A Very British Coup, revisited

This article was first published on Sceptical Scot.

While excavating belongings for a looming house move I unearthed a book I knew was lurking somewhere: a shabby old paperback copy of A Very British Coup by former Labour MP Chris Mullin, its pages still encrusted with grains of sand and coffee stains from a holiday somewhere in California, some time in the 1980s.

It tells the story of how conservative forces deep inside the British state – embedded within Whitehall, the City, the military and the press – slowly undermine a radical Labour government led by ex-steel worker Harry Perkins, elected on a hard-left platform encompassing exit from the ‘Common Market’, public control of key City institutions, the break-up of newspaper monopolies, the removal of nuclear weapons, withdrawal from NATO, and abolition of the House of Lords, the honours list and the public schools.

Published in 1982 the book inspired two successful Channel 4 adaptations, the first in 1988, in which Perkins was played brilliantly by the late Ray McAnally (see the YouTube clip below), the second in 2012 under the title Secret State.

Perhaps a third re-make will be due before too long. With Jeremy Corbyn, a left winger from the same era as Perkins leading an unexpectedly gripping Labour leadership contest, I found myself re-turning the book’s battered pages, brushing that west coast sand away again after so many years. Could this story seemingly from another age, actually be about to be played out for real, more than 30 years on?

Trots and telex machines

Opening the book one finds oneself back in what seems a very distant Britain. Although Mullin sets the story in the early 1990s, the ambience is most definitely that of the period in which it was written, the early years of the first Thatcher government: an era of telex machines, incomes policies hammered out in smoke-filled rooms with pugnacious trade union barons, sideburns, candlelight flickering through top story windows during power strikes, and distinguished gentlemen in pin stripes and bowlers, brollies tucked underarm, hurrying along rain-soaked streets for confidential conversations in curtained Whitehall offices. A Tinker Tailor Solider Spy England, in the twilight years of British social democracy.

Perkins comes to power in a country that seems forever stuck in 1981: the manufacturing industries are being hollowed out; Brixton, Toxteth, Handsworth and Moss Side have been abandoned to marauding gangs of rioters; and Marxist insurgents are on the loose: ‘Army camps on Salisbury Plain were filled not only with rioters, but suspected Trotskyists, too.’

When Mullin was writing it seemed that a Labour government led by a Perkins-ish figure really was on the threshold of power. Michael Foot was leader of a party increasingly under the left’s control, which despite chronic internal warfare was polling well ahead of a turbulent Conservative government presiding over a sharp recession. Mullin, interviewed some years later about the events that inspired the book, recalled a conversation with Labour colleagues about the prospects for a left-wing government:

There was a real possibility that, come the election, the Labour party would be led by Tony Benn. The rightwing press was working itself into a frenzy at the prospect. ‘No longer if, but when,’ screamed a Daily Mail headline over a full-page picture of Mr Benn. To cap it all, the news that the US was planning to install cruise missiles in its British bases had given the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament a new lease of life. ‘A good subject for a novel,’ said one of my companions.

Mullin and his colleagues had good reason to doubt that a leftist government would get a free ride. Benn’s supporters – Mullin was one at the time – suspected that the last Labour administration, elected on a far-reaching platform in 1974, had been derailed by a shadowy cabal of civil servants, CEOs, financiers and the secret services. There was the controversy over Benn’s abortive stewardship of the Department of Trade and Industry, where his proposals for increased worker self-management and an ambitious Alternative Economic Strategy were leaked by his own officials. There was the IMF loan of 1976 that came with harsh conditions forcing the government to reverse its expansionary economic programme. And there were rumours about the circumstances of Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s surprise resignation. The sense that powerful forces were working against the government was substantiated some years later by revelations in Peter Wright’s book Spycatcher, in which Wright openly discussed the plots he and others in M15 had designed to damage Wilson.

It’s hardly surprising then that A Very British Coup is shot through with visceral dislike of the patrician establishment Mullin feared would seek to police the bounds of what a reforming Labour government would be permitted to do. Mullin’s ‘baddies’ are drawn in rather crude style, typified by the cartoonish ruling class caricatures encountered in the book’s opening pages, grouped round a television at The Athenaeum, monocles popping in dismay as the extent of Perkins’ landslide election victory becomes clear:

‘Man’s a Communist,’ exploded Sir Arthur Furnival, a retired banker.
‘Might as well all emigrate,’ said George Fison, who owns a chain of newspapers.
‘My God,’ ventured the Bishop of Bath and Wells, raising his eyes heavenward.

The untroubled sense of entitlement targeted by Mullin is personified by his principal villain, the High Tory Sir Peregrine Craddock, Director General of DI5, modelled, it seems, on the former Telegraph journalist Sir Peregrine Worsthorne. The book’s worldview is manichean, with salt-of-the-earth working-class autodidacts like Perkins and his Cabinet of ex-dockers, mineworkers and trade union officials up against the massed ranks of an expensively educated establishment represented by Craddock and Private Permanent Secretaries with names like ‘Horace Tweed’.

But its Dickensian grotesques and black-and-white moral universe notwithstanding, the book is an intelligent, well-crafted thriller. The successive efforts to destabilise the government ring true as the kind of ploys a concerned establishment confronted with a Benn government might have devised. During the first hours of the new government a Sterling crisis is engineered by hostile Treasury and Bank of England officials to force Perkins to water down his economic agenda. A series of crippling power strikes are forced through by a powerful union boss seduced by the promise of a seat in the House of Lords. The tabloids see off an irksome Foreign Secretary by means of an old fashioned British sex scandal. Initial public sympathy for nuclear disarmament is undermined by police-engineered violence at a major CND march. In the end Perkins himself is forced to resign by the chance discovery and cruel manipulation of a seemingly innocuous episode in his past open to malicious mis-interpretation.

A new establishment

It’s all quite convincingly and cleverly done. But could something like it happen today? Yes, I think, but not perhaps quite in the same way and for the same reasons as imagined in A Very British Coup.

Mullin’s ruling classes want to preserve a paternalist, somewhat sleepy old Britain quietly overseen by a nexus of old Harrovian mandarins, City gents, Anglo-Catholic bishops and tweedy landowners, calling on the security services as enforcers when necessary. Mullin couldn’t have foreseen that many of the entrenched privileges of that quasi-feudalist order would be swept away by the rather more visceral brand of conservatism practised by the Thatcher governments, as hostile to the closed shops of blue-blooded elites as those of the labour movement. Today’s establishment, concentrated in the world of finance capital, has a harder edge, more concerned with the utilitarian business of ensuring the economy is organised to protect their assets than with the conservation of a time-honoured, gilded way of life.

In the book it’s Perkins’ determination to get nuclear weapons off British soil and withdraw from NATO that spurs his enemies to pull out all the stops to bring him down. One can imagine a Corbyn government being able to cancel the renewal of Trident, and perhaps get some way towards pulling out of NATO. But it is hard to conceive how a reforming government would be able to undertake significant reform of the City, or even to turn the emphasis of economic strategy away from austerity.

An old-fashioned ‘run on the pound’ of the kind arranged by Perkins’ tormentors would perhaps not be as grave a threat for a Corbyn government given Sterling’s relative freedom to float against other currencies. But it would be quite another matter to pursue an anti-austerity agenda in the teeth of opposition from the City, the Treasury, the Opposition, and a general public that by and large has bought the message that deficit reduction is Britain’s overriding economic challenge. As an eerily prescient passage in Mullin’s book makes clear, governments have always found it hard to go against the age-old ‘Treasury View’:

Between officials at the Bank, the Treasury and the men from the IMF there was little disagreement about what was necessary. They had all been brought up to believe that borrowing was basically immoral and should be heavily penalised. They believed that government spending was far too high and that free trade was sacred.

But the mesmerising effect of ‘the deficit’ on the parameters of today’s economic discourse makes it harder than ever for a contemporary government to go against the grain. The ferocity of the EU’s repression of the mild Keynesianism proposed by Greece’s Syriza government is a stark indication of how isolated a British administration seeking to pursue a new economic strategy would be.

The forbidding authority of our contemporary economic order was illustrated here in Scotland by the referendum. The combined efforts of the Unionist parties and press undoubtedly played a part in the outcome. But the most significant interventions during those final, electric weeks of the campaign, with the polls on a knife-edge, were those of the big businesses warning of the dark economic consequences of a Yes vote. Not a coup perhaps, but certainly a series of quietly forceful interjections from a powerful bloc that clearly didn’t want too much change.

The story of Labour’s leadership contest, though, is that the most effective challenge to the possibility of a government of the left would come from within the party itself, as Mullin himself noted in a reflection on the continued relevance of his book a few days ago. As the apparent extent of Corbyn’s lead has become clear, senior Labour figures have moved from warning the membership of the dangers of electing him to openly discussing how the contest might be halted, or even how a post-election coup might be engineered.

It will surely be pretty lonely for Corbyn at the top if he does indeed win, and manages to hold on in the immediate aftermath. The darling of the party membership would have to find a way of getting on with a sullen parliamentary party. And if he held out till the next election and somehow won – just about conceivable if his anti-austerity message and likeable persona mobilises the 60% or so of the electorate who did not vote Tory this May – then there would remain the small matter of driving through his agenda in a permanent state of seige.

The messiness of mass movements

But it’s possible all this might have a rather happier ending, both for Labour and Corbyn. Listening, amidst all the noise, to Corbyn speak is to be reminded that the initial objective of his campaign was to open up Labour’s decision-making structure, to try to re-establish it as a party of ideas. He wants more transparent processes for the election of leaders, the Shadow Cabinet, and the setting of party policy.

Inviting the cold winds of democracy to howl through Labour Party windows long closed will frighten the life out of some. But it’s the daemonic spirit that animates any living, breathing, thriving political movement. Quite extraordinarily, Labour now has more than 600,000 members, and just a matter of weeks has become something like the mass organisation that party leaders have always said they wanted. Well they’ve got it now. And whether they like it or not, they have Corbyn to thank, whose insurgency has reminded party elites that large, boisterous political movements don’t tend to be terribly tidy.

My guess is that if he does become leader Corbyn will stay for a couple of years to democratise party structures so far as he is able, then stand down, relieved, his primary task accomplished. I don’t think he will ever find himself in Perkins’ position, fighting against unelected powers in the British state. But some kind of democratisation of his own party, for so long in thrall to its own establishments, wouldn’t be a bad legacy.