Cian Prendiville reviews ‘A Very British Coup’, the Channel 4 series based on the book by Chris Mullin.
Available to watch online on the Channel 4 website & app.
Book by Chris Mullin also available. Also on audiobook.
Earlier this year Varadkar accused PBP of advocating a ‘bonkers conspiracy theory’ in our pamphlet on a left government when we talked about how the corporate landlords, billionaires and their allies in the state and media would resist radical socialist policies. The Indo (who, let’s remember, backed Franco and the execution of James Connolly) tried to present us as some sort of mad left-wing version of the bunker ‘preppers’ getting ready for doomsday.
This sort of hysteria is something to be expected, and even welcomed, from the right, but it isn’t just on the right that these issues arise. Last month marked 50 years since the CIA-backed coup that overthrew the democratically-elected socialist president of Chile. But I suspect many ordinary working class people and left-wing activists here would assume something like that couldn’t possibly happen in ‘democratic’ Europe.
And that’s precisely what makes the gripping and gritty socialist-inspired Channel 4 political drama ‘A Very British Coup’ a must watch for all leftists. If you are serious about wanting to improve the lives of ordinary people, or you want to see a left government that serves the people rather than the corporate landlords, you really have to check this out.
Comrade Prime Minister?
The 1988 mini-series tells the story of socialist steelworker turned Corbyn-like MP Harry Perkins who gains huge popularity for exposing greed in the City of London and manages to lead the Labour Party in Britain to a parliamentary majority on a socialist-inspired manifesto. It starts on his first day entering 10 Downing Street, and tracks how a broad array of anti-socialist forces attempt to frustrate, undermine and even overthrow his government. All along the way this sabotage seems thoroughly believable, far milder than the types of political gamesmanship and ‘realpolitik’ depicted in the likes of ‘House of Cards’.
A courtesy ‘congratulations’ phone call from the US President goes awry when Perkins refuses to stick to the script (he is literally handed a script!), with the US seriously objecting to Perkin’s plan to withdraw from NATO, remove US military bases and end Britain’s nuclear weapons programme. The US use their economic power, and the IMF, to try to bully the government in a manner all too familiar to those who witnessed the crushing of Syriza’s anti-austerity programme in Greece. It looks for a while like the US may get their way, with more right-wing Labour MPs wanting to concede and implement the austerity measures demanded, but Perkins finds a cunning way out of the economic bind.
We then see the plotting of CIA-types with a Rupert Murdoch-style media mogul to try to scupper these plans, and to try to dig up dirt on Perkins and anyone connected to him. In this plotting, they find support within the upper echelons of the state, especially the head of MI5. When Perkins asks for copies of all the files kept on him and his comrades, the security services provide only limited information, and senior civil servants are also shown leaking gossip to the media as well.
Manoeuvres or movements?
An even more challenging problem emerges when the CIA get a right-wing energy trade union leader to bring his workers into opposition to the government’s plans to move from nuclear power to renewables. The government faces it’s ‘darkest hour’ as energy workers go on strike, supported by the right-wing media and the state.
This episode also highlights one of the major weaknesses of the Perkin’s government. Without revealing too many spoilers, they manage to find a way out of this bind not through political appeals to the workers, or mass demonstrations or the like. The actual ‘masses’ in the series are not an active player at all. We see no protests, no left-wing strikes, or workers’ councils. Instead the issue is ‘resolved’ by digging up dirt on one of those supporting the strike and blackmailing them into calling it off.
This notion of ‘beating them at their own game’ could be attractive to some, and I certainly won’t cry a tear for these poorly-treated reactionaries, but it is not really a strategy to win socialism. That is the way our class enemy does politics, it is the rules of their game, and those rules are stacked against us. Backroom deals, personalised attacks and mafia-style manoeuvres ultimately relegate the mass of working class people into being observers of politics or, at best, cheerleaders for those fighting the good fight. Instead, we need them to work the stage of politics. A genuine socialist government would have to act at every step to bring working class people into activity, to encourage them to organise committees and groups to take power into their own hands, in their workplaces and communities. In the corridors of power, the capitalist class and their allies will ultimately outnumber and outmanoeuvre us, but on the streets and in the workplaces we are the overwhelming majority.
Read, watch and discuss
I make no claims to be a cinema buff, or expert on novels, but I found both this mini-series (essentially a long TV movie at 2.5 hours run time) and the book it’s based on very enjoyable. If you like political dramas, you will like this, but I’m sure director Mick Jackson (of ‘the Bodyguard’ fame!) has done bolder things with bigger budget projects. Lead actor Ray McAnally does what I feel is an excellent job embodying Harry Perkins as a loveable working class hero.
The greatest achievement of the series is to create a believable scenario which slowly builds the tension to an explosive and thought-provoking conclusion which I will not spoil here. It thinks through and imagines things far too often waved away by leftists and even socialists as something we shouldn’t worry about right now, and in that way it does us an important service. It poses questions for us, which we must continue to discuss and debate, as we not only vote for socialism, but also build the working class power and revolutionary organisations needed to win it.