(Serpent’s Tail 2010, originally published 1982)
In this speculative story of political skullduggery, Chris Mullin (a Labour MP, though not when he wrote the book) shows how Britain might have been. The book begins with the 1989 general election in which Labour is swept to power on a platform of very left-wing measures, including the removal of American bases, public control of finance and dismantling of media empires. The old boys of the Establishment in the Athenaeum Club are shocked and appalled by the outcome, seeing that their comfortable status quo is about to be revoked. However, they don’t intend to take this lying down.
What follows is an entertaining take on how the establishment figures, aided by a shadowy intelligence organisation, DI6, try to destabilise the government and bring down “extremist” ministers in the Cabinet, using every dirty trick they can think of, and not caring what lives are broken in the mean time. Also aiding the destabilisation process are the Americans, who feel that Britain is half-way to becoming a Marxist state under Harry Perkins’ premiership. Perkins also has to contend with third-columnists in the union movement, who are themselves very happy with the way things are, thank-you, and see their chances of knighthoods evaporating.
It’s an interesting, though dated, take on what-could-be. Mullin was writing before Thatcherism had taken hold of the UK: by 1989, the chances of a Labour government being elected – particularly on the manifesto presented in the book – were very low. Even the Soviets were making moves towards openness, and the Cold War was noticeably thawing: unlike how Mullin imagined it (not unsurprisingly). Mullin even imagines Charles as king. Today’s modern-day politicians, more au fait with the media and machinations (plus the emergence of spin doctors and the like) probably would have been able to rise above the dirty tricks campaign, even if most of them are not nearly as principled as Harry Perkins.
It’s solidly written, and is quite a page-turner; Mullin generates a considerable amount of sympathy for his embattled characters. Unfortunately, he doesn’t include very many women as prominent characters (though again one has to take into account it was written nearly thirty years ago), though I rather like Joan Cook, the Home Secretary, who isn’t given nearly enough to do (and I feel it’s rather dated that she’s almost always referred to as ‘Mrs Cook’ rather than ‘Joan Cook’ in the way that the other ministers are referred to as ‘Tom Newsome’ or ‘Wainwright’). One feels an urge to say, Fight a bit harder, to Perkins and his colleagues, but I suppose that defeats the point of the book!
The book was televised in 1988, though I gather the plot was changed, particularly the ending (as is often the case with these things), and I wonder what watching that would be like now, twenty years later.