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Ian Fleming - in Her Majesty's very important service

08-Oct-2008 • Literary

What would James Bond have done had he been in Her Majesty's ultimate service - as her prime minister? For some clues, Max Cotton examines an article Bond's creator, Ian Fleming, wrote nearly 50 years ago - "If I Were Prime Minister", reports The BBC.

I remember hearing Sean Connery describe Ian Fleming as a terrible snob. It's an accusation borne out by James Bond who is seen so much as his creator's alter ego.

The Chelsea Flat complete with the inscrutable house keeper May. The cigarettes made especially for him that he had been smoking since his teens. A fastidious attention to detail over food and drink. The Bentley Continental.

Next week a little part of that image is going to be questioned with the publication of an article that Ian Fleming wrote in the 1950s for The Spectator. It is called If I were Prime Minister and is part of a new collection of Fleming's works which includes the Bond classics.

So what would the creator of 007 have done if he were in Downing Street? Well, not the return to 18th Century political grandeur one might expect. He writes that in 1938 he attended a debate in the House of Commons and was so put off by the "hollowness and futility" of the speeches that he never returned.

He appears to be miles ahead of his time, insisting that intolerable congestion in our towns should mean the end of the internal combustion engine. He called it a "ridiculous steam-age contraption" and suggested it should be replaced by some form of electric motor.

Although nominally a Tory he doesn't sound very conservative:

"In the United Kingdom we have basically a non-conformist conscience and the fact that taxation controls and certain features of the welfare state have turned the majority of us into petty criminals, liars and work dodgers is having a very bad effect on the psyche of the kingdom."

He wanted tax dodging dealt with, overtime banned because it left labourers with no free time and an end to expense accounts and what he calls other forms of "fiscal chicanery".

The most striking part of Fleming's manifesto is his idea - in consultation of course with his Minister for Leisure - to turn the Isle of Wight into a huge-casino-cum-brothel, where people of all classes can give "full rein to those basic instincts for sex and gambling which have been crushed through the ages".

Was Ian Fleming simply teasing the readership of The Spectator - who in themselves were a spectacularly conservative bunch in October 1959?

Perhaps he was weighed down by austere Cold War Britain two years before the Berlin Wall went up and at the peak of anti-Soviet hysteria?

If he was teasing them, he couldn't have done better than invoking as one of his industrial heroes a Soviet citizen: "I would devise a scheme of benevolent Stakhanovism. There would be a minimum wage in every industry, but rapidly mounting merit bonuses for real work in either quantity or quality. This would not abolish tea breaks or the games of whist but make them unpopular with the wives."

Either way, one telling quote from his imagined life as prime minister makes him rather likeable: "The big things - the H-bomb, the conquest of outer space, the colour problem - these are time-wasting matters, too vast and confused for one man's brain; I would leave them to my ministers and to the wave of common sense, which, it seems to me, by a process of osmosis between peoples rather than between politicians, is taking rapid and healthy control of the world."

So while this piece will perhaps change our view of Fleming, history sadly does not record what the people of the Isle of Wight thought of his plans for their island.

A version of this article was first broadcast on BBC One's Politics Show.

If I Were Prime Minister, (c) Ian Fleming Will Trust, is taken from "Talk of the Devil," a volume of little-known or unpublished writing by Ian Fleming is published in October by Queen Anne Press.

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