A Very British Coup by Chris Mullin (Corgi, £2.50) FOR THOSE on the left of British political life, the scenario set out in this book is a dream that goes terribly and inevitably wrong. For those at the centre and on the right, members of the Athenaeum Club, senior civil servants, the US Government, the city and the secret service, it is a horrible nightmare that fortunately has a happy ending — "the survival of all we hold dear", as George Fison, the novel's press baron, puts it.
The scenario in question is the surprise sweeping to power of a Labour Government at the end of the 1980s, led by Harry Perkins, a man of the people with impeccable working class credentials. "Harry Perkins was going to be quite different from any Prime Minister Britain had ever seen". So too is his programme. "Withdrawal from the Common Market. Import controls. Public control of finance, including the pension and insurance funds. Abolition of the House of Lords, the honours list and the public schools". Also under consideration are withdrawal from NATO, British neutrality, the end of the independent nuclear deterrent, the withdrawal of foreign military bases and the dismantling of the newspaper monopolies.
This scenario requires a certain suspension of disbelief, in the best tradition of futuristic fiction, and allows one to ask "what if?" Written in 1982, the novel is set in 1989, and there is a convenient degree of shock in Perkins' election victory, which confounds all the pollsters' predictions.
Mullins' novel works on two levels, and works very well on both. On one level, it is a compelling political thriller, complete with conspiracies between British bureaucrats and between them and foreign agents to bring down the government, surveillance of enemies of the state (which includes most of Perkins' Cabinet), illicit and damning romance, and secret foreign missions to arrange multi-million pound loans.
On a secona, more sobering level, A Very British Coup is a skilful portrayal of why, even if a government such as Perkins' came to power, it would face unreservedly hostile and sophisticated opposition from a coalition of those who have, and would therefore face the threat of losing, most. The book plots the insidious and profoundly undemocratic way in which Perkins' Government, and finally the man himself, are destroyed by the forces of reaction.
Wright's allegations about the plot to bring down the Wilson
C t and Mullins' own
atk ,_. ,.., nave new judicial light ; hrown on the conviction of the Birmingham Six suggest that he may be on to something.
The book's accessible style belies the seriousness of its implications. In parts, it reads almost like a James Bond novel "Sir Peregrine Craddock's Who's Who entry said simply that he was attached to the Ministry of Defence, but those in the know about these things said he was the Director General of DI5". There are some very funny moments, such as Perkins' exchange with the governor of the Bank of England, after the latter has tried to precipitate a sterling crisis, and his interviews with the arrogant American Ambassador.
Despite the novel's humour, however, it is fundamentally pessimistic because there is no way that Perkins and his party can (or could) ever win. It is indeed a very British coup, but no different in its illegitimacy as a transfer of power from other, more bloody coups.
The reviewer is Frank Field MP's research assistant.