In the last years of his life, French crime writer Jean-Patrick Manchette liked to say that the genre in which he'd made his name had grown overly insular; consequently its future, if it was to retain a political edge, lay in becoming more international in scope, something akin to espionage fiction, but with a difference. I think if Manchette were alive today he might well have pointed towards the novels of Edward Wilson as evidence of what his particular revisionism should look like.
Well-researched- no easy task when delving into the workings of the deep state- A Very British Ending is Wilson's latest in a series of novels that span the political landscape from the end WW2 to the Thatcher era. Taken together, they comprise a modern history of political events, particularly when it comes to how those events have been influenced and manipulated by the intelligence services in the UK and US. Though the title might remind readers of Chris Mullin's 1980s A Very British Coup, about the CIA's destabilisation of an anti-nuclear, populist Labour government, Wilson's book goes deeper, more expansive in its range and more biting in its politics.
More focused than Wilson's previous books, A Very British Ending contains an array of history-making personalities, from former prime minister Harold Wilson and head of MI5 Roger Hollis, both of whom were, as the novel points out, thought by some in the intelligence community and elsewhere to be Soviet agents, to art historian and Soviet spy Anthony Blunt and the CIA's poetry-loving counterintelligence chief James Jesus Angleton. Add to that an assortment of secret operations from that era, including the black propaganda psyops in Northern Ireland called Clockwork Orange and the overthrow of the Whitlam government in Australia. However, the book's primary focus is on the plot to overthrow Harold Wilson's government in the mid-1970s, and the degree to which the CIA influenced that and other matters.
An American who served as a Special Forces officer in Vietnam before settling in Britain in the early 1970s, Edward Wilson brings to his subject an outsider's perspective and some inside knowledge. His protagonist, the working-class William Catesby who rises through the ranks of a public school dominated MI6, finds his career inextricably linked to the rise and fall of Yorkshire left-winger and fellow outsider Harold Wilson. In fact, the novel is really about Catesby's growing politicalisation, as the reader follows him from the end of WW2, and the killing of a German agent, to the election of Margaret Thatcher. And the higher Catesby rises, the less he likes what he sees happening to his country.
The possibility of a coup is brought up early in the novel. Catesby and the head of the MI6, Henry Bone, are in the park opposite the home of a press baron. Bone asks Catesby how a successful coup in the UK might be accomplished. Catesby points to the home of the press baron: "[I'd] get him and others like him on the side of the coup plotters. I wouldn't do it through force of threats; I'd do it through flattery and persuasion- and also their self-interest in terms of money and gongs. I'd make the press barons feel that they were medieval barons- real players carving up and controlling Britain."
And that's pretty much how it plays out. Not that Harold Wilson's downfall was, in the real world, itself proof of a coup. Though that's what some would have us believe. Of course, there were those on the right, whether in politics, UK and US security services, the media and the military who backed and, in some cases, plotted Wilson's demise. But if a coup, that could either mean Thatcher's rise to power was a sign that such a coup was successful, or that, with the right person in power, a coup was unnecessary. However, it goes without saying that Thatcher could not have come to power without the help of the press and various Tory high-rollers. Whatever the case, Edward Wilson's episodic journey makes the reader rethink that era, even though it refuses to come down on one side or the other. As it should be, because to this day it remains a matter of smoke and mirrors, if not plots and counterplots, making conclusions next to impossible to draw. A very British ending, indeed.
Not even Catesby knows with any certainty, only that, "Life wasn't a tightly knit detective novel where there are no loose ends." But, then, that's the deep state for you. PM Wilson was, in reality, not much of a threat to the status quo. Still, whether, senility or lack of focus, he was quickly succeeded by Callahan who would go cap in hand to the IMF for a loan (something not mentioned in the novel), setting the country on the road to monetarism. This, in turn, led to the IMF's usual conditions, the "winter of discontent" and, ultimately, the election of Thatcher whose more authentic monetarism would have a long-lasting effect on the country. On the night Thatcher is elected, Catesby says, "Britain had become a different place. The genteel veneer was gone. Power had been passed on to a coterie of spivs and saloon bar bores." From that point on it would be, as the author says, a case of who pays, wins. An irrefutable charge, given that wealth has, over the years, become increasingly concentrated, banks have gone unregulated, services privatised and assets have been sold off at an alarming rate.
Likewise, when it comes to the deep state. Just look at revelations from Wikileaks and Edward Snowden, not to mention the dodgy dossier leading to war, the Murdoch press "wot won it" on various occasions, and Britain's status as a client-state, its nuclear capability more a job creation scheme than an independent deterrent. For me, A Very British Ending couldn't come at a more timely moment. Reading it, I kept thinking what role the secret service in the UK and US might play should moderate left winger Jeremy Corbyn be elected Labour leader and, who knows, even prime minister. Edward Wilson's writing might not be as wondrously tight and intricate as Le Carré's (very little writing is), or as articulate as Mick Heron's, but it's more than functional. More believable than Heron and even more political than Le Carré, A Very British Ending is a highly entertaining and important book, accurate about the past, prescient about the near-future, and Wilson's best yet. I can even picture Manchette turning- the pages, that is- in his grave.
London-based journalist and author of Pulp Culture: Hardboiled Fiction and the Cold War; Neon Noir: Contemporary American Crime Fiction; and Heartbreak and Vine: The Fate of Hardboiled Writers in Hollywood.