A Very British Coup by Chris Mullin

book cover of A Very British Coup

I really enjoyed this book, although that’s not to say it’s perfect (the ending in particular was rather anti-climactic). What it does do is pose a topical hypothetical – what if a genuinely progressive politician were to ever become the British prime minister? – and expose in exquisite detail all the forces that would work hard to wreck them.

There are a ton of naïve people out there who believe that an elected government has the authority to do more-or-less whatever they want, and it’s a sheer coincidence that all major political parties end up with identical policies on 99.9% of issues (like gleeful participation in American wars, the prioritisation of corporate profits well ahead of wages or pensions…). This book shows well what would happen if a government really tried to cast off all that shit and instead implement common-sense social democratic policies. In venues like the exclusive Athenaeum club and luxurious country estates, the upper-class men who run the secret service, the civil service, the newspapers, the television news bureaux and who represent US diplomatic interests all conspire to ruin the new government before they can have literally any of their privileges taken away.

In Australia, of course, we had a similar thing happen to a leader who was not even nearly as progressive as the central figure of this book: Gough Whitlam was no progressive himself, but he came to power at a moment when the working class was powerful, militant and prepared to punish any Labor leader who did not try to fulfil the aspirations of the membership. During his time as prime minister a number of important reforms passed, but conservatives worked hard to wreck him and ultimately succeeded in the 1975 crisis. An important factor in the success of that effort was that the Americans extracted agreement from “a leading trade union figure” that there would be no industrial action to force Whitlam’s reinstatement after removal – and thus, when unionised workers began walking out on impromptu general strikes in 1975, ACTU boss Bob Hawke – who later became the Labor PM who brought neoliberalism to Australia, prompting a mass exodus of the party’s membership which leaves the party a hollowed-out husk today – insisted that they all go back to work.

A Very British Coup has its own class traitor union boss – Reg Smith, representing the power workers, who leads a massive industrial action causing rolling blackouts as he insists on a 50% pay rise. Newspapers and TV stations which have never supported an industrial action in their entire histories fall over themselves to support this one, just so they can wedge the government and put them in an impossible position which they hope will lead to their demise.

There are a number of other crises in this book – foreign currency traders working to make the pound crash, conflict with the US as the new government insists on nuclear disarmament and a withdrawal of the US military from its territory, and a scandal over a poorly-built nuclear power plant causing a narrowly-averted disaster.

One thing that is dissatisfying about this book is that it never really feels like Perkins’ government are defeated. Instead, it feels like they grow tired and give up. There is a part where one of the government’s best ministers is “forced” to resign because he’s been exposed as having a mistress, even though two days earlier it was agreed that he wouldn’t have to resign and nothing had really changed since then. Similarly, the scandal that finally finishes the government off doesn’t really feel any bigger or more impossible to resolve than previous scandals. It just feels like they’ve grown tired of fighting, which is not very satisfying narratively.

The novel also doesn’t really talk about who’s supporting Perkins’ government, aside from a handful of individuals. It doesn’t talk about the party membership, or the trade unions that aren’t arcing up like Reg Smith’s power workers. It doesn’t talk about how you could work against the dishonesty of the mainstream newspapers and TV channels – how even in the 80s you could create alternative newspapers for example (except for one character criticising the far-left’s alternatives as “high on paranoia, low on facts” or something like it – which is like, at least they’ve made more than zero effort to put their analysis out there, you know?). Revolutions have succeeded in far more hostile environments, and this book doesn’t really explain why this government has opted not to take any inspiration from their strategies.

Then again, another disappointing aspect of this book is that we never really see the government introducing any progressive policies. The early section of the book talks about some of their proposals, but they don’t make any headway with any of them, even the ones that would be a lot easier than “force the US military to extricate themselves from our country”. Again, we don’t even see them really try.

The book is fairly short, and while in some ways that’s a good thing, I do think it would have been enriched by being a bit longer. It would have been nice to see this government achieve some successes, and have the opposition’s victory come as a result of a long war of attrition as opposed to the government never successfully doing much and then giving up. Or even if they could have shown us how the timidity of social democracy seals its demise; something to suggest to the reader that progressive change is not just so impossible that there’s no point even trying. What can left-wingers do that might actually work?

I feel like this review is more of a messy jumble of thoughts than a review, but long story short I did find this a very interesting book. It also seems like a rare gift to be able to describe currency fluctuations and other economic happenings in such a way that they’re actually interesting, so well done there. If the topic sounds interesting to you, I would definitely recommend the read.


a cartoony avatar of Jessica Smith is a left-wing feminist who loves animals, books, gaming, and cooking; she’s also very interested in linguistics, history, technology and society.