A Very British Coup (1988)

What would happen if Jeremy Corbyn were elected Prime Minister? Would he be allowed to govern? Or would the corporate media, the United States government and the ruling class in the United Kingdom do everything they could to sabotage his government short of a coup?

In 1982, when both Margaret Thatcher, and left-wing discontent with her government were at their height, an activist in the British Labor Party named Chris Mullin published a novel asking pretty much the same question. What would happen if Tony Benn, a veteran socialist politician, and the leader of the Labor Party’s left-wing, rode into 10 Downing Street on a landslide? Moreover, what would happen if he actually tried to keep his promises to the voters, if he rejected neoliberal austerity, demanded that the United States remove its military bases from British soil, and tried to dismantle the United Kingdom’s nuclear arsenal? Mullin’s novel, A Very British Coup, was made into a TV mini-series in 1988, and shown in the United States the next year. I was very impressed with it during its first run, but since I hadn’t seen it in 25 years, I decided to watch it again, and see how well it’s aged. You can see it on Hulu, but you need a subscription.

It hasn’t aged at all. In fact, I was surprised at just how good it is. It’s a well-acted, crisply-written, brilliantly directed little move about how the “deep state,” the intelligence agencies and permanent bureaucracy of the British government, team up with the United States government and the big media to bring down a democratically elected politician. It’s like John Frankenheimer’s Seven Days in May, if Frankenheimer had not been afraid to talk about class. It’s like Oliver Stone’s JFK, if Stone had any idea how to properly edit and pace one of his movies. A Very British Coup doesn’t have a boring moment. It really doesn’t. It’s over two hours long but it feels like it goes by in 15 minutes. It makes its point and gets right to the point. It’s also great leftist propaganda. You don’t come out of A Very British Coup wanting to have a drink. Unless you’re a reactionary or a complete fool, you come out of A Very British coup wanting to storm the Bastille and set up a guillotine in the middle of Times Square. Fuck the rich. Fuck their deep state and above all fuck their bloody newspapers.

Harry Perkins, the novel’s Jeremy Corbyn, is an ex-steelworker from Sheffield with a coarse north of England accent. Perkins is no John F. Kennedy. He’s a man of the working class, for the working class, and from the working class. After he rides into office in the wake of a banking scandal – yes I said banking scandal – with an overwhelming landslide, the ruling classes dismiss him as a fool. Maybe he’ll just turn out to be like every other Labor Party politician, a half-hearted socialist willing to compromise his principles as soon as he begins to get little taste of power. But Harry Perkins is no fool, and he’s not easily compromised. In fact, he plays Lawrence Wainwright, the Oxbridge educed leader of the centrist wing of the party, like a violin, sending him on a wild-goose chase to negotiate a bailout with the International Monetary Fund, even while he’s got his foreign minister, a leftist ex-schoolteacher named Tom Newsome, negotiating a better deal with a Russian bank in Stockholm.

These days, Russian banks lend money to fascists like Marine Le Pen, but in Mullin’s novel and in the mini-series they lend money to the socialist Harry Perkins, money that doesn’t come with an austerity program attached to it. When Perkins announces the deal on national TV, both Wainwright, and Sir Percy Brown – think of him as Allen Dulles with a British accent – realize they’ve lost the first round. Steelworker from Sheffield 1. British ruling class 0. But the British ruling class is only getting started. They now turn to the media. Tom Newsome may be a brilliant negotiator who speaks four languages, a leftist who’s utterly loyal to Harry Perkins, but he’s also a man who’s gotten into the habit of “thinking with the wrong head.” After the newspapers publish photos of him kissing a woman not his wife – and one with tenuous ties to the IRA – Perkins asks for his resignation. The score is now tied.

If the British ruling class has MI-5 and the CIA, Harry Perkins has his own intelligences service in Frederick Thompson, his press secretary, and Liz Fain, a computer programmer and Thompson’s upper-class girlfriend. It was Liz, Julian Assange before his time, who had originally rooted out the smoking gun for the bank scandal that put the Labor Party back into power. Thompson and Liz prove indispensable when the deep state make its next play, Smith, a bought and paid for labor union president who’s been making lecture tours in the United States over the past few years. Yes, apparently they bribed people with speaker’s fees back then too. After Smith teams up with Wainwright to call a strike that brings down the electrical power grid, Liz Fain and Jerry Thompson discover that both have connections to a shady American diplomat named Chambers, and through her to the CIA. Perkins takes the information to Wainwright and Smith, and promises to expose them if they don’t put the power back up. Smith goes back to his union, and Perkins transfers Wainwright from the treasury department to an obscure post in Northern Ireland.

With the score Harry Perkins 2, and the ruling class 1, Perkins decides to go on the offensive. The Americans can hardly believe it when they realize he’s serious about his demand that they remove their military bases from British soil. Perkins also turns to Sir Montague Kowalsky, a nuclear scientist and the Government Chief Scientific Adviser, to carry out his plan for unilateral nuclear disarmament. Kowalsky, a Holocaust survivor, and man who understands the horror of war, not only supports Perkins, he’s also got a spotless past. Neither Sir Percy nor the media can find anything on him. After a trial run dismantling a nuclear warhead on national TV proves to be a great success, Sir Percy and his friends in the American government decide they’ve fooled around long enough. The time for propaganda and media smears is over. They’ve got no dirt on Kowalsky. He’s got nothing to lose. He’s two years away from retirement age. They can’t talk him out of his support for unilateral nuclear disarmament. They can’t scare the people with the big bad Soviet Union– one of Perkins’ cabinet members points out that since the United Kingdom is on an island and the French have nukes anyway the British military really doesn’t need their own – so they have him killed. Harry Perkins 2. Ruling class 2.

With the score tied, Sir Percy and the media decide to move in for the kill. It’s time to get rid of Harry Perkins once and for all. For the past few weeks before Kowalsky’s death, the newspapers have been running stories about Perkins’ health. Perkins is in perfect health, but since when has truth ever stopped the newspapers from writing a story? It’s really only background noise anyway designed to prepare the ground for Sir Percy’s final move. A decade before, Harry Perkins had had an affair with a woman named Helen Jarvis. Perkins is unmarried but he’s clearly not gay. The newspapers would have obviously run with that story had he been. Helen Jarvis, however, is married to the head of the financial services company that had arranged the loan from the Russians. There was nothing illegal, or even improper, about their participation in the deal, but it does create the appearance of impropriety, as do the forged bank notes proving that Jarvis’ company had deposited 300,000 pounds in a Swiss bank under the name Harry Perkins. The final scene of A Very British Coup is riveting. Sir Percy comes to 10 Downing Street to blackmail Harry Perkins. Resign for “health reasons,” he tells the Prime Minister, and he’ll bury the story about the alleged bribes. Sir Percy is an excellent villain. He’s also terrified of Perkins, seeing in him the man who just might destroy the British ruling class forever. He’s doing it for his ancestors, “yea all the way back to the Middle Ages.”

A Very British Coup ends with the score still tied at Harry Perkins 2. Ruling class 2. Perkins appears to take Sir Percy’s deal but it’s a ruse. Harry Perkins has ancestors too, specifically a grandfather who was killed in an industrial accident and left his family in poverty, uncompensated by the insurance companies. Harry Perkins is a real class warrior who’s not going down without a fight. Instead of announcing his resignation, he takes to the TV airwaves, and, like Charles de Gaulle in 1962, calls the people into the streets. Well, actually he calls for a general election. “Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?” Sir Percy says out loud to a British Army general, echoing Henry II’s suggestion that his knights murder Thomas Becket. We flash ahead to the day of the election. The TV stations talk of a “constitutional crises.” We hear the sound of helicopters. There’s a report about an earthquake in Chile, a country where another socialist politician had been taken out by a coup d’etat 15 years before. In his attempt to blackmail Harry Perkins, Sir Percy talked about a bloodless coup by media, a “very British coup,” as he phrased it. As the credits role we wonder whether or not Sir Percy managed to organize the real thing.

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