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A Letter to Ian Rankin (April 2007)

This article was first published on The Guardian's Comment is Free

Able criminals, well beyond John Rebus's scale of villainy, are more likely to persist in a failed empire than in a small modern European state.


You have recently said that Scotland wasn't ready for independence, and that although some in the SNP were impressive, the party made too much of North Sea oil. I remain chuffed that bits of my Fool's Gold are "difplagged" throughout your Black and Blue, and with my family and students share a continuing concern about the mental and physical condition of my near-exact contemporary John Rebus. But I'm still in the political game, fighting our mutual friend Gordon Brown as an SNP candidate in the Kingdom of Fife, largely because I find an independent Scotland less frightening than a continuing Union.

The only time we met was on a TV discussion panel after the 1999 Holyrood elections. You had just voted Labour and Green, so I wouldn't have expected you to back independence. Yet you also said something that gave cause for thought: that the political situation you wrote about, and in which Rebus acted, was "post-imperial".

I came back to it in a piece The Moral Sense of Inspector Rebus I wrote for one of those symposia that only reach a tiny academic readership, Scotland in Theory (Rodopi, 2004), arguing that under imperialism the law-giving seat is remote from the territory concerned, so in practical terms authority becomes pragmatic, power-based, and difficult to control. This hegemony survives the end of formal empire, through an inherited superstructure. Effectively, this results in the permeation of the constitutional state, what the Germans call the Rechtstaat - from above and below: from above through international bodies such as energy multinationals and media empires for whom conventional state-systems are minor impediments; and from below by civil society breakdowns they are either indifferent to, or positively encourage. The latter are post-industrial Scotland's drug and alcohol problems, three times more severe than in Germany, and the burgeoning black economy which they generate. Rebus's mean streets connect the two up.

Transnational capitalism - "turbocapitalism" in Edward Luttwak's definition - has meant that we are governed by ex-proconsuls, but not of the Kipling sort. Rebus's quarries seem both more complicit and more ruthless. As in Conrad's Heart of Darkness, something has penetrated from the extremities of European control to the metropolitan brain. Le Carré has cottoned on to this, but rather overdoes the devilishness in his recent work. An older master had long ago been over the theoretical ground.

In 1975 in The Crime Industry, commissioned by the Scottish Office, the criminologists John A Mack of Glasgow and Hans-Jürgen Kerner of Tübingen argued that the definition of crime had been radically altered by three factors: internationalisation, computers, and policing. This was appreciated by Eric Ambler in his last thriller Send no more Roses (1977). The impact of the first two is obvious enough, save to the "useful idiots" of neo-classical economics who pin Nobel Prizes on each other for minute tweakings of a system now almost autistic in its abstraction. The third implies that the police (and the definition both you and I would use still has connections with the broad 18th century use of the word) are almost by definition corrupt, since they depend on informers, whose crimes they cover up, while the imbalance of wealth in favour of the "able criminals" lets them buy accomplices in the police. Against their innovatory skills, the police are always, panting and sweating, a long way behind.

Rebus knows all about drugs and money laundering in the lower depths, but quite frequently surfaces among post-imperial hegemons in New Town drawing rooms. Where do they come from? Take a British state pursued by a desperate need for liquidity, infrastructural failure, and the flaws of Brownite regulation (which ought to have been part of that broad definition of police): the answer ought to show up with the certainty of a litmus test.

To cite only three cases from the New Labour dossier: the IRA heist on the Northern Bank, where there will be no prosecutions; the attorney general's ending of the BAE bribery investigation because state policy takes precedence over justice; last summer's huge carousel VAT frauds, presently kicked into touch. All well beyond Rebus's scale of villainy.

I speak with some experience of political strong-arm merchants: 1970-74 under Robert Maxwell in Buckingham Labour party was an education about party HQ's indifference to manipulation at constituency level. But we currently have the impact of the Blair-Brown Granita pact, leading to the hobbling of cabinet authority, the involvement of major donors and press barons in policy-making, and the swelling stratum of advisers and spinmeisters. With the retreat of the men of goodwill, what remains is increasingly authoritarian and at root corrupt. Rebus has faced what Burns stated:

For Britain's guid! For her destruction! Wi' dissipation, feud an' faction.

Able criminals are more likely to persist as toxins in a failed empire rather than in a small modern European state.

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