A Very British Coup

David Begg17/09/2015

David Begg: About twenty years ago a television serial entitled ‘A Very British Coup’ was screened by the BBC. It featured Ray McAnally in the role of a left wing Labour leader elected to power in a landslide General Election.

From the beginning the Labour Government was opposed overtly by the media and covertly by the civil service and business establishment. It incurred the wrath of the US President by demanding the removal of nuclear bases in Britain.

The new Prime Minister thwarted every attempt to derail his Government. This culminated in an attempt by his own Permanent Secretary to frame him on a charge of taking bribes by lodging £300,000 in his name in a bogus Swiss bank account.

Our doughty left wing hero thwarted even this by pretending to cave in, signalling that he would go on television to announce his retirement on health grounds, and then confounding the plotters by using the broadcast to expose their nefarious activities and, instead of retiring as he was supposed to, called for a General Election to put his case to the people directly.

Needless to say, Labour was heading for another resounding victory. But in the last scene on election night television coverage is interrupted to announce a statement from the Palace on the ‘Constitutional Situation’. As the credits are rolled we fade out to the ominous sound of helicopters…..

Of course this is fiction and it is superb entertainment, well worth revisiting in the current context. The drama was written by Chris Mullen, subsequently a Labour MP for many years.

On Sunday night after Jeremy Corbyn’s election as the new leader of the Labour Party was confirmed, Mullen was asked in an interview if Corbyn would ever become Prime Minister. He seemed doubtful.

For sure the initial reaction of the UK media to Corbyn is redolent of that experienced by the fictional PM but the latter at least enjoyed the support of his Parliamentary Party whereas 93 per cent of Corbyn’s party voted against him.

The election of an anti-establishment figure in Britain is consistent with a trend of opposition to austerity and disenchantment with politics all over Europe. The full implications of it may be more far reaching than people think. Certainly it raises questions, not just for Britain, but for Europe as a whole.

Analysing these conditions within a Polanyian framework suggests that they are evidence of his concept of a double movement as market fundamentalists pursue their ideal objective of a self-regulating market system, the destabilising consequences set off countervailing movements by other groups in society trying to protect themselves from exposure to unmediated market forces.

These counter movements can be conservative as well as progressive, even populist and fascist, as market destabilisations will mobilise the right no less than the left. And since the prospect of creating a self-regulating market is ultimately impossible, instability is likely i.e. a countermovement to a crisis can create another crisis.¹

The European Integration Project faces an existential challenge on many fronts at once for the first time in its 60 year history. Even before it has recovered from the currency crisis it faces an unprecedented challenge of refugees which threatens to close borders and bring an end to free movement of people, a core tenet of the Integration project. Moreover, growth for most of Europe has proved elusive and unemployment remains unacceptably high. Terrorism is also an ever present threat.
The refugee crisis in particular plays into resentment towards Europe in Britain. The early days of the Shadow Cabinet suggests some ambiguity on the part of the Labour Party towards the forthcoming Referendum.

While the shadow Foreign Secretary, Hillary Benn, has said that the party will fight to stay in Europe, the new leader has been more equivocal. Such caution is not unreasonable. Should David Cameron present the electorate with a deal allowing Britain to opt out of even more social protection directives as the price for staying in the EU then it would be difficult for anyone in the Labour movement to support the proposition.

However, with a Tory party dominated by euro-sceptics and a potentially divided Labour party who will make the case for Europe? We might yet see ‘Brexit’ by accident.

Such an outcome would undoubtly add to the atmosphere of crisis in Europe. Any one of the problems may ultimately be soluble but their cumulative effect may be bigger than the sum of their individual impacts. As ever in history we remain tied to the political doings in the other island, in this case because we have skin in the game of Europe.

Projecting forward to 2020 one assumes that Prime Minister Corbyn and President Bernie Sanders will be able to resolve defence and international relations issues in an amical way. But President Trump?? I think I hear the sound of helicopter blades……………….

1. Block, Fred and Somers, Margaret (2014) The Power of Market Fundamentalism: Karl Polanyi’s Critique. US. Harvard College.

David Begg is director of TASC

Dr David Begg

David Begg

David Begg is a former CEO of Concern Worldwide and was General Secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions between 2001 and 2015.

He has also been a director of the Central Bank (1995-2010), a governor of the Irish Times Trust, Non-Executive Director of Aer Lingus, a member of the National Economic and Social Council (NESC), and of the Advisory Board of Development Co-operation Ireland.

Begg holds a master’s degree in international relations from DCU and a PhD in sociology from Maynooth University.

He is a former director of TASC.



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