Why is the goose-step not used in England? There are, heaven knows, plenty of army officers who would be only too glad to introduce some such thing. It is not used because the people in the street would laugh. Beyond a certain point, military display is only possible in countries where the common people dare not laugh at the army.
“England Your England”, 1941
“An email from my publisher to say he has just ordered another reprint of A Very British Coup”, Chris Mullin announced chipperly via Twitter on September 9. “Thanks Jeremy.” Mullin, author of the aforementioned 1982 potboiler and a former Member of the British Parliament, had good reason to be grateful to Jeremy Corbyn, his erstwhile Labour Party comrade. Five days after Mullin sent out his appreciative tweet, Corbyn shocked Britain and the rest of Europe by winning the party’s leadership election with a massive 60 percent of the vote.
Corbyn is the most radical politician ever to be elected leader of a mainstream British political party and today stands as perhaps the most radical leader of a social democratic party in the Western world. An unreconstructed socialist, he is the sort of figure whom former Prime Minister Tony Blair was supposed to have consigned to irrelevance with his “New Labour” modernization project, which began with eliminating the clause from the party constitution mandating the struggle for “common ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange.” Nary a colleague at Westminster—on whose backbenches Corbyn had noisily sat for his entire 32 year career as an MP, not once serving in a Labour government or Shadow Cabinet—could have expected that this bearded sexagenarian would ever obtain a leadership position, never mind become party leader himself. It wasn’t just Corbyn’s extreme left-wing views that made such a scenario implausible. A loner whose hobbies consist of making his own jam and taking pictures of manhole covers, Corbyn isn’t the clubbable bloke who gathers political chits. He’s a variation on another British type, the eccentric of the vegetarian teetotaler variety. George Orwell’s description of the sort, from 1937, remains apt:
One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words “Socialism” and “Communism” draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, “Nature Cure” quack, pacifist, and feminist in England. . . . The food-crank is by definition a person willing to cut himself off from human society in hopes of adding five years on to the life of his carcase; that is, a person out of touch with common humanity.
More recently, Dennis MacShane, who served as Blair’s Minister for Europe, has referred to Corbyn as the “MP for Lost or Dubious Causes.” A closer inspection of some of those “lost or dubious causes”, however, reveals a man more sinister than the Marx-reading Mr. Bean figure many perceive. There is not a single anti-Western thug or terrorist for whom Corbyn hasn’t had kind words. Welcoming members of Hizballah to Parliament, he referred to them as “friends.” Osama bin Laden’s death was a “tragedy upon a tragedy”, Corbyn said, on Iranian-funded Press TV no less. Russia’s Ambassador to the Court of St. James, perhaps having watched some of Corbyn’s countless appearances on the Kremlin-funded Russia Today network (whose coverage Corbyn has praised as “more objective” than Western outlets), called the Labour MP’s victory the most “radical breakthrough in British politics of the last 30 years.”
When the British press began to expose these comments, along with many more of a similar moral turpitude, Corbyn doubled down. In October, he hired Guardian columnist Seumas Milne as the Labour Party’s new director of strategy and communications. Milne is the choice specimen of a noxious breed that Britain has perfected over the generations: the highborn Stalinist. The Oxford-educated (by way of the private Winchester College) son of a former BBC Director-General, Milne began his career on a Communist Party newspaper and followed the path trod by so many others of his ilk to the commanding heights of mainstream journalism. From his perch at the Guardian, Milne has inveighed against everything from German reunification (an “annexation” of communist East Germany) to historians “wildly exaggerat[ing]” the number of Josef Stalin’s victims. When the wags of Westminster voiced disbelief at Milne’s hiring, a message from Corbyn’s office defiantly declared that, “Seumas shares Jeremy’s world view almost to the letter. . . . [T]hey sing from the same hymn sheet”—the hymn being, doubtlessly, “The Internationale.”
All of this pleases Chris Mullin because he predicted it. Published in 1982, a year before Corbyn entered Parliament for the upper-middle class London borough of Islington North, the novel A Very British Coup opens with the stunning general election-night victory of Harry Perkins, an amiable former steelworker from Sheffield who, like Corbyn, has roots in the once-sizable hard-left faction of the Labour Party. Perkins’s improbable ascension to the leadership is made possible in part thanks to a change in the voting system opening the candidate selection process beyond MPs to regular members and trade union delegates. (The real life Labour Party had instituted this modification in 1981, and a later extension of the franchise to anyone willing to pay £3 made it possible for a swarm of Trotskyites to secure Corbyn his massive victory). Elected on a platform not dissimilar to the actual 1983 Labour election manifesto (imperishably dubbed “the longest suicide note in history” by one of its own MPs), Perkins goes straight to work preparing the UK’s withdrawal from NATO, abolishing Britain’s nuclear deterrent, and evicting U.S. military bases from British territory.
Initially, the new Labour government shows promise. When Perkins’s Chancellor of the Exchequer secures a £10 billion loan from Algeria, Libya and Iraq in exchange for “a homeland for the Palestinians”, the only faction to protest in the House of Commons is “the Zionist lobby.” But before Perkins can accomplish the rest of his ambitious agenda, “the establishment”—a shadowy cabal comprising, among others, captains of industry, press barons, a right-wing union leader in the pay of the CIA, the head of the domestic intelligence service MI5, and the President of the United States—puts its Mighty Wurlitzer to work. The title of A Very British Coup implies that, were such a thing to take place, it’d be a tidy, orderly affair. No blood or sunglasses-clad generals riding tanks onto Downing Street, just a series of seemingly effortless maneuvers and clandestine conversations between Old Boys, followed by afternoon tea and crumpets at Harrods.
Playing out across sprawling country estates, the smoky backrooms of private London clubs, and the Oval Office, the Transatlantic scheming eventually brings the Perkins government to collapse. Ironically, this fictionalized attempt by the international forces of reaction to thwart the democratic aspirations of the British people takes place around the summer and autumn of 1989, precisely when Central and East Europeans were heroically tearing down the communist empire, the depravity and dangerousness of which Mullin’s lefty heroes dismiss as the red-baiting hysteria of cigar-chomping American hawks and their bowler-hatted British lackeys. The BBC turned A Very British Coup into a popular miniseries in 1988, reprising it for Britain’s Channel 4 in 2012 as Secret State.
Jeremy Corbyn’s shocking victory has understandably reignited interest in A Very British Coup, and the conspiratorial mode of thinking it displays and encourages. Commenting upon the novel’s relevance in a piece for the Guardian this past summer, Mullin wrote, “A few bad polls, bad economic news, electricity blackouts, a blockade of oil refineries . . . at that point, our beloved leader would face a challenge from someone within his own ranks, perhaps in league with the enemy.” In other words, the same conspiratorial forces that brought down the fictional Perkins would destroy his latter-day real-world analogue.
Such a government, Mullin wants us to know, would inevitably be overthrown by The Powers That Be. “Sir Peregrine had never had much time for democracy, but this was the final straw”, he writes of the traitorous MI5 director’s reaction to the Perkins landslide. Told that the Americans, in cahoots with City of London bankers, might attempt to “destabilize” the new Labour government, a naive, wealthy young woman expresses incredulity because “she had been brought up to believe that parliamentary democracy was the greatest thing since sliced bread.” (By story’s end, she has had her mind blown after reading “halfway through a book on the origins of the Cold War” that presented “a point of view, apparently supported by documentary evidence, which saw America as the center of a worldwide network of tyranny, terrorism, and suppression.”) The Secretary of State, a “very fat and very rich” fellow named Marcus J. Morgan, is “a mean man and he was proud of being mean.”
Hackneyed dialogue, lack of subtlety, and ideological obsessions spoil Mullin’s answer to a genuinely intriguing question: How would various powerful institutions and individuals respond to the election of a hard-left socialist government in a modern Western democracy? Unfortunately, Mullin opts for didacticism over developing the rich literary possibilities of this scenario. All of his Americans are cartoonish stock villains.1 Political thrillers require a veneer of plausibility, a quality lacking in the moral chiaroscuro of A Very British Coup, which reads like a left-wing British adaptation of the Turner Diaries. In the dystopia of Mullin’s Manichean Britain, the outgoing Conservative government has outlawed “Trotskyism” and sets up “army camps” overflowing with political dissidents. The rightwing President of the United States is introduced delivering a speech at the John Birch Society, an organization that wrote itself out of mainstream American political discourse when its founder accused Dwight Eisenhower of being a “conscious, dedicated agent of the communist conspiracy” a quarter-century before A Very British Coup was even published. MI5, according to the foul-mouthed CIA director, “have got their media sewn up like a gnat’s asshole” in opposing Perkins, a notion anyone even remotely familiar with the institutionalized left-wing biases of the BBC or the famously disputatious British press would find preposterous.2 No matter: After hearing of Perkins’s forced resignation, the BBC Director dances “a little jig” in the hallway while exclaiming, “Been nothing quite like it since the night Allende was overthrown in Chile!” That’s Mullin showing his bona fides; the international Left has been dining out on the CIA’s vastly exaggerated involvement in the Chilean coup for more than four decades.
Mullin’s tongue is in cheek, but only barely. He intends readers to accept his book as a speculative “what if” narrative imagining the depths to which America and its British “establishment” allies would sink in order to topple a left-wing Labour government—not as mere pulp fiction. Mullin spelled out just how sincere he was in a 1982 Guardian article accompanying the release of A Very British Coup. “The truth is, and I suspect many people share this view consciously or subconsciously, that the British people have no more chance of evicting the Americans than the Poles have of evicting the Russians”, Mullin wrote. “To judge by the experience of other ‘Free World’ nations, a British government that tried to evict American bases could find itself on the receiving end of an orchestrated campaign of destabilization directed from Washington.” His novel, he concluded, “is an invitation to consider the proposition that the threat to parliamentary democracy in Britain comes not from the activities of obscure Trotskyite sects, but from some of those who make the most noise about the need to uphold it.”
Lest there be any confusion as to who ranks as the main villain among this rogues’ gallery, Mullin leaves no doubt: The cover of the original edition of A Very British Coup shows a giant American flag shrouding Big Ben. Nor would Uncle Sam have any difficulty finding accomplices. “I could easily imagine myself being tempted into a treasonable disposition under a Labour Government dominated by the Marxist Left”, the British conservative journalist Peregrine Worsthorne wrote in a 1979 Sunday Telegraph article entitled “When Treason Can be Right”, an excerpt from which Mullin chose for the novel’s epigram. Contemplating that temptation, Worsthorne makes his surrender conditional upon his seductress being “an official of the CIA who sought to enlist one’s help in a project designed to ‘destabilize’ this far left government.”
Socialist realist agitprop posing as arch political satire, A Very British Coup typifies how ideological dogmatism ruins popular entertainment. House of Cards, a Westminster political thriller set around the same time as A Very British Coup, is a far superior example of the genre. Written by Michael Dobbs, a former advisor to Margaret Thatcher and Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party, the series of novels follows the exploits of a scheming Tory chief whip as he works his way up the food chain to become Prime Minister.3 Whereas the virtue of Mullin’s characters is precisely proportional to their leftism, Dobbs—who remains a loyal Conservative as a peer in the House of Lords—spares nothing in his rendering fellow Tories as villains. His moral imagination, more expansive than that of the partisan and disaffected Mullin, equipped him to create an enduring work appreciated by people of varying political persuasions, not just his own. “The facts of life are conservative”, the Iron Lady famously said. They also form the basis of any worthwhile piece of political fiction.
A Very British Coup would be little more than a dated, remaindered paperback were it not for the window it provides into the thinking of a subset of the British and, to a degree, the global Left. One gleans from it a set of assumptions about the world that feature prominently in “Corbynism” and other populist, “anti-austerity” political movements now gaining traction across Europe. Essential to this worldview is the conviction that the proverbial “people” favor a radically redistributionist economic agenda and drastically increased state control over the economy. Yet the supposedly extensive support for these policies does not guarantee their implementation, a contradiction only explained by the machinations of a sinister “establishment.” Following from these assumptions, and possibly the most worrying aspect of the new European populism, is the belief that liberal democracy (“bourgeois democracy”, as Marx would have it) is a sham designed to uphold an unfair and oppressive “neoliberal” status quo.
“We offer the electorate a choice between two Tory parties and they choose the real one”, Harry Perkins complains after the general election rout that inspires him to run for the Labour leadership. For four decades, the British left-wing intelligentsia has explained its repeated failure at the polls exactly thus. After losing to Margaret Thatcher in 1979, the party elected as its leader Michael Foot, a doctrinaire socialist and supporter of unilateral nuclear disarmament, over the more moderate Dennis Healey. It did not win an election again until 1997. That it did so under the centrist Blair, who went onto become the first Labour Prime Minister ever to win more than two consecutive terms, ought to have convinced even die-hard left-wingers that their best hopes for influencing British politics lay in the moderate wing of the Party. After Blair’s dour successor Gordon Brown went down in defeat in 2010, however, Labour opted for the union-backed Ed Miliband over his brother, the Blairite former Foreign Minister David. Following Labour’s pasting in the May general election, Corbyn’s upset victory over three moderate challengers to succeed Miliband became the latest iteration of this ruinous cycle. And yet an astounding number of observers insist that the problem isn’t that Labour is too radical, but that it is not radical enough. “I think one of the great myths is that Labour lost the election because it was too left-wing”, Milne said in late August, the loopy logic here being that Conservative voters will switch allegiances at the next election precisely because Labour has selected a hardline socialist leader.
Coming from that class of affluent, left-wing intellectuals on whom another five years of purportedly disastrous Tory policies will have negligible effect, Milne can afford such fantasies. His erstwhile Guardian colleague, the columnist Owen Jones, is another prominent Corbyn supporter egging on Labour’s self-destruction safe from the ravages of a Britain as yet unsaved by socialism. Royalties from Jones’s book, The Establishment: And How They Get Away With It, place him in the top 1 percent of British earners. For ideological purists like Milne and Jones, the working and middle-class people who don’t vote for politicians like Jeremy Corbyn suffer from false consciousness, unable to realize what’s in their own best interests—interests best discerned, presumably, by Guardian columnists.
When Corbynism fails, these tribunes of the British Left will have a ready-made explanation, and it won’t matter whether Corbyn is eventually deposed by his own party or leads Labour to a record defeat at the next general election in 2020. Either way, the message will be the same, and the same as it was in the 1982 novel: The system is rigged, the “establishment” had it in for Harry…er, Jeremy from the start, and parliamentary democracy is bogus. One can see this line of argument emerging already as Team Corbyn denounces as “smears” any mention of his dodgy statements and associations. “It is interesting that most parties are behaving exactly according to a script one could have written 35 years ago”, Mullin told the New Statesman in November. “The better Corbyn does, the worse it will get; the worse he does, the worse it will get”, sighed an editor for the London Review of Books, surveying the British press’ withering treatment of the new Labour leader. “The peaceful, bearded Lefties aren’t dangerous, but the armed Right are”, complained a columnist for the Corbyn-supporting Daily Mirror, citing A Very British Coup and its specter of military insubordination. Explaining the antipathy to Corbyn emanating from Britain’s largest selling newspaper, The Sun, a writer for the New Statesman cited its link to that familiar villain, “the establishment”, and its desire “to cement Tory rule as long as it serves the interest of [The Sun’s] owner, Rupert Murdoch”—an account that fails to note that the paper endorsed Tony Blair in all three of his victorious elections.
These are the sniveling moans of political naïfs and whiners, people who have never been responsible for anything greater than a letter-writing campaign. In the aftermath of the 2003 Iraq War, Tony Blair became the target of a media barrage far more hostile in nature and sustained in duration than anything Jeremy Corbyn has endured, and yet he still managed to win an unprecedented third term for Labour two years later. Corbyn, who until this September had spent his entire parliamentary career on the backbenches, is not used to being held accountable for what he says and does, because until this summer, he never said or did anything of consequence. His backers cannot point to a single significant legislative accomplishment in 32 years of national politics, a span of time during which he appears to have done little else besides speak at protests and teach-ins. Until he emerged as a serious candidate for the party leadership, the British media and public never subjected Corbyn to even minimal scrutiny, given his well-earned non-entity status. Now that Corbyn is a figure of import, his supporters complain about the press being mean to him.
In the eyes of some influential segments of the British Left, Corbyn’s impending collapse would not be the first time that a Labour leader was destroyed by illegitimate means. In a 2006 commentary, Mullin claimed that the inspiration for his novel hit him in October of 1980, when the possibility of a Labour victory was “not as fanciful as it now seems.” “NO LONGER IF, BUT WHEN” proclaimed a Daily Mail headline, atop an article bemoaning the possibility of a government headed by the charismatic left-winger Tony Benn. A Very British Coup, however, wasn’t just the depiction of a fictional Labour government from the near future. It was also the imagined recreation of a real Labour government from the recent past.
In Mullin’s novel, the official excuse for Harry Perkins’ resignation—the one that “the establishment” offers the public to cover up its dastardly intrigues—is poor health. Six years before A Very British Coup was published, a similar fate befell Harold Wilson, the Labour stalwart who served as Prime Minister from 1964 to 1970 and again from 1974 to 1976. Wilson’s second term transpired in a Britain that had become a chaotic quasi-dystopia wracked by 20 percent inflation, constant strikes, and IRA terrorism. A cabinet paper from the time warned that the country’s economy risked “possible wholesale domestic liquidation.” So severe was London’s economic condition that, over thirty years before a bankrupt Greece appealed to the International Monetary Fund, Wilson’s successor James Callaghan went “cap in hand” to the IMF in what amounted to a national humiliation.
Wilson coped with these fearsome circumstances by descending into a state of near permanent paranoia. Across the Atlantic, Watergate had shattered public faith in honest government. Revelations about secret wiretaps and enemies lists were shaping the 1970s into a decade of paranoia, reflected in popular culture by films like Three Days of the Condor, The Parallax View, and The Conversation, to name just a few. (Though published in 1982, A Very British Coup is very much a product of this time). Wilson was so caught up in the climate of hysteria that he seemed unable to separate fact from fiction. His mind was “such a simmering goulash of half-remembered incidents and unexplained mysteries that it was impossible to tell how the ingredients had ever come together”, writes Francis Wheen, author of an excellent cultural history of the paranoid “Them Decade”, Strange Days Indeed. Colleagues later recalled Wilson, nicknamed the “Yorkshire Walter Mitty” for his sense of imagination, standing beside them at the urinals of the 10 Downing Street lavatory, gesturing suspiciously toward the light fixtures and turning on the water taps before speaking. Wilson had little compunction about availing himself of intelligence reports on his own political rivals and enemies, but his Nixonian “obsession with ‘plots’ against him”, in the words of a Cabinet minister, extended to MI5 as well. While the service had started a file on Wilson early in his political career due to visits he had made to the Soviet Union as president of the Board of Trade, it was “never used to undermine” him, writes the Cambridge historian Christopher Andrew in Defend The Realm, his official history of the agency.
Nor was it just British spies whom Wilson suspected of eavesdropping on his conversations. U.S. Senator Frank Church’s blockbuster 1975 report detailing covert American operations around the world convinced the British Prime Minister that the “cousins” were monitoring him as well. In early 1976, Wilson dispatched an emissary to Washington to ask Hubert Humphrey, who had been Vice President during Wilson’s first tenure as Prime Minister, to confirm his suspicions. When Humphrey’s denials didn’t suffice, CIA director George H.W. Bush ventured to London to assure Wilson that he was not under American surveillance. “Is that man mad?” Bush asked upon leaving Downing Street. “He did nothing but complain about being spied on!”
Though he had told several intimates that he planned to retire by the age of sixty, and was already showing signs of the Alzheimer’s that would later take his life, Wilson’s resignation came as a surprise to much of the nation. For years, rumors had circulated about a mysterious network of “dissident” MI5 officers, retired generals, and conservative press barons conspiring to undermine the Labour government, and Wilson’s unexpected resignation lent credence to this gossip. When an army unit conducted a routine exercise at Heathrow airport in 1974, for instance, Tony Benn wrote in his diary that the move was a show of force intended “to get people used to tanks and armed patrols in the streets of London” and send a message to Wilson. Later that year, just after Wilson called another general election to increase his majority in Parliament, Benn speculated as to “the extent to which the CIA might engineer a run on the pound or provoke some crisis” to tip the scales against Labour. Or consider the following 1973 essay by the Marxist economist Ralph Miliband (father of former Labour leader Ed Miliband), published in the Socialist Register not long after the coup in Chile:
In so far as Chile was a bourgeois democracy, what happened there is about bourgeois democracy, and about what may also happen in other bourgeois democracies. After all, the Times, on the morrow of the coup, was writing (and the words ought to be carefully memorized by people on the Left): “…whether or not the armed forces were right to do what they have done, the circumstances were such that a reasonable military man could in good faith have thought it his constitutional duty to intervene.” Should a similar episode occur in Britain, it is a fair bet that, whoever else is inside Wembley Stadium, it won’t be the editor of the Times: he will be busy writing editorials regretting this and that, but agreeing, however reluctantly, that, taking all circumstances into account, and notwithstanding the agonizing character of the choice, there was no alternative but for reasonable military men . . . and so on and so forth.
The closest these scattered rumors and insinuations ever came to forming a coherent story was a 1978 book by two BBC journalists, Barrie Penrose and Roger Courtiour. Entitled The Pencourt File, a conjunction of the coauthors’ last names à la the “Woodstein” of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, this endeavor to expose “Britain’s Watergate” was more shaggy dog story than history-changing scoop. Several weeks after resigning, Wilson had summoned the pair—whom he had not yet met—and shared with them his belief that MI5 had been waging a protracted campaign to discredit him and his longtime secretary as clandestine communists. Penrose and Courtiour ought to have realized that they were dealing with a man not entirely in control of his faculties when Wilson confessed to them, “I see myself as a big fat spider in the corner of the room. Sometimes I speak when I am asleep. You should both listen.” Yet they pursued Wilson’s many allegations, running the gamut from a military coup that would replace him with a member of the Royal Family to a homosexual honey trap sprung by South African intelligence to ensnare the anti-apartheid leader of the Liberal Party.
After Wilson’s Labour successor James Callaghan looked into the alleged eavesdropping, his office released a statement declaring that, “The Prime Minister has conducted detailed inquiries into the recent allegations about the Security Service and is satisfied that they do not constitute grounds for lack of confidence in the competence and impartiality of the Security Service, or for instigating a special inquiry.” Allegations of an MI5 “whispering campaign” against the Labour government would have likely faded into obscurity had it not been for the release of Spycatcher a decade later.
In 1987, a disgruntled MI5 counterintelligence officer named Peter Wright published a tell-all book asserting, among other things, that not only was Wilson a Soviet agent, but that he, Wright, had been part of a ring of thirty officers who “had given their approval to a plot” to overthrow him. The British government tried unsuccessfully to prevent the book’s publication, deeming it a violation of the Official Secrets Act. When that failed, Margaret Thatcher, echoing her predecessor Callaghan, declared in the Commons that, “No evidence or indication has been found of any plot or conspiracy against Lord Wilson by or within the Security Service.” Interviewed a year later, the obviously batty Wright disowned his grand claim of thirty MI5 officers conspiring against Wilson, admitting that, to the degree any anti-Wilson plot existed at all, it did not spread beyond himself and one accomplice.
Despite the exposure of its main proponent as a massive fraud, a wide swathe of the British Left still believes the canard that rogue elements in the intelligence community unseated a democratically elected Labour Prime Minister. Commenting on Wright in 2001, the former security editor of the Guardian concluded that, “He may have exaggerated the extent of the ‘Wilson plot’, but there is no doubt that some MI5 officers were out to destabilize Labour ministers.” A 2006 BBC docudrama entitled “The Plot Against Harold Wilson” revived Wilson’s original ramblings and mixed in some plot devices seemingly lifted from A Very British Coup. It placed special emphasis on that familiar but vague constellation of reactionary forces—“the establishment”—that tried to bring down the Wilson Administration, contrasting images of fox-hunting, pipe-smoking toffs with grainy film stock of the doughty Yorkshire Walter Mitty working at his desk. To comment on the film, The Guardian trotted out Mullin, who cited Wright’s discredited allegations as post hoc validation of his novel’s authenticity. “Suddenly the possibility that the British establishment might conspire with its friends across the Atlantic to destabilize the elected government could no longer be dismissed as left-wing paranoia”, Mullin wrote of the Spycatcher revelations. Echoing his point, Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland credulously declared that, “the Wilson plot was our Watergate” and “an enormous cover-up.” Freedland avowed that, “Wilson was the victim of a protracted, illegal campaign of destabilization by a rogue element in the security services”, also citing the disgraced Wright.
In 2007, Wilson’s reclusive widow gave a rare interview putting an end to rumors swirling around her late husband’s political retirement. “He’d had enough”, Mary Wilson told the Daily Mail. “There was a seamen’s strike, which he had just dealt with. He told me that he could not deal with it with the same level of energy, the same zest . . . and, possibly, he began to feel that his memory was going.” Of course, this made not a whit of difference to left-wing true believers.
Reactionary, hard-nosed villains scheming to overthrow an idealistic, invariably liberal political leader has been a leitmotif of the political thriller for over half a century. Perhaps the basis for the genre is the 1962 novel Seven Days in May, which became a classic film starring Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster. When the President signs a landmark disarmament treaty with the Soviet Union, a group of generals orchestrate a mutiny as retribution for his betrayal. In the 2013 shoot-‘em-up flick White House Down, the President’s plan to remove all U.S. forces from the Middle East provokes a disgruntled Secret Service agent, suborned by “the military industrial complex”, to lead a team of heavily-armed, right-wing lunatics in laying waste to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Jamie Foxx plays the Obama döppelganger leader of the free world whose utopian Middle East gambit is the least contrived aspect of this preposterous film; the screenplay might as well have been a collaborative effort by the Daily Kos commenter community. (James Woods, playing James Woods, appears as the treacherous Secret Service agent).
Of course, the fictional depiction of one’s political adversaries as traitors is hardly unique to liberals. During the early Cold War era, widespread fear of communist subversion heavily influenced American popular culture. But as the moral certainties of the 1950s dissolved in the face of countercultural assault, a moral equivalence crept into the thinking of America’s cultural cognoscenti. 1962’s The Manchurian Candidate and its 2004 remake highlight the triumph of what Lionel Trilling labeled the “adversary culture.” The original film’s eponymous character, a sleeper agent brainwashed by the Chinese and Soviets into assassinating those standing in the way of a communist takeover of the United States, was transformed 42 years later into the nanotechnological human experiment of a ruthless global private equity firm.
A crucial difference in the aforementioned political thrillers and A Very British Coup, however, is that the good guys ultimately win in the end. The generals’ attempt to subvert the constitutional republic is heroically thwarted; the black President kicks rightwing insurrectionist butt; Laurence Harvey’s Raymond Shaw succeeds in assassinating not the presidential nominee but his own handler, the commie puppet master chillingly played by Angela Lansbury. Ultimately, American democracy prevails.
Wrapping up with Harry Perkins lying in a hospital bed, conquered by the omnipotent hands of the “establishment”, A Very British Coup displays no such optimism. Its moral is defeatist, but redemptive: Only the gullible sincerely believe in the legitimacy of liberal democracy, “the greatest thing since sliced bread” as Mullin mockingly refers to it. Playing fairly by the rules of parliamentary politics—as Harry Perkins, Harold Wilson, and their armies of idealistic supporters did—ultimately fails to achieve “social justice.” This conviction that “bourgeois democracy” is a mere façade for the ruling capitalist class to exploit the masses has its origins, of course, in the theories of Karl Marx. German philosopher Herbert Marcuse later devised the term “repressive tolerance” to characterize Western democracy as a massive confidence trick: Its vaunted “tolerance” for classical liberal rights like freedom of speech, voting, and the rule of law is actually “repressive” as it “impedes possible improvement of the human condition” by blinding people to the inherently unfair and oppressive system under which they live. What Marcuse proposed, by contrast, was “liberating tolerance”, a deviously oxymoronic concept meaning “intolerance against movements from the Right and toleration of movements from the Left.”
Such philosophical legitimization for totalitarianism, in its pettier form, has inspired the poisonous climate of political correctness on American college campuses, where staged outrage has become a key tool of what used to be called revolutionary intolerance. As a political agenda, however, it justifies trampling on countless millions in the realization of teleological “progress.” Marcuse arrogated to “small, powerless minorities”—a.k.a. the Leninist vanguard—a right to use force in achieving their ends, bringing about the demise of Western liberal democratic societies in the process. For “if they use violence, they do not start a new chain of violence but try to break an established one”, the “established” “chain of violence” being Western societies themselves. In this addled dispensation, the way in which the basic components of “bourgeois democracy”—private enterprise, independent media, the criminal justice system, etc.—keep power in the hands of the ruling class is “structural violence”, a form of coercion whose pervasiveness is matched only by its subtlety. Once a term rarely heard outside university sociology departments, “structural violence” has come into vogue again as a bogeyman of the anti-policing movement now sweeping the United States. Essentially, the existence of any inequitable social arrangement can be ascribed to structural violence.4 Just as members of “oppressed” groups living in ostensibly “democratic” countries cannot be held responsible for their actions, so too, in this reading, does the left-wing vanguard have license to challenge “the system” in whatever ways it deems necessary, irrespective of any “bourgeois” legal system or other rules.
Those who do not recognize the legitimacy of the system to which they are subject will naturally consider acts of subversion or even violence against it as justifiable. Left-wing terrorism of the 1960s and 1970s starkly foreshadows what Europe may face in the not-too-distant future. Disturbed by what it saw as continuities between the Nazi regime and the postwar Federal Republic of Germany, and outraged at societal refusal to confront historic crimes, the German student movement of the 1960s rejected participation in traditional party politics. Over time it grew into the “extra parliamentary opposition”, a sort of protest movement cum-parallel government, replete with autonomous collectives.
Some New Left activists, however, took this critique of postwar German society in a dangerous direction. Nazi fascism, they believed, was not the result of a complex array of factors and circumstances unique to Germany at a particular place and time, but the inevitable result of capitalism. In their eyes, therefore, the ostensibly “de-Nazified” Federal Republic was the “Raspberry Reich”, a fascist regime masquerading behind consumer culture, and only those who fought the state with violence could claim to have truly mastered the lessons of Germany’s fraught past. Over the course of just a few years, the Red Army Faction (RAF), also known as the Baader-Meinhof Gang, murdered police officers, judges, prominent industrialists, and other innocents, and carried out bomb attacks on, among other targets, the headquarters of a conservative newspaper chain and American army installations, all in the name of fighting “fascism” and sparking a popular revolution.
Jeremy Corbyn has spent his entire political career marinating in this same extremist political milieu, where notions like freedom of speech and the rule of law are considered superficial trappings propping up an unjust system. “The source of this ‘law’ is the Tory government and its ruling-class courts”, Corbyn wrote in 1984, defending militant union leader Arthur Scargill’s flouting a legal injunction during that year’s contentious miners’ strike. “We on the other hand recognize our own source of legality, which is of a different kind.”
Corbyn’s Leninist musings appeared in London Labour Briefing, an obscurantist, hard-left newsletter on whose editorial board he served. When riots struck the London neighborhood of Brixton in 1981, Briefing declared that, “There are occasions when, in defense of genuine legality and democracy, insurrectionary methods become necessary.” Nothing less than “British revolution” through “mass extra-parliamentary action” and “physical resistance” was called for. The paper also published blacklists of “traitor” (i.e., non-radical socialist) Labour MPs to be unseated, a tactic that Corbyn’s acolytes, now in control of the party, have begun to imitate. Corbyn’s younger generation of followers emulate their elders’ disrespect for legal authority; a 35-year-old political adviser once bragged about having “taken back Whitehall” during the massive, 2010 riots protesting increased university tuition fees.
Key members of Corbyn’s team—particularly those, including his Chief of Staff, who claim allegiance to the small, secretive Trotskyist sect Socialist Action—have expressed views that call into question their commitment to the basic principles of democracy. For this self-described “revolutionary wing of the Labour Party”, Corbyn’s ascension represents the ultimate success of its “clandestine form of entry” into the upper echelons of national politics. Members of the group cut their political teeth working in the administration of former London Mayor Ken Livingstone, who shares Corbyn’s radical politics and admiration for Third World dictatorships. “They prefer to be the powers behind the throne”, Andrew Hosken, Livingstone’s biographer, told the Daily Telegraph about Socialist Action’s adherents. “They latch on to political leaders.” A disillusioned ex-Socialist Action member told the Telegraph that one of the group’s leaders, an economic adviser to Livingstone and Corbyn, “would describe London as a bourgeois democratic state and say he wanted to make it into a socialist city state. For them to take over something like the Labour Party and be in charge of it, that’s a mega thing.”
Corbyn’s Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, essentially the second most important figure on the opposition front bench, not long ago said that he wished he had assassinated Margaret Thatcher. Though he later apologized for that remark, he has repeatedly expressed support for mass civil disobedience against the British state, whose very legitimacy he assails. “You can’t change the world through the parliamentary system”, he said earlier this year. Alongside “the ballot box” and “trade union action” McDonnell added “insurrection” to a list of “three ways in which we change society” in a 2012 speech. Describing Britain as “an elected dictatorship”, he asserted that, “we have a democratic right to use whatever means to bring this government down.” During anti-tuition fee protests in 2010, McDonnell praised rioters who had “kicked the shit” out of the office building housing the Conservative Party’s headquarters and defended a student who threw a fire extinguisher at police from the roof of the seven-story building.
Are these radical political stances, tacit support for political violence, and conspiratorial reveries nothing more than the reckless musings of politicians who had never felt the burdens of actual power and responsibility? Yes, but no one should underestimate their commitment and staying power. “I compare it to a religion—it was a dominant part of your life”, a Socialist Action apostate told the Telegraph. And this is a religion out of which very few adherents ever convert. “When it comes to their beliefs, they never change.” Indeed, Mullin enthuses that Corbyn has “lived all his life according to his principles.” This is a man so fundamentally opposed to the principle of selectivity in public education that he divorced his wife of 12 years after she refused to give in to his demand that they send their son to a failing neighborhood “comprehensive” school rather than a noted magnet. He is not about to change his views on whether Britain should be “friends” with Hizballah. Considering the fanaticism and sectarianism of Corbyn and those around him, if an attempted “coup” ever does occur in Britain, it’s more likely to come, contra Mullin, from “obscure Trotskyite sects” than the dread “establishment.”
Attributing awesome powers to an all-powerful “establishment” is a comforting tonic for those who prefer not to confront reality. It’s far easier and self-affirming to blame your failure at the polls or the unworkability of your policies on some mysterious, behind-the-scenes force than question your own convictions. In his runaway bestseller The Establishment, Corbyn backer Owen Jones describes a Matrix-like “shadowy and labyrinthine system that dominates our lives.” Mullin, in both his novel and the various commentaries he has penned about its ostensible relation to real life events, frequently cites “the establishment” in passing, as if no further explanation of who composes it or what they want were ever necessary.
Ironically, it was the very originator of the term who offered the best riposte to those who, like Mullin, Jones, and countless others, would later run wild with the phrase. “Anyone who has at any point been close to the exercise of power will know what I mean when I say that the ‘Establishment’ can be seen at work in the activities of, not only the Prime Minister, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Earl Marshal, but of such lesser mortals as the chairman of the Arts Council, the Director-General of the BBC, and even the editor of The Times Literary Supplement, not to mention divinities like Lady Violet Bonham Carter”, the late Henry Fairlie wrote for the Spectator in 1955. Reminiscing 13 years later for The New Yorker on the “Evolution of a Term”, namely its ubiquity and distortion by political ideologues, Fairlie observed that:
The success of the term is, in part, a response to a desire to explain our politics in terms of conspiracy, and we are left with the question of why this desire should be so strong today. The most apparent reason I can think of is that many of the Western democracies have experienced various forms of radical or left wing government and have found, at the end of the day, that the ways in which a society is governed or managed remain much the same as before. The popularity of conspiracy theories, or near-conspiracy theories, today is an infantile replacement for this political utopianism that no one any longer has the heart to nourish.
Jeremy Corbyn and his followers retain the “political utopianism” of their predecessors, which is what makes them dangerous—not only because of what they would do if given power (the prospect of which is highly unlikely), but of how they will respond to defeat. Burdened with ideological inflexibility and conspiratorial outlook, they can only explain such an outcome by appealing to exogenous factors that foreclose any possibility of their success. The growing movement Corbyn has stirred is the closest that the hard Left has come to political power in Britain. If—and one desperately hopes, when—they lose, they will have only themselves to blame. But that exactly is what they are utterly incapable of doing.
1The only character remotely based upon an actual figure is National Security Advisor Anton Zablonski, an obvious send-up of Zbigniew Brzezinski.
2In one of several unintentionally discrediting prognostications, Mullin describes a scurrilous story published by The Times (“now owned by an American computer company”, naturally), claiming that “Trotskyists” were planning to blow up the Cenotaph, one of countless smear jobs crafted by the right-wing corporate media to whip up anti-Perkins hysteria. The reality of monument defacements is rather different. Following the real-life Conservative victory in the 2015 election, anti-austerity protestors scrawled “Fuck Tory Scum” in red spray paint on a memorial honoring the service of British women in World War II. Five years earlier, they wrote similar vulgarities and urinated on a statue of Winston Churchill in Parliament Green.
3The BBC series House of Cards became a cult favorite and was later adapted for American audiences with Kevin Spacey playing a devious, Democratic Chief Whip who kills and bribes his way to the White House.
4Jeremy Corbyn and his sympathizers are a humorless lot, so they won’t appreciate how one of the greatest British comedy acts satirized the nostrum of “structural violence.” In Monty Python and the Holy Grail, a self-proclaimed “anarcho-syndicalist” peasant named Dennis engenders the wrath of King Arthur by questioning his right to rule. (“Oh king, eh, very nice. An’ how’d you get that, eh? By exploitin’ the workers—by hangin’ on to outdated imperialist dogma which perpetuates the economic and social differences in our society!”) When Arthur starts beating him for this act of lèse majesté, Dennis cries to his unenlightened fellow crofters, “Come and see the violence inherent in the system! Help! Help! I’m being repressed!”