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Posts Tagged ‘Ray McAnally’

Democracy, I commented recently, has had a rough couple of years. I must, of course, qualify this by saying I speak as a left-leaning progressive and internationalist; should you be a right-winger who fervently believes in the primacy of the nation state, you will probably be little short of delighted with how things have turned out for you. Perhaps it’s better to say that recent events have conspired to show up the cracks in the system. As Churchill famously said, democracy is a terrible way of organising things; it just happens to be better than all the others. It inevitably reduces the multi-layered complexities of human opinion and belief down to a black and white tick-your-preferred-box choice.

And this is when the system is functioning as it’s supposed to. Situations like the one in the USA last year, when the person who scored three million votes more than the second placed candidate did not in fact win the contest, almost inevitably lead one to wonder in what sense the electoral college system is genuinely democratic. Meanwhile, here in the UK, we have repeatedly had the problematic situation where the slenderness of a winning majority has had no effect on the behaviour of a winning side – you may only get 52% of the vote in a referendum, but that still gives you 100% of the power to impose your interpretation of the result on the population, under the cover of the useful phrase ‘the Will of the People’.

The extent to which the Will of the People really matters is one of the issues examined by A Very British Coup, a 1988 TV drama which I was recently moved to revisit (available free-to-watch to UK residents). Rather to everyone’s surprise, it is showing every sign of becoming prescient and topical: written by Alan Plater from Chris Mullins’ novel, and directed by Mick Jackson, it opens on the day of a general election, in which former steelworker and lifelong socialist Harry Perkins (Ray McAnally) is victorious and becomes the Prime Minister of a borderline-Marxist Labour government. In addition to the nationalisation of various sectors, Perkins’ legislative programme includes open government, limiting private ownership of the media, nuclear disarmament, and the removal of US Air Force bases from British soil.

Unsurprisingly, this is met with horror by various members of the British establishment, not to mention the current American administration, and a shadowy coalition including senior figures at MI5, the head of the BBC, a Tory press baron, and members of the CIA comes together to undermine and, if necessary, topple the elected government of the UK. For the good of the country, naturally.

As I say, the series was made in 1988, and has a near-future setting (most clearly indicated by the fact that there are various references to ‘the King’) – apparently if you squint you can see tax discs for the year 1991 or 92, not that it really matters. The story was apparently inspired by persistent rumours that a military coup against Harold Wilson’s government was a very real possibility in 1974, not to mention alleged CIA involvement in an Australian constitutional crisis at around the same time.

It’s a solidly-made production, a product of that time when the scope and production values of British TV drama were becoming more cinematic, while its tone remained more theatrical. It is quite talky, and the audience is credited with some intelligence. McAnally carries the production ably, and there’s one of those interesting supporting casts made up of people on their way to a somewhat bigger time – Keith Allen plays Perkins’ press secretary, Jim Carter is the Foreign Secretary, Philip Madoc is the press baron, Tim McInnerny is a ruthless MI5 operative, and so on. (Of interest to a more niche audience – Geoffrey Beevers, Caroline John, and Jessica Carney also appear in roles of differing sizes.)

It’s a product of its time in another way, too – it’s hard to imagine anything quite so openly party-political being made by a UK broadcaster nowadays: Perkins is unmistakably the good guy throughout, with the forces against him clearly those of conservatism (with both a big and small C) and the right. The series was made while Thatcher was in power, based on a book written when it seemed distinctly possible for a hard left politician to become Prime Minister (in the early 80s, prior to the Falklands adventure, it seemed that Thatcher might lose the 1983-84 election and someone like Michael Foot or Tony Benn would take over – V for Vendetta was also originally predicated on this type of scenario). One of Thatcher’s most enduring achievements is that for many years it seemed wildly improbable that a committed socialist could ever get the job again.

And yet here we are. The series failed to foresee the fall of the Soviet Union, which inevitably colours its international outlook, and barely touches on the topic of the UK’s relationship with Europe, but to me it still feels like one with relevant things to say about the country’s situation today. Our papers are full of editorials referring to the Will of the People – or at least a particular, narrow interpretation of what that Will might be – and we see the privately-owned media united in attempts to discredit the leadership of the Labour party. ‘Partisan’ and ‘biased’ doesn’t even begin to properly describe the treatment of Jeremy Corbyn by many papers. Once again, no doubt the editors involved would say they are doing it for the good of the nation. They may even believe this themselves.

A Very British Coup takes biased press coverage as being just the first of the conspiracy’s moves against Perkins, going on to include fomenting industrial action, forged evidence of financial impropriety, and actual murder (a pro-disarmament scientific advisor is assassinated by MI5 – or so it is strongly implied). The series ends ambiguously, with another election, talk of ‘constitutional uncertainty’, and the sound of rising aircraft engines, implying that perhaps a genuine coup d’etat is in progress (again, there has already been speculation as to the likely response of the military to a Corbyn victory). Before all this, however, is a scene between Perkins and the head of MI5 where the civil servant admits that the prospect of a successful, genuinely left-wing government terrifies the establishment and those with a vested interest in the status quo, hence their determination to destroy Perkins and his government.

It’s a powerful scene and a disturbingly credible one, although still slightly theatrical. Who really runs the country? Does the Will of the People carry any real power? Or is it just the case that our elected officials are only allowed to govern within certain parameters, regardless of their popular support? If so, who has the real power, and what is it based on? In a few days there is a chance that all these questions may feel very urgent and significant indeed, and it will be interesting, to say the least, to see if any answers emerge.

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