Revisiting A Very British Coup in the Age of Corbyn

It’s a reminder that the state is not neutral, and the ruling class has more than capital strikes at its disposal.

“Our ruling class have never been up for reelection before, but I hereby serve notice on behalf of the people of Great Britain that their time has come.” These were the concluding words of the Prime Minister’s election night address in Chris Mullin’s classic A Very British Coup, spoken by Harry Perkins, the lifelong socialist who had been catapulted into power.

When A Very British Coup was written in the early 1980s, the scenario seemed plausible. Tony Benn, who Mullin collaborated closely with at the time, had narrowly missed out on election as Labour’s deputy leader. Faced with the emergence of Margaret Thatcher’s project to remake the country in capital’s image, the Labour Party’s grassroots were increasingly leaning left.

Of course, Tony Benn was never to ascend to the Labour leadership, and with the emergence of Neil Kinnock, the party began a long move to the right. This would culminate in the New Labour governments of the late 1990s and early 2000s in which Mullin himself would serve, recording his experiences in a series of popular and largely sympathetic diaries about the Tony Blair years.

For a long time, A Very British Coup seemed likely to amount to little more than the “delicious fantasy” the Observer described it as on its release. But the rise of Jeremy Corbyn to Labour leader in 2015 has changed all that. The republished front cover now describes how the book “foretold” the events of recent years.

Jeremy Corbyn is far more Tony Benn than Harry Perkins, a union militant from England’s “steel city” of Sheffield. Yet there are obvious parallels between Perkins’s experience of a shadowy establishment conspiracy involving British intelligence, newspaper magnates, elite civil servants, and a US government which sought to undermine his socialist administration and what many on the Left expect awaits a Corbyn. Indeed, what some suspect he has already faced as leader of the Labour Party.

Mullin was initially reticent to draw direct comparison. On Corbyn’s emergence in 2015, he accurately predicted that the Labour leader would face opposition from within the ranks of the party, but felt it “unlikely” that British intelligence would intervene. However, following the 2017 general election, he revised this opinion. “Now, I am not so sure.”

He was swayed by an intervention on the eve of the election. Sir Richard Dearlove, the former head of foreign intelligence service MI6, wrote in the Daily Telegraph that Corbyn was “unfit to govern.” But more than that, he said the Labour leader wouldn’t pass the “vetting” his former intelligence colleagues conducted on public officials. Not mentioned, of course, was the fact that Corbyn had been among the campaigners who humiliated Dearlove’s MI6 for the central role it played in instigating the Iraq War.

It’s likely that Dearlove’s op-ed — which he subsequently followed up with a media tour in 2018 — was the tip of an iceberg. In recent months we have discovered that the British Foreign Office contributed millions of pounds to the Integrity Initiative, a shady operation based in Scotland which claimed to counter Russian propaganda. Unsurprisingly, given the McCarthyite inflections of the contemporary anti-Russia furor, the Integrity Initiative was found to have been intervening on social media against Corbyn and the Labour Party.

But A Very British Coup tells the story of more serious meddling in the democratic process — and has proven remarkably accurate. Its head of MI5, Sir Peregrine Craddock, was secretly blacklisting BBC employees deemed to have left-wing sympathies. Years later we would learn that an MI5 official, Brigadier Ronnie Stonham, was doing the same thing by stamping personnel files. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) in A Very British Coup had an MI5 spy on its general council. Sure enough, so did the cnd in real life.

In the novel, an energy sector strike organized by the intelligence services is used to undermine the Perkins government. In 2002 we discovered that Joe Gormley, former president of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), was a Special Branch informant during the industrial struggles of the 1970s. While the sabotage strike envisaged by Mullin was probably more influenced by events in Chile — where the CIA had collaborated with labor leaders during the coup against Salvador Allende — it is nonetheless noteworthy that a leading official in a crucial trade union in the British energy sector was, indeed, collaborating with intelligence services in the years preceding the book’s publication.

In the documentary that made Gormley’s MI5 ties public, BBC’s True Spies, it was revealed that the Special Branch was talking to at least twenty leading trade unionists during the miners’ strikes of 1972 and ’74, and the three-day-week controversy. Former Special Branch officer Tony Robinson made clear that shop floor espionage was not an exception. “One of your responsibilities,” he claimed to have been told, “is to make certain that the Ford factory is kept clean of subversives.” Robinson went on to say that a policy was pursued to prevent strike action at Ford throughout the period.

Around the same time, Harold Wilson was leading the Labour Party. A former Tribunite, like Chris Mullin himself, Wilson was considered by the British establishment to be suspiciously left-wing. Wilson suspected that covert plots were conducted against his governments — 1964–70 and ’74–’76 — and that he was the subject of spying by MI5. These were largely dismissed as conspiracies at the time.

But, in fact, we now know that MI5 had kept a file on Wilson since the end of the Second World War as a person of interest. In 1987, former MI5 officer Peter Wright would write in a controversial memoir that Wilson was considered a KGB agent by the CIA. (MI5 officially concluded that this wasn’t the case.) Wright also claimed that British operatives planned a smear campaign against Wilson’s government, code-named “Clockwork Orange,” which involved the leaking of sensitive information. His MI5 colleague James Miller would later say that the organization had promoted the 1974 Ulster Workers’ Council strike to destabilize the Labour administration. Simultaneously stories emerged suggesting Cecil King, chairman of the Daily Mirror newspaper group, had hatched plans for a coup. It’s hard to imagine all of this is without substance.

In A Very British Coup, Harry Perkins is toppled by a combination of the energy strike, a run on the sterling organized by sympathetic Treasury officials, and, ultimately, revelations about a love affair that appear to suggest a conflict of interest. The book was adapted for television first in 1988 with Channel 4’s excellent series of the same name, starring Ray McAnally as the socialist prime minister. Moments of sharp political commentary — such as Perkins’s conversation about his grandfather’s death in the steel mill, for which his family hadn’t received compensation “yet” — speak to the enduring relevance of Mullin’s writing.

It says something for this, too, that a later “updated” adaptation, 2012’s Secret State starring Gabriel Byrne, now seems hopelessly out of date. In that series, a reluctant center-left prime minister is catapulted into a conspiracy organized by global corporate leaders intent on starting a war. The limited horizons of the Ed Miliband years made it impossible to imagine shadowy interests would care much about the ordinary operations of a Labour government — so instead we get a fantastical plot replete with James Bond villains bent on global domination. The truth of the build up to the Iraq War was far more mundane: almost all of the plotting was done in the open, because even when the orchestrators were revealed to have lied they faced no consequences.

The original Very British Coup, however, does stand the test of time. Last year we found out that undercover police officers had spied on at least twenty-two left-wing organizations since 1968. These included antiwar, antiracist, and environmental organizations that counted Jeremy Corbyn as a member and supporter. Police spies engaged in this activity deceived women into sexual relationships and even fathered children. The idea that plots against a socialist government are implausible because Britain’s security and intelligence community has been “cleaned up” simply don’t hold water.