Date finished: July 26th 2016
I’m on a bit of a political-novels binge at the moment, but then, under the circumstances, you can’t really blame me. When you look at the world right now, you see politics becoming louder, stupider and more dangerous to our lives by the minute. Literature can yield answers and understanding when nothing else will. Perhaps a political novel can shed light on the situation as we now find it?
A Very British Coup follows the premiership of Prime Minister Harry Perkins, an unlikely leader who winds up unexpectedly winning Labour the election. Perkins, an ex-union leader from the steelworks who ended up MP for Sheffield Central, holds views far too left-wing for the Establishment’s liking. Despite a campaign to ensure he would never be elected, democracy has its say. Opposed to American military bases on British soil, seeking an exit from NATO, for the public control of finances and the dismantling of media empires, the Establishment finds it hard to swallow Perkins’ loony left policies, and so, begins to throw everything it’s got at him in the hopes of destabilising the party and undermining his leadership. Perkins now finds himself embroiled in a battle for survival…
Published in 1982, Mullins’ book is a work of stunning plausibility (upon publication The Telegraph called it “preposterous”) and
impressive foresight. Of course, a far-left government never did rise to power in the 1980s, but the novel shows some very telling parallels with the current Labour leadership situation which sees left-wing leader, Jeremy Corbyn, holding on for survival as the PLP and Establishment attempt to oust him at every turn, seemingly terrified of a Perkins-style election win. Mullin impresses with the little details too, for example, predicting the sell-off to the Rover Group of British Leyland to VW (in reality it was to BMW, but he wasn’t far off considering he was writing six years before the event in question).
In Perkins, Mullin has created a strong, sympathetic character, whose story becomes highly involving. A spectrum of players and relationships are important throughout the novel, and Mullin deftly switches between events to give an overview of the relevant political and personal situations. The dialogue crackles with wit and conspiracy, injecting the many cabinet meetings and tense private talks with a much-needed vitality in such a politics-heavy volume.
Ultimately, A Very British Coup is an unexpectedly engrossing novel which delves right to the scheming heart of the establishment’s seamy, behind-closed-doors affairs. Gripping, pacey and even emotional at times, Mullin has crafted a fine political thriller – no easy feat – that resonates with lessons and warnings that are perhaps more relevant today ever before.