‘The news that Harry Perkins was to become prime minister went down very badly in the Athenaeum.’ Thus begins my novel A Very British Coup, written 35 years ago and, with the narrowing gap in the opinion polls, suddenly topical again. Since Jeremy Corbyn became Labour leader it has been reprinted twice and, earlier this year, an e-book promotion sold 2,500 copies in a single day.
The hero of my novel, Harry Perkins, is a former Sheffield steel worker who was brought to life in a subsequent TV adaptation by that wonderful actor Ray McAnally. The platform on which he was elected was more radical than Corbyn’s, although some of it still rings bells: withdrawal from the Common Market (been there, doing that); public control of finance (we have New Labour, circa 2008, to thank for that one). Other commitments included abolition of the House of Lords, the honours list and the public schools. There was even a paragraph about dismantling newspaper monopolies.
Nick Cohen and Katy Balls on what sort of PM Corbyn would make:
Perkins’s manifesto also promised an end to Britain’s ‘so-called’ nuclear deterrent and the withdrawal of all foreign military bases from British soil. This, remember, was at a time when the Americans were busy introducing Cruise missiles into their British bases in the teeth of huge protest. It was also the time when the possibility of a Labour government led by Tony Benn was scaring the wits out of middle England. What’s more, one must pinch oneself to recall, in the early years of the Thatcher decade, Labour was ahead in the polls. And love him or loathe him, no one ever doubted Benn’s capacity to govern.
The novel was published in 1982. At the time I was working for the socialist weekly Tribune. We sold the novel through an advert in the back of the paper. The first cheque for £6.95 (then the going rate for a hardback) came from the American embassy. We duly banked it, dispatched the book and waited to see what would happen. We did not have long to wait. Soon afterwards I received an invitation to lunch with the minister, top man after the ambassador.
So the day came when he sent his bullet–proof Cadillac to Tribune’s multi-storey headquarters in Gray’s Inn Road to convey me to his mansion in Kensington. I had assumed there would be a lot of us round the table but no, there was just the minister, one of his officials, a Filipino butler and me. ‘Why are you bothering with a minnow like me?’ I asked. I wasn’t even editor of Tribune at the time.
‘I reckon you are among the top 1,000 opinion formers in the country,’ he drawled.
‘I must be about number 999,’ I replied.
‘The other 999 have been here, too.’
Actually, he wasn’t much interested in my opinion. In the best traditions of American diplomacy, he simply wanted to inform me that the removal of the American bases would be a bad move on Britain’s part. Exactly how bad, he didn’t say, but I think we can guess.
What caused A Very British Coup to take off was that some of the events in the novel, which at the time were mere speculation, in due course turned out to be true. There was an MI5 agent on the council of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. MI5 was systematically vetting the personnel files of BBC employees for evidence of ideological unsoundness and, as we learned from Peter Wright, some folk in the security services had been spying for years on the Labour prime minister Harold Wilson, under the delusion that he was a Soviet spy. The plot wasn’t wholly improbable, either. Even moderate Labour governments have traditionally faced attempts to destabilise them by elements in the political and security establishment — from the Zinoviev letter in 1924, to newspaper proprietor Cecil King’s attempt in 1968 to bring down the government of Harold Wilson and replace it with a government of businessmen headed by Lord Mountbatten. In the 1970s, too, various retired army officers were openly organising a volunteer army to take control of the country in the event of a breakdown of the social order which they confidently anticipated.
Will a Corbyn-led government face similar subversion? The newspapers will behave badly, of course. They always do. The City will organise a run on the pound (already being hinted at). The security services, preoccupied as they are with Islamist terrorism, are unlikely to misbehave. Also, they have been comprehensively reformed since the bad old days (‘we’ve cleared out a lot of deadwood’, a Tory home secretary once whispered to me). The Americans — especially under present management — are a law unto themselves, but my guess is they wouldn’t interfere, at least not without encouragement from this side of the Atlantic.
No, a Corbyn government’s problems are likely to come from within its own ranks. Although he would no doubt enjoy a short honeymoon, it wouldn’t be long before his many enemies in the parliamentary party began to flex their muscles.
You have to hand it to Corbyn, though. He has had a good campaign. He comes over well in television interviews, calmly rebutting everything thrown at him, never engaging in personal abuse despite considerable provocation. In contrast to Theresa May, he looks as though he’s enjoying himself, attracting considerable crowds on his progress around the country, while she only appears comfortable with invited audiences. And the Labour manifesto, far from being a suicide note, appears to have wider support than anyone anticipated.
On a personal note, I can’t claim to know Jeremy Corbyn well, but I have been acquainted with him for 30 years. Whether one agrees with him or not, he is a thoroughly decent human being who has led a life consistent with his principles and that, I suspect, is one of his attractions. He’s authentic, which counts for something in this age of spin. That — plus the fact that, unlike his most vocal critics, he was right about Iraq.
We should not get carried away, however. The gap between the two main parties is still considerable and much could change in the next two weeks, but the possibility of a Corbyn-led government, laughable only two weeks ago, cannot be entirely ruled out. A delicious fantasy. Enjoy it while it lasts.
Chris Mullin is the author of three volumes of diaries, as well as A Very British Coup, his 1982 novel about a hard-left politician winning a surprise election victory.