A Very British Coup
Coronet, London, 1983
To Joan, who will never lose faith
dedication: To Joan, who will never lose faith
The blurb on the back:
It is March 1989 and Britain has a new Government. Ex-steelworker Harry Perkins has led his far-left Labour Party to victory on a manifesto which includes withdrawal from NATO, nuclear disarmament and the removal of all US bases from Britain.
'His narrative rattles along with speed and great credibility, not least because of his accurate and detailed backgrounds, from a nuclear power station to the interior of No. 11 Downing Street.' - Alan Hamilton, The Times
This one scarcely needs my praise, but if it somehow passed you by, do yourself a favour and get a copy - it's a great book.
Chris Mullin is a left-leaning Labour MP (his re-election is traditionally the first result to be declared on General Election night, after they've finished weighing the vote) and this is essentially a socialist take on a familiar story in which the forces of reaction in British society are goaded into making a stand against the Left. (See also Who Killed Enoch Powell, The Chilian Club &c.) The principal difference is Mullin's focus on the top layers of the capitalist establishment: Cromwell Jones feels betrayed by the collapse of order in society when he's mugged and his sister murdered, but Mullin is more concerned with the attitude of an Air Marshal leaving the office of the head of British Intelligence on his way to the White House to report on His Majesty's government.
Written in 1982, the novel posits the election at the end of the decade of a genuinely socialist Labour government and the means adopted by right-thinking people to neutralize their policies. Currency crises, withdrawal of investments, smear stories, personal blackmail are amongst the tactics employed, together with the mobilization of all the sleeper agents that the establishment has placed in the labour movement.
Now you're not stupid, and you'll have noticed a couple of flaws in this plot. Flaws such as the idea that socialism was capable of taking over the Labour Party, or the idea that socialists would be allowed to win a General Election. Suspend disbelief on these issues, however, and you're in for a fantastic read: a crucial text in understanding the British left during the first Thatcher government, and a still-relevant analysis of society.
At its core are two ideas that remain of profound significance if we're ever going to make something of this country. The first is that Britain is governed by an unelected para-state. The civil service, the military, the media, the police and the judiciary are far more powerful than Parliament, and all owe allegiance not to the elected Prime Minister, but to the Monarch. Secondly, and more controversially, Britain is an occupied country. The presence of American armed forces on British soil is (a) deeply embarrassing (how impotent is a country that doesn't even feel able to defend itself?), and (b) deeply undemocratic.
The Labour government described by Mullin decides it wants to be independent in the Cold War - hasn't done Switzerland or Sweden any harm - and is elected on exactly that promise; it is prevented from implementing the policy by American power. And that's the policy that proves the sticking point: an alternative approach to the economy was one thing, but withdrawal from NATO and the dismantling of the US defence infrastructure on British soil proves one step too far.
The craven attitude of Little Tony Blair to Washington demonstrates that Mullin's analysis continues to carry some conviction.
There's a Trotskyist position known as 'unconditional but critical support' that allowed a serious Trot to express, for example, absolute and unconditional enthusiasm for the ANC during its struggle against apartheid, whilst at the same time pointing out that the organization was adopting all the wrong tactics and strategically had no bloody idea at all. On these lines, I'd like to express my unconditional but critical support of this novel. I unreservedly recommend it to anyone with even a passing interest in political fiction - apart from anything else, it's a genuine page-turner - but I'd like to register some caveats, as follows:
(1) Sometime in the mid-1980s, we are asked to believe, the Tory government made Trotskyism an imprisonable offence. What, when Trots could be used to undermine the Labour Party?
(2) The politics are fiercely Old Labour. This is as opposed to New Left, rather than New Labour, if you see what I mean - the emphasis is on trade unions rather than the then-dominant agenda of race, gender and sexuality. I seem to recall feminists taking the piss out of the book at the 1982 Labour Party Conference.
(3) The ending is a bit crap.
But don't let's lose track of the fact that this is damn good stuff. And the TV adaptation (in 1988) wasn't too shabby either.
Ray McAnally as Harry Perkins
in Channel 4's adaptation
ENTERTAINMENT VALUE: 5/5
HIPNESS QUOTIENT: 3/5
Defence of the Realm