fierce anti-Brexiteer, whose politics were never far from the surface in his novels. “I am European,” Smiley says. “If I had a mission—if I was ever aware of one beyond our business with the enemy, it was to Europe. If I was heartless, I was heartless for Europe. If I had an unattainable ideal, it was of leading Europe out of her darkness towards a new age of reason. I have it still.”

In A Perfect Spy, le Carré is back grappling with the same question of human motivation. What is it that drives us to spy or fight or hope or kill? For England, or for class, or for Europe, or for America? Under all of it, he was also a kind of romantic, just one who is well hidden. I wonder if it’s for this reason that Smiley and his creator remain the heroes many of us Englishmen most want to be? But enough of that, or as Smiley himself said, closing le Carré’s final Smiley novel, “Forgive me, Peter. I am pontificating.”