Last night, I watched my all-time favorite film, the 1988 TV adaptation of Christopher Mullin’s novel A Very British Coup
. It was probably the fourth or fifth time I’ve seen it, and it never ceases to both inspire and depress me. The film asks the simple question: what would happen if a socialist were elected Prime Minister of Britain? Not a mere tinkerer, mind you, but a best-of-all-possible-worlds democratic socialist who intended to fundamentally change the national and international power structure.
Well, all hell breaks loose, of course, but in a bloodless, often very polite and “Very British” sort of way. The film sees the CIA, a right wing Media mogul and the permanent, conservative civil service establishment conspiring to bring down the government. It is a first-rate political thriller, probably my favorite film genre.
Four things intrigue me about this film, which now seems somewhat datedly Cold War in its politics. The first is that Harry Perkins, the fictional Labour Prime Minister around which the story revolves, is a wonderful spokesman for the ideas and values that are closest to my heart. Imagine Jed Bartlet as a third generation steelworker speaking simple, radical truths and promoting an agenda that includes worker participation and returning utilities and railways “to the people.” His one-liners alone make this a priceless film. When asked if he would abolish First Class on British trains, he replies: “No, we’re going to abolish Third Class. I think all Britons are First Class, don’t you?”
The second great thing about this film is that it is a reminder of what was lost in the Thatcher-Reagan revolution that shifted all politics so startlingly to the right. Perkins’ policies, a social compact with trade unions, beefing up the welfare state and pursuing unilateral nuclear disarmament were all official Labour Party policies in the 1980’s. Before Blair, Labour took the question of socialism, of real social transformation seriously. Of course there were problems with the heavily statist conception of socialism which gripped European social democracy at the time, but at least issues of justice and equality were on the table. Mainstream politicians spoke openly about addressing the system of privilege and powerlessness at its roots. Today, socialist politics of that sort is dead. We’ve all more or less conceded to Margaret Thatcher’s dictum that “there is no alternative”. In 2005, social democracy is about doing good rather than bad, about helping rather than hurting. We’ve lost the overarching vision and long-term strategies which used to guide our politics. It’s a shame.
Thirdly, the film always gets my mind wondering about what a progressive American presidency would look like. The closest thing we have to such a flight of fantasy is NBC’s West Wing. Most of my lefty Democrat friends who are obsessed with that show (I include myself among them) confess that what draws them in is the make-believe world in which we are led by an intelligent, liberal president. However, while Bartlet is relatively liberal most of the time, but he’s not out to overturn the apple cart and so it’s not quite the same. Alarmingly, even that show, which is so careful to root it’s storylines in the real world sometimes seems like so much Hollywood unreality in today’s Arctic political climate. We probably wouldn’t believe a show that centered around a truly progressive president. It may be more believable in a British accent, since the UK has a socialist tradition which runs through the mainstream in a way that ours does not. But even if one were to translate it into American, and the show centered around a populist progressive, a Wellstone or a Kennedy say it would just seem…well, unbelievable.
Why? Perhaps its because there’s already been a coup in our country. A Very American Coup. After all, the same forces which lined up to take Harry Perkins down in last night’s movie have lined up to keep such a politician from ever emerging on a national level here in the United States. Our establishment got a little bruised back in the postwar era of sanity and good governance, but they’ve come back with a vengeance. Our crowd is a bit more corporate and a bit less Oxford than Britain’s, but in essence it’s the same type of folks doing the same type of things. Our highly concentrated media exoticizes and isolates progressive ideas, our economic power-brokers call the shots in the Capitol, money dictates who and what appears on the ballot, and we live in a state of perpetual war with a foreign enemy. All of this adds up to keeping real progress on disarmament, welfare, election reform, worker’s rights and corporate regulation out of the discussion. For any Democrat to make it out of the gates, she must declare herself docile on all those important questions. What makes this process so distinctly American is that it’s not done behind closed doors or over tea and biscuits. It’s all out in the open, with the willing and eager participation of millions. In the name of Freedom, we have clamped down on civil liberties. In the name of Equality, we have ceded policy-making to corporate boards. In the name of the American Dream, we have abandoned our commitment to the poor.
And this brings me to the final thing that I love about A Very British Coup. All the while the embattled Labour administration is being hit with cooked-up scandals and treasonous shenanigans, Perkins never wavers in his belief in democracy. “This is democracy, comrades” he quips, “ dictatorship is a lot faster, but too many people get shot.” Here in America, things are looking grim indeed, especially when it seems that at a sizable chunk of the population is more concerned with gay marriage than their children’s futures. However, the only way to really win, to really beat back the folks who have taken over our country and turned it inside-out, is by winning the people over. We may lose at this difficult venture, but it is our only hope. They can fool people and scare people, but they only bother to do so because they know that the will of the people is a powerful force. We can’t lose sight of that, of our fundamental commitment to democracy as both an ends and a means. We can’t give in to cynicism or arrogance about “those people in the red states.” They are, in fact, our only hope for taking this country back. As Harry Perkins says, “the will of the people is sacred.”