November 8, 2007
by Martin ‘HStorm’ Odoni
There are certain words in the English language that really, really aren’t meant to be insults, but because the ideals implied are generally held to be discredited, the application of them becomes an insult.
The most obvious example of this is probably ‘Fascist’. The term is really just meant to describe someone who believes in a very strong central Government, with an all-powerful elite at its head, small in number. The rationale for this is that the needs of society must outweigh the needs of the individual, and society can most easily be seen as being represented by the state, therefore the needs of the state must outweigh those of the private individual. Numbers in the elite must be small to reduce the danger of disagreements leading to Governmental gridlock.
The problem with Fascism is therefore shown not to be so much in the doctrine itself, but in where it will invariably lead to when there is any attempt to implement it; hegemonic oligarchy. This is because the state is set as being more important than its people, therefore it cannot be answerable to its people, therefore it can do whatever it damn well likes. That state of affairs is not necessarily the aim of Fascism – at least not consciously – but it is always its result, and so the word ‘Fascist’, when it is used, is usually thrown around as an insult, implying that anyone accused of being such a figure is in some way infringing on the freedoms of others.
Sometimes, the nature and outlook of the person on the receiving end of the insult is such that the accusation seems completely bizarre; people all across the spectrum, from Conservatives, through Liberals, to the Socialist Left get accused of it from time to time. Is it really possible that everyone and every political ideology is really Fascism in disguise? No. But this relates to the point that the political meaning of the term has been drowned out by the insulting overtones. Looked at dispassionately, ‘Fascist’ probably isn’t that much of an insult really, and is only seen as one because of all the horrors that Fascism led to in the first half of the Twentieth Century. Its most common use seems to be a particularly jarring way of accusing someone of being a bully. There is some justification in the comparison, but it isn’t as direct as it appears.
‘Nazi’ is a similar case. In many respects, ‘Nazi’ and ‘Fascist’ appear to mean the same thing. Certainly they are very similar, but Nazism, or ‘National Socialism’ as it somewhat bizarrely translates as in full, took a slightly different view. Politically, Nazism views the race as being above the individual, as well as above all other races, and so it is the race that should be seen as embodied in the state (and never mind if the head of that state does not embody it at all e.g. it’s only a side detail that Adolf Hitler was about as Aryan as Charlie Chaplin).
The resemblance between the two doctrines is very strong, of course, and they both arguably grew from the same root. The two approaches are clearly interchangeable without causing a break in stride, without the interchange even needing to be noticed by the general public, and this is why Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany were such close allies in the 1930’s and 1940’s.
I’ve noticed a tendency these days among students of the Left to use both terms to describe the current administration in Washington. It’s clear the terms are simply being used as a short cut from explaining what’s really so repellent about the George W Bush regime, a nice, quick insult that saves us the effort of finding a way of articulating our objections fully.
The thing is, the insults happen to be fairly appropriate. This is probably an accident, and therefore not something that the Leftist critics are due much credit for, but the phrases are still disturbingly close to the truth.
It’s not just because of the brash, macho militarism, although there is a resemblance in that regard quite clearly. There is only an occasional lip-service paid to real diplomacy, which is frequently sneered at as though it is a trifling inconvenience. And when I say that, can you tell me if I’m describing a scrap of paper signed at Munich, or Dubya’s unconvincing show of seeking United Nations’ approval to invade Iraq?
Nor is it because of the Imperialism that can strongly be argued is prevalent. Again, the accusation is fair in a way many Americans would be loath to admit; it may be Corporate Imperialism more than state Imperialism or colonial Imperialism, but it is still Imperialism. It merely serves an Oligarchy of plutocrats rather than bureaucrats. However, neither Fascist nor Nazi ideology has to be Imperialist by necessity; Italy, Japan and Germany might have formed large military Empires during the 30’s and 40’s, but another variant of the creed, the Spain of General Franco, did not to any significant extent.
It isn’t the religious hostility per se either. The hostility to Islam does have echoes of the anti-semitism prevalent in Nazi Germany. (And, strictly-speaking, by the fullest definition of the word, the hostility to Islam and the Middle East is itself a form of anti-semitism, as it is an attitude of religious hostility towards Jews and racial hostility towards Arabs.)
The chief reason the current US administration appears to follow a variant of Nazism is its attitude at home, and even more to do with the intrinsic philosophy of many of its officials, neoconservatism. This is a term that I suspect will come to be seen as just as insulting as ‘Nazism’ in the decades to come.
Modern neoconservatism is a philosophy that largely grew out of ideas that developed in the 1960’s (neoconservatism arguably existed as far back as the 1940’s, but the modern strain is a little different). In their original form, these ideas were called ‘Straussianism’, which, in turn, bears an unsettling resemblance to the ideas of a key figure from the Nazi Government.
To explain; Leo Strauss was a Jewish philosopher in 1960’s America who had viewed with despair the growing unrest in the USA since the (relatively) Liberal programs of John F. Kennedy and Lindon Johnson had been implemented. During the closing years of the decade, the major cities of the USA were prone to industrial action, riots and urban chaos of a type that had been largely unheard-of since Prohibition.
Examining the general pattern of the 1960’s, it appears most likely that unrest was caused by growing resistance by Conservative groups, especially in the South, to the reform agenda; hostility to emancipation for women and the vast black underclasses became more pronounced, and violent clashes between the different movements were soon rife.
Now, the debates about welfare and human rights reform were clearly very long overdue in a country that never tired of lecturing the rest of the world about what a model of liberty and justice it supposedly was. But as they tasted the freedom to speak out and protest at their lot, the American underclasses developed a boldness and a willingness to stand up to intimidation. Those who have privilege also have a habit of wanting to keep it, while those who are oppressed and see an end to the oppression in sight will usually wish to see the changes through. Somewhere along the line therefore, it seems a violent confrontation between the oppressed and the not-so-oppressed was going to be an inevitable part of any process of healing the rifts in America.
Strauss, however, believed that the difficulties were not just an unavoidable step on the road to a more just society. Instead, he felt that the root of the problem was Liberalism itself, and that it had let out a genie, one that would not be persuaded to return to its bottle by mere promises of economic redistribution.
Strauss saw that the basis of Liberalism was tolerance, and although he recognised that the intention behind this was laudable, he also believed there was a hidden danger to the state-of-mind that it required. Tolerance entailed acceptance of different cultures, different philosophies, different ways of seeing the world and living in it. To do this, argued Strauss, was to accept a nihilistic world view; one that believed that no principles were definite, that there was no absolute right or absolute wrong, and that any value, no matter how basic or self-evident its merits appeared to be, was subject to challenge.
The upshot of this would be a drifting, valueless, ultimately aimless way of life, hedonistic at best, fractious at worst. For if every world view was in doubt, it was impossible for the majority of people to take inspiration from the same ideals. The result would be a permanent disunity, a pluralism of ideas, many of which would be at odds with each other, and a gradual erosion of traditional morals. The unrest of the ’60s was one of the worst manifestations of the Liberal delusion, as Strauss saw it.
There were numerous young Liberals in the USA during this era, already calling themselves ‘neoconservatives’, who had become as disillusioned as Strauss, and when they studied his theories they found themselves agreeing wholeheartedly. Among their number were Irving Kristol (father of William and founder of the original neocon movement in the 1950’s), Paul Wolfowitz, Doug Feith, and Richard Perle. (Contrary to popular assumption, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld were not among them and are not neoconservatives by ‘tag’, but nonetheless have political outlooks that strongly endorse many of the same ideas.)
They concluded that it was a lack of purpose and moral certainty that was central to the decay of society. Therefore, they theorised, the most important role of Government – any Government – was to find a purpose that the great majority in society could be persuaded to agree with and to devote themselves to. That was more important than any other policy the Government could address. The unifying principle, of course, was nothing new in politics or sociology, but this was a little different, as for the first time the parameters of the policy became freely changeable, and the policy actually became the heart of legislation instead of just a feature of it, premeditated rather than a sudden contrivance. It didn’t matter particularly whether the cause was a positive or a negative one – but it did require a negative emotion, usually fear – it didn’t even matter whether the cause was based in the real world. All that was required was some need that society as a whole perceived itself as having. Perceptions would often need to be distorted in order to make people believe it of course, and the easiest way of achieving that distortion would be through some kind of emotional hysteria. So it follows that the most direct method of unification is to find an enemy – preferably an external one as then it would be one that most people would have no real knowledge of – to demonise repeatedly and bring the masses together in fear and hatred of a powerful common foe. And if such a powerful enemy does not exist, the Government would need to invent one.
Neoconservatives differed from other American Conservatives in that they were in favour of bigger Central Government and an interventionist Foreign policy; –
Bigger Central Government would have increased power of policing people and influencing ways of thinking, shaping the moral character of the nation. In effect, once they had established which principles were definitively right, they would need large powers to be able to impose those principles on their citizens. (More traditional Republicans are frequently at odds with the Bush Administration on this issue, as they prefer smaller Government, because it costs the taxpayer less.)
Interventionist Foreign policy would be necessary to spread the definitive values to those parts of the world that did not share them, as well as giving a plentiful supply of ‘evil’ enemies to unite the ‘heroic’ American nation against. With the tendency of national populations to rally around against a common foe during times of conflict, the unifying principle of war was bound to be successful, at least in part.
(All of this has a certain evangelistic quality to it, especially the aggressive preaching of traditional American values, which partly explains why the Anglican fanatics in the US Church found the neoconservatives to be appealing allies.)
The aspect of neoconservative doctrine that is so frightening is the resemblance between the unifying principle and the (supposed) motto of Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels; “If you tell a lie, tell a big one, and keep telling it until people believe it.” (Just to make clear on this point, there is no evidence that Goebbels ever gave voice to the phrase that is most often associated with him, and indeed it would be very self-defeating for a propagandist to say it anyway, but he did seem to endorse the practise by his actions.) As the unifying principle involves vilifying a common enemy, by talking up its threat to a degree that goes some way beyond fictitious – as can be evidenced by the wild exaggeration of the threat posed by Radical Islam – the neoconservatives and their allies appear to be very much in the habit of telling big lies and constantly repeating them until people believe them.
The only distinction between Nazism and neoconservatism in this area largely seems to be one of order-of-thought and nothing more. In Nazi Germany, the Government had a vendetta against Jews, and constantly dreamt up lies to justify the increasingly obscene outrages committed against the ‘sub-human’ race. In neoconservative America, there is no vendetta specifically, merely a recognition that a vendetta is useful for drawing attention away from Government failure and native injustice. Therefore, the target of the vendetta is changeable, and indeed has been changed more than once; twenty years ago the target was Communism. Today it is Radical Islam, and it is allowed to alter subtly to broader definitions of Islam, and even to anti-Arab prejudice according to the needs of the moment (hence the successful absurdity of using the 9/11 disaster and the threat of Radical Islam as a moral basis for invading Ba’athist Iraq, a secular nation-state).
This account possibly ignores that there are genuinely honest motives in neoconservatism, as well as overlooking the terrible influence the alliance with the Christian Right has had on the movement, adding an irrational zeal to Republicanism as a whole. But then, if neoconservatives hadn’t been prepared to manipulate Christian groups – including George W Bush himself – in the first place, they would never have been in a position to influence US policy in the way they have over the last seven years. So if the assessment is unfair, they have no one to blame but themselves.
Whatever the case, it is possible to sympathise with some neoconservative ideals. Interventionism on moral grounds rather than – if at all – on grounds of “anything-to-stop-the-Commies” is certainly refreshing at first glance; the neocons are openly critical, and quite rightly so, of the USA’s long history of bringing down benign, democratic Governments that just happened to be Socialist in outlook – witness the Allende Government in Chile – and of cheerfully allying with corrupt, brutal oligarchies that just happened to be opposed to Communism – witness General Suharto’s regime in Indonesia, or Ferdinand di Marcos’ dictatorship in the Philippines. They also feel uncomfortable about the amoral tendency of the USA just to stand complacently by and show no interest or concern when atrocities or disasters happen in parts of the world that ideologically are neither pro- nor anti-Communist. So the stance of interventionism can in many respects be seen as morally-sound, even admirable. Certainly very contrary to comparisons with Nazism.
Unfortunately, it is not the fact of interventionist foreign policy that is disturbing, so much as the foolish attitude that so often guides it.
Firstly, neoconservatives tend to assume that their values are superior to all others, an attitude that is so boosted by the Christian zeal of their allies that they take on a self-righteousness that very much harks back to the 1930’s; the values not just of an enlightened society but of a ‘chosen race’, or worse, a ‘master race’.
Secondly, there is a sad tendency to overestimate ‘American-ness’, assuming that because the USA is so powerful militarily, no one can possibly defeat it. When, as in Afghanistan and Iraq today, they find their enemies fighting using methods that are, at very least, unorthodox, at most, wildly insane, there follows a rude awakening.
Thirdly – a delusion that many other right-wing Americans are prone to and a consequence of both of the first two points – there is a strange, jingoistic tendency to assume that military superiority constitutes moral superiority. Now, America is the most powerful country in the world, so there’s no doubt that it must be doing something right. It’s probably even fair to say that it gets as many things right as just about any other country on Earth, at least in purely practical terms. But for some reason, many an American Conservative seems convinced that this also means that everything the USA does internationally must be morally-right as well as infallible. When the natives of the countries that the USA has occupied draw a different conclusion and choose not to shower their American ‘saviours’ with bouquets of flowers, it rather catches the neocons by surprise.
It also doesn’t help that some of their non-religious allies are visibly not interested in the morality of the neocon crusade; for sure Cheney and Rumsfeld were both always happy to join in with the neocon unifying techniques. Indeed, both in the 70’s with anti-Soviet propaganda and again with anti-‘al-Qaeda’ propaganda in Afghanistan, Rumsfeld would exercise them even more wildly and frequently than the neocons themselves. (Remember all those ludicrous tales about a vast underground network of ‘al-Qaeda super-fortresses’ in the caves beneath the Tora Bora mountains? No prizes for guessing who invented those particular streams of verbal excrement…) But while the techniques were useful tools, the ideology was not. The motivation for hard-right Republicans outside the neoconservative movement to invade Iraq was, is, and always will be, control of Iraq’s untapped oil reserves, especially in Cheney’s case. (It might have been a motivation for some inside the neocon movement too, particularly Paul Wolfowitz, although I’m prepared to believe, in my generosity, that it was an ‘incidental benefit’ for most of them.)
The overall impression you get when analysing neoconservatism therefore is one of a strain of genuine idealism marked by a horrifically-large flaw; the most outrageous arrogance. The assumption of possessing a value system above the rest of humanity, the unilateralist attitude of “We’re Americans, therefore we will do whatever we see fit in any part of the world, and we don’t care what anyone else says or if they approve, hell, we don’t even have to be polite about it”, the constant ability to talk up their enemies in propaganda to the point that they take on a quality of ten-foot-tall, super-powerful demons, the constant inability to take their enemies seriously when choosing strategy, the refusal to understand that international involvement does not necessarily entail telling everyone else what to do, the sneering, jeering dismissal and insulting of the slightest perceived criticism, the intellectual laziness… and so on.
It is quite impossible to be competent or to retain the sympathy of others when showing such arrogance. This is partly because the tendency to sweep aside opposing viewpoints without even giving them a fair hearing invites hatred, but mainly because arrogance of this type leads to a mistaken self-view of infallibilty. No one, not even the greatest of human beings, is infallible. And neocons, as their performances on so many issues in both Afghanistan and Iraq demonstrate, are a very long way from being the greatest of human beings.
The worry for Americans should be that here, the resemblance to Nazism rears its gruesome head once more. For at the heart of Adolf Hitler’s delusion was the assumption of genetic superiority, the idea that the Germanic races, and most particularly those of Aryan ‘stock’, were in some way infallible as well. It may be that the doctrine and outlook are considered infallible, as opposed to the race, in modern America. But, as with the distinction between Fascism and Nazism, it’s only a change of parameters.
Does that mean that Nazism is as interchangeable with neoconservatism as it is with Fascism? Not yet. The oligarchical dishonesty of the neocons on the domestic front is very dangerous, and not that far removed from the Nazis, but in their defence we can point to the moral positives in their interventionism; the desire to intercede for the better is probably real in most cases. So there are redeeming qualities.
But then even Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, in amongst all their barbarism, still had some morals that appear positive to modern Westerners; for instance, Heinrich Himmler campaigned to ban hunting with dogs in Germany on grounds that it was cruel.
Against the backdrop of genocide and Imperial aggression, this is not much of a redeeming characteristic. And among all the lies, distortion, anti-Arab witch-hunts, semi-fictitious hysteria about terrorism, oligarchical control of information and wealth, strutting unilateralist arrogance, militaristic aggression and lazy incompetence, simply saying, “Well at least they got rid of Saddam,” isn’t much of a redeeming characteristic for the neocons either.
Neoconservatism isn’t Nazism. Yet. But the resemblance is far stronger and far more chilling than we are comfortable admitting. It is already aggressive and hegemonic. All it really needs to add to become the same sort of thing is to embark on a genocidal vendetta. And given the general attitude in Conservative America towards Moslems at the moment, that vendetta’s not very hard to imagine coming true in the near future.
November 1, 2007
Written by veteran Labour left-winger, Chris Mullin, and published in 1982, A Very British Coup appears to be a political thriller of the traditional conspiracy-story type, but which quickly displays, almost without the reader noticing it, the hallmarks of a near-future dystopia of the The Iron Heel variety. The fact that the dystopic value is easy to miss is that it was set only around seven years after it was published, and therefore its content is so similar to the real world as was going on all around it, that it’s easy for the reader just to assume that it’s a generic thriller.
It is, in fact, one of the bleakest and most disturbing novels I have ever read, and while inevitably it veers from what really happened quite hugely in terms of fine details, many of its saddest predictions did come true. It was essentially meant as an explanation and forewarning of the real reasons why genuine leftist Governments in the UK seldom seem to function.
As in the real world, so in the novel, throughout the 1980’s Thatcherism and its short-termist attitude to industry has held sway and wiped out British manufacturing. Service industry and market speculation is all that remains of the one-time “workshop-of-the-world”, and unemployment has surged to well over three million. Unrest has mounted, and many inner cities are now no-go areas for police and officials. Left-wing movements have become increasingly popular, and more extreme in their outlook, and as riots spread across the urban centres of population, the Conservative elite chooses to blame it, not on the disastrous erosion of the economy, but on the malevolence of Communist movements. To this end, a bill is rushed through Parliament in 1987 that officially outlaws Trotskyism (an ideal that is deliberately left loosely-defined, making it easy for Governments to silence any leftist opponent just by accusing them in very vague terms of being a ‘Trot’ ***).
In 1989, the Tories call a General Election and are expecting another comfortable majority. But the Labour Party has elected a new leader, a former steel-worker from Sheffield, who is practically a Marxist. His name is Harold Perkins. With the general polarisation of outlook, especially among the working classes and the unemployed, his radical program is exactly what is likely to appeal to the masses; re-nationalisation of all utilities, an end to media monopolies, revitalisation of the Welfare State, broad investment in manufacturing and raw materials, a national minimum wage, abolition of the monarchy and the aristocracy, withdrawal from NATO and the Common Market, and full-scale nuclear disarmament. To the astonishment of the country’s elite, Perkins is elected new Prime Minister by a thumping margin of over a hundred seats.
The problem is, while he might have won the battle against the other political parties, he has yet to fight two far deadlier opponents; the media and the ruling class establishment.
The media is largely dominated by right-wing newspapers of course, and inevitably, The Daily Mail, The Sun, The Express and The Times are up in arms when the Labour landslide is announced. Behind many of these newspapers is a cynical, immoral proprietor by the name of Sir George Fyson, an unscrupulous Londoner whose definition of intelligence in others appears to be that they are in favour of policies that exclusively benefit Fyson, even if they don’t benefit themselves. He fears, with very good reason, that if Perkins is allowed to govern unhindered, he will soon break up the Fyson media conglomerate. (Readers of the Urquhart Trilogy will notice resemblances between him and the novelised-version of Benjamin Landless, especially the quality of working-class-cockney-bad-boy-makes-‘good’.) And so Fyson embarks on a tireless, relentless smear campaign against Perkins, calling him a ‘bloody Trot’, ‘Red Scum’, ‘a Soviet Agent’, ‘Commie filth’, and all the usual cliches of Tory hysteria that were so prevalent at the height of the Cold War. Every aspect of the Labour manifesto is twisted, distorted, insulted, presented out of context, and abused. Fyson is, in short, the classic sleazy media tycoon. There is more than a hint of stereotype about him in fact, but he still seems painfully real for all that.
The ruling class establishment, if anything, is even more dangerous. The media merely mobilises public opinion against Perkins. The establishment sabotages the machinery of Government itself, trapping it in gridlock. In this area, Perkins’ enemy is his supposed closest advisor, Sir Peregrine Craddock, Secretary of State to the Cabinet and head of the British Civil Service. Craddock is a man capable of, frankly, the most astounding gifts of doublethink. On the one hand he displays a frank and contemptuous cynicism, with full knowledge of his own selfish motives to prevent Perkins’ program from moving forward. He openly admits to his fellow conspirators his loathing for the lower classes, including many in the middle class, and that he is working entirely to protect his ‘natural’ place of authority and privilege beyond those born ‘beneath’ him. On the other hand, he still seems to believe, as so many right-wing magnates do in these situations, that what he is doing to sabotage the elected Government in some way preserves democracy and justice.
Similar in many respects to the goings-on in Yes, Minister (and indeed in the real Civil Service), Craddock and his underlings pull every one of the dirtiest tricks in the book to de-rail the Government; delaying drafts of legislation, holding up safeguards in the Bank of England when sterling is under pressure, leaking policy secrets and even personal matters about Cabinet ministers to the press, infiltrating popular leftist demonstrations with hired troublemakers, passing key military and strategic policy details to the Americans (who are of course bitterly opposed to the UK withdrawing from NATO), cranking up right-wing Trade Union activists into triggering damaging national strikes, and engineering arguments between different ministers whenever a policy carries the risk of a conflict of interests between departments.
And of course, even where the Civil Service’s machinations can be detected by those in power, they can never be proven. The result is that Perkins’ Government, right from its earliest days, is mired in scandal and near-paralysis. None of its major objectives come near to realisation because the Establishment does not want them realised.
After a year in power, scandal hits the Prime Minister personally, when he is wrongly-implicated in what appears to be a conflict of interests over a power station he had authorised the construction of while in Cabinet in the late-70’s; a power station that has subsequently come close to exploding due to shoddy work on the reactor’s safety mechanisms. Exhausted and battered by months of wearying political battles and media hostility, Perkins is very ill and he can take no more. This new scandal that is about to engulf him directly is what brings the water flooding in over his head.
The DI5 chiefs march him out of Downing Street and issue a statement on his behalf that he is “resigning due to ill-health”. He is then packed off to Chequers under armed guard for convalescence, where he is kept under what is essentially house arrest for over a year, with even his closest friends and colleagues barred from visiting him more than intermittently.
In the meantime, Perkins’ chief rival on the Cabinet, the Chancellor of the Exchequer Lawrence Wainwright, becomes the new Prime Minister and appoints an entire new Cabinet without a single Minister from the Marxist wing of the party. Wainwright is what can jocularly be referred to as a ‘right-wing socialist’. (In fact, given his upper middle class background and his centre-right values, he appears to be an eerie foreshadowing on Mullin’s part of the emergence of New Labour; this is in spite of the fact that the novel was first published a full year before Tony Blair and Gordon Brown even got elected as MP’s!)
The novel ends with Craddock and Fyson in the nauseating throes of self-congratulation on achieving a very ‘British’ coup d’etat i.e. one with very little bloodshed, hardly any deaths, no state police (debatably), and no firing squads, while Harry Perkins remains isolated at Chequers, which has become a bizarre kind of prison for what was once a sturdy and formidable politician, but is now an exhausted and broken man. The horrible feeling of futility that is the closing hallmark of most dystopian stories is especially powerful here. The breaking of Harry Perkins perhaps feels like it happened a bit suddenly – in spite of all the troubles and pressures, he still seems to be holding up well until not long before the nuclear plant controversy begins – but it’s hard not to crumble with him tearfully when you see this energetic, charismatic man of imagination, principle, honesty and resilience finally fall on his sword, having been humiliated, cheated on, battered and betrayed by people that had no axe to grind with him other than they had power and privilege and wanted to keep it.
And so, like in Eastern Europe in the real world, Marxism is left in ruins. Thatcherism has utterly defeated Socialism, crushed it, humiliated it, trodden its face into the dust, and the British people, using the kind of circular logic that Americans are usually best at, seem to think that Thatcherism is in the right, that the ‘good’ side has won, and that it must be the good side because it has won.
This ending is truly numbing, more so than any other dystopia I have ever read, because it is so much closer to coming true. Nineteen Eighty-Four, as the most famous example of the genre, was an extraordinary vision beyond doubt, pure genius in fact, and many details in it did come true. But on the whole, as George Orwell had hoped, it was a prediction that successfully invalidated itself; society took the warning on board, and while some details still happened – and there’s no reason to be complacent about the rest – at least the general drift of the story has been avoided, or at least delayed. And there’s never any doubt when reading it that Nineteen Eighty-Four is partly meant as a grim-humoured joke; the society it represents is a scary possibility, but one so ridiculous that you can laugh at it in some ways.
However, not so with A Very British Coup. I find it even more terrifying and bleak than anything Orwell wrote, because I realised as I read the final page just how much of it is true, and how the warnings of it were almost completely ignored, despite the great success of the novel when it was first released. The prediction of the general drift of Thatcherism throughout the 1980’s was almost entirely accurate, from the death of manufacturing, through the horrific surge in unemployment, to the swell of unrest hitting its peak in the mid-80’s and the attempt to wipe out non-conservative ideas even as concepts. The oligarchy of media-led plutocrats did hit unprecedented heights of power by the early-90’s, and even though, in her defence, Thatcher did make creditable efforts to put the Civil Service in its place (which is one area where history diverges from the novel somewhat), they were largely unsuccessful. Permanent Secretaries, and most particularly the Cabinet Secretary, continue to wield disturbing amounts of power, and the capacity to inflict considerable damage on incumbent Government Ministers when they choose to do so. It is a telling detail when examining the novel that you realise that none of the major protagonists were in the Parliamentary Conservative Party, demonstrating how unimportant the Opposition really is in practise; as Anthony Jay never tires of telling us, the Opposition in Government i.e. the Civil Service is far more dangerous than the Opposition in exile.
In the end, you can’t help feeling that there are only two reasons the novel didn’t come more completely true. Firstly, when Neil Kinnock and Roy Hattersley took charge of the Labour Party, they decided to take it towards the right instead of the left (nowhere near as far to the right as Blair would take it, mind, but still a long way from where the fictitious Perkins planned to go), and the General Elections happened at a different stage.
Mullin appears to have assumed the Tories would go for a full term each time, but Thatcher chose two four-year terms instead; elections in 1983 (riding the sad popularity of the Falklands War) instead of 1984, and then 1987 instead of 1989. But had these two details gone differently, A Very British Coup suddenly changes from a yarn into a broad reality.
Had, say, Tony Benn taken charge of Labour after Michael Foot stepped down (not all that likely by then, I know, but possible), and had Thatcher gone down the five-year-terms route, see what would have happened; 1989/1990 was the height of the Poll Tax controversy, so the Tories would likely have been massacred in a General Election at that time. And Benn would have had a very similar policy program to Harry Perkins.
We were that close.
Would the Establishment have been quite so hostile to a Bennite Government? Well, possibly not, but then the Civil Service does have a history of pulling dirty tricks – many of which are catalogued in the novel – when they have to implement Socialist policies that they dislike, so it certainly can’t be discounted. And for sure, Fyson’s war-by-media would be totally indistinguishable from the sort of vileness that would be initiated by Rupert Murdoch’s Empire.
And as Wainwright takes up the reins of the Labour Party, so Tony Blair transforms it into ‘New Labour’ in the real world, and the ‘right-wing socialist’ – which translates as it always has since as far back as the Spanish Civil War as “A conservative who hates socialism pretending to be socialist” – becomes the pre-eminent power in British politics. All that’s been ‘missed out’ by the real world is the transition-stage of another failed Government of the far left. Instead, that humiliating demise took the form of a heavy defeat in the election of 1987.
The effect, I fear, has been much the same.
POSTSCRIPT: The novel is in many respects a precursor to the aforementioned Urquhart Trilogy, not least because it was also turned into a television drama, this time by Channel 4 in 1987. Indeed, the two series are chillingly similar in a lot of respects, but House Of Cards probably just wins the comparison as it has the advantage of the central character being a smooth-talking villain with bags of charisma. It should be stressed that Perkins, played by the excellent Irish actor, the late Ray McAnally, is also a charismatic and likeable figure, but there’s something that makes you smile that bit more when a bad guy can make you enjoy seeing acts of pure villainy the way Urquhart does.
An extra similarity worth mentioning is that the TV series of A Very British Coup pulls the same trick that House Of Cards would a few years later; it transposed the ending. Urquhart loses in the novels, but wins in the TV version. Similarly, Perkins is utterly destroyed in the book, but in the TV series… well he doesn’t necessarily win outright. In fact, the ending is quite ambiguous. But he isn’t broken, he doesn’t give up, he stands and fights, and the outcome is left for us to speculate on. Chris Mullin has stated that he has an idea in mind for a sequel, and it was all the more a shame that McAnally died so soon after the series was completed, as a sequel would have been so much better if he could have resumed the role.
*** It’s a longstanding peculiarity of Trotskyism that it has never been adequately-defined at any point since it was first coined in the 1920’s. Of course, ‘Trotskyist’, or more pejoratively ‘Trotskyite’, appear to mean a follower of the philosophy of the Russian Revolutionary Marxist, Leon Trotsky, but there are problems with that. For one, the term is a little redundant, as it’s hard to distinguish between that and, say, ‘Leninist’.
Also, the doctrine of many people described as Trotskyists over the last seventy years and more doesn’t really resemble Trotsky’s to a significant extent at all. The definition of a Trotskyist during the Second World War, for example, appeared to be a Communist who hated Josef Stalin. That was it. No social or economic program of any detail, no Internationalist vision or objectives. Just a straightforward Russo-Communist program but with Stalin out of the way. This is surely far too limited to be considered Trotskyism; whatever bad things we can say about Trotsky – and for sure there were quite a few – we can’t accuse him of being a man with only one idea in his head.
Other so-called ‘Trotskyists’ have included environmentalist groups, anti-nuclear campaigners, and moralists seeking to ban obscenity from television and radio. What any of these groups supposedly have to do with Trotsky is beyond me, not least because the issues they prioritise never materialised until after he was already dead.
A little like ‘fascist’, which is always used in such loose terms these days that it’s really just a more insulting way of saying ‘bully’ (and yes, I freely admit I’ve been guilty of using it in that context from time to time), labels like ‘Trotskyist’, when they are used at all, tend to be freely interchangeable with words like ‘hooligan’ and ‘layabout’.
This is why I find the idea of a Government – any Government – creating a law banning Trotskyism highly unsettling. In effect, it means banning anyone from thinking anything that goes against the general pattern of ideas coming from those in power.