A Very British Coup, a book by Chris Mullin
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.