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Literature / A Very British Coup

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A 1982 novel by the journalist turned Labour politician Chris Mullin (who was a key figure in getting the convictions of the "Birmingham Six", six men falsely accused of being IRA bombers, overturned), who later spent 23 years as an MP from 1987 to 2010.

A Very British Coup is a thriller about the ascent of Harry Perkins, a former Sheffield steelworker and leader of the Labour Party, to become Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Perkins is a quite unassuming man with very left-wing views, winning on a platform that includes unilateral nuclear disarmament, renationalisation of industries, and dissolving newspaper monopolies.

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Unfortunately for Perkins, the British establishment are not very happy with this and start to work to remove him from power by covert means.

A Very British Coup was adapted for television twice: first in 1986 starring Ray McAnally (winning four Baftas and an Emmy) and later being the "inspiration" for the 2012 drama series Secret State. Chris Mullin also published a sequel, The Friends of Harry Perkins, in 2019.

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This novel contains examples of:

  • Badass Boast: The last line of Perkins' victory speech:
    "Our ruling class have never been up for re-election before, but I hereby serve notice on behalf of the people of Great Britain that their time has come."
  • Defector from Decadence: Elizabeth Fain is the daughter of an earl who becomes more sympathetic to Perkins and social democracy thanks to her relationship with Fred Thompson. In the epilogue, they're married, and by the sequel they have two young daughters.
  • Dirty Communists: The Powers That Be treat the Perkins ministry as such and are quick to dig up dirt on its members to tar them and their past associates as "Reds".
  • False Flag Operation: A group of undercover police officers pretend to be anarchists at a Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament demonstration and smash up some shops, allowing the riot police to go in.
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  • Government Conspiracy: A large swath of the "deep state", in conjunction with allied anti-Perkins elements, undertakes one against an elected government of which it disapproves. It succeeds.
  • Intrepid Reporter: Fred Thompson, erstwhile of the Independent Socialist, a once-respected paper that's fallen in prestige, leads a hand-to-mouth existence save occasional assignments from Perkins, an arrangement that turns into a staff position after he becomes PM.
  • Landslide Election: One is predicted as the events of the story begin, and it comes to pass ... except Perkins' Labour wins it with a majority of around 100 seats, whereas the inverse was expected to happen.
  • The Mole: There's an anti-Perkins conspirator in the new ministry: the Chancellor of the Exchequer who takes over as Prime Minister when Perkins is driven to resign.
  • Next Sunday A.D.: The book is set in the then future of 1989 and 1990, the series in 1991 and 1992.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: The Conservative leader looks, acts, and sounds almost exactly like Norman Tebbit, a prominent "Dry" (i.e. hardline anti-nationalisation) Conservative, widely considered to be a possible successor to Margaret Thatcher until his retirement from politics in 1987 (to take care of his wife, who was injured in the Brighton hotel bombing).
  • Not So Different: NATO and the Warsaw Pact, for Perkins, who sees membership in either as equally (in)voluntary.
  • Puppet King: Perkins has realised since his early days as a Member of Parliament that he and his fellows aren't the true decision-makers in Britain.
  • Selective Enforcement: The establishment figures and their allies talk a lot about the political "extremist" threat, but conspicuously always in relation to the far left. Indeed, no far-right extremism is even mentioned in the narration.
  • Title Drop: At the end of the novel, when Perkins' loss of power is discussed, it is remarked that while some people may have been injured in police-instigated rioting, nobody was killed. In Craddock's words, "It was a very British coup".
  • Working-Class Hero: In the sketches of his backstory, Harry Perkins is shown as this, having gone to work at fifteen years old after his father was killed in an accident on the job and initially not even wanting to go to Parliament in the first place.
    • Reg Smith, head of the power workers' union, is a decided inversion, leading a work-to-rule against the Labour government because he's well to the right of Perkins politically.
  • Your Cheating Heart: The Foreign Secretary's affair with a young journalist (who lives with a Trotskyist) embarrasses the new government and his wife, who is Driven to Suicide. The threat that Harry's own pre-premiership relationship with Molly Spence, the fiancée of a businessman to whose company he awarded a government contract while a junior minister (whom she later married), will be revealed to the public is The Last Straw for him personally. There was no quid pro quo, but conspirators Craddock and Norton from DI5 — British internal intelligence — make it clear that they'll let people think there was.

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