British politics is now surely beyond parody. With every passing day, its resemblance to a laughable yet sinister blend of the BBC’s Yes Minister and Chris Mullin’s novel A Very British Coup grows.
Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn is coming under sustained, increasingly tenuous attack for everything from his poor choice of tie at Prime Minister’s Questions, to his insufficient relish at the prospect of murdering millions of innocent civilians with nuclear weapons, to the inadequate depth of his bow at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday. Armando Iannucci just cannot compete.
The right-wing press is having a field day portraying Corbyn as a latter-day Michael Foot, just as they demonised the mildly social democratic, occasionally bungling and generally well-meaning Ed Miliband out of all proportion as a militant, buffoonish far-left fanatic. It is all rather familiar.
As Karl Marx said, ‘history repeats itself first as tragedy, second as farce’. Foot, an honourable man and a principled parliamentarian, was most infamously hounded for his supposedly scruffy appearance as Leader of the Opposition at Remembrance Sunday commemorations in 1981.
Despite the fact that he had himself volunteered to fight against Hitler at the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 – only being rejected on account of his chronic, severe asthma – and had used the journalist’s pen and the politician’s rhetoric to fight against fascism and war his entire life, Foot was accused of disrespecting Britain’s war dead, including the men and women he knew who paid the ultimate price.
To many, the attack seemed absurd – and it was. But, nevertheless, it stuck. Those images of Foot in his ‘donkey jacket’ at the Cenotaph in 1981 haunted him for the rest of his political career, just as that utterly inconsequential photograph of the younger Miliband wrestling with a bacon sandwich came somehow to define and, ultimately, kill his career.
Foot and Miliband led Labour to disastrous, comprehensive electoral defeats; beaten by the sartorially-scrupulous Margaret Thatcher and the waxwork-like David Cameron in 1983 and 2015 respectively. In politics, as a professor once told me, perception matters more than reality. The attacks on Corbyn are remarkably, eerily similar in their pettiness and superficiality. But the parallels with former Labour leaders do not stop there.
Chris Mullin, a former backbench Labour MP and briefly a junior minister under Tony Blair, was inspired to write A Very British Coup (a thriller during which a radical socialist Prime Minister is the victim of an establishment coup d’état) by the prospect of Tony Benn becoming Labour leader. Yet, the novel, serialised into a three-part TV series, could easily have been an alternative history of Harold Wilson’s premiership.
Wilson was, it is now know, widely and wildly distrusted by the establishment; that is, the apex of the military, the security services and even the palace and the civil service. Wilson was suspected by many of being too sympathetic to the Soviet Union, the UK’s Cold War enemy. He was denounced as a closet IRA-sympathiser too, just like Corbyn four decades later. Some went as far as to believe that Wilson was a Soviet agent.
What happened next has been almost entirely whitewashed, scrubbed from British history as though it never happened. Most of us are blissfully ignorant of the establishment plot to oust a democratically-elected government. As a 2006 BBC investigation The Plot Against Harold Wilson and Peter Wright’s 1987 book Spycatcher confirm, retired intelligence and top military officials ‘plotted a coup d’état’ to depose Wilson and unceremoniously chuck him out of office.
The plan was, on the pretext of rising (and perhaps secretly orchestrated) domestic instability, to seize key sites of strategic importance, including Heathrow airport, BBC HQ and Buckingham Palace, before installing Lord Mountbatten, the Queen’s second cousin, the Duke of Edinburgh’s uncle and a reliably conservative, law-and-order sort of chap, as interim prime minister – ushering in, effectively, a quasi-military dictatorship.
The Queen herself was pencilled in to read a public statement stating that Wilson’s government could no longer keep order and, hence, urging the country to acquiesce in the armed forces’ takeover. In the end, the plot was never enacted and Wilson surprisingly resigned not long after, revealing to journalists in private the establishment’s machinations against him.
We will never know whether the Britain of the 1970s could have enacted an anti-democratic coup against the Prime Minister. However, we do know that the establishment still regards the political left with innate suspicion.
Indeed, the head of the UK’s armed forces, General Sir Nicholas Houghton, told the BBC’s Andrew Marr that he was concerned by Corbyn’s unilateralist, anti-nuclear stance and implied that this made the Labour leader unfit to be Prime Minister. Just days after Corbyn was elected Labour leader this summer, an unnamed serving general told the Sunday Times that the armed forces could stage a mutiny or a coup if Corbyn became prime minister, such was their antipathy to his policies. Big business has made similarly threatening noises about what might happen in the apocalyptic eventuality that enough UK citizens vote for a man who wants to progressively re-nationalise the rail network.
Which begs the question: even if Corbyn can withstand the press’ inane, spurious attacks on his dress sense, personal life and character, even if he can win a UK general election against all the odds, would the British establishment ever let him into Downing Street?
Of course, it is easy to scoff at the idea. I’m not usually one for conspiracy theories. Indeed, it sounds preposterous in an established democracy like ours. However, the press smear campaign and establishment coup plot against Harold Wilson is a cautionary tale. The establishment viewed him as a serious threat to their power and wealth. And now, unsurprisingly, they view the relative radicalism of the anti-Trident, anti-austerity, anti-inequality Corbyn in precisely the same way.
So is a coup d’état against a future Corbyn government really that fanciful? You can be sure that somebody, somewhere, is at least thinking about it. History has a funny way of repeating itself.