Thatcher, the constitution and the military coup

Sir Harold Wilson, British labor leader, meets with Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, right, at the Pentagon.

I spent most of my Saturday afternoon reading all the messages and comments below the line on Quora’s answer to whether there had been a military coup in the UK planned around 1968.

I’m not quite sure why I did. I have always been interested in stories like that – about events which I might dimly remember, but was too young to understand.

It turns out that most people muddle up the story that was dramatised by The Crown last year – involving Lord Mountbatten, Solly Zuckerman and Cecil King of the Daily Mirror – with the far more threatening coup plan that was live in 1974-5 (when I was taking my O Levels!).

This began in February 1974, when Harold Wilson was so unexpectedly re-elected as Prime Minister after the three-day week.

In fact, I believe Lord Mountbatten only had a walk-on role in the whole affair in 1968. He was a potential stand-in head of state and a route into the royal family – via the Queen Mother, who is supposed to have scotched the idea by saying: “But, my dear, we simply don’t do things like that!”

But what about the other coup attempt? To understand, you have to go back to the sense of impending peril that so many of us shared in the mid-seventies. My cousin filled his loft with £200 of grain – because he thought UK society was on the verge of unravelling.

That plus the deep suspicion that Wilson and his entourage were regarded by senior people in MI5, explains (but doesn’t excuse) – they were encouraged by CIA people who were cross that Wilson managed to keep the UK out of Vietnam – some of the peculiarities of the times.

This was an era of private armies. There was General Sir Walter Walker, a former Nato northern allied forces commander, who launched an organisation called Civil Assistance, to provide “dynamic, invigorating, uplifting leadership… above party politics” to “save” the country from “the communist Trojan horse in our midst.”

And there was SAS founder Colonel David Stirling‘s shadowy GB75 Britain Forward movement. Both were dedicated to taking over the reins of power in event of civil disorder.

As far as I know, very little has been written about this coup plan. There is the first part of Adam Curtis’ BBC 1999 broadcasts about how the modern world emerged (still available as ‘The Mayfair Set’).

Another was a piece in the Sunday Times in 1987 about the strange story about Sir Basil Smallpiece, the outgoing chair of  Cunard, who was woken in the middle of the night by a phone call from a senior army officer about how they could borrow the QE2 – the luxury liner – to put the cabinet on board, to keep them safely offshore until things had calmed down.

His successor John Mitchell was also phoned in the middle of the night with the same request. He went to a Whitehall meeting with senior security and military officials, who were completely open about their intention to take over the government.

Both men reported their conversations to the permanent secretary at the Ministry of Defence. And heard nothing afterwards.

Cecil King denied his involvement in 1981, but he had been forced to resign by the Mirror group board after writing a front page editorial calling for a change of government – by any means necessary.

But one blog about those days suggests that maybe he continued to be involved in the whole coup network. According to the American peace campaigner David Swanson:

The demented former press baron Cecil King toddled down to Sandhurst and urged the top brass to march on Downing Street. ‘I had no doubt,’ said one of those present, the military historian John Keegan, ‘that I was listening to a treasonable attempt to subborn the loyalty of the Queen’s officers.

He continues:

“After a lecture to the Army Staff College at Camberley, in which he discussed the possibility of military intervention against ‘the enemy’ — meaning the government — Crozier had an eye-opening letter from the commandant, General Sir Hugh Beach. ‘Action which armed forces might be justified in taking, in certain circumstances, is in the forefront of my mind at the moment,’ Beach confessed: ‘and I do hope we may have the chance of carrying the debate a stage further.‘”

‘Crozier’ referred to Brian Crozier, the Australian-born journalist and anti-communist propagandist, the man who wrote Chile’s new constitution for Pinochet.

Adam Curtis just concentrates on the role played by David Stirling at the heart of this conspiracy, and says he was funded by Sir James Goldsmith, the financier and former friend of Lord Lucan and other gamblers – father of environmental activists Zac and Ben.

I agree with the Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland that this needs a proper inquiry. The British establishment being what it is, the truth will never emerge without one. He wrote this in 2006, when the BBC was about to show its docu-drama The Plot Against Wilson, which in turn was based on the book The Wilson Plot by Freedland’s Guardian colleague David Leigh.

This is what Freedland said:

Much of this has been known for a while; many of those involved have admitted as much and do so again in the BBC film. Yet officially it never happened: a 1987 inquiry under Margaret Thatcher concluded the allegations were false, implying that the fading Wilson had descended into paranoia. This can’t be allowed to stand. Not only does it do an injustice to Wilson, it also represents an enormous cover-up. For this was the British Watergate, a conspiracy designed to pervert the democratic choice of the people. The circumstances of that time – mighty unions and the cold war – were entirely different. But if we are to learn the lessons of the Wilson plot, to realise what Britain’s hidden powers are truly capable of, then these events deserve a proper reckoning. Blair should do a final service to the last Labour leader before him to win an election – and establish an independent inquiry.”

Now, I am in two minds about this, given that I have argued – at least since writing Broke – that Margaret Thatcher was simply an establishment cipher to start withe, and that the real machine that was preparing such huge change was meeting every Tuesday evening through 1978 in Sir Geoffrey Howe’s flat in Fentiman Street – including the late Nigel Lawson.

So when the Sunday Times Insight team set up a safe house in London’s East End to go more deeply into the story (they only published the strange story of the QE2, and out of context), and they discovered that the same people behind the coup plans were also those behind Margaret Thatcher’s successful bid for the Tory leadership in 1975.

No wonder that one of the first things she did in office was to hike the salaries of the forces by 33 per cent!

But I don’t go in for all this cult of personality about Thatcher – and all those slightly leftie films which end with her on the steps of No. 10, reading a prayer of St Francis. As if that was the moment the world changed. It didn’t (more on this another time)!

No, the reason it is so important again now is the serious plight of the British constitution under Johnson and Truss – as revealed in a new book by Nick Harvey and Paul Tyler called Can Parliament Take Back Control? (published next week by Radix UK, among others).

That is why I would suggest a parallel inquiry needs to go ahead as soon as possible –  parallel that is to the ambitious programme of constitutional reform that they set out in the book. And while people are still alive to remember what the seventies felt like to live through in the UK – when we felt almost as divided as they do currently in the USA.

Rate this post!

Average rating 5 / 5. Vote count: 1

No votes so far! Be the first to rate this post.

Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.

Leave a Reply

The Author
Latest Related Work
Follow Us