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IN CHRIS MULLIN’S televised 1982 novel A Very British Coup, Harry Perkins — played by an entirely convincing Ray McNally — is a left-wing Sheffield MP.
Set in the last decades of the 20th century the story has Perkins becoming prime minister and breaking with all Labour tradition by implementing a progressive programme.
Inevitably dismantling media monopolies, nuclear disarmament, withdrawing from Nato and measures to change the balance of class power galvanise the ruling class to plan his downfall.
The book is very good, the TV series equally compelling if different in its ambiguous ending in which Perkins turns the tables on the shadowy secret state, which sexed up a scandal to force his resignation by agreeing to make a televised resignation speech. Instead of surrender he turns the tables on the conspirators to reveal the outlines of the creeping coup.
In the service of Chris Mullin’s didactic purpose we are left hanging in suspense and have to work out for ourselves what happens next. Now decades later we may see the denouement played out in real life.
The original text is now understood in the aftermath of the defeat of the Great Miners’ Strike with the contours of class division made bare by the deindustrialisation of Britain and by Thatcher’s naked display of class and state power.
It reveals the strategic planning with which our ruling class anticipates challenges to its claim to power.
But in its original conception it drew on the left-wing surge which saw Tony Benn come within a whisker of winning Labour’s deputy leadership.
The contrast with the present incumbent of that office shows just how wide the gulf in Labour remains and what reserves our ruling class can draw upon in extremis.
A left-led Labour government is more of a realistic possibility today than it was then. The years of New Labour’s imperial wars and the experience of Tory/Lib Dem austerity have created an electorate increasingly disillusioned by neoliberalism and a new generation, steeled by austerity and suspicious of established authority, has entered politics.
If Jeremy Corbyn has an episode in his earlier life sufficiently scandalous to precipitate a credible coup it must be buried deep. There is barely a bean shoot in his allotment which hasn’t been dug up in the search for a stick to beat him with.
The operation to constrain a future Labour government began the moment Corbyn’s election as Labour leader looked likely and has increased in intensity the more his command over Labour opinion has strengthened.
It is wearisome to number the complete compendium but the three latest — the over-exaggerated anti-semitism slander; the second referendum bid to overturn Labour conference policy and the sotto voce campaign to suggest that Corbyn is not bright enough for the job of premier — are all designed to soften up Labour supporters.
In all three cases the very scale of the assault, while effective among the wider electorate, has the perverse effect of steeling Labour opinion.
Corbyn’s unflashy emotional intelligence trumps the narcissistic arrogance of expensively tutored bourgeois politicos and Labour’s practical policies are playing immeasurably better among electors than do the polished evasions of Oxford PPEs.
Survey data shows, on the day last weekend when the middle class marched for neoliberalism, that just 35 per cent want the only kind of EU membership on offer while 50 per cent want a Brexit of any kind.
This shows that a substantial chunk of Remain opinion sees a second referendum as both an assault on democracy and a gratuitous encouragement to further division.
And as the anti-semitism assault has taken on even more deluded dimensions it has lost credibility not only among growing sections of Jewish opinion but also among Labour supporters who know from their own direct lived experience that antipathy to Jews has but a marginal purchase on the labour movement.
John McDonnell has warned that this is but a taster for what the monopoly media have in store for us but, be sure, the arsenal of weapons available to a bourgeoisie frightened out of its ruling class complacency by prospects of a proper Labour government is not limited to mendacious words.
Even though the Daily Telegraph can always find retired brigadiers and pensioned-off spooks to splutter about the loyalty they owe to the Crown rather than a supposedly sovereign Parliament military manoeuvres are not the first resort of our rulers.
They have learned subtlety since two centuries ago when the sons of Manchester’s propertied classes put their local proletariat to the sabre in the Peterloo massacre.
Their power emanates from ownership of the overwhelming bulk of Britain’s historically accumulated and constantly enlarged wealth, in the ideological force that command of the media and education system gives them and in the day-to-day functioning of the entire state.
The Civil Service, because of the roles of the cabinet office and the Treasury in shaping the priorities of all levels of government, is the administrative arm of ruling class power. Both theory and experience show us that refashioning the state apparatus is not simply a matter of ministerial decision making.
It requires a root and branch reorganisation. All experience shows that without far-reaching changes at the top and the promotion of the many capable public servants loyal to democracy and stiffened by people loyal to the working class and drawn from working-class organisations, change will be slow.
The top echelons of the Civil Service have been reshaped to mirror even more closely the world of elite banking and transnational corporations with a revolving door of top personnel moving from big business and banking to top Civil Service jobs and back again.
We should not suppose that this is much of a change. The top Civil Service has always been staffed by people drawn from a very privileged social strata and the much vaunted public service ethos which it traditionally presented to a critical outside world allowed only for solutions to problems which could be accommodated within a tightly managed system of orthodox bourgeois economic theory and class collaboration.
But the way the state is run today arises from the centring of the economy around the City, runaway financialisation and the importance for profits and revenue streams that privatising public services, transport and utilities provides. Along with this we have a new vocabulary that reflects the shift from policy advice and formulation to a more muscular “delivery” ethos which stresses efficiency savings, means-testing rather than universal provision and a “consumer choice” language which mimics the play of market forces in the internal organisation of public services.
The toxic interplay of big business-funded think tanks and extreme neoliberal pressure groups — which find a willing reception from ministers and their corps of advisers — has shaped a new orthodoxy.
Labour faces real problems in overcoming the media-conditioned mist of misunderstanding about fiscal policy and public finances. While most people’s understanding of the case against austerity economics is based on their direct experience of its effects and they grasp with great clarity the need for an equitable taxation regime which would make the rich pay they also understand that in a modern economy global pressures are unavoidable. Autarky is no defence against capitalist anarchy.
How far a left-led Labour government is able to devise an economic strategy which delivers real and immediate benefits to working Britain without allowing the armoury of destabilising measures available to our ruling class and its global allies to be deployed depends on raising the level of political understanding and class consciousness.
The basic building block of an alternative economic strategy is the power to direct the state’s central bank. This is central to any strategic plan to direct investment into the productive economy. How these aims can be reconciled with any accommodation reached with the EU will be a key factor in defining what is possible for a Labour government without a more profound challenge to the basis of capitalist ownership and all that entails in rooting out our ruling elite.
This is a very powerful caste of public officials with a critical presence at the heart of government irrespective of which party is nominally in charge. Jonathan Powell was on TV on Monday calling for a change of policy and prime minister. Son of an air vice-marshal he was Blair’s chief of staff, then joined Morgan Stanley as an investment banker while later Cameron made him special envoy during the imperialist carve-up of Libya.
Big brother Charles, Baron of Bayswater, is a busy boy. Diplomat turned businessman he was private secretary to both Margaret Thatcher and John Major.
His business connections include Jardine Matheson Holdings Ltd, LVMH Moet-Hennessy Louis Vuitton, Caterpillar Inc, Textron Corporation, Mandarin Oriental International Ltd, Hongkong Land Ltd and Schindler Holding Ltd, Rolls-Royce, Barrick Gold, Chubb Insurance and Thales and BAE Systems. None of these are minimum wage jobs.
This network is replicated across every government department, envelopes the legal system and the judiciary, staffs the top levels of the media and most especially the BBC, includes all branches of the armed forces and the security services.
It is a formidable machine able to call upon well-educated people of great ability and intelligence as well as all the resources which the banks and big business have at their disposal.
Its distinctive character today is a combination of deeply reactionary neoliberal economic thinking with socially liberal attitudes.
But when confronted by an existential challenge capital rarely hesitates to mobilise the full spectrum of reactionary forces it has available. We should not anticipate that opposition to a radical Labour government will be expressed exclusively in Parliament or framed in polite language.
Doorstepped by a predictably hostile journalist who asks him if Labour intends to abolish first class travel on the railways Harry Perkins ripostes: “Nay lad, just second class.”
Our rulers fear not just the loss of privileged travel but the end of all privileges based on private ownership. This makes them a ruthless enemy.
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