I’m a lucky man. My novel House of Cards transformed my life, yet I wrote it almost by accident nearly 30 years ago. It wasn’t intended to be anything other than a hobby but thanks to the limitless skills of Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright, backed by the reach of Netflix, it now spans the globe. We’re into our fourth season, preparing the fifth, but it never ceases to surprise. A little while ago during his official visit to Britain I was invited to meet President Xi of China. In order to mark the occasion I decided to give him an original and now rather rare hardback copy of the book. He looked at it perplexed. ‘What,’ he said, ‘you have House of Cards in this country, too?’
I played dirty the other night after dinner. We were all fuelled by quantities of mind-liberating claret, so I asked the others to name their MEPs. Whoops. Utterly clueless. One guest argued that Brexit would leave us much less safe, so I was a real shit and asked if he could name the EU’s foreign minister. No idea. (Actually she’s Federica Mogherini from Italy. Feel any safer now?) There’s something else no one was aware of. Almost every government in the EU up for re-election over the past seven years has been thrown out by voters — France, Italy, Spain, Greece, Portugal, Poland, Ireland, on and on, even the coalition government here. Everyone except the government in Brussels, of course. For some reason that’s still there. Elitism perfected. I think that’s pretty unsafe, too.
Greece has a special place in my heart. I’ve just come back from a trip in search of ancient ruins, and the most magical moment was an early morning on Mount Olympus where, surrounded by a sea of wild spring flowers, I ran the length of the athletics track in the original Olympic stadium. I was following in the footsteps of ancients like Tiberius and Leonidas, who left indelible marks on our civilisation. Yet amid these splendours I had to walk past mountains of rubbish that lay strewn for mile after endless mile around that sacred spot. The garbage hasn’t been collected in more than a year. Rats, filth, pestilence, graffiti, decay, hopelessness. The monuments of modern Europe. It filled my eyes with tears, and shame.
University Challenge isn’t a place for faint hearts. I know; I competed a couple of years ago in the Christmas special and made a compete balls of it. For the past three years the final has been contested by teams from Oxbridge, so what makes them such consistent winners? Because Oxbridge colleges, like all good universities, regard it as their job to drag their students up the highest peaks, not to skulk around the foothills in search of intellectual safe places. And the view from the mountaintop is breathtaking. Yet increasingly on our campuses you’ll find pressure to trash things, personalities or ideas that some hand-wringer finds uncomfortable. The uproar about the statue of Cecil Rhodes is just a fragment of the intolerance taking hold from those whose intellectual span stretches to no more than 140 characters. You don’t even need to speak to be threatened with a ban on campus — shaking your head while someone else is talking is enough. It’s not simply pathetic, it’s dangerous. It’s one reason we are seeing an increase in anti-Semitism. Instead of writing books, we are moving towards burning them. Have we forgotten all the lessons of history?
I don’t remember any US President telling us to get to the back of the queue during the Normandy landings on D-Day in 1944. Or when we stood side by side with American troops in Korea, Kuwait, Iraq, Berlin, Afghanistan or Libya. A century of comradeship, thrown aside in a single soundbite.
Last weekend in York I got stuck in traffic and once again missed my train by no more than the distance of an outstretched arm. It made me even more enthusiastic for autonomous vehicles — those computer-driven things that much sooner than we realise will transform our lives. They promise to cure congestion, cut down on road deaths, slash insurance rates and sweep away that monumental waste of time, money and emotion we call commuting. Our city centres will be handed back to the people. Some people don’t see it, of course, and distrust the idea of computers taking over, rather like the Duke of Wellington who 200 years ago rubbished the idea of steam trains on the grounds they would frighten the horses. Today’s ministers are more enlightened. They’re investing hundreds of millions of our money into AV systems and any day now the first experimental convoys of automated trucks will be on a motorway near you. So can anyone explain why those same ministers plan to spend maybe £80 billion on HS2?
I’ve made a lifelong study of leadership and come to realise that success in politics requires sacrifice. Preferably by others, and sometimes of others. Hey ho.