"The state must certainly look after the poor and the sick... but general state charity, as the Labourites understand it, not only weakens the national economy, but degrades the recipient. The entire system of state aid and assistance must be de-socialised, and stripped of waste and inefficiency."
I know the Tories in the Coalition won't quarrel with that! Looking around me, I felt that the whole country is beginning to warm to the Leader's strength and positive approach, especially the women, who also admire his faultless sense of showmanship... the man has something.
Originally published in 1965 under the title The Lost Diaries of Albert Smith, Robert Muller's disturbing story of the rise of fascism in the UK was reprinted by Penguin as After All, This is England in 1968. This appears to have been its only paperback imprint, and the book has faded from memory over the years, partly because it has remained out of print, and partly because those reading it in the 1960s, an era of entrenched social democracy in Britain, must have considered its contents far-fetched, if not perverse. Unlike Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, Muller's book does not offer us a recognisable future from which we can draw pertinent but distant warnings; instead it offers an uncomfortable take on a persistent present; that of constant dissatisfaction with the way things are; and a yearning for the way they could be... if only.
Albert Smith is not an impressive man. He manages a small hardware store which once belonged to his father but which has since been bought out by a chain - Smith was retained as manager only because it seemed proper to do such things in post-war Britain. His wife is active in amateur dramatics and he suspects her of affairs with her fellow thespians, whom he regards as typical of the malais affecting the country. He has a small daughter, on whom he dotes. His son is a leftist hippy, much to his horror (Smith is very much a Conservative); they do not get on, and Smith has suspicions about his son's sexuality; the reverse is also true. Smith has a little problem - he likes to spy on couples who make love in their cars at a local beauty spot. He visits a psychiatrist to deal with his voyeurism, who suggests he keep a daily diary - the book is made up of the five diaries of Smith, each punctuated by an important or a terrible event, and each with explanatory notes from a mysterious future 'editor'.
The first diary is fairly innocuous - it details Smith's unhappiness with his life, his marriage, with the Labour government, and it sets out his analysis of the decay which he feels has entered Britain and its people. He harks back to the Empire quite fondly, recalls how things were done differently and properly by another calibre of men. He favours strong leadership and discipline. Youth must be set to work; immigrants must be sent home; all lives should be subjugated to the higher calling of the nation. It does not occur to Smith that dealing with his small dissatisfactions in the way he wants would require radical departures from the freedoms that allow him to keep a dissident diary in the first place (one of his later diaries is indeed confiscated). Nothing typifies Smith's dissatisfaction as much as his outrage over a local street sign which reads Cosley, Drive and about which he writes repeatly to the council - the misplaced comma represents everything wrong with the country. The first diary also tells of the forming of a new right-wing political party led by an ex-Conservative (Crossmere) and an ex-soldier (Hearn) - the British Action Party, which Smith promptly joins.
The second diary details the fall of the Labour government and the election of a coalition, part Conservative, part BAP. It also details the beginnings of a terrorist campaign across the country, which sees the coalition roll back civil liberties in the name of security. Smith becomes active in the local branch of the BAP as secretary and is drawn into the persecution of local minorities, for which he arrested and sent for trial. The Party suspends his membership with a nod and a wink, intimating that they'll see him right when he is released. There is a break while Smith serves his sentence and the third diary picks up his life upon release. He is, largely, ruined. His wife has left him, his son has gone abroad where he has become a sex worker, he has lost his job - yet rather than look to his radicalisation for some clue as to how he has fallen so far so fast, Smith clings to the same notions of strength, discipline and leadership - there must be more of it, not less, and it must be imposed. He throws himself back into the Party. But the Party has changed too. It is no longer a meeting point for those who feel a vague sense of dissatisfaction with modern Britain - it is now a slickly oiled political machine with a hierarchy of activists and a covert hand in the terrorism engulfing the country, something Smith, of course, refuses to believe, despite the mounting evidence. The third diary ends in absolute tragedy, as the coalition is dissolved and the BAP takes virtual control of country - in the ensuing street celebrations, Smith's four-year old daughter is killed by accident.
The fourth diary is a high-octane version of the third. Smith is drawn further into Party intrigue and adopts extreme positions to impress his ideological zeal on his superiors. He develops something of a martyr complex, having served time on behalf of the party, as he sees it; he approves of the ghettoes into which immigrants and minorities are now herded. He applauds when Hearn ousts Crossmere into exile and takes over the government, abolishing elections in the process. These are all sacrifices for the good of the country, and no-one has sacrificed more than Smith - his liberty, his employment, his daughter... when he receives an offer to attend a top-secret Party training course on the final solution to undesirables, he is delighted to accept. The fifth diary then picks up Smith after the six-month course - implacable, somewhat dehumanised, ready to do his duty, whatever it takes. An extermination camp is established on the beauty spot where Smith formerly spied on lovers and he is appointed camp administrator. Here he is witness to sights that do not seem to take him by surprise, despite their horror; it is not that he has been trained for it - it is that Smith's own pernicious view of human nature has reached its extreme end-point. He expected this, but he also expected it to be different, and he views all with severe dissatisfaction - the killing is chaotic and artibrary, not the orderly process Smith imagined - there is too much corruption and pettiness in the selection, as he finds for himself when he has a former employee of his, a young crippled girl, interned in the camp to act out his personal fantasies. He finds his Party colleagues to be too cruel, too corrupt, and altogether too zealous in their duties. He finds human fallibility at the camp to be every bit as infuriating as the moral failings of the young couples he once spied upon in the same place. In the words of the time - everything has changed and everything is the same. When the end comes for Smith he finds himself turning not to the Leader or the Party for strength, as he has all along, but instead turning to the crippled girl for comfort... meanwhile the comma between Cosley and Drive remains, sure as coastline.
Muller's narrative mirrors the progress of the country towards fascism through the events in Smith's life - the analogies are apt, if perhaps a little predictable; for example, Smith's young daughter dying on the eve of the Party ascending to power. The familiar political refrains of 'strong leadership' and 'law and order' and 'common sense' rattle through the text disturbingly. These simple-minded concepts are timeless political old-rope, and are always guaranteed to appeal to those who believe human nature can be changed through imposed discipline - in this case, a discipline rooted in tradition and self-reliance. Smith always 'knows better' when it comes to young people, immigrants and Union officials, just as he always 'knows his place' when it comes to Party members and the gentry. The fact that he can look both ways makes him a very desirable demographic for politicians who will campaign for his vanity and legislate for his prejudice. If Smith is to be believed, Britain expects... Britain expects a politician who is a strong leader, who will stand up for traditional values, who will cherish her imperial past, who will revive the Commonwealth, who will take us out of Europe, who will reform the welfare so it cannot be abused by scroungers and shirkers, who will reward those who want to work hard and get on, who will stem the tide of foreigners to our shores...
The book's problem is a too-close analogy to the rise of Nazism in Germany. Hearn is obviously Hitler; Crossmere is obviously Von Papen; the BAP with its banners and rallies is obviously the Nazi Party. At no point does Smith seek to draw a comparison between what is happening in Britain and what happened in Germany - it is a fatal weak spot because this is not an alternate history in which Nazism did not happen - Smith himself was something in stores during the Second World War, and a Party member of his acquaintance collects Nazi memorabilia. But even when Smith is arranging disposal of bodies at the camp, he seems curiously ignorant of historical context. There is only one possible explanation for this - the mysterious future editor who is presenting Smith's diaries for publication. This editor insists the diaries have not been redacted but, given his identity, or his origin, which is revealed at the end, we can only wonder if the historical context has been removed for political purposes.
Muller was an interesting writer, a German who settled in England after the war, and who doesn't really get the attention he deserves for the contribution he made to British cultural life; apart from this novel (and several others) he was very active on British television, penning several series, including Supernatural for the BBC in 1978, a rather splendid anthology of horror stories; and he made an outstanding contribution to the BBC's seminal science fiction series, Out of the Unknown, as well as ITV's Mystery and Imagination in the late 60s, writing blazing adaptations of Frankenstein and The Suicide Club, no less. It is a matter of regret that his name seems to have disappeared so mysteriously... to complete the sentence of the title: It couldn't possibly happen here; after all, this is England.