Michael Dobbs talks to Fergus Byrne
IF anybody might have a right to smugly say ‘I told you so’, about significant political events over the last twenty years, it is Michael Dobbs. His past novels have foretold the downfall of Margaret Thatcher, the fall of the Berlin Wall and, well before 9/11, spelt out how a small group of dedicated attackers could bring an entire city to a standstill.
Although much of his output in recent years has used Winston Churchill as it’s central character, his latest contemporary thriller, The Lords’ Day, has caused a bit of a stir in Westminster. In the book, the Queen, Prince Charles, the Prime Minister, most of the cabinet and the Prime Minister’s son, along with the son of the US President are taken hostage inside the House of Lords.
Readers are introduced to gaping holes in safety procedures for the state opening of Parliament that allow the ensuing siege to unfold. Although he made every effort to highlight what he saw as flaws in the security of the event before publication, he was accused of major breaches of security after the book was published. “It’s caused rather a lot of fluttering in the dovecotes at Westminster,” says Michael. “The security services counted what they claimed to be 82 separate breaches of security in the book.” However, they took a more positive approach when it was pointed out that everything they had highlighted was from information available in the public domain. Some of the detail even came from observations made while on a tour of the House of Lords – tours available to anyone who wishes to pay for them.
In the darkest hours of the siege, he sees those with the most to prove. Those, as he puts it, that are ‘driven by some inner sense of failure that requires redemption’
Michael Dobbs is very aware of the fact that fiction can occasionally be the inspiration and catalyst for action. He says “If I can come up with these conclusions so can others that have a much darker intent than me.” However, he was understandably irritated at how slow the wheels of establishment change can be. “I did my best before the book was published to make sure that it remained a clear work of fiction by getting the security holes plugged. But sadly nudging the establishment into change, I found very frustrating. I had this idea in the back of my mind that what Guy Fawkes had done all those hundreds of years ago could be perhaps looked at again. I had no idea that I would be able to find out so much and spot so many weaknesses. Frankly, I was rather shocked.”
Like all novels that weave the lives of real people into a story of fiction, The Lords’ Day offers its fair share of character insights. The siege is an ideal platform, as relationships between different individuals under hijack situations are undoubtedly raw, and conversations will likely be charged with an emotion that would otherwise be subdued. In the case of the royal family, restraint is part of their day to day package, so in this case, the power of fiction not only shows Michael Dobbs’ fondness for the royals involved but also allows them a tenderness that could never be tolerated by the press. “All we see are the cardboard cutouts, but behind them, they are people with emotions much the same as anybody’s, although in very difficult circumstances,” he says. “I’m not the greatest defender of the royal family, I think they have made many mistakes but I certainly understand some of the personal anxieties and challenges that they face. At the end of the day I’m a firm believer that if they are not allowed a happy and fulfilled private life, there is no way that they can fulfil their public duties.”
Public duty is something Michael Dobbs knows a little about. He has spent much of his life in and on the edges of politics. He has a doctorate in nuclear defence studies, was Chief of Staff and later Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party, and has been an advisor to both Margaret Thatcher and John Major. Although he has also been a journalist, Deputy Chairman of Saatchi & Saatchi and a BBC television presenter, it is his closeness to some of the world’s most powerful people that has given him a privileged insight into how the world turns. Uniquely aware of the difference between what the public sees and what goes on behind closed doors, he can be both cynical and sympathetic about the foibles of ambitious people. He says, “I’ve been at very close quarters, in my time in and around politics, that the public image is so often very different from the private image – even the most powerful people. Maggie Thatcher, for example, the iron lady, but many of us remember the occasion on the television when she was asked about her father, she simply burst into tears.”
The Lords’ Day affords Michael the opportunity to observe what drives some of his characters. In the darkest hours of the siege, he sees those with the most to prove. Those, as he puts it, that are ‘driven by some inner sense of failure that requires redemption’. Whilst others spend their lives annoying enough people to get their way but then plod home to a cold and empty home. As a writer, he skillfully draws out the inner workings of the minds of those trapped in their turmoil. Getting inside the characters is important to him. “And quite clearly there are agendas,” he says. “There are stories behind even the most powerful people which cause them great pain and are part of their makeup.”
These stories include those he has written in a series of historical novels about Winston Churchill, a man that Michael Dobbs feels had a better understanding of the reasons for war, certainly better than those that have led us to potential threats such as the subject of The Lords’ Day. He says, “I’m not a great enthusiast for our adventure in Iraq, never have been and haven’t found any reason to change that view. A lot of this flows from my work with Winston Churchill. A man who, yes, of course, was a great war leader, but of course he knew about war because he fought in many wars.
He knew what suffering was involved and that war wasn’t simply a meeting of military might. That it was also an attempt to find a solution to whatever caused the problem. That’s why, for instance, after the end of WWII, he fought so desperately hard to ensure that the political outcome was a sensible one. Whereas we seem to have gone into Iraq without any real concept of what was going to come out of it. That is something which Winston Churchill would not have done. That’s why he is such a source of inspiration. Not because he was always right but because he had a depth of perspective which is sometimes lacking.”
Perhaps as voters we need to be more aware of what drives our politicians. Whether decisions that have been made in our name involve us in war, educational initiatives or new energy projects, are driven by a sincere effort to make the world a better place, or by an inner turmoil, perhaps caused by an unhappy childhood or an inner sense of failure, we may never know. In the meantime, it is left to the skillfully crafted novel to help us probe and question the wisdom of those in whose hands we leave the fate of our world.
The Lords’ Day is published in hardback by Headline Books.
ISBN 978 0 7553 2686 0 and is available in good bookshops.