On Television

Reviving the inner anarchist

A new series shows Britain sliding into authoritarianism. Sound familiar?

This article is taken from the November issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.


Covid-19 is reanimating my inner anarchist. Long dormant as I slid (more or less) into bourgeois respectability, it is back, the works of Mikhail Bakunin in one hand and Emma Goldman
in the other. Back in my student days at Leeds University during the 1980s I was, naturally, a radical leftist.

But I was never attracted to the various Trotskyite sects: too authoritarian, sectarian, obsessed with Israel and most of all, too boring. As for the orthodox communists, well, just take a look at the Soviet Union. As Goldman noted, there’s no point having a revolution without dancing. The future, I was sure, was not the red flag but the black and red banner.

At times like this, when a hapless government of second-rate functionaries is steadily stripping away our civil liberties to almost no protest from a supine parliament, Goldman’s writings are more resonant than ever. It’s almost comforting to know that this scenario was both predictable and even predicted.

Cobra is fiction, but watched now, as the virus spikes again, there are ever louder echoes of our lives now

“The State is the altar of political freedom and, like the religious altar, it is maintained for the purpose of human sacrifice,” wrote Goldman. The sacrifice is us and our freedoms, in the greatest violation of civil liberties in Britain’s history. A heritage of liberty that reaches back more than 800 years, to the Magna Carta, through Cromwell’s republic, has been shredded in favour of government by ministerial decree. Boris Johnson, the supposed libertarian bon-vivant, has been transformed into a pale and skittery autocrat.

He has plenty of allies, on all political sides. The great and good are bursting with new ideas to confine us at home, restrict our movements, even our intake of food and drink. After the 10pm curfew on pubs and restaurants had the entirely predictable result of people piling into supermarkets to buy more booze and carry on drinking at home, Andy Burnham, the previously reasonable mayor of Manchester, called for a ban on alcohol sales after 9pm. A ban on drinking at home after 10pm is surely coming soon, followed by one on drinking at all at home, or anywhere else. At least I don’t live in Scotland.

The government has even published “guidelines” on whom we may sleep with — the criteria being an “established relationship”, whatever that means. Perhaps Boris, who has had quite a few relationships himself, both “established” and not, can enlighten us. Meanwhile, here’s a quick memo to the prime minister: other countries who have legislated sexual relationships in recent history include apartheid-era South Africa, Nazi Germany and Hungary under its wartime leader Admiral Horthy.

Emma Goldman once observed: “What a strange development of patriotism that turns a thinking man into a loyal machine.” She has an unlikely ally in Britain’s legal establishment. Lord Sumption, former Justice of the Supreme Court, wrote in the Telegraph: “There has always been a strand of political masochism in Britain which likes this idea: the sort of people who admire dictators because they make the trains run on time. From time to time there is a more widespread move towards authoritarian government. We are experiencing one of those times now.”

In Cobra too Britain is sliding into authoritarianism. This excellent six-part television drama series, named after the government’s emergency crisis committee, unfolds in the present day. The threat is not a pandemic, but something far worse in terms of its impact: a solar flare that wipes out much of Britain’s electricity supply.

Cobra is fiction, but watched now, as the virus spikes again, there are ever louder echoes of our lives now. For beyond the illness and deaths, and its economic cost, Covid is exacting another price: the breakdown of trust and the slow corrosion of belief in government and institutions. In Cobra that collapse happens rapidly and with brutal consequences.

Robert Carlyle plays Robert Sutherland, Conservative prime minister, struggling to keep control and stay in power. Riots erupt, motorways are blocked by barricades, trucks carrying supplies hijacked. A new populist movement arises, led by a charismatic ex-soldier, until he is murdered in a hit and run.

A lynch mob beats an Indian man almost to death in front of his daughter. The army is called in with predictably tragic consequences. Each episode rackets up the tension as Sutherland and his chief of staff, a female former war reporter, face ever-worse obstacles, choices and dilemmas. This is television drama as it should be: tense, gripping and involving.

Covid is also teaching us that in real life too, the veneer of civilisation is thinner than we would like to believe. Nowadays neighbours denounce neighbours, old people are left to die alone, university students are incarcerated in tower blocks by private security guards in a Ballardian nightmare of doubtful legality.

Such times call for thoughtful, dynamic, involved leaders. We are paying a high price for their absence. In the weeks leading up to the coronavirus outbreak last spring Boris Johnson skipped five Cobra meetings. Perhaps he was too involved in his own newly-established relationship. Or maybe he could not be bothered.

Either way, Cobra, the television series, is available on Now TV. Tune in, prime minister, you might learn something.

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