A Very British Dystopia After Brexit

Set in Britain in the near future, the newly published sequel to the 1982 classic A Very British Coup presents a hellish but believable vision of political disillusionment and post-Brexit malaise.

Ray McAnally as Harry perkins in Channel 4's 1988 miniseries production of A Very British Coup.

Nearly four decades on, Chris Mullin’s 1982 novel A Very British Coup remains a classic piece of leftist fiction and, though billed as “a delicious fantasy” by the Observer, its impact was largely owed to the real world resonance its story carried. Pitting the fictional Sheffield steelworker Harry Perkins and his Labour majority government against a shadowy cabal of interests from across the British establishment, the book is an all-too-plausible rendering of exactly what could happen if an unapologetically socialist administration ever did come to power in the UK — and the threats it would undoubtedly face, both from without and within.

Later adapted into a captivating three-part miniseries by Channel 4, A Very British Coup’s prophetic quality has only grown since its publication thanks to what is now known about the extent of the efforts undertaken by Britain’s political and security establishments to undermine the socialist left. MI5 literally kept a file on Labour prime minister Harold Wilson, who, it has since emerged, narrowly avoided a 1968 coup plot with its origins inside the royal family. Police spied on Tony Benn (with whom Mullin was aligned when the book was written) and a number of other Labour MPs, including future leader Jeremy Corbyn.

A Very British Coup may have been the product of a different moment in British politics, but Corbyn’s surprise ascendency in 2015 undeniably gave it a second life. When the former head of MI6, Sir Richard Dearlove, wrote ominously in the Daily Telegraph that the MP for Islington North was “a danger to the nation” and “unfit to govern,” he could have been ventriloquizing the novel’s antagonist, Sir Peregrine Craddock, who fights Perkins at every turn in his capacity as the head of Britain’s security services.

Mullin’s 1982 novel may be a fantasy inasmuch as a government like the one it depicts has never actually come to power, but its politics still cleave very close to reality: 1982 or 2015; Benn, Corbyn, or Perkins; Cold War or unipolar world — a socialist party intent on carrying out a socialist program will always be fought tooth and nail by the established order and those intent on maintaining it. Labour’s recent election defeat, and the unfathomably cynical media effort that aided in it, are but a further testament to this fact.

Though Mullin’s recently published sequel, The Friends of Harry Perkins, takes place in the same narrative universe and features many of the same characters, its world is decidedly different from the one readers of the original may expect.

Set in a post-Brexit Britain sometime during the mid 2020s, the novel centers Fred Thompson — a loyal adviser to Perkins who features prominently in A Very British Coup — as he embarks on a career in parliament amid a political climate clearly inspired by the second half of the 2010s. The Tories are in power, having defeated Labour in five successive general elections and seen off the same number of Labour leaders. Brexit, it would seem, has not delivered the promised national renewal, and Britain’s economy continues to decline even as the Conservative hegemony appears impregnable. As Mullin writes early in the book:

Brexit Britain was a gloomy place. True, the Armageddon that some had prophesied had not occurred, but neither had the economic miracle promised by the Brexiteers. The value of the pound had fallen steadily against the euro, the dollar, and the yuan. The much-vaunted increase in trade with the Commonwealth had not materialized. The Americans, too, were proving particularly obstreperous.

As events unfold, the United States appears dangerously close to an all-out war with China — having apparently grown no more stable in the post-Trump era. Perkins, incidentally, gets his farewell in the book’s memorable opening line: “Harry Perkins was buried the day that America declared war on China.”

The novel is at its best when dealing with the procedural banalities and tiresome grunt work that makes up much of professional political life. Talked into standing for Perkins’s old seat, Thompson’s experiences running for parliament and working as MP are clearly informed by the author’s own (Mullin was himself MP for Sunderland South from 1987 to 2010, serving as a junior minister in the Tony Blair government). At Thompson’s nomination, for example, we meet a woman named Vera, who is described as being “fiercely loyal, relentlessly parochial and always on the side of the established order, whatever the established order happens to be” (I’ve personally attended plenty of local nominations and have met Vera many times). His constituency office, we learn, entertains a recurring cast of characters that includes a mix of harmless eccentrics, outright cranks, and citizens who have been genuinely wronged by some official authority or other (my first real political job involved handling casework in an MP’s constituency office, and I can attest to this as well).

Mullin, at least at times, maintains a refreshing cynicism toward professional politics and the kinds of people so often drawn to them, particularly in the Labour Party after Blair. Parliament is portrayed as mostly a forum for empty theatrics and intra-elite self-congratulation (“In the absence of approbation from the world outside, Britain’s unloved legislators tend to spend an inordinate amount of time congratulating each other on minor triumphs”). The party’s new leader, we learn at the novel’s outset, took the classic New Labour route to power: through Harvard and Oxford, studies in classics, and work as a ministerial special adviser rather than on a shop floor or as a tribune for the National Union of Mineworkers. Impressed by Thompson’s rhetorical evisceration of a Tory MP, she asks him to be Labour’s housing spokesperson, despite his near-total lack of knowledge about the file. (“Oh,” she says, “you could learn it all up . . .” “That was the thing about clever people,” Thompson thinks to himself. “They thought politics could be learned.”)

Also hitting close to home is the public acclaim apparently enjoyed by Harry Perkins now that he is no longer a threat to Britain’s establishment, the trajectory very much experienced by Mullin’s former colleague Tony Benn — who was once demonized as “the most dangerous man in Britain” and ended his life, much to his own chagrin, as an avuncular national treasure.

Despite these laudable flourishes, The Friends of Harry Perkins and its overall vision of politics ultimately feel disappointingly flat. Though briskly paced and entertaining enough as drama, Thompson has none of the firebrand socialism of his former boss, and even the ex-Perkins cabinet members who reappear seem to have lost their original élan. Aided by a friendly Tory informant (and later by none other than Perkins’s old nemesis, Sir Peregrine Craddock), Thompson swiftly gains visibility in parliament and risks his marriage to ascend to the top of the Labour Party. Triangulating on both nuclear disarmament and immigration, he tempers the traditional hysteria of the right-wing press and eventually leads Labour to victory on a pledge to reverse Brexit. Save an extended arc about its lead character’s personal life and one final twist in its closing pages, this is the plot of The Friends of Harry Perkins in its near entirety.

Though it’s open for debate how sympathetic we are actually meant to be toward the protagonist, Mullin’s sequel is undeniably more cynical than its predecessor in its depiction of British society and the fissures that define it — particularly when measured against the Manichean simplicity of the original. In this respect, an early line spoken to the protagonist by a secondary character is but an ominous sign of things to come: “Always remember that all the instincts of the working class are conservative. On race, patriotism, the bomb, Brexit — you name it. It’s just that they happen to vote Labour.”

The Friends of Harry Perkins therefore trades class war for a post-Brexit Britain where politics are mostly cultural and the only electoral recourse for Labour is a blend of communitarian rhetoric and social revanchism. “The traditional, class-based fault lines,” Mullin writes, “were rapidly eroding”:

What mattered now was where you stood on Brexit. You were either for or against. There was no middle ground. The result was that Thompson and Labour polled surprisingly well in parts of the Home Counties that had not returned Labour candidates for decades while, by contrast, disaffection ran high in what were once Labour’s northern strongholds.

Though the latter part of this passage is lamentably close to real life, Mullin might easily have written something much closer to his original. Given Thompson’s initial depiction and the various threats faced down by Jeremy Corbyn, there was certainly no shortage of material. Instead, The Friends of Harry Perkins disappointingly offers us a world in which idealism is scarce, political antagonisms are nebulous, and the working class is reactionary by default.

In A Very British Coup, a coalition of old Etonians, press barons, and deep state operatives conspire to undermine a working-class government and preserve their class interests; in The Friends of Harry Perkins, the protagonist is aided by benign, One-Nation Tories so exhausted by the ideological fanaticism that has gripped their party in the wake of Brexit that they implausibly long for the bland stability of center-left rule. As David Runciman pointed out in his review for the London Review of Books, this represents a major pivot from the first installment, where even the most chaotic events did at least have an observable origin in the British establishment: “In The Friends of Harry Perkins,” by contrast, “bad things just happen.”

Popular opinion, by the same token, seems to lurch wildly and unpredictably. Dark hints of a surging right-wing nationalist movement sound perfectly plausible, given the relative success of parties like UKIP and the BNP over the past two decades, but these are made to feel more like random outbursts of prejudice than the toxic political byproducts of an unequal society. Despite its somewhat jaundiced attitude toward Westminster, too much of the book unfolds from within the bubble of professional politics; the shifting sands of both global events and public opinion seem about as arbitrary as the weather, and Labour members themselves (over half a million strong in real life when Mullin wrote the book) reduced to window dressing in Thompson’s story.

The extent to which Mullin intends his main character’s arc to be an earnest statement about British politics is not entirely clear. But whether he means it or not, the politics of The Friends of Harry Perkins represent an all-too-real retreat from those of its predecessor. Though the author didn’t know it at the time, Corbyn’s Perkins-esque leadership would soon be followed by the ascendency of Keir Starmer — who, so far, shows every sign of being the kind of triangulating politician on whom the latter day Fred Thompson is modeled. In this respect, at least, the world offered to us in Mullin’s follow-up is an inadvertently apt rendering of how things presently stand in the party of Tony Benn, Jeremy Corbyn, and Harry Perkins.

It’s unfortunate, in both a real and fictional sense, that we socialists didn’t get a different sequel.