Imagine Tony Blair hauled off to answer charges of war crimes before the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Such a prospect would gladden many hearts, I’m sure, yet in the real world it’s no more likely than seeing the Pope in the dock.
In the world of fiction, however, a fictitious former prime minister faces accusations of war crimes in Roman Polanski’s gripping political thriller The Ghost, based on the novel by Robert Harris and felicitously timed to appear in UK cinemas less than three weeks before the general election.
On screen, we see a ghost-writer (played by Ewan McGregor) stumbling upon the dirty secrets of a charismatic ex-PM (Pierce Brosnan) while working on his memoirs. Harris’s tale is a relishable fantasy yet it isn’t entirely a figment of the novelist’s brain. Once very close to Blair, now thoroughly disillusioned, Harris is spot on with his depiction of the way today’s political leaders – and former leaders – have become cocooned from ordinary life.
I’ll return to Polanski’s film version in a few weeks’ time, but before then I’d like to highlight some of Harris’s astute observations on this comparatively recent phenomenon:
“The prime minister is living in an isolated environment,” says Harris. “He’s on an island, he is cut off from the world. He is separated from the world by security. And that is something which I don’t think has really received the amount of attention it should have done.
“At the height of the Second World War Winston Churchill used to walk from 10 Downing St to the Houses of Parliament with one police inspector walking behind him. And Churchill would raise his hat to passers-by. And this is during the greatest war in history in which 40,000 British civilians were killed by bombing!
“As a former prime minister, Blair has, I think, 24 full-time armed bodyguards. He never will be allowed to drive a car, he never goes on a commercial flight, or very rarely. He certainly doesn’t go through a public lounge. He doesn’t have to do all those security shake downs at airports and so on.
“I’m absolutely fascinated by the way in which our leaders have become a totally separate class from the rest of us. This never happened in the past. Even in medieval times, a king used to lead his men into battle. Now our leaders live behind bullet-proof glass.
“This conditions the way that they behave and distorts relationships. And inevitably they live in an unreal world in which they become very dependent upon their security people and their aides, who become their only link to the real world.”
The Ghost goes on general release from 16 April. The novel by Robert Harris is published by Random House.