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5 June 2019updated 04 Sep 2021 4:28pm

Chris Mullin: “I see Britain’s slow decline into irrelevance”

By Patrick Maguire

For more than 30 years, Chris Mullin quite fancied the idea of writing a sequel to A Very British Coup, his 1982 novel that imagined the rise and fall of Harry Perkins, a Sheffield steelworker swept to Downing Street on a left wing manifesto so radical that the establishment conspired to sweep him out again. Published at the height of the Cold War and with Tony Benn struggling for control of the Labour Party, the book captured the cultural moment. (It was adapted as a Channel 4 miniseries in 1988 starring Ray McAnally.) Its wilder tableaux – a spy on the board of CND, an MI5 vetting unit at the BBC – turned out to be true. It has never been out of print, and now, in the age of Jeremy Corbyn, seems prescient.

Much has changed in the four decades since, not least Mullin. Back then, he was the Bennite editor of Tribune, the left-wing weekly. Having spent much of the 1980s campaigning for justice for the Birmingham Six – the Irishmen wrongly convicted in 1976 of an IRA mass murder – his book Error of Judgement (1986) demolished the prosecution case and ultimately secured the men’s freedom. Mullin was Labour MP for Sunderland South from 1987 to 2010, and he ended up as a minister in the Blair government, run by the sort of unapologetic modernisers he mercilessly satirised as turncoats in A Very British Coup.

He began writing a follow-up to the novel but, as he told me when we met for coffee one recent morning, he “hit a wall”. “Then Brexit came along. A path seemed clear thereafter.” The result was The Friends of Harry Perkins (Scribner), a slim novel dedicated to the memory of Jo Cox, the Labour MP murdered by a far-right extremist during the EU referendum campaign in 2016. An ugly strain of English nationalism is on the rise in the grim Britain portrayed in the novel, which traces the path to power taken by Fred Thompson, known to readers of the original as Perkins’s hard-nosed spinner. It’s an enjoyable book, if occasionally a little cartoonish in its moralism and confusing in its chronology. (It is set in 2025 or thereabouts, but the characters of the original are still on the scene.)

The story begins with the death of Perkins, a broken man who ended up haunting the back benches. He is eulogised by his old adversaries in the establishment and right-wing press. Would a future Prime Minister Corbyn be remembered similarly?

“I don’t want to look forward to Jeremy’s demise, which I hope will be a very long way off,” Mullin says, with a laugh. He is not close to Corbyn – personally or politically – but knows and likes him. “I deeply resent the fact that he’s been smeared as some sort of racist. But I’m not a Corbynista. I didn’t vote for him in the leadership election.”

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Fred Thompson is cut from similar cloth. He returns to politics from exile on a Hebridean croft and becomes an MP. Mentored by a left-wing dining club that meets in private rooms in Soho, he rises to the Labour leadership. The party has lost five general elections and the UK, now out of the EU, is in a bad place.

“I do foresee a long, slow decline into insularity and irrelevance,” says Mullin, who happily describes himself as a pessimist. His novel imagines Britain losing its seat on the UN Security Council and Nissan moving production from Mullin’s old constituency to the Czech Republic. The United States is too preoccupied with war against China to meddle in UK politics, as it did in the original novel.

Against this bleak backdrop, Fred Thompson takes a more pragmatic course than the uncompromising Perkins. In this respect, Mullin says, he is like his protagonist. Unlike other veterans of the Bennite left, he describes Tony Blair as the outstanding Labour leader of his lifetime.

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In the new novel, Thompson urges Labour to abandon its “cherished shibboleths”, as Blair once did, and proposes that Britain rejoins the EU. More striking is the establishment’s response: terrified by Brexit, those who sought to depose Perkins aid the rise of his successor.

Today, Mullin cannot imagine securocrats felling a Corbyn government. “MI5 has changed completely, they have other things to worry about: Islamist terror and so forth… The Americans don’t see us any longer as their aircraft carrier in Europe. I don’t think there’ll be an attempt to overthrow a Corbyn government. But there’ll be many attempts, mainly media-led, to destabilise it.”

The bigger problem for Labour will be winning power. “The tricky thing for Jeremy is that he isn’t going to win by a landslide if he wins.” And Mullin’s prescription is positively Blairite. “Corbyn will have to tack towards the centre. I think [John] McDonnell, who’s very intelligent, recognises that.”

Would his own pragmatism hold if he were still an MP in Brexit-backing Sunderland? “I know what my position would be: that we were sold a false prospectus, and that we should have another referendum. But I’m not under any illusion: I think they would still vote the same way.”

Mullin deals in uncomfortable truths. His refusal to name the living suspects at the inquests into the Birmingham pub bombings this year led to his being abused outside the courtroom as “scum” and a “disgrace”. “As a journalist, I depended on the co-operation of not only guilty, but innocent intermediaries, on the very clear understanding that I would not reveal my sources,” he told me. “It would be very convenient if I could shout the remaining name from the rooftops,” he added, plaintively. “But I can’t.”

This article appears in the 05 Jun 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump alliance