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Longread: How the Deep State Plotted to Overthrow the British Government and Install a Junta

“What I have to say to you is of the utmost seriousness. Democracy as we know it is in grave danger. Prominent people are coming under attack. I think you as journalists should investigate the forces which are threatening democratic countries like Britain. The dirty tricks that have been going on against myself and also my government.”

Harold Wilson

The British political establishment and ever-present deep state entities such as the civil service and security services have long been thought to hold a deep suspicion of socialism and socialist political candidates at best. At worst, this suspicion has passed from mistrust into direct action. The security services bugging and investigating serving Labour MPs is a matter of public record, as are the files that are kept on a great many politicians.

However, it was with Harold Wilson that the state very nearly went too far.

In both 1968 and 1974 individuals began to actively plot the overthrow of the democratically elected British government in a coup d’etat. It is hard to believe that in many readers own lifetimes shadowy forces within our own country plotted a military coup and the deposing of the legitimate government by force of arms, yet the evidence of such a plot is overwhelming.

Harold Wilson, The Right Honourable The Lord Wilson of Rievaulx KG OBE FRS FSS PC, taken in his study in his apartment Westminster London | Allan warren

The setting is the Cold War with the threat and concern of “reds under the bed” reaching the status of national hysteria, the British public being led to believe that the nation faced an existential threat from the Soviet Union. The aristocratic and business establishment has long considered socialism to be the gravest threat to their own positions and by default, therefore, the biggest threat facing the nation. Evidence that the establishment would rather have seen a fascist government than a democratic socialist one has long been established and their desperation to keep socialism from the corridors of power has been seen right into the present day with the campaign against Jeremy Corbyn and the actions of shadowy groups such as the Integrity Initiative.

“Our establishment, from the intelligence services down to parts of Fleet Street, were paranoid about the threat of communism. So paranoid it seems, they were prepared to believe a prime minister of Britain was an active Soviet spy.”

– Barrie Penrose, journalist

It was Soviet defector and “unreliable conspiracy theorist” Anatoly Golitsyn who was the first to make a claim that Harold Wilson was a KGB asset, suggesting that the Soviet Union had murdered former Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell to ensure that Wilson became the leader instead. The claims were supported by the head of the CIA’s Counterintelligence Division James Angleton, yet likely originated from the same source with Golitsyn. By the end of the 1960s, two Czech defectors by the name of Josef Frolík and František August had claimed that Labour had been infiltrated by the Soviet Union and provided a list of MPs and trade union activists they claimed had been compromised.

MI5 had kept a file on Wilson since as early as 1945 and after constant monitoring and investigations over subsequent decades eventually concluded that Wilson had no relationship with the KGB and Labour had never been infiltrated by Soviet agents. While the evidence was always sketchy at best, perhaps it was a case of the already uneasy establishment and security services hearing what they wanted to hear as they sought to undermine socialism and socialist feeling within the country.

1968

Earl Mountbatten outside Knightbridge barracks, 1974 | Allan Warren

On May 8 1968, the Welsh journalist and newspaper editor Hugh Cudlipp arranged a meeting between Cecil Harmsworth King and Lord Mountbatten of Burma. King was chairman of Daily Mirror Newspapers, Sunday Pictorial Newspapers, the International Publishing Corporation and a director at the Bank of England. Lord Mountbatten, of course, needs little introduction.

At the meeting, also attended by Sir Solly Zuckerman, the Chief Scientific Adviser to the government, King is said to have tabled the suggestion that Mountbatten became the figurehead of a junta to replace the democratically elected Wilson government.

“[Cecil] awaited the arrival of Sir Solly and then at once expounded his views on the gravity of the national situation, the urgency for action, and then embarked upon a shopping list of the Prime Minister’s shortcomings. He explained that in the crisis he foresaw as being just around the corner, the Government would disintegrate, there would be bloodshed in the streets and the armed forces would be involved. The people would be looking to somebody like Lord Mountbatten as the titular head of a new administration, somebody renowned as a leader of men, who would be capable, backed by the best brains and administrators in the land, to restore public confidence. He ended with a question to Mountbatten–would he agree to be the titular head of a new administration in such circumstances?”

Hugh Cudlipp

Mountbatten asked Solly Zuckerman his thoughts and Zuckerman stated it was treason. Mountbatten agreed and both he and Zuckerman left the meeting, leaving King without support. He subsequently overrode the editorial independence of The Mirror and wrote a front-page article calling for Wilson to be deposed via extra-parliamentary action. The board of the International Publishing Corporation immediately demanded his resignation and dismissed him following his refusal to do so.

“Feelings had run high inside MI5 during 1968. There had been an effort to try to stir up trouble for Wilson then, largely because the Daily Mirror tycoon, Cecil King, who was a longtime agent of ours, made it clear that he would publish anything MI5 might care to leak in his direction. It was all part of Cecil King’s “coup,” which he was convinced would bring down the Labour Government and replace it with a coalition led by Lord Mountbatten.”

Peter Wright, Spycatcher

While most tellings of the 1968 plot have had Mountbatten reject the offer from King, this perhaps doesn’t tie with his alleged involvement in the future 1974 plot. Historian and scriptwriter Alex von Tunzelmann contends that he in fact seriously considered leading a coalition government and was only stopped from taking the plot further by the intervention of the Queen.

“It was not Solly Zuckerman who talked Mountbatten out of staging a coup and making himself President of Britain. It was the Queen herself.”  

Alex von Tunzelmann

While officially no other names have ever been revealed as being linked to the 1968 plot, the former editor of The Times and Sunday Times Harold Evans has revealed that the plan had the support of William Rees-Mogg, the then editor of The Times and father of Jacob Rees-Mogg.

Rees-Mogg favoured Lord Robens to lead a new government.

Former Chairman of the National Coal Board Alfred Robens, like Cecil King, was a director of the Bank of England and was also a member of the board of directors of Times Newspapers. Having been an early socialist, Robens drifted to the right as he got older and could potentially have been portrayed as a candidate suitable to both the left and right.

“Rees-Mogg’s Times backed the Conservative Party in every general election, but it periodically expressed yearnings for a coalition of the right-centre. In the late 1960s, it encouraged Cecil King’s notion of a coup against Harold Wilson’s Labour Government in favour of a government of business leaders led by Lord Robens. In the autumn election of 1974, it predicted that economic crisis would produce a coalition government of national unity well inside five years and urged one there and then between Conservatives and Liberals.”

Harold Evans

1974

While the 1968 plot seems to have amounted to little more than the deluded fantasies of media barons angry at the devaluation of the pound, the 1974 affair was much more serious and wide-ranging.

The original rumblings of discontent had vanished after Edward Heath won the 1970 election, but began to surface once again as Heath was seen as a weak Prime Minister and reached it’s peak after Wilson won back the government in 1974, first as a minority government and then as a majority in October. Once again it was Mountbatten’s name that was being circulated as a potential leader and as the great uncle and mentor of Prince Charles, the suggestion that the Royal Family backed the coup was implicit.

“Business groups and other antidemocratic agencies, these people are putting our whole idea of democracy at risk.”

Harold Wilson

The Britain of the mid-1970s is a very different one to the Britain of 2019, with Cold War tensions continuing despite détente and power cuts and industrial unrest a factor of daily life. A three-day working week and out of control inflation led to Britain being labelled as the “Sick man of Europe,” a situation that many on the right firmly blamed on Wilson for the 1967 devaluation of the pound. The continuing loss of empire and international prestige was capped in 1976 when Britain was forced to take an IMF bailout.

Nationalist anger is not hard to understand, yet it didn’t end at protests and/or the rise of groups such as the National Front. Former military figures were so incensed at the situation and the influence of trade unions that they began to build their own private armies, believing that open warfare between the left and the right was imminent on the streets of Britain.

Warning: This clip contains racially offensive language and other language people may find offensive.

While the situation has been satirised in classic comedy such as The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin and Citizen Smith, these private nationalist militias were far from the colonel blimp figures of fun that many might have you believe. Much like their modern American “patriot” counterparts, the members were frequently adherents to far-right mantra and were both armed and dangerous.

Those who organised these private armies were frequently linked to the establishment and armed forces. These men included retired officers such as General Sir Walter Walker, NATO Commander of Northern Europe and Major Alexander Greenwood. There seems something of a national willingness to ignore and forget the uncomfortable truth that private mercenaries existed on the streets of Britain in modern memory, mercenaries that Harold Wilson believed would be instrumental in the plot against him.

“If you’re talking about people who had a serious idea of a military coup, yes, they would be fairly senior people.”

Lord Chalfont, Labour defence minister and Foreign Office minister

Actions taken against Wilson included the bugging of offices and phones, the burglary of aides homes, black propaganda and MI5 supporting and encouraging the Ulster Workers Council Strike of 1974. The smear campaign against Wilson included claims that his political secretary Marcia Williams was a threat to national security and that he was an IRA sympathiser. The names change but the tactics stay the same.

Involved in the plot were said to be retired intelligence offices and military brass. The plot would be a full-scale coup d’etat including the seizure of Heathrow, the BBC and Buckingham Palace, backed by sympathetic members of the army and the far-right nationalist patriot militias that had sprung up around the country. Following the arrest of Wilson and his aides, the Queen would read a statement urging the public to back the coup.

“I know the Queen—she wasn’t very happy with Mr Harold Wilson—but there wasn’t much she could do about it at that time. And Lord Mountbatten rang up Sir Walter Walker one evening and said, ‘If you want any help from me will you let me know.’ Sir Walter Walker had prepared a sort of speech, which the Queen might readout on the BBC that asked the people to stand behind the armed forces as there was a breakdown of law and order and the government could not keep the unions in control.”

Major Alexander Greenwood

The most serious incident of the affair was undoubtedly the military occupation of Heathrow Airport by the armed forces as part of Operation Marmion. Officially a training exercise to guard against IRA attacks, neither then Prime Minister Edward Heath or Harold Wilson was ever informed of the action. The action was seen as a show of strength and even a dry-run for the coup to come.

“I still believe that operation they mounted at the airport—the one where everyone was so secretly briefed—which was this how you deal with terrorists—that wasn’t an operation to deal with terrorists. It was a rehearsal, nothing more. There was all the terrific mobilisation, the alert was on, there was—all through Whitehall—along the airport road, up and down, landing and getting out.”

Marcia Williams

Heath called an election in February of 1974 which ended in a hung parliament. Despite being unable to form a coalition, Heath refused to concede defeat for four days and remained in Downing Street. Lord Carver, the former chief of the defence staff, has admitted that in these four days talk of a military coup was again on the table and that it had been discussed between “not very senior, but fairly senior officers.”

Wilson’s grip on power after February was tentative and troops were mobilized yet again in “training exercises” in June, July and September of that year before the second election in October that was fought amidst a campaign of black propaganda by MI5 that portrayed Wilson as a KGB agent.

Colin Wallace attending a parade with Field Marshal Lord Alexander of Tunis, 1972 | Bhusgbbe1

The operation, codenamed “Clockwork Orange” after the Stanley Kubrick film of the same name, was run by the Information Policy Unit, part of the Army Press Office in Northern Ireland that was run in conjunction with MI5. The usual activities of the office included PR and disinformation campaigns against the IRA.

One of the officers involved with the campaign was Colin Wallace, a Ministry of Defence press officer who was later framed and imprisoned for manslaughter after he attempted to expose the Wilson conspiracy and Kincora sex abuse scandal.

Wallace exposed how after MI5 was put in charge of intelligence in Northern Ireland the unit was tasked with briefing the press with false information that linked both Wilson and the Labour Party to the Soviet Union and the KGB. Other forms of disinformation included the creation of fake “bribes” in Swiss bank accounts and claims that Labour MPs were either IRA sympathisers or had spoken at republican events and rallies.

Wallace was supported by a covert specialist troop that was possibly a SAS unit made-up of specialist trained officers. MPs targeted by the group included prominent names such as Harold Wilson, Edward Heath, Merlyn Rees, Jeremy Thorpe, Tony Benn and Ian Paisley.

“The intelligence community believed that the government of the day was unable or unwilling to take the necessary measures to deal with the threat—with the scale of the threat. They believed they were the guardians of the United Kingdom. They felt that the political machinery was incapable of giving them support or introducing the policies that would enable them to deal with that threat. The information that I received was related to political unreliability. It was quite clear that this information was designed not just to discredit him in a general sense, but bearing in mind that we were in a period running up to a general election, that that information would, most likely, have had a fairly major impact on how the public viewed him.”

Colin Wallace

Also involved with Clockwork Orange was Airey Neave, the Conservative Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland from March of 1974. In 1981 New Statesman revealed that Neave had planned to have Tony Benn assassinated should James Callaghan have resigned and it had appeared as if Benn would succeed him as Prime Minister. The source of the claim was said to be an intelligence agent by the name of Lee Tracey. Tracey stated that he met with Neave and was asked to join a team of intelligence and security specialists who would “make sure Benn was stopped.”

In the end, it was Neave who ended up assassinated, being killed by a car bomb on March 30, 1979. While the official story remains that the bombing was the work of the INLA, Paddy Ashdown’s research assistant, Kevin Cahill, has claimed that security staff at the House of Commons believed the killing was an “inside job” involving MI6 and the CIA. Interestingly, in a 1984 interview with The Guardian, Ulster Unionist MP Enoch Powell would point the finger at Lord Mountbatten alongside the security services.

“The plan was simple. In the run-up to the election which, given the level of instability in Parliament, must be due within a matter of months, MI5 would arrange for selective details of the intelligence about leading Labour Party figures, but especially Wilson, to be leaked to sympathetic pressmen. Using our contacts in the press and among union officials, word of the material contained in MI5 files and the fact that Wilson was considered a security risk would be passed around. Soundings in the office had already been taken, and up to thirty officers had given their approval to the scheme. Facsimile copies of some files were to be made and distributed to overseas newspapers, and the matter was to be raised in Parliament for maximum effect. It was a carbon copy of the Zinoviev letter, which had done so much to destroy the first Ramsay MacDonald Government in 1928.”

Peter Wright, Spycatcher

While many tried to portray Wilsons suspicions of a plot as paranoia, the 2006 BBC documentary The Plot Against Harold Wilson revealed that the plot was real and acknowledged by figures on both the left and right of the political spectrum. In 1976 Wilson recorded a series of interviews with Barrie Penrose and Roger Courtiour which revealed his knowledge of the conspiracy.

“Wilson spoke darkly of two military coups which he said had been planned to overthrow his government in the late 1960s and in the mid-1970s​. Both were said to involve high-ranking elements in the British army, eager to see the back of Labour governments. Both involved a member of the Royal Family – Prince Louis Mountbatten.”

Barrie Penrose

After the fall of Wilson, the security services continued to target left-wing MPs and activists throughout the 1980s and 1990s with surveillance and propaganda, including against Michael Foot and the leaders of the miners’ strike. The hard-line stance against socialism and the working class that was desired by the plotters of 1968 and 1974 was embodied in Margaret Thatcher and eventually the establishment got what they desired all along as Labour abandoned socialism entirely under the leadership of Tony Blair.

The return of socialist feeling amongst the electorate and the ideology’s resurgence amongst youth movements worldwide has once again raised the spectre of black propaganda and deep state machinations as many of the claims that were levelled against Wilson have once again been recycled to be utilised against “IRA sympathiser” and “Czech spy” Jeremy Corbyn here in the U.K. and even in the United States where Hillary Clinton has accused anti-war candidate Tulsi Gabbard and the Green Party’s Jill Stein of being Russian agents.

The plots against Harold Wilson shows how fragile British democracy truly is and the levels of power that the security services, armed forces, aristocracy and both press and business barons still hold. This power extends far beyond government to create the multi-headed hydra of the deep state, a state within a state that serves only the interests of personal power, of nationalism and of the interests of the capitalist elite.

Should a situation ever develop in Britain that threatens the status quo, a situation where thousands demand change and we see scenes such as Lebanon or Chile, would anyone really be surprised if we once again were talking about a coup in Britain?

The machinations of the Johnson government and calls for the ​government to disobey the law should serve as a warning, as should the banning of protests and the ongoing smear campaign against left-wing activists. The forces that tried to overthrow Wilson have not gone away, they still exist and they still pull the strings of our fragile democracy.

“My view now, as it was then, is that Wilson was right in his fears…. in answer to the question ‘how close did we come to a military government’ I can only say – closer than we’d ever be content to think.”

Barrie Penrose

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