Friday, 2 July 2010

Those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first send to Sheffield

The "Yesterday" TV channel is currently repeating "A Very British Coup". The first episode, shown last night, was a striking reminder of what a great adapter Alan Plater was, in addition to his other skills as a writer of original material. Where he was clearly on the same wavelength as the original author (in this case, former Labour MP Chris Mullin, happily still with us), the resulting production was greater than the sum of its parts.

One has to check back with the book to see which of the great one-liners are Plater's and which Mullin's. It turns out that most of those put into the mouth of Harry Perkins, the third-generation steel-worker who becomes the first leader of a UK socialist government since 1950, are Plater's, but they are seamlessly in character. Plater was clearly inspired by Mullin's creation, but he also gave the supporting cast of senior civil servants the occasional wry comment. With Perkins' constituency in mind, the urbane spook Sir Peregrine (I think it was) adapts the classical proverb, "those whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad" to " ... they first send to Sheffield".

The coming to power of a member for a Sheffield constituency is not the only parallel with the present day. Mullin, writing in 1980/81, a year or two into Thatcherism, predicted the later election of a Tory/Social Democrat unity administration. (Mullin has Perkins commenting: "Serves us bloody right. We offer the electorate a choice between two Tory parties and they choose the real one".)  He also predicted the collapse and sale abroad of the majority of the British car industry - though he had Rover, rather than Rolls-Royce, going to Volkswagen.

Mullin didn't get it all right. He accelerated things, so that the events described above occur later in the decade in which he was writing. It is the Unity government which is swept away in Perkins' landslide Labour win. Perkins' economic plans are rescued from stringent IMF conditions by a loan from the Algerian, Iraqi (the Ba'athists still in charge, of course) and Libyan governments. (Plater replaces this with a consortium of banks in non-aligned countries, led by a Russian bank.) Today, if we had to go it alone, we would probably apply to the Chinese. Also, the US administration at the time of our economic crisis is the most liberal one we are ever likely to see, rather than the crypto-fascist caricature of the book.

The solution to our over-indebtedness is clearly not another loan, but an overdue unwinding of the policy of bribing the UK electorate with borrowed money. The measures taken by the coalition government are not as fair as if Liberal Democrats had formed a government alone, but the direction of travel is right and more sustainable than Mullin and Plater's idealistic vision.

All that said, Mullin's analysis of attitudes and motivations in Westminster (if not Washington) still rings true."A Very British Coup" is great entertainment, too.

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