Read A Very British Coup Online

Authors: Chris Mullin

A Very British Coup

Chris Mullin
has been the Member of Parliament for Sunderland South since 1987. He chaired the Home Affairs Select Committee and has been a minister in three government departments.
A Very British Coup
was first published in 1982 and turned into an award-winning television series. Chris Mullin has recently published a widely-acclaimed volume of diaries,
A View from the Foothills
(Profile Books).

Praise for
A Very British Coup

‘Rattling good'
London Review of Books

‘A curious Molotov cocktail'
Financial Times

‘A spiffing read'


Praise for
A View from the Foothills

‘The most wickedly indiscreet and elegant political memoirs since those of former Tory Minister Alan Clark'
Mail on Sunday

‘The sharpest and most revealing political diaries since Alan Clark's' Simon Hoggart,

‘By far the most revealing and entertaining to have emerged from the now-dying era of New Labour…a diary that tells us almost as much about British politics as that great television series,
Yes Minister' Economist

‘A real landmark…the first no-holds-barred account of life inside the Blair administration…they will become as important for future historians as the Crossman, Castle and Benn diaries…I read it in a weekend and couldn't put it down' Paul Anderson,

‘Without doubt the most entertaining account of the New Labour years…comparisons with Alan Clark…and Harold Nicholson are certainly apposite…it is hard to imagine any…better account of the Blair years than this'



First published by Hodder & Stoughton 1982
Coronet edition 1983
Corgi edition 1988
Arrow edition 1991
Politicos edition 2001
Politicos (Methuen) edition 2006

A complete catalogue record for this book can
be obtained from the British Library on request

The right of Chris Mullin to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988

Copyright © 1982 Chris Mullin

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher.

First published in this edition in 2010 by Serpent's Tail,
an imprint of Profile Books Ltd
3A Exmouth House
Pine Street
London EC1R 0JH

ISBN 978 1 84668 740 2

Printed in Great Britain by CPI Bookmarque,
Croydon, CR0 4TD

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2

This book is printed on FSC certified paper

In memory of Joan Maynard

‘I could easily imagine myself being tempted into a treasonable disposition under a Labour Government dominated by the Marxist Left … Suppose, in these circumstances, one were approached by an official of the C.I.A. who sought to enlist one's help in a project designed to ‘destabilise' this far left government. Would it necessarily be right to refuse co-operation? … Coming from the representative of any other foreign power such a request would not be entertained by me for a moment. But the United States is not just any other foreign power. I am and always have been passionately pro-American, in all sense of believing that the United States has long been the protector of all the values which I hold most dear. To that extent my attitude to the United States has long been that of a potential fellow traveller.'

When Treason Can Be Right
by Peregrine Worsthorne,
Sunday Telegraph
, November 4, 1979


The news that Harry Perkins was to become Prime Minister went down very badly in the Athenaeum.

“Man's a Communist,” exploded Sir Arthur Furnival, a retired banker.

“Might as well all emigrate,” said George Fison, who owned a chain of newspapers.

“My God,” ventured the Bishop of Bath and Wells, raising his eyes heavenward.

As the Press Association tape machine in the lobby began to punch out the first results of the March 1989 general election it became clear that something had gone horribly wrong with the almost unanimous prediction of the pundits that the Tory-Social Democrat Government of National Unity would be re-elected.

Kingston-on-Thames was the first to declare. The sharp young merchant banker who had represented the seat saw his majority evaporate.

“A mistake,” said Furnival when he had recovered his composure.

“Bloody better be,” grunted Fison. No one could remember the last time a seat in the Surrey stockbroker belt had returned a Labour Member of Parliament.

The machine was now giving details of a computer forecast to the effect that if the Kingston swing was reproduced across the country Labour would have a majority of around 200 seats.

“To hell with computers,” muttered Furnival. Fison took a sip of whisky. The Bishop dabbed his forehead with a purple handkerchief.

There were those who had argued that computers had rendered elections obsolete. That very morning a professor from Imperial College had been on the radio describing how he had fed the entire electoral register into a computer which
had then selected a perfect cross-section of the population. He had polled the sample and confidently predicted that his results would be accurate to within one quarter of one per cent. Harry Perkins was about to put the learned professor and his computer out of business.

“Freak result. Means nothing.” The party around the tape machine had been joined by a man in a double-breasted Savile Row suit. Sir Peregrine Craddock's
Who's Who
entry said simply that he was ‘attached to the Ministry of Defence', but those who know about these things said he was the Director General of DI5.

For the next few minutes Sir Peregrine's optimism seemed justified. The National Unity candidate held Oxford with a majority only slightly reduced. Braintree stayed Tory. So did Colchester and Finchley. Then at about quarter to midnight came the first results from the North. Salford, Grimsby, York and Leeds East were all held by Labour with doubled, even trebled, majorities. It was at this point that Arthur Furnival disappeared to ring his stockbroker.

At a few minutes to midnight Worcester went Labour, bringing down the first of six Cabinet ministers who would lose their seats that evening. Sir Peregrine took a sip of his orange juice. George Fison rushed back to Fleet Street to dictate an editorial for the late edition of his newspaper. He was last heard shouting that the British people had taken leave of their senses.

By 12.30 it was clear that the National Unity bubble had burst. South of the Wash the Social Democrats were being annihilated. Richmond, Putney, Hemel Hempstead and Cambridge all fell to Labour in quick succession. North of the Wash only the seaside resorts and the hunting country remained in Tory hands.

Like so much else associated with the twentieth century, television sets were banished from the Athenaeum. But in view of the impending national disaster a delegation from the crowd of elderly gentlemen now gathered around the tape machine had been despatched in search of the club secretary, Captain Giles Fairfax. The captain said he would see what he
could do and within ten minutes reappeared carrying a small portable set borrowed from the caretaker's flat. It was now installed beside the tape machine on a table taken from the morning room. “All very irregular,” said the captain with an apologetic glance at the portrait of Charles Darwin which overlooked the scene. Nevertheless, he stayed to watch.

There was a groan as the television screen immediately focused upon the beaming face of Harry Perkins who was awaiting the declaration of his own result in Sheffield town hall. Perkins, a former steel worker, was a stocky, robust man with a twinkle in his eye and dark, bushy brows. His greying hair was long at the sides and combed over his head to hide his balding crown. His face was deeply lined and rugged, burnished by the great heat of a Sheffield steel mill in the days when Britain had been a steel-producing nation. He was smartly dressed, but nothing flashy. A tweed sports jacket, a silk tie, and on this occasion a red carnation in his buttonhole. Harry Perkins was going to be quite different from any Prime Minister Britain had ever seen. The programme on which he was in the process of being swept to power was quite different from any ever presented to the British electorate.

On the television screen a commentator was now reciting the highlights. Withdrawal from the Common Market. Import controls. Public control of finance, including the pension and insurance funds. Abolition of the House of Lords, the honours list and the public schools.

The manifesto also called for ‘consideration to be given' to withdrawal from NATO as a first step towards Britain becoming a neutral country. An end to Britain's ‘so-called nuclear deterrent' and the withdrawal of all foreign bases from British soil. There was even a paragraph about ‘dismantling the newspaper monopolies'.

For weeks all opinion polls and all responsible commentators had been predicting that there was no hope of the Labour Party being elected on a programme like this. Ever since Harry Perkins had been chosen to lead Labour at a tumultuous party conference two years earlier, the popular press had been saying that this proved what they had always
argued – namely that the Labour Party was in the grip of a Marxist conspiracy. Privately the rulers of the great corporations had been gleeful, for they had convinced themselves that the British people were basically moderate and that, however rough the going got, they would never elect a Labour government headed by the likes of Harry Perkins.

Picture, therefore, the dismay that swept the lobby of the Athenaeum as the television showed Perkins coming to the rostrum in Sheffield town hall to acknowledge not only his own re-election with a record majority, but to claim victory on behalf of his party.

“Comrades,” intoned brother Perkins.

, my foot.” Sir Arthur Furnival was apoplectic. “Told you the man's a Communist.”

“Comrades,” repeated Perkins, as though he could hear the heckling coming from the Athenaeum. He then delivered himself of a dignified little speech thanking the returning officer, those who counted the ballot papers, party workers and all the other people it is customary for a victorious candidate to thank. Then he got down to business.

“Comrades, it is now clear that by tomorrow morning we shall form the government of this country.”

He paused to let the cheering subside. “We should not be under any illusion about the task ahead of us. We inherit an industrial desert. We inherit a country which for ten years has been systematically pillaged and looted by every species of pirate, spiv and con man known to civilisation.”

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