"A Very British Coup" was conceived in the first week of October, 1980. I was on a train returning from the Labour Party conference at Blackpool with Stuart Holland, recently elected MP for Lambeth Vauxhall and Tony Banks and Peter Hain, both of whom subsequently became MPs. We were discussing how the Establishment would react to a left-wing Labour government.
In those far-off days the proposition was not as fanciful as it now seems. Mrs. Thatcher was in office, but had yet to consolidate her grip on power. Labour was high in the opinion polls and there was a real possibility that, come the election, the Labour Party would be led by Tony Benn. The right-wing press was working itself into a frenzy at the prospect. 'No longer if, but when,' screamed the headline in one of the Harmsworth newspapers over a full-page picture of Mr. Benn. To cap it all, the announcement that the Americans were planning in install Cruise missiles in their British bases had given the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament a new lease of life.
'A good subject for a novel,' said one of my companions - prompting Peter Hain to reveal that he and a friend were in the process of circulating to publishers an outline for just such a novel. Stuart Holland went one better. He revealed that during the summer, by the swimming pool in Greece, he had tapped out the opening chapters of his novel on the same subject.
In the event it was I who got there first, but it was a close-run thing. Years later Peter Hardiman Scott, former chief political correspondent of the BBC, told me that when "A Very British Coup" was published he was two-thirds of the way through writing a novel based on a similar premise. His was so uncannily similar to mine that, after consulting his publisher, he decided to abandon his effort. How lucky I was. It could so easily have been I who was piped at the post.
"A Very British Coup" was published in the autumn of 1982, by which time the climate was even more propitious. Prompted by the imminent arrival of Cruise missiles, CND demonstrations were attracting crowds in excess of 200,000. The Establishment was getting so twitchy that, as we later learned, Michael Heseltine had set up a special unit in the Ministry of Defence to counter the impact of CND.
The Americans were getting twitchy too. A few days after Michael Foot was elected Labour leader, I received an invitation to lunch with a man from the US embassy, and we duly met at Bumbles in Buckingham Palace Road. It turned out that this American was an attaché who job it was to monitor the Labour Party. What, he wanted to know, would a government headed by Michael Foot do about the US bases? Later, soon after "A Very British Coup" was published, I received another interesting invitation. By this time I was editor of the political weekly 'Tribune', and we were selling the book by mail order through the paper. A few days after the first advert appeared we were intrigued to receive an order from the American embassy. We duly dispatched a copy of the hardback and waited to see what would happen next. We did not have long to wait. An invitation arrived from the Minister, the most important man at the embassy after the ambassador. He even sent his bullet-proof Cadillac to 'Tribune's modest headquarters in Gray's Inn Road to convey me to his mansion in Kensington.
At first I had assumed that I was one of a number of guests, but no: there was just the Minister, two of his colleagues, an Asian butler and myself.
'Why are you interested in a minnow like me?" I asked. 'I reckon', he drawled, 'that you are among the top 1,000 opinion formers in this country.' 'Well, I must be about number 999.' 'The other 999 have been here, too.'
A year or two later I received from an anonymous source an envelope posted in Brussels. It contained an internal State Department memorandum addressed to US diplomats in London listing a number of questions they were to put to 'authorised contacts' regarding the balance of power within the Labour Party and opinion regarding the US bases in general and the impending arrival of Cruise missiles in particular - the very issues on which I had been sounded out at my two free lunches with the Americans. A number of my friends received similar invitations at around the same time. Although in retrospect we can see they had no cause for concern, there is no doubt that for a time alarm bells were ringing in Washington.
At the time of publication "A Very British Coup" attracted a mild flurry of interest. It was helpfully denounced in the correspondence columns of 'The Times', and as a result sales at Hatchards of Piccadilly almost matched those at the left-wing bookshop Collets. (Since that time I have realised that, when it comes to selling books, a good high-profile denunciation is worth half a dozen friendly reviews and I have always done my best to organise one.) The first hard-back print-run quickly sold out and a modest paperback print followed. Thereafter "A Very British Coup" might have died but for events conspiring to make it topical.
In August 1985 the 'Observer' revealed that an MI5 officer, Brigadier Ronnie Stoneham, was to be found in room 105 at Broadcasting House. His job? To vet applicants for employment or promotion at the BBC and to stamp upturned Christmas trees on the personnel files of those he deemed unsuitable. Students of "A Very British Coup" will know that my head of MI5, Sir Peregrine Craddock, was also vetting BBC employees. What's more, he had a spy on the general council of CND - and in due course an MI5 defector, Cathy Massiter, revealed that there had indeed been such a spy. His name was Harry Newton. Finally in 1987 Peter Wright, a retired MI5 officer, caused a sensation with his claim that a group of MI5 officers, of whom he was one, had plotted to undermine the Wilson government. Suddenly the possibility that the British Establishment might conspire with its friends across the Atlantic to destabilise the elected government could no longer be dismissed as left-wing paranoia.
In 1988 Channel Four broadcast a television series based on the novel. My prime minister Harry Perkins was brought to life by that wonderful actor Ray McAnally, who tragically died not long afterwards. Alan Plater wrote the screenplay. Ann Skinner and Sally Hibbin produced. Mick Jackson directed. I am deeply grateful to all of them for the success they made of it.