Saturday, 10 May 2008

Harry Perkins for Prime Minister

This title of this posting comes from a piece of graffitti I saw on a wall in Coventry in 1988. I took a photo of it but that was lost when I was living in West Germany the following year. It refers to a character in a television series, 'A Very British Coup' written by Alan Plater (1988) which was shown on Channel 4. It is based on a novel by Chris Mullin written in 1982.

In the series, set, it was assumed, in 1991 (when the next election was due) features an old fashioned Labour prime minister, Harry Perkins (played by Ray McAnally (1926-89)) coming to power and following policies that seemed to be both modern (his government borrows money from the Russians who at the time were opening up to capitalism) and yet traditional Labour policies (when asked if he will scrap first class travel on trains [Perkins favours train travel over official cars] he says 'No, I will abolish second class: aren't we all first class?'). Some of the policies which at the time seemed to be a Labour dream, such as a minimum wage, of course, have become actual policy in the UK subsequently. Crucially for the fate of his government, Perkins moves the UK away from the special relationship with the USA, including scheduling all US military bases to be removed within two years.  The Americans threaten to overthrow him unless he adopts policies which are more sympathetic to the American New Right attitudes of the time. Perkins promises to do this, but sticks to his own line and the end of the series sees the US military invading the UK to overthrow the Perkins government.

Interestingly, there is a king on the British throne in the story, suggesting that Queen Elizabeth II has stepped down, perhaps in 1986 when she turned 60 (the retirement age permitted for women in the UK at the time) or in 1991 at the age of 65, the standard retirement age, and her son Prince Charles has come to the throne. Of course, in fact she is still ruling at the age of 83 and looks set to beat the length of Queen Victoria's reign of 64 years, which she will do if she is still on the throne in 2017. Given that her mother lived to 101, it seems quite possible Elizabeth can remain on the throne until she is 90 or even longer. As Charles is already 60 there is a chance he will die before his mother and will never become king or will feel he is too old to take the job by then and it will go to his son, Prince William.

Some of the elements echo back to the pressure that faced even Harold Wilson, who, these days with hindsight, hardly looks a radical. The pressure from the IMF (International Monetary Fund) in 1976 on the Labour government to introduce public spending cut-backs in order to secure loans happened for real and appears again in 'A Very British Coup'. Wilson, and especially Callaghan who followed, effectively ended Keynesian economic approaches for Britain primarily because of what the IMF had compelled. Back in the mid-1960s when Wilson have headed two governments running 1964-70, many of his plans for modernising the British economy were scuppered by financial pressures, notably on the value of the pound, which, at the time, was seen as a serious issue. Someone has written into Wikipedia entry on Wilson conspiracy theories, that 'A Very British Coup' was based on the actual attempts to overthrow Wilson and that simply the names have been changed. In fact, the series owes far more to the sensibilities of the 1980s than those of the 1970s, not surprising really.

Though clearly rooted in aspects of the 1980s, some elements seem painfully appropriate today. Perkins manages to win a landslide election in 1991 through exposing scandal among 'fat cat' bosses especially in the City of London (i.e. the UK financial sector) in 1988. Many of his policies are about reining in the greed of such employers who he sees as having bankrolled the Conservatives and benefited while industry has declined, raising unemployment. Such rhetoric could be easily used today. The problem has not gone away at all, though perhaps Labour has lacked the courage to go after these leeches on the British economy, truly growing fat (still) while others become unemployed. Of course, when scandals are revealed whether around the Guinness family, the Maxwells or half-a-dozen others, it seems to make very little difference to how the British economy is allowed to be run. While all the specific paranoia of the Cold War might now seem history, greedy corrupt big business is alive and well.

Another interesting policy is one that no politician would have the courage to put forward but is featured in the series is 'one man, one newspaper'. This particularly galls with Sir George Fison, played by Philip Madoc, who owns a newspaper consortium and is probably modelled on Rupert Murdoch and/or Robert Maxwell. Of course, we know how powerful Murdoch has become in shaping the choices of the British electorate and that Tony Blair had to effectively pay court to him before he was able to become prime minister. Murdoch, his family and agents have not had to face down a one person - one newspaper restriction but James Murdoch complained that the BBC was 'land grabbing'. Despite that view, Sky, owned by his father, has a near monopoly on satellite broadcasting in the UK, yet the Murdochs clearly feel there is too much competititon to their control of UK media. While no-one will come forward with a policy which will control Murdoch's ever-increasing power because they know they will lose an election if they try, this issue remains one that is current. The extreme, of course, is the situation in Italy where Silvio Berlusconi has a strong grasp over television media, reinforced once he became prime minister and privatised part of the state company RAI in 2004.

Contemporarily-set or near-future series were very popular in the UK in the mid-late 1980s. Examples include 'Defence of the Realm' (1985) and especially 'Edge of Darkness' (1986; fascinatingly to be remade as a Hollywood movie starring Mel Gibson; the star of which, Bob Peck (1945-99) had a run of roles in such series about conspiracies including 'Centrepoint' (1990) and 'Natural Lies' (1992; about infected beef). Partly, I think they were popular then because they appeared credible given what we were hearing in the news. In that way we have recently had a few similarly driven dramas since the 'War on Terror', notably 'The Grid' (2004) and 'Britz' (2007). In line with the current news, these have often focused on UK relations with the Middle East/South Asia rather than simply domestic oppression.

In the Thatcher years there was a sense that the state was flexing its muscles, particularly following the Miners' Strike 1984-5 and the stopping of free movement of people connected with that; the shoot-to-kill policy in Northern Ireland in the 1980s and attacks on the anti-nuclear weapons movement throughout the 1980s. The USA appeared (as it has done again since 2001) as the country with a forceful agenda against the people it did not like, whether they were Communists (now read al-Qaeda) or not and through that approach was shaping, or even forcing, British policy in a more authoritarian direction. In addition, there appeared to be not only state suppression but that concealment of the truth by big business too. Many of these stories feature sinister businessmen seeking to suppress information on things in the public interest such as about BSE ('mad cow' disease) in beef (another I remember in that ilk was 'Jute City' (1991) partly due to its haunting sound track).

Chris Mullin, a former journalist and since 1987, a Labour MP, published the book, 'A Very British Coup' in 1982. He had edited work by leading Labour MP and former minister, Tony Benn. He campaigned for the release of the wrongly-imprisoned Birmingham 6 and was editor of Labour journal 'Tribune' 1982-4. His was on the Home Affairs Select Committee 1992-9 and chaired it from 1997. He was a Parliamentary Under-Secretary at the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions 1999-2001, at Department for International Development 2001-3 (ironically being transferred before Hilary Benn, Tony Benn's son, took up the post of Secretary of State there) and the Foreign Office 2003-5. He is not standing at the next election. He is one of the MPs who has claimed the least in expenses and it was revealed that he has only a black and white television in his second home.

 wonder if Mullin wrote 'A Very British Coup' as a bit of a counter to Anthony Burgess's '1985' (1978) which portrayed an authoritarian state run by trade unions or the television series '1990' (1977-8) by Wilfred Greatorex (1922-2002) which showed a left-wing dictatorship of Britain in the 1980s following an economic collapse. Certainly in the television series, Perkins emphasises that he only seeks to carry out the policies he does because he has a clear electoral mandate and so the policies are the 'will of the people'. To some degree, unfortunately, I think Mullin has a charitable view of the British electorate and I fear that their 'will' if it was ever enforced in its entirety would lead to a bigoted, isolationist state with public capital punishment.

Anyway, so we have to see 'A Very British Coup' in that background. Why then do I come back to it today? Well, I wonder if, now that they are set to remake 'Edge of Darkness' no doubt updated for the technology of the late 2000s, we are not going to see another 'A Very British Coup' for real in the UK. Gordon Brown is not Harry Perkins, this is not the early 1990s. Even a Conservative government in 1991 would have found it hard to stomach 28 days' detention without charge (let alone 42 days or 90 days) and the amount of CCTV (Closed-Circuit Television) - there are 4.2 million CCTV cameras in the UK, higher than any other country in Europe we have. However, Brown is probably the last Labour leader who can probably claim any right to the title 'Labour' in his job description.

It was interesting to hear today that Tony Blair is giving advice to Brown on how to stay in office. Apparently Blair would have stepped down sooner, his wife said, if Brown had demonstrated a commitment to city academies (business-run schools which are in fact not thriving), foundation hospitals (again, another step towards privatisation) and pension reforms (which are depriving so many workers of any secure future). It is to Brown's credit that he contested all of those things. However, in doing so, he has demonstrated himself to those who really hold the reins of power that he is not Blair's heir and in fact is trying to move Labour more back to what it once stood for which is equality and social justice. Blair, in fact, with all the schemes for (faith) schools and different hospitals was promoting a more divided society and his lying to Parliament and his forcing of the UK to fight in Iraq showed he was no different towards the Americans than Margaret Thatcher had been. As I have said before, Blair was simply head of the Blairite Party and now its power has waned those with power are seeking someone else.

So, in the next two years you will see a series in front of your eyes. The 'Very British Coup 2008-10' has begun with the over-exaggerated pressure on Brown following the local elections and if he manages to hold on in 2010 you will see the stepping up of policies to remove him. There are various methods, notably a few terrorist attacks or even just threats, engineered to undermine him and all this sustained bad mouthing of him in the press. They can also resort to the electoral fraud of the kind which was practised in a number of constituencies, especially in South-West England in the 1992 election. Of course, if the wheels of democracy do keep in place, then we may see, come 2010, something resembling the final scenes of 'A Very British Coup'; look out for the markings on that passing Chinook helicopter it might not be Prince William but the US Marine Corps.

P.P. 12/10/2009: For those of us lucky enough to get the Yesterday channel on our Freeview boxes, currently we can watch a repeat of 'A Very British Coup' being shown at 10.00 and 15.00 across this week and I highly recommend everyone whether you have seen it or not seen before to go and record/watch it. Of course, twenty-one years on, the actors, many of whom are still familiar faces today, look incredibly young. The technology, notably the computers of 1988 projected forward into 1992, look very primitive and no-one has a mobile phone. This
applies to any programme made in the era, but perhaps it is because we associate a certain politics with a certain time period that the technology signalling that period seems so important.

Interestingly, aside from Perkins using 'comrade' which probably was abandoned by anyone in Labour circles even before Blair took over the party, the kind of people portrayed as sitting in his Cabinet could easily have been in Blair's or Brown's Cabinet. Interestingly having a woman as Home Secretary and, in this story, de facto deputy to the prime minister, seemed radical at the time, but now with Jacqui Smith as home secretary 2007-9 it seems not that exceptional. On reflection, though, it is probably to the UK's embarrassment it took 19 years after the portrayal of a women home secretary for the country to get one, and she is only the third woman after Margaret Thatcher as prime minister (1979-90) and Margaret Beckett as foreign secretary (2006-7) to hold one of the four main ministerial ranks (the other being the Chancellor of the Exchequer). It took the USA less time between portrayal and actuality to get a black President (seen in 'Armageddon' (1998) and '24' broadcast 2002-3 to Obama becoming president in 2009).

It might have been more apt to show the series when George Bush was still US President, perhaps Yesterday did, but I was unaware of it it. Bush's foreign policy and certainly his bullying of European countries to comply with that policy especially over the Middle East, but also over Russia, was just like the way the USA's approach to Britain on its foreign policy choices is portrayed in the series. I certainly could envisage Bush ordering an invasion of the UK if it had diverged too far from his view on the 'War on Terror'.

The one thing that struck me in the credits was the list of advisors. Of course, Duncan Campbell is there, the investigative journalist who has exposed deficiencies in British public life especially in the use of surveillance. He was notable for having been sacked from the BBC in 1987 for his series 'Secret Society' on the instigation of the prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, so was a hero of the liberal left at the time 'A Very British Coup' was produced. Even more fascinating is the name which is listed above Duncan Campbell, Alastair Campbell. This Campbell was an advisor to Neil Kinnock, leader of the Labour Party 1983-92, the man who came closest to being like Perkins in reality. When Tony Blair became leader of the Labour Party in 1994 he already had connections to Alastair Campbell and became Chief Press Secretary 1997-2000 and Director of Communications 2000-3 before resigning during the Hutton Inquiry into the murder of Dr. David Kelly.

Campbell was very involved in Labour's publicity during the elections of 1997, 2001 and 2005. The commentary about Campbell you tend to find on the internet these days is pretty mild, but he was seen by the 'spin doctor supreme' of New Labour under Blair and his role in 'sexing up' intelligence reports about what the regime of Saddam Hussain was doing in Iraq to encourage the British to back the US invasion led to harsh criticism. As with Lord Mandelson, a man he worked with closely especially in 1997, his smug, self-satisfied and patronising manner has done nothing to endear him to the British electorate, though George W. Bush seems to have liked him.

I wonder what Alastair Campbell's input was into 'A Very British Coup' and what lessons he took from the series. Maybe he genuinely believed any Labour government had to toe the US line precisely or face an invasion. Perhaps that was why he worked so hard to weld the UK to all US policy no matter how insane it was. Maybe Campbell had had dreams of some Perkins-like government only to have this dashed in 1991 when Kinnock seemingly had victory snatched from him. Perhaps Campbell had under-estimated the powerful conservative forces in the UK that had no need for US assistance to bring about what they wanted. The fall of Perkins in 'A Very British Coup' could easily have been portrayed as happening in the way Salvador Allende was overthrown in Chile in 1973 with local pressure financially backed by the USA, rather than a military invasion. However, that element was shown as less important than the US direct action, perhaps because that would raise the ire of British nationalists of the right as well as left-wingers in a way that an Establishment coup, as was regularly dreamed up in opposition to Harold Wilson 1974-6, would not have done.

I wonder if Alastair Campbell foresaw his future in the character of Frederick Thompson played by Keith Allen. Thompson has been imprisoned for exposing scandals in the Ministry of Defence but on his release becomes Perkins's press secretary and, interestingly, also his monitor of both Cabinet members and the upper echelons of the civil service. This kind of defender of the prime ministerial role portrayed by Allen is very similar to how Campbell acted when in post under Blair. I think, at the end of the day, Alastair Campbell simply loves bathing in the reflected light of 'great' men or men he thinks will be great, as he was not only associated with Kinnock but also larger-than-life proprietor of the 'Daily Mirror' Robert Maxwell. By working with these men, most notably Blair and making their glory all the greater it clearly casts more light on himself. These days he seems to relish light shining more directly on him: he is an active blogger!

P.P. Interestingly, the version of 'A Very British Coup' shown on Yesterday seemed to have been edited by a few seconds so rather than seeing the US uniform the screen faded to black, though the voices on the military radio heard in the background had American accents. It was a subtle change but meant that you are left with the impression that their has been a coup by the British military, perhaps backed by US forces, rather than an all-out US invasion of the UK.

P.P. 25/01/2010: I see the movie of 'Edge of Darkness' has now been released in the UK.  I hope it prompts a re-run of the series.  I have not read anything yet about this version.  The trailer with Mel Gibson's character accusing someone of killing his daughter seemed in step with the original.  However, but was immediately put out by the poster which shows Gibson's character as pointing a gun at someone.  He has a US police badge on his belt too.  I have less problem with him being a police officer than using the gun, because one thing about Peck's roles in all of the conspiracy dramas he was in was that he came across as an ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances; the prime weapon he used in the series was two pieces of radioactive material that he struck together in front of the main 'bad guy'.  I guess one factor is that the UK police generally do not carry guns and the ones that did were smaller in number back in 1986 than they are now. 

Showing Gibson's character as an American seems to undermine an important strand of the original story, that a lot of the conspiracy was driven by Americans influencing the British Establishment to behave in a particular way. This seemed very sinister in the Reagan years when the series came out and perhaps this latest version will be set during the George W. Bush presidencies when the Americans bullying other states to follow the particular US line became common again.  It would have been better to transpose the latest movie, say, to Canada (or even back in Gibson's home country of Australia) rather than have it in the USA so allowing that aspect of an external force on a government to remain in the story.  It might not be a good movie but I am interested to see how the plot has been altered for 2010s USA.

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