Regarding Brexit, you used to be “mildly pro-Remain” but have become more passionately so. What’s changed?
In the right-wing media for the last 10 or 15 years, there was this idea that Europe was somehow threatening the state, altering good British laws in an undemocratic way. That somehow, the European Commission was even standardising the size of condoms across the bloc – leading some to think British men would no longer fit. [Laughs]
Wait, is that real?
I’m not making that up! It was a famous piece by Boris Johnson, when he was the Brussels correspondent of the UK Daily Telegraph. We kind of bought into it, my generation, without particularly thinking about it. The prospect that the European Union wouldn’t be there never even occurred to me until about a month before the 2016 Brexit referendum. I wasn’t remotely worried that the UK electorate would be so stupid. Suddenly you start looking at things you take for granted, like the ability to cross frontiers without barely showing your passport.
So much hinges on the UK election result. How are you voting?
The Tories are definitely now Leave. Labour is sitting, dithering, on the fence with pathetic Jeremy Corbyn. It will have to be Liberal Democrats. Which is a party I’ve often voted for – never with any particular enthusiasm, because they’re slightly like white sliced bread. But in this election, there’s absolutely no question.
That gives us an idea of how you’d like the election to turn out. How do you think it’s going to turn out?
As a Scot, I’d always been at ease with the concept that I’m Scottish, but also British. But the Scots have been 80 per cent Remain. Now I’m very fearful the Tories will win the election, that we will have Brexit and the United Kingdom will break up.
Historians often say, “We learn history so we know never to repeat it.” Are there lessons from history that almost predict the situation the world is in now?
A reason behind my book, The Anarchy, is the idea that the British have romanticised their imperial history. We’ve had this view that while the French Empire was terrible, the German Empire was worse and the Belgians were off-the-scale bad … but that somehow the British Empire was a wonderful thing! [Laughs]
Benign! Lovely ladies in white dresses walking down lawns. Elephants and smiling maharajas. Of course, it’s bullshit. The British Empire in India was created by an incredibly ruthless and extractive commercial company that existed only to make a profit as much as Goldman Sachs only exists to make a profit.
So a story of hyper-capitalism with few ethical frameworks. Timely story.
Yes. There’s absolutely no rhetoric at all in the first 270 years of us going out to build railways or bring the benefits of Western civilisation. We went to make a profit. And to do so, we looted assets, stripped and plundered.
When it comes to your back catalogue, where are we going to find the most interesting sex?
My first history book, White Mughals, in 2002. In a sense, it’s a counterpart to The Anarchy, which is the story of the dark side of the East India Company. Sexually, the East India Company was oddly liberal, and one-third of all British men married Indian women. It’s a story of worlds coming together.
Your wife is the artist Olivia Fraser. What attracted to you to her?
Very easily answered: she’s a very attractive woman. I met her through Indian friends in London. We’ve been together since 1987 and got married in 1991, when we were both 26.
What’s your secret?
While some of my friends got together young and grew radically apart, we’ve grown in the same direction. Her art career has flourished in India. She’s also a brilliant editor, but ruthless, and will put red pen through pages of my beautiful prose. [Laughs] I will shout and scream but she is usually right.
Writer, author of The Family Law and Gaysia.