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A frightening glimpse of how the Establishment retains its power
on 31 August 2012
I found this a very enjoyable and engaging novel. I was also intrigued to see how prophetic it was in many ways. It was written in 1982, some three years into Mrs Thatcher's first term in office, and is set in the year or so following a general election in 1989 at which the Labour party secured an unexpected landslide victory.
As the novel opens we are given the reactions of various Establishment stalwarts, including press barons, bankers, industrialists and several Civil Service mandarins, all of whom are appalled at the prospect of a genuinely socialist government assuming power. While they seethe with rage and fear we learn something of Perkins's background.
As a young man Harry Perkins had followed his father into employment in a Sheffield steel mill. Once there he became involved in the trade union movement and quickly rose through the local ranks. Spotted as a potential high flier he was awarded a union scholarship to Ruskin College in Oxford, and continued his rapid progress through the part machinery until he was selected as an MP for his home town. Following a spell as an energetic and diligent back bencher he enters what is clearly the Wilson/Callaghan Government of 1974 to 1979 (though neither of those two leaders is specifically named), eventually rising to Cabinet level with responsibility for maintaining the national grid. In this capacity, despite obstructions posed by officials in his own department, he awards a contract for a nuclear power station to British Industrial Fuels, and they duly build an installation by.
When the Conservatives return to power under Mrs Thatcher following ntheir own landslide victory in 1979 Perkins surprises everyone (perhaps including himself) by eventually becoming leader of the Labour Party. An election is called in 1989
Perkins certainly has a radical suite of policies and is eager to commence the withdrawal of the UK from NATO and the dismantling of the nuclear arsenal. He also threatens to dissolve the prevailing newspaper monopolies. As we have already read, the Establishment is appalled, and starts to fight back using its own range of weapons. Sir George Fison owns many of the most popular press titles and uses his papers to mount a concerted effort to undermine the new administration. Meanwhile the military Chiefs of Staff mobilise their own machinery, undertaking almost treasonous activities with Western Allies to circumvent the Government's planned reductions. The various Whitehall Permanent Secretaries work together to confound the administrative process wherever possible. These mandarins are steely, ruthless characters - very far from the popular perception of Sir Humphrey, but with all of his determination to have their own way.
The author, Chris Mullin, would subsequently become a Labour MP and would even serve in Government himself, though at the time that he wrote this novel he was an investigative journalist fighting high profile alleged miscarriages of justice. However, his understanding of the Whitehall machinery is very clear, and he paints a very plausible picture of the relationship between Ministers and senior officials. The novel is always entirely credible, and often very humorous.
The novel is also rather alarming as it displays the relative ease with which the combined forces of the banks, the press and senior officialdom can confound the aims of government, regardless of the size of the electoral mandate. One thinks of the persistent rumours, fuelled by memoirs from the likes of Peter Wright, of concerted campaigns by the intelligence community to undermine the Wilson government in the 1970s.