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Would the British Military Take Out a Jeremy Corbyn–Led UK Government?

Author Chris Mullin's 1982 novel about a coup toppling a left-wing government turned out to be disconcertingly realistic. We asked him how the establishment would deal with Jeremy Corbyn.

by Oscar Webb
Oct 9 2015, 4:50pm

Photo by Oscar Webb

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

Last month an unnamed British Army general told the Sunday Times that a government led by Labour head Jeremy Corbyn would face "a mutiny" from the armed services. The general said the armed forces would use "whatever means, fair or foul" to prevent a Corbyn administration surviving. The upper echelons of this British military are using some language that seems more appropriate to their counterparts in Chile in the early 1970s than the UK in 2015.

In 1982, Chris Mullin, a former Labour MP, wrote a novel which predicted exactly this actually happening. A Very British Coup imagines a left-wing Labour leader being elected in a landslide election and then being slowly and meticulously deposed by right-wing elements of the British establishment, including the army, the press and the secret service. The book was based on the prospect of left-wing icon Tony Benn winning the Labour leadership in the early 1980s—which he came within one percent of actually doing—and deposing an unpopular Thatcher government. With a "Bennite continuity candidate" leading Labour, and the establishment railing against him, the story seems more relevant today than ever before.

The protagonist, Harry Perkins, who becomes Prime Minister, is a socialist ex-steelworker from Sheffield—"I wanted to make him as different as possible from Tony Benn, which Benn wanted me to do," Mullin says. Perkins's government is elected in a landslide victory, which sees the Tories ousted. Perkins's popularity grows and grows as he increases public spending, imposes higher taxes on the rich, regulates the City, breaks up right-wing media empires, and instigates swathes of policies Labour lefties can only dream of now. But his winning streak is short lived—members of the establishment, unhappy with his undoing everything they believe in, move in to destroy him.

The novel, and the excellent television show that it was made into, are doing a roaring trade at the moment—the book's been republished twice and Mullin says he's writing a sequel—so now seemed the right time to ask the author to make some comparisons: Could Corbyn be the Bennite hero and savior of the left Mullin longed for in the early 1980s? Would he fall into the same traps as the protagonist in the novel? And would the establishment still be strong enough to depose such a leader of the Labour Party?

I met Mullin in the atrium of Portcullis House, the building next to the Palace of Westminster opened in 2001 to provide MPs with extra work and social space; a subsidised coffee costs just a pound; the general public are only allowed in if invited by an MP (or an ex-MP in my case), those not invited being kept out by armed policemen; the huge curved glass roof gives you the literal impression of being within the "Westminster bubble." I recognized a few people I knew as politico students queuing for coffee—now Spads or policy wonks for Labour.

"What's interested me since Jeremy became leader," Mullin begins, "is that just about all parties are behaving according to the script [of the novel]: sources are saying mass resignations from the army or worse, the newspapers have gone bonkers, just bonkers."

But when Mullin wrote the novel, it wasn't bonkers—it was based on stuff that had actually happened. In the 1970s, "there'd already been talk of military intervention amongst some hotheads... There was a chap called General Sir Walter Walker who set up a private army and called for volunteers to police the country in the event of a breakdown in law and order which he confidently expected." In 1974 Sir Walter wrote a letter to the Times saying the country needed "dynamic, invigorating, uplifting leadership... above party politics" to "save" the country from "the Communist Trojan horse in our midst." Later that year Walker claimed that his group Civil Assistance had 100,000 volunteers ready to act against the British Left.

The Morning Star infiltrated one of their meetings and claimed to see at least one general, nine colonels and six brigadiers in attendance. Labour defense secretary, Roy Mason, described the group as a "near fascist groundswell."

"Now," Mullin continues, "Sir Walter Walker was dismissed as a bit of a nutter at the time, but he had been the commander of NATO in northern Europe and the army does have a few of those sort of people. There was another guy who was more sinister called Colonel David Stirling who'd founded the SAS and [in 1975] he set up something called GB75 for a similar purpose." GB75 was set up by aristocrat ex-soldiers, spies, and arms dealers in response to the election of [Labour Prime Minister] Harold Wilson, many of whom believed Wilson's government were Soviet agents. They plotted to take power if there was a breakdown in law and order. Amongst the British military establishment these "undercurrents always exist", Mullin says. "They kind of don't understand that in democracy it's the electorate, not the military who decide the outcome."

The Houses of Parliament, with Portcullis House on the right. Photo by Chris Bethell

Similar characters from the British intelligence service inhabited strategic positions in British cultural and political institutions, with the fiction turning out to be disconcertingly realistic. "[In the novel] I had an MI5 spy on the council of CND and some years later that turned out to be Harry Newton who'd been there all along. I had someone in the BBC vetting the personnel files of people whose careers were not to progress on the grounds of ideological unsoundness. And in 1986 that turned out to be Brigadier Ronnie Stonham in 'room 101,' four years after the novel was published."

Up until the late 1980s, MI5 consisted of "ex-Colonial officers who drank a lot and had very long lunch hours and were big conspiracy theorists," spending much of their time theorizing about who could be a Russian agent. "In fact," Mullin says, "Peter Wright [author of 1980s hit expose, Spycatcher] and his mates spent a lot of time believing the head of MI5 Sir Roger Hollis was a Russian spy, which was nonsense." With the appointment of Stella Rimmington, the first publicly named head of MI5 in 1992, the intelligence services were cleaned up, Mullin says. "A Tory home secretary whispered to me in late 1980s: 'we've cleaned out a lot of dead wood' and I think they did."

So, do the intelligence agencies no longer pose such a risk to democracy? "They're concerned with Islamist terrorism these days and it doesn't leave much time playing about in British politics," Mullin says.

A problem that remains for any left-wing government in Britain is the media. "[Rupert] Murdoch's had enormous influence since the 1980s and the leader of any political party has felt obliged to pay court to him, which is unfortunate." Now, as then, the media would be key to any orchestrated plot against an elected government. "They'd soften the ground" for a coup, Mullin says. The key is the creation of an atmosphere of "chaos"; military and other reactionary forces would then "move in to end the chaos."

But the greatest threat to the Labour government in A Very British Coup comes from overseas; the Americans are out for blood after Perkins's tries to shut down their military bases. "We are sick of being an aircraft carrier for the United States," Perkins tells the visiting US secretary of state. Here again, fiction followed reality. US bases were the target of mass CND protests in the 1980s because the Americans were installing new cruise missiles in them. The cruise missiles "made us a target, they didn't defend us," Mullin says. The Americans took a keen interest in Tony Benn and Michael Foot because they supported shutting the bases.

It was "the key issue from the American point of view," Mullin says and recounted that he himself was interviewed by the American ambassador over the nuclear disarmament elements of the book's plot. "When the novel was published, we used to sell hardback copies through an advert in the back of Tribune, the little left wing magazine that I eventually edited, and almost the first check for £7.95 [$12] that came in, came from the American embassy." The US ambassador then invited Mullin for lunch. "I said to [the ambassador], 'Why are you bothering with a minnow like me?' and he said, 'Well, I reckon you're in the top 1,000 opinion formers in this country,' and I said, 'Well, I must be number 999,' and he said, 'The other 999 have been here also.'"

But the American bases are no longer at stake under a Corbyn government—nor does it look like Britain would leave Nato under Corbyn—"I see Jeremy has gone very quiet on that point," Mullin says. The Obama government wouldn't do anything like previous US administrations have in terms of destabilising socialist countries, Mullin says, but with an eye to Donald Trump, adds, "A Republican president might easily get involved in funny business."

A Very British Coup was a political fantasy about Tony Benn leading the Labour party to election victory; "Benn was feared by the establishment because nobody doubted his ability to govern," Mullin says. Corbyn, it seems, may be able to make that fantasy a reality, but Mullin is hesitant. Jeremy's got a much bigger challenge than Tony Benn might ever have had, Mullin says. Unlike Corbyn, "Benn had 12 years experience of government and the support of perhaps one-third of the parliamentary party and—had he won—much of the center ground would have shifted towards him."

The forces of reaction outside the party are waiting to strike for Corbyn as they were for the fictional Perkins. Just before we met, Mullin tells me, a peer (he didn't say from which party) had come up to him in Portcullis House and said "when you see Jeremy tell him this: 'The bourgeoisie united will never be defeated.'"

Nevertheless, "He should be given a chance for a couple of years," Mullin says. At that point, he adds, hostile elements within the Labour party will begin to "test the water" about replacing him. "We'll see where we are in two years' time."

"We're in completely unchartered waters," concludes Mullin, saying there's never been such a left-wing leader of the Labour party before. "I just wish my old friend Tony Benn was alive at this hour to see it."

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