Written during the gloomy days of the early Thatcher era, Chris Mullin’s A Very British Coup has since inspired two Channel 4 dramas series: a 1988 series adapted by Alan Plater and the current The Secret State starring Gabriel Byrne..
The second of these has so far has shown only a slight resemblance to Chris Mullin’s novel. But thirty years after it was first published, A Very British Coup remains one of the finest political novels ever written.
The story is set in what was then the future: the year 1989. The General Election has ended with an amazing shock result: the Labour Party led by former Sheffield steelworker Harry Perkins has been swept to power in an unexpected popular landslide. The result is a clear mandate for a truly radical agenda which proposes “consideration to be given” to withdrawal from NATO, an end to the nuclear deterrent and to UK membership of the then Common Market, abolition of the House of Lords, an end to public schools and much more.
Little wonder the establishment react with alarm. The story of A Very British Coup is essentially of how the security services (with US help), the media and civil service all conspire to thwart the new government’s agenda and ultimately subvert democracy.
Some might scoff at the premise. 1989 after all, turned out to be the high watermark of Thatcherism in reality. And how likely is it that the Tories and SDP would form an alliance or that Labour would beat them with a manifesto which makes Labour’s real “longest suicide note in history” from 1983 look mild in comparison?
In fact, it’s not so far-fetched. Since 2010, we have been living under something very close to a Tory-SDP “Government of National Unity”. Labour also won an unexpected landslide on a very socialist agenda in the “khaki” election of 1945 and again, won unexpectedly (though much more narrowly) on a hard left manifesto in 1974.
There are also similarities between Harry Perkins and Harold Wilson, another Yorkshire-born Labour Prime Minister who resigned very unexpectedly in 1976. Even their names are similar. Wilson often talked of MI5 plots against him and it is easy to dismiss his talk now as an early manifestation of the Alzheimer’s disease which would blight his old age.
Except… it has since emerged: elements of MI5 were genuinely actively plotting against Wilson. Maybe not at the very top of the service, but some more eccentric right-wing agents apparently genuinely believed Wilson was a KGB agent who had assassinated his predecessor as Labour leader, Hugh Gaitskell who died in 1963. In reality, this conspiracy theory is unlikely as Wilson was not even favourite to succeed Gaitskell at the time of the latter’s death, George Brown was. There is talk at the end of the novel of a book being written which would tell the true story of “what happened to the government of Harry Perkins. There must, however, be some doubt as to whether it will ever be published.”
Such talk should only go so far though. The book is a novel. Chris Mullin, later a Labour MP and now an acclaimed political diarist would not actually have expected events to turn out exactly as he wrote them, any more than George Orwell would have expected the horrors of his vision of 1984 to be fully realised. Harry Perkins is not Harold Wilson: he is far more left-wing than Wilson ever was. Mullin’s vision of the pernicious effects of Thatcherism in the Eighties is highly prescient. He may not have anticipated the peaceful end of the Cold War (virtually nobody did in 1981) but nor did he predict a Labour election landslide for Michael Foot or a limited nuclear war started by President Ted Kennedy as Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s V for Vendetta which also appeared in 1982 did.
Perhaps more by coincidence, Mullin did foresee a Labour Foreign Secretary being revealed to have had an extramarital affair soon after a landslide election win. This is exactly what happened to the late Robin Cook in 1997 although he didn’t resign and the affair thankfully ended more happily than it does for the fictional Tom Newsome. On the other hand, Mullin was somewhat off in predicting the age of King Charles III and Queen Diana would have begun by 1989.
My copy of A Very British Coup features the quote “A delicious fantasy” by The Observer on the cover. I’m not so sure. It’s certainly delicious but it clearly isn’t entirely rooted in fantasy. Remember, the first ever Labour Government was brought down at least in part by the faked “Zinoviev Letter” distributed by MI5 in 1924. Think about how ungracious the response to Obama’s re-election has been amongst some on the US Right (such as Donald Trump). Or how the UK establishment might react to an unexpected Ed Miliband win in 2015.
Consider finally, this real life quote by the noted right-winger Peregrine Worsthorne in the Daily Telegraph from 1979 with which Mullin begins the novel: “When treason can be right”, it explains: “I could easily imagine myself being tempted into a treasonable disposition under a Labour government dominated by the Marxist left . . . Suppose, in these circumstances, one were approached by the CIA who sought to enlist one’s help in seeking to ‘destabilise’ this far-left government. Would it necessarily be right to refuse co-operation?”
No wonder A Very British Coup also features a villain called Peregrine.