The State: a warning to the labour movement


2006 internet Preface

The BBC2 programme, The Plot Against Harold Wilson, screened in 2006 on the 30th anniversary of Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s resignation in 1976, caused considerable interest.
The events of this period, as they became clear, gave rise to a series of articles in The Militant, forerunner of The Socialist, in 1980 and 1981, warning the labour and trade union activists about the threat posed by the state forces, supplying a Marxist analysis, and a strategy and tactics to deal with the state.
The articles were brought together to form the pamphlet ‘The state: a warning to the labour movement’. The analysis presented in the articles in this collection remains invaluable to socialists.
The 2006 preface to the first internet edition of this 1983 pamphlet reprinted a review of The Plot Against Harold Wilson that was first carried in The Socialist 6 -12  April 2006.

The Plot Against Harold Wilson BBC2

When the generals prepared to seize power in Britain

“Tanks on the streets. The Prime Minister toppled. The Cabinet imprisoned on the QE2. Fiction? No. Thirty years ago a secret cabal of generals, aristocrats and businessmen really did plot to oust Harold Wilson and seize power.”

This is how the right-wing Daily Mail half-approvingly reviewed the coup plans against Labour governments in the late 1960s and mid-70s that featured in the BBC2 docu-drama The Plot Against Harold Wilson.

Alistair Tice, Sheffield Socialist Party

In March 1976, Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson made the shock announcement that he was resigning with three years left to run. There was much rumour as to why at the time but no satisfactory explanation.

The thirty year anniversary has been marked by renewed speculation that his failing health and exhaustion were compounded by “dirty tricks” from “dark forces” that were trying to undermine him.

A few weeks after he stood down, Wilson secretly invited two BBC journalists, Barrie Penrose and Roger Courtiour, to investigate a “British Watergate” because he said, “Democracy as we know it is in grave danger.”

Interspersed with archive newsreel, 1970s music, re-enactment and secret tapings of Wilson and his political secretary and confidante Marcia Williams, Penrose and Courtiour re-tell their investigations.

Much has come out over the last thirty years to substantiate the plot but unfortunately the young reporters got sidetracked by the Jeremy Thorpe affair and so never became our own Woodward and Bernstein (the Washington Post journalists who exposed the Watergate scandal).

The background to this story was the Cold War, a worsening economic situation, growing trade union unrest and the Labour Party being pushed to the left. As former MI5 agent Peter Wright confirmed in his book Spycatcher, Wilson was the victim of a protracted, illegal campaign of destabilisation by a rogue element in the security services.


The CIA feared that Wilson was a Soviet agent put in place after the KGB had, according to the spooks, poisoned the previous Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell. MI5 agents then burgled, bugged and spread anti-Wilson black propaganda throughout the media.

This heightened the very real fears of the establishment that Britain was sliding towards anarchy and that Wilson either would not, or could not, deal with the power of the trade unions, who they thought were riddled with ‘lefties’ and ‘commies’, and were ruining the country!

If this all seems far-fetched, you have to realise that these spooks were conditioned by their own upbringing, schooling and prejudices to see “reds under the bed” at every turn.

Even David Owen, who became a Labour Foreign Secretary and then founder of the right-wing Social Democratic Party (SDP), was alleged to be a Soviet spy by MI5. It turned out they’d mixed him up with a left Labour MP called Will Owen! British ‘intelligence’ was no more intelligent then than it is today (WMD…45 minutes…etc!).

This paranoia was exquisitely expressed by a Colonel Blimp made real – retired Major Alexander Greenwood: “I came back from a cruise down the Rhine and, to my horror, I discovered that England was no longer a green and pleasant land. We thought, therefore, that we would form some sort of organisation that would come in if the government failed.”

He plotted with General Sir Walter Walker, a former Nato commander-in-chief, and Colonel David Stirling, founder of the SAS. They had both raised private armies of several thousand men, ready to act if the call came. Walker even prepared a speech for the Queen to read out after the coup!

Whilst this all sounds a bit comic opera, there were serious discussions amongst sections of the capitalist class at the time about the need for a “national government” and even an “authoritarian solution”.


Wilson was not a left-winger. In fact he denounced the 1966 seamen’s strike as a “communist conspiracy” and accused the National Union of Seamen of being under the control of a “tightly-knit group of politically motivated men” (which included John Prescott at that time on the NUS national executive!).

He then tried to bring in anti-union legislation, entitled In Place of Strife, but was forced to back down by trade union opposition and a split in the cabinet. This infuriated the ruling class who, amidst claims of anarchy and chaos, began to call for a national government.

In 1968, a private meeting took place in the Belgravia home of Cecil King, the then owner of the Daily Mirror group, who asked Lord Mountbatten if he would be the titular head of a new administration.

This came to nothing and the coup threat receded when the Conservatives won the 1970 general election. However, the plans emerged even more seriously after Heath was brought down by the miners in 1974 and Wilson was returned with a more left-wing manifesto.

The Times (the then mouthpiece of big business before Murdoch took it over) declared: “We cannot afford the cost of surrender” to the miners and said in this situation “you do not only have cranks, or shabby men in Hitler moustaches, advocating an authoritarian solution. The most calm and respectable people come to believe that the only remaining choice is to impose a policy of sound money at the point of a bayonet.”

This echoed their support for Pinochet’s military coup in Chile in 1973 which overthrew a democratically elected left-wing government: “The circumstances were such that a reasonable military man could in good faith have thought his constitutional duty to intervene.”


Such a view amongst the British ruling class was given theoretical justification in Inside Right a book written in 1977 by Ian Gilmour, who later served in the Thatcher government.

He wrote: “Conservatives do not worship democracy. For them majority rule is a device …and if it is leading to an end that is undesirable or is inconsistent with itself, then there is a theoretical case for ending it.”

Military manoeuvres were carried out at Heathrow airport in 1975 in what was described as an anti-terrorist exercise. Sound familiar? Wilson claimed that he and the Home Secretary were not informed but the tops of the military must have been involved. It was both a warning and a dress rehearsal.

In the end it wasn’t necessary for the state to bring in the tanks. Wilson resigned, Callaghan lost to Thatcher and she confronted the “enemy within” – trade unions and socialism.

But these events show how important it is that in the struggle to change society the working class have a clear understanding of the role that the state forces play in defending the power and rule of the capitalist class.