Culture / Politics

Novelist MPs #1: Robert Kilroy-Silk


Robert Kilroy-Silk
The Ceremony of Innocence (Enigma, 1983)

If this had been published as a paperback by the New English Library, and had appeared under a pseudonym, I’d be praising it as a prime piece of political pulp. So let’s ignore the fact that it was actually written by an ambitious young Labour MP (and would-be UKIP leader), and try to give it a fair reading…

We’re in 1984 and Britain is uneasy. There’s mass unemployment and street protests are turning into riots. The police are calling for the creation of a national riot squad, equipped with CS gas, water cannon and plastic bullets, particularly after three officers are shot dead in Slough. Meanwhile, deep behind the scenes, the security services are lobbying for MI5 to take over Special Branch, creating a new unit with much greater secret powers. In pursuit of their aims, they’re busily infiltrating agents provocateurs into demonstrations, armed with grenades.

There’s a serious threat that we’re heading towards a police state. The only obstacle is William Barnes, an idealistic young Labour MP, together with whichever of his colleagues he can rally to the cause. Not that there are many, given ‘the general indifference in the party to so-called civil liberty issues’.

And so a ragtag trio of troublemaking MPs pitch themselves against the power of the secret state. They stand no chance, of course, and they’re variously blackmailed, bought or intimidated into silence. And the resistance fizzles out.

The second half of the book is set in 2020, when the dystopian process of state control has reached fruition. The Conservative home secretary from Part One is now the prime minister (at the slightly implausible age of seventy-six), heading a coalition that includes the SDP. Trade unions have become an annex of the government, and strikes, marches and demonstrations are entirely illegal. Those who show any sign of dissent have their identity cards stamped NFESB – ‘not for employment or state benefits’ – and sent to Re-Establishment Centres that are part-prison, part-workhouse.

The formalities of parliamentary democracy survive, but in this quasi-fascist surveillance state even the prime minister has no authority over MI5 and knows that his every move, every word is being monitored by them: ‘He was also a prisoner.’ On the other hand, football survives, and there are live sex shows that encourage audience participation. So, swings and roundabouts, then.

If there’s hope, it’s going to come from the one group that still retains a sense of militancy: ‘The whites were always the same. They would complain alright, especially when their own interests were affected, but they would not fight. Only the blacks fought.’

Oh, and maybe there’s a flicker of hope in the form of Jane Barnes, daughter of the Labour MP who tried to stop the nightmare becoming reality. She may not have much support, but then ‘it had always been the few, the very few, that had defended liberty. It had been Sir Thomas More, not the Church; Milton, not the people; Mill, not the trade unions; Orwell, not the Labour Party’.


Obviously, this being Kilroy-Silk, the temptation is to mock. One might, for example, point to his descriptions of women. We get to meet both William Barnes’s secretary, who has ‘small breasts’, and his wife, who has ‘large breasts’, while the home secretary has a young mistress with ‘firm breasts’. Later on, however, a hint of self-awareness creeps in: Jane Barnes notices that the man she’s talking to ‘was looking not at her face but at her breasts. It was a way of showing disdain.’ (Would it be churlish to mention that in the latter case, the man is black and the woman is white?)

As a vision of 2020 (i.e. now, as I write), it’s not overly impressive. Video-phones exist, and computers give state officials access to vast databases on citizens, but that’s about as far as we seem to have got in thirty-six years. Computing doesn’t seem to have reached people’s homes. Indeed, the rebels communicate via pigeon post.

But this is all okay. The book’s not pretending to be science fiction. It’s just a decent pot-boiler of a thriller: pacey and very readable. There’s a slightly showy display of parliamentary geography and procedure, but apart from that bit of insider knowledge, it’s a novel that could have been written by a decent hack: if it had the name of, say, Walter Harris attached, you wouldn’t query it. It’s fun, but not very substantial, and not really very convincing. (Where are the judiciary in all this? Entirely absent.)

Certainly it wasn’t going to rival the impact of A Very British Coup, by Kilroy’s fellow Labour MP Chris Mullin, which had come out the previous year. But the success of that book maybe prompted this publication. Kilroy-Silk said that his novel dated back to 1979, and perhaps it took Mullin to convince publishers that there was a market for leftie political thrillers.

Presumably, however, there were some revisions in 1983; otherwise that SDP reference is positively Nostradamic. Likewise the one mention of Margaret Thatcher feels like an addition: she ‘had filled the House of Commons with the most insensitive elements in the Conservative Party – smooth cocksure estate agents and wily accountants’.

Nor does Kilroy-Silk have much time for politicians generally. ‘The majority are arse-lickers, creeps, crawlers, time-servers, toadies, careerists – shits,’ is one MP’s description of his parliamentary colleagues. Maybe that is insider knowledge…

The title, incidentally, is from W.B. Yeats’s most over-quoted poem ‘The Second Coming’:

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned.

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