The founder of the British army’s elite special forces, the SAS, speaking privately of throwing trade union leaders ‘under a bus’. The chairman of Rio Tinto-Zinc rising at an elite dinner party and proposing a military coup against a Labour government. Shadowy hard-right elements in MI5 and MI6 spreading black propaganda to undermine a centre-left prime minister. Surely the stuff of deluded conspiracy theorists, the Alex Jones and David Ikes of the world?

Terrifyingly, there is almost certainly something to the tales of the ‘Wilson Plot’: persistent rumours that elements within and beyond MI5 and army intelligence schemed to undermine and eventually overthrow the centre-left governments of Harold Wilson, the Labour prime minister from 1964-70 and again from 1974-6. It seems probable that industrial militancy, the progressive legacy of the 60s, a left-leaning Labour government and the end of Britain’s imperial might led a network of hard-right establishment figures to begin contemplating a coup to protect crown and country. What is the state of the evidence today, and what does it tell us about the forces which might work to block and undermine a Corbyn government?

The debate breaks out in the 2000s

After abruptly and surprisingly leaving office early in 1976, Wilson hinted to two BBC journalists that he had been the victim of a deep-state conspiracy. After researching intently for two years, Pencourt – as the journalists became known – penned a ‘confusing and disorganised book’ which failed to establish Wilson’s fears. Either he had picked the wrong journalists, or – as many historians and pundits would later make out – Wilson was paranoid and deluded, suffering from dementia and spying imaginary plots.

In 2006, the BBC released a documentary interviewing a selection of establishment right-wingers and former Wilson aides. Both spoke of coup plans circulating among dissatisfied intelligence agents, conservative media pundits, aristocrats with connections to the Royal Family and former army officers. The documentary was compelling enough for Jonathan Freedland to declare in the Guardian that ‘the Wilson plot was our Watergate’.

The debate took a further turn when the authorised history of MI5, Christopher Andrew’s The Defence of the Realm, was published in 2009. He dedicated a whole chapter to the ‘Wilson plot’, arguing that Wilson was paranoid and denying the existence of any plan to undermine him. Andrew’s evidence mainly consisted of government and MI5 internal inquiries, and several significant issues were completely ignored. The work, as Bernard Porter pointed out, suffered from the major defect of being based largely on secret evidence: Andrew was given exclusive access to MI5’s archive, at the cost of not being able to cite specific files or photocopy anything. At least Piero Gleijeses, the only historian with access to the Cuban archives, made available copies of every document he quoted. Andrew’s book also holds the dubious accolade of being an ‘authorised’ history, with a foreword by a former Director-General of MI5 which states that the project was initiated as a way to ‘generate the public understanding and support that is vital to the Service’s continued success’. In 2010, it was revealed that MI5 had bugged Downing Street from 1963-77, information that MI5 forced Andrew to remove from the book, raising further questions about its veracity as a scholarly work of history – and about Andrew’s dismissal of the 1970s coup rumours.

Two recent appraisals have thrown further doubt on Andrew’s denial of right-wing scheming. Jon Moran, writing in the Journal of Intelligence History, argued that Andrew’s account of the Wilson plot issue is ‘flawed both analytically and empirically’. In 2016 a book by two esteemed scholars of intelligence, Richard Aldrich and Rory Cormac,[1] evaluated the current evidence, concluding that, ‘Serious historians […] remain certain that some dirty work was afoot, and there is clear evidence pointing to smear campaigns against the prime minister’.

The latest evidence: military plotters, right-wing paramilitaries and MI5 officers

So what is the evidence? During Wilson’s first term in 1968, a meeting between Lord Mountbatten (the last Viceroy of India and cousin of the Queen), Cecil King (a disgruntled MI5 agent), Hugh Cudlipp (a newspaper publisher), and Solly Zuckerman (the government’s chief scientific adviser) took place near Buckingham Palace gardens. It is widely accepted that King proposed a coup, with Mountbatten as the figurehead for an interim government. Mountbatten’s reaction to this proposal, however, is disputed by the participants, with Cudlipp claiming that Mountbatten turned down the offer, and King claiming the opposite. Aldrich and Cormac side with Cudlipp’s version of events, partly on the dubious grounds that Mountbatten ‘was himself a left-winger’. The 2006 BBC documentary claims that some of these potential coup participants even took their plan to the Queen Mother for ritualistic royal blessing.

Aldrich and Cormac note that, during this time, ‘a small hard-core of dedicated fanatics began to flourish inside MI5 and MI6’, fanatics who truly seemed to believe that Wilson was in fact a KGB agent for the Soviet Union. This group worked closely with James Angleton, the CIA’s director of counter-intelligence, who tried to convince key U.S. officials that Britain was literally under the control of a secret KGB asset.

More concretely, several forces started advocating a coup during Wilson’s 1970s term in office. Mining magnate Val Duncan invited attendees at a dinner to join a coup in 1974. Frank Kitson, a former colonial army officer, was pushing for the army to intervene in industrial disputes on the mainland. Sir General Walter Walker offered to be Britain’s Pinochet (the hard-right military leader who overthrew a socialist government in Chile in 1973); indeed, the Conservative Spectator magazine editorialised in 1974 that ‘Britain is on a Chilean brink’. Former head of the British army, Field Marshall Lord Carver, would claim that ‘fairly senior’ military officers had discussed military intervention during the 1974 miners’ strike. The 2006 BBC documentary mentions documents from the 1970-74 Conservative government which authorised a plan to use the armed forces to stop Britain becoming a ‘Communist state’. Brian Crozier, a journalist with intelligence connections, was actively lobbying the army to prepare for a coup. He states that ‘top brass’ in the army ‘seriously considered the possibility of a military takeover’, and he received a document from a military commander arguing that, ‘Action which armed forces might be justified in taking, in certain circumstances, is in the forefront of my mind at the moment, and I do hope we may have the chance of carrying the debate a stage further’. One of Crozier’s close associates was Charles Elwell, head of MI5’s ‘counter-subversion’ section (which dealt with perceived domestic political threats, including communists and left-wingers).

A network of right-wing paramilitary organisations also begun to proliferate in the middle of the decade. The founder of the SAS, Sir David Stirling, who thought the left of the Labour Party was a ‘cancer’, argued for the establishment of a voluntary army to defend against the ‘steady encroachment on the public enterprise system, together with the forcing of trade union members on to the executive board of companies’. This was no idle talk – Stirling founded the GB75, a far-right royalist organisation preparing for the coming show-down. According to Major Alexander Greenwood, who founded his own rightist organisation, Stirling would openly talk about the need to provoke the unions into a confrontation by getting their leaders ‘run over by a bus’. The former deputy director of MI6, George Young, set up Unison, another right-wing paramilitary force, and Sir General Walker created Civil Assistance.

The 70s was a time of political violence, sometimes called Europe’s ‘Years of Lead’, as elements of the radical left switched strategy to form underground urban guerrilla units modelled loosely on insurrectionist projects in Uruguay and elsewhere. When these armed left-wing forces emerged – the Red Army Faction in West Germany, Red Brigades in Italy, Weather Underground in the U.S. and Japanese Red Army, among others – they faced immense state repression, with entire prison wings constructed and new methods of electronic surveillance developed in West Germany in response. There was no comparable reaction to the emergence of armed extra-state, right-wing forces. Indeed, Aldrich and Cormac note that ‘many of these private right-wing groups seemed to be linked to individuals with senior intelligence, security or military connections’.

Several former army intelligence and MI5 officers, including Peter Wright and Colin Wallace, have claimed that elements in the British state sought to spread black propaganda about Wilson in order to assist the campaign to undermine him. Some of this testimony has been discredited, but elements corroborate each other or have been confirmed by official sources. Wallace claimed that he was part of an MoD operation in Northern Ireland to spread sexual and political rumours about Wilson in 1974, codenamed ‘Clockwork Orange’. Wallace was later convicted of the manslaughter of a friend’s wife, although later acquitted, and legendary investigative journalist Paul Foot wrote an entire book arguing that Wallace had been framed by the state for whistleblowing. In 1990, the British government admitted that Wallace had been in a secret army intelligence unit, although it unsurprisingly denied that it was involved in any propaganda operations against Wilson.

Wilson and his close associates were also subject to at least ten unexplained burglaries during their second stint in office, burglaries which often pilfered particular files or items and left valuables. As Aldrich and Cormac argue, ‘such activity lies beyond the realms of coincidence’. Ministers were finding that their private conversations were inexplicably working their way out of Downing Street, fuelling suspicion that the bugs at Number 10 were being listened to.

In 2016, one of the journalists who spoke with Wilson shortly after his resignation said that Sir Michael Hanley, former Director-General of MI5, and Sir David Stirling, the SAS founder, both confirmed that plans for a coup were being discussed in some parts of MI5 and elsewhere in the 70s. Even Christopher Andrew admits that MI5 kept a file on Wilson which stretched back to 1945, was removed from MI5’s registry, labelled with a pseudonym, and allegedly placed in a safe in the Director-General’s office.

Lord Hunt, Wilson’s cabinet secretary who investigated the whole affair, later confirmed that ‘there is absolutely no doubt at that a few, a very few, malcontents in MI5 … [were] spreading damaging, malicious stories about some members of that Labour government’. Is seems likely several loose networks of well-connected individuals began the process of building support for a coup, but that it was not the official policy of the intelligence services as a whole.

 

In 1977, Tony Bunyan prophetically wrote that, ‘recently, politicians, academics, and military men have been speculating as to whether the recession will reach such proportions that the liberal-democratic structure of society will effectively break down, and they pose the likelihood of a more authoritarian system being a necessity in these circumstances.’ [2] At the end of the 70s, the right-wing networks which had been contemplating coup maneuvers against Wilson ‘converted their energies to getting Margaret Thatcher elected as head of the Conservative Party’, as Moran puts it. Their coup plans probably never got very far, but the neo-liberal reconfiguration of Britain in the 80s smashed the unions, scattered the left and restored profitability and industrial stability for the ruling classes: ultimately, they did not need the coup. The world of secret intelligence played a significant role in Thatcher’s consolidation of power, often as a matter of institutional policy. The coup talk reminds us that in the 70s a battle for the future of the country was underway, and the outcome was uncertain. Thatcher’s transformation of the country and the ultimate defeat of the leftist energies of the 60s and 70s was in no way pre-ordained; it was the outcome of political warfare and conflict.

It is worth noting that none of this is to claim that Wilson was a friend of the left. Although there were a series of socially liberal reforms under his 60s government, and the top rate of income tax reached 98%, the failure of Wilsonian social democracy was one factor in the rise of the New Left in the late 60s: E. P. Thompson and the May Day Manifesto, the student movement, the VSC. Despite Wilson’s obsession with MI5 surveillance against him, he deployed MI5 against trade union activists more zealously than any Prime Minister before him. In fact, Aldrich and Cormac argue, ‘he was more security-minded than MI5 on union politics and left-wing entryism’. He also, as diplomatic historian Mark Curtis argues, oversaw possibly the most disgraceful British foreign policy in the post-WWII era: supporting the right-wing military take-over of Indonesia in the mid-1960s – during which over 500,000 suspected communist peasants were killed – deploying troops to Northern Ireland, and even plotting a coup of his own against the Omani Sultan in 1970, backing Britain’s secret war in that country. What Wilson was concerned with was the use of the UK’s intelligence agencies against dissident elements in the British establishment – the monitoring of trade unionists and the subversion of foreign governments, on the other hand, were trifling matters of little concern. This is the meaning of the 1966 Wilson Doctrine, which bars British spooks from monitoring domestic MPs: it is a code of ethics for competing elements of the British elite to live by. Common folk and those overseas are afforded no such protections.

If a man as soft-left as this can provoke such a virulent reaction from elements of the deep-state, bourgeoisie, press and aristocracy, then how will they react to a potential Corbyn government? Corbyn and his inner circle have a much more stridently anti-imperialist record than Wilson ever did, and have been under surveillance by the state for years. The anonymous army officer quoted in The Times in 2015 who warned of a potential mutiny in the army if Corbyn became prime minister should not be ignored; and such action would not be unprecedented. Labour Prime Minister Clement Attlee was forced to back down from his plans to withdraw Britain from the Middle East and Palestine in the late 1940s by the Army Chiefs of Staff, ‘who threatened to resign en mass’. The forces of the status quo in the UK have weathered several centuries of riots, strikes and revolutionary movements, and have long housed a fear of the Labour Party’s subversive potential. There is no chance of them allowing a radical left government to operate freely – either the government moderates, or it falls. As R. H. Tawney argued, reflecting on the experience of the failed Labour government of 1929-31:

If the privileged classes’ position is seriously threatened they will use every piece on the board, political and economic, the House of Lords, the Crown, the Press, disaffection in the army, financial crises, international difficulties, and even, as attacks on the pound in 1931 showed, the émigré trick of injuring one’s own country to protect one’s pocket – in the honest conviction that they are saving civilisation. [3]

The alternative is a bottom-up mass movement able to build a counter-power in the streets which can finally weaken and eventually strip the British establishment of its God-given privileges of land, property and titles. Only then can Corbyn avoid the fate of Harry Perkins in A Very British Coup.

[1] Aldrich, R. & Cormac, R. (2016), The Black Door: Spies, Secret Intelligence and British Prime Ministers, William Collins.

[2] Bunyan, T. (1977), The History and Practice of the Political Police in Britain, Quartet Books: London, p.266.

[3] Quoted in Hannah, S. (2018), A Party With Socialist in it: A history of the Labour left, Pluto: London, p.61.

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