Past months have seen a steady flow of remakes of classic British political TV series. For example, House of Cards has been adapted into a US political drama. I recently watched two homegrown efforts: the revival of Lynn and Jay’s Yes, Prime Minister and Secret State, ‘inspired by’ Chris Mullin’s A Very British Coup. Both were enjoyable. However, neither escaped the apparent common destiny of remakes to disappoint in comparison to the originals. But beyond their value as entertainment, can they tell us anything about British politics?
One way of viewing remakes is to interpret them in relation to the original. Both invite viewers to consider how British politics has changed since the 1980s when the originals were first screened. Yes, Prime Minister consciously signals its contemporary setting. Jim Hacker now leads a fractious coalition government struggling to resolve a European financial crisis and facing the prospect of a Scottish Independence referendum. Plot devices like a Paxman-esque interviewer and terrorist control orders would have also been out of place in the original.
Secret State is less recognisable to fans of the original. Its Prime Minister, Tom Dawkins, is no longer a socialist ex-steelworker from Sheffield but is a principled former soldier. The Cold War setting of the original is transposed to the ‘war on terror’. Prime Minister Dawkins orders drone strikes and conflict looms with Iran; Prime Minister Perkins removed US bases from British soil and renounced Britain’s nuclear deterrent. Where a newspaper magnate and his allies in the British state threatened in the Eighties, it is intermeshed financial and petrochemical interests that present the 21st century menace.
Spotting such differences is an enjoyable game for viewers. But when watching these two fictions I was drawn instead to what they had in common. Of course, all remakes bear some resemblance to the original they cannibalise. But the commonalities persist even when we discount them as remakes and consider each as exemplars of particular genres of political fiction, in this case a political comedy and a conspiracy thriller.
As I’ve argued elsewhere, we can read political fictions like these as ‘vernacular theories’ of British politics. They embed a series of propositions about how our political system works. Viewed in this way there are several fundamental and shared assumptions across and between both the remakes and the originals:
1. The pre-eminence of self-interest among elected representatives. Noble, but nevertheless flawed politicans like Tom Dawkins are the clear exception in these fictions. Rather, the vast majority of politicians are like Jim Hacker – self-interested, strangers to principle, desperate for re-election and primed to defend themselves against the host of rivals who circle them. Virtually any means necessary are deployed to serve these personal and partisan ends. The result is that figures such as Dawkins are destined to be outwitted and defeated.
2. The relative powerlessness of elected figures. If noble politicians are the minority, the broader class of elected representatives are in turn held hostage by unelected figures. Whether it is the civil service in Yes, Prime Minister or deep state and business interests in Secret State, elected politicians are forced to listen, and usually dance to someone else’s tune.
3. The shortcomings of British democracy. It follows from the above that the British variant of liberal democracy is presented as profoundly flawed. Éminence grises wield real power and the political system is the prisoner of vested interests. The result is that political decisions service the interests of an already privileged minority rather than those of the broader electorate.
Indeed, I’d argue that these ideas are remarkably consistent and are pre-eminent across the major British political films and TV series of the last thirty years. On that basis, while we may now be viewing a number of remakes set in a recognisable present, it seems that fundamentally we are watching the same old story.