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Arts & Culture

Chris Mullin's Novel Projects Britain's Post-Brexit Woes


"A Very British Coup" was a sensation when it was published in 1982 and again when it's made into a TV series in 1988.


OLIVER FORD DAVIES: (As Horace Tweed) Your living room, prime minister.

RAY MCANALLY: (As Harry Perkins) Oh.

DAVIES: (As Horace Tweed) And the bedroom is this way.

MCANALLY: (As Harry Perkins) Oh. Those are my books. There's my miners lamp.

DAVIES: (As Horace Tweed) And the bathroom and dressing room.

SIMON: Harry Perkins, a very left-wing Labour MP, becomes prime minister and begins to withdraw Britain from NATO, bust up media monopolies until he's quietly opposed, then stealthily deposed by his own intelligence and security services - the British deep state. The book was written by Chris Mullin, who, by the way, would become a Labour MP. He's now returned with "The Friends of Harry Perkins," describing a Britain that is post-Perkins, post-Brexit, smaller, less majestic and feeling besieged. And the former MP for Sunderland South, Chris Mullin, joins us from London. Thanks so much for being with us.

CHRIS MULLIN: Thank you for having me, Scott.

SIMON: So your novel opens in 2025, six years after Brexit. What has Britain become, the way you see it here?

MULLIN: There hasn't been any great Armageddon of the sort that some people are predicting when we leave the EU. But there's been a long, steady decline into insularity and irrelevance. And then along comes Fred Thompson, who was a sidekick of Harry Perkins, my prime minister in the first book. And he starts rising up the greasy pole. And it becomes clear, as the book progresses, that he's a good deal more pragmatic and also that the very forces that destabilized the Harry Perkins government so many years before might possibly be on his side this time.

SIMON: Yeah. For an American admirer of British democracy, almost the most depressing part of your novel is the constant threat of xenophobic violence - the tragic assassination, outrageous assassination of Jo Cox, to whom the book is dedicated, being noted. It's depressing to think of British democracy marked by this violence.

MULLIN: Yes. One mustn't exaggerate. Hopefully, the Jo Cox murder, serious though it was, was a one-off by a lone nutter. But there's no doubt that an air of extremism, which we haven't seen in the recent past, has begun to contaminate British politics in some respect. The Brexit vote was motivated partly by a fear of foreigners - the idea taking hold in some quarters that lots of East Europeans, in particular, coming, taking jobs here. And that has also led to some - a resurgence of some very nasty forces.

SIMON: Yeah. it's interesting to me, though, because you seem to believe that if left-wing parties - at least in Britain - don't develop policies that limit immigration, they're not going to win elections.

MULLIN: I certainly think the issue has to be addressed. And I think it is a fair criticism of the political classes - not just in the U.K., but in Western Europe as a whole - that they have failed to take seriously the impact of mass migration on their electoral base. My guess - you might be seeing some of the same in the United States. Certainly, your president is trying to exploit that at the moment. By and large, most British politicians here of whatever party - most mainstream politicians - don't attempt to exploit that issue.

SIMON: Well - then in a democracy, how does a left-wing liberal party come up with a policy to limit immigration that's not against their principles?

MULLIN: Well, you have to devise a system that - a mechanism - and it's quite difficult to do - that distinguishes between those seeking political asylum because their life is threatened and those who are migrating for economic reasons.

SIMON: What about the argument that people who are migrating for economic reasons, in fact, are in fear for their lives? There may not be a specific bounty on their head, but their lives have been destroyed by war and famine and suffering.

MULLIN: Well, I certainly believe that where that is the case, we must deal humanely with them - and also that we have to help those countries construct viable social systems of their own so that people want to go on living there. But I do not believe that it's possible to cope with the scale of migration that is currently underway. You've only got to go to somewhere like Rome, and you see large numbers of Congolese trying to sell umbrellas and sunglasses. And they've been sold a false prospectus. They - the people smugglers - and there are a lot of racketeers at the back of all this - have sold them a vision of the life that awaits them that is actually false.

SIMON: From your point of view, what's the best resolution of Brexit right now?

MULLIN: Well, if I knew that, I'd probably be prime minister. My view, however, is that it will be quite different from what the public were promised. The public were given a - told a lot of misleading - in some cases, downright lies - about the future that awaited us. And they just - in my view, it ought to be put back to the public and see whether they want to depart on the terms that are available. If they do, then that's fine. We'll have to go.

SIMON: Chris Mullin, his new book "The Friends of Harry Perkins" - thank you so much for being with us.

MULLIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.