Socialist Worker

Corporations' deadly trade

by Helen Shooter
Issue No. 1729

A FORMER spy for the British secret service and a product of the establishment has written a brilliant novel that rails against the power of multinationals. John Le Carré is best known for books of British and Russian government intrigue during the Cold War like The Spy Who Came In From The Cold.

But his new book, The Constant Gardener, is a rant against the giant pharmaceutical companies that use Third World countries to try out dodgy products and buy politicians' support.

'My subject is the dilemma of decent people struggling against the ever-swelling tide of heedless corporate greed,' he said in press interviews over Christmas. The John Le Carré file reads like the perfect advert for the establishment. Born David Cornwell, son of an aspiring Tory candidate for Yarmouth, public school and Oxford University educated, he associated with lefties at college to identify who could be future Russian spies.

His jobs in British intelligence included working for MI5 and MI6. But Le Carré's heroes are not establishment toadies-they stand for an idea of 'fair play' and against corruption. He is someone who hoped the world would be a better place after the Berlin Wall was torn down in 1989 and Western governments proclaimed a New World Order. Instead Le Carré has been left feeling disgusted. 'The Cold War provided the perfect excuse for Western governments to plunder and exploit the Third World in the name of freedom,' he said.

'And while they did this a ludicrous notion took hold that we are saddled with to this day. It is a notion beloved of Conservatives and New Labour alike. It holds to its bosom the conviction that whatever profit-driven corporations do in the short term, they are ultimately motivated by ethical concerns.'

This anger drove him to write The Constant Gardener. He says he could have chosen oil companies to show 'the unbridled crimes of capitalism' but instead picked the pharmaceutical firms as his target.

His book follows the investigation into the murder of a British diplomat's wife in Nairobi, Kenya. She was trying to expose a pharmaceutical company's cover-up of deaths caused by its anti-TB drug. Le Carré's novel exposes how government links with big business have deadly consequences.

His character Sandy Woodrow, who is desperate for promotion to the top job of high commissioner in Nairobi and a knighthood, tries to justify that murky relationship: 'The Foreign Office is supposed to be greasing the wheels of British industry, not going round telling everybody that a British company in Africa is poisoning its customers. You know the game. We're not killing people who wouldn't otherwise die.'

Le Carré concludes in an article for the Sunday Telegraph, 'Perhaps we need a great new movement, an international, humanitarian movement, a Seattle demo without the broken glass.'

In the author's note at the end of The Constant Gardener Le Carré says, 'As my journey through the pharmaceutical jungle progressed, I came to realise that, by comparison with the reality, my story was as tame as a holiday postcard.'

So it's no surprise to hear that a top executive for SmithKline Beecham, one of the world's biggest drug companies, will next month become head of drugs licensing at the industry's watchdog, the Medicines Control Agency.


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Sat 6 Jan 2001, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1729
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