GBH was a television series from the eighties by Alan Bleasdale loosely based on the Militant Tendency’s period in control of Liverpool City Council. The Derek Hatton character, Michael Murray, is played by Robert Lindsay: a sublimely undemocratic socialist with a heart of gold, as seen in the line, when challenged by a councillor on council housing for blacks because “You look after your own first” — “They are our own.” The plot seems to be that his administration is hijacked by Trotskyites who want to further the revolution by faking racial violence (the ends justify the means). The hubris of Murray exposes him to their scheming. But it turns out that the hard left takeover is engineered by MI5. What’s more, their remit used to be to destabilise revolutionary socialism before it could destabilise the country, but when that came to seem unlikely because the old Marxists had lost their fire and might soon end up joining the Green party, the mission reversed direction: MI5’s agents provocateurs were to make the left play up just in order to discredit the Labour party. The real story is thus not about the virtues of traditional socialism, though Bleasdale’s nostalgia for the latter’s decency and warm beer is apparent: it is the collapse of the democratic state in the face of Thatcher’s radicalism.

This recalls another series from the period (and it is now very much a period, looking back from twenty or thirty years on): Edge of Darkness, by Troy Kennedy Martin, with Bob Peck as Ronald Craven, a policeman whose eco-warrior daughter Emma is murdered. Investigating, he uncovers murky dealings with nuclear waste stored in a disused mine. It turns out Emma’s group was actually set up by CIA agent (and flamboyant Texan) Darius Jedburgh as part of a US attempt to undermine the British nuclear industry, but it escaped his control. An inept pair of British spies apparently fight the UK corner, but the government has in any case done a deal to sell the plutonium to a private American company; there is thus no effective difference between the aims of the two sides. Still bleaker than in GBH, the UK under Thatcher is seen to be a failed state.

In subsequent treatments of the theme, the moment of shock has passed. The Men in Black are now at worst a necessary evil with a troubled conscience. State sovereignty is passé.

  1. I rewatched this recently. Interestingly, twenty years later, my attention focused less on the politics and more on the psychological drama and the parts in the holiday camp, which I had completely forgotten but now seem dated but telling. The original title of this series was “the Great British Holiday”. Come to think of it, the phrase ‘dated but telling’ sums up my feelings about a lot of the ‘cultural history within living memory’ that one is drawn (back) to at a certain age/stage in life. See also Alwyn Turner’s “Crisis? What crisis? Britain in the 1970s” and David Kynaston’s broad-sweeping magisterial series of bottom-up accounts of post-war British social history.

  2. The psychological drama is at least the equal of the politics. Bleasdale’s model might have been Schiller’s Don Carlos, where the two elements are fused at the hip. On the politics, I meant to add (but posted too soon) that the conspiracy theory that is always the motor of the plot is dramatic shorthand for the “historical forces” Hegelians and Marxists think they understand. There is never a need for a conspiracy and if it existed it would be beside the point. When such machinations are actually discovered (as with the recent scandal about sleeping policemen) they always turn out more bathos than tragedy — though I suppose one could argue that only the shockingly incompetent get caught. More to the point is the ad hominem argument that conspiracy theories are the product of paranoia and should only be taken seriously, if at all, as telling fictions — even if they should happen, exceptionally, to be true. It’s a different sort of conspiracy, but 9/11’s world-historical importance was all après la lettre, quite as its architects incoherently intended.

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