A Coup in Britain?

Revelations of a 1968 Plot – a Glimpse of the Totalitarian Threat

By Ted Grant, illustration by Alan Hardman


In March 1981 The Sunday Times carried an article which indicated that there were suggested preparations for a military coup d’etat in Britain in 1968 at the time of the Wilson government. Allegations of a plot to overthrow the Labour government were seriously investigated by MIS, the secret internal security service, but Wilson himself apparently only found out the full details in 1975. However, Lady Falkender, formerly Marcia Williams, Wilson’s politico’ secretary, told The Sunday Times (29 March 1981) that she and Sir Harold “had a suspicion that something was going on.” They were particularly alarmed when in January—and again in June—1974 the army put a “ring of steel” around London’s Heathrow Airport, allegedly directed against an unspecified “terrorist threat”.

“Lady Falkender said that it ‘was horrible—like a Michael Caine movie. Harold was worried about the business when the troops did an anti-terrorist exercise at London Airport. He said to me: “Have you thought that they could be used in a different way? They could turn that lot against the government—totally.” It was scary. Like 1984.’ …she named the late Earl Mountbatten as a prime mover in the plan, assisted by ‘elements’ in the army and the city. ‘Mountbatten had a map on the wall of his office showing how it could be done. Harold and I used to stand in the State Room at No 10 and work out where they would put the guns. We reckoned they would site them in the Horse Guards,’ she said.” {Sunday Times, 31 March 1981);

The Sunday Times referred to the memoirs of Hugh Cudlipp, the Deputy Chairman of IPC, who later took over from Cecil King as boss of the Mirror newspaper group. In his book. Walking on the Water, Cudlipp tells of King’s discussions with leading politicians and industrialists about the “imminent fall” of Wilson’s government and the possible alternative. In particular, Cudlipp gave some details of a meeting between King, Cudlipp, Sir Soley Zuckerman (the government’s chief scientific adviser), and Lord Mountbatten, at the latter’s London flat on 8 May 1968. “Cecil King,” reported the Sunday Times, “asked Mountbatten to serve at the head of an alternative government once Wilson had been ousted. Cudlipp also described how Lord Zuckerman stormed out of the room crying: ‘This is rank treachery. I’ll have nothing to do with it’.”

Illustration by Alan Hardman

Naturally, because of the furore aroused, all the parties to the plot have. attempted to deny the facts. Wilson, who would have been asked for an explanation in the labour movement, first kept quiet about it and then later attempted to deny what happened. But Zuckerman let the cat out of the bag when he confirmed that he made the statement attributed to him by Cudlipp. A mere tête-à-tête among friends would not have provoked such an outburst.

Just like Lt-Col Tejero’s attempted coup d’etat in Spain on 23 February 1981, which despite its serious character had aspects of comic opera about it, so the lunatic attitude of these gentlemen in suggesting a coup in Britain, at that time, is an indication of the lengths that the ruling class will be prepared to go to under difficult and serious conditions. The ruling class at the top is split, as last week’s statement by 368 prominent academic economists opposing the government’s monetarist policy shows. There is no agreement as to which way to turn.

On the one hand, Margaret Thatcher correctly points out that all the other policies have been tried out and found wanting. The only difference with hers is that it will have an even more disastrous effect than the policies of the last thirty years. Those policies, based on Keynesian economics, were introduced because the deflationary policies of the kind now being adopted again by Thatcher and Joseph led to the catastrophe of the slump of 1931. Their present policies have now led to a deepening of the slump of 1980-81. They threaten to lead to a catastrophe for British capitalism with unemployment of over 3 million. Deflation and inflation are merely two sides of the same coin. They saw that on the road of capitalism there is no way out for the economy or for the working class. No capitalist policy can solve the crisis of capitalism.

Yet, if in 1968 and again in 1974 there were serious elements of the ruling- class already suggesting a criminal conspiracy against a right-wing Labour government, we can imagine what will be the position in the future. In another article Militant (6 March 1981) showed how Airey Neave, the Tory MP assassinated in 1979, had suggested to MIS and the secret services that they should act to prevent the coming to power of Tony Benn, if he were to replace Callaghan as party leader. This was at a time when the situation was far less serious than it is now.

According to the Sunday Times one major-general and a number of military men were involved, and as the paper comments, “None was subsequently charged, none of the military men involved in the plot was disciplined.” When Callaghan, who was then the Home Secretary, was asked by reporters, he refused to make any comment on the allegations. This indicates that the allegations are correct. Had a grouping of ordinary working-class privates conspired against the government of the day they would have been disciplined, and possibly even sentenced to long terms of imprisonment— whereas these military gentlemen were not even charged!

This shows the situation that could possibly develop in Britain at a time of economic and political crisis. In 1968 the situation was not at all of the serious character that it is at the present time. Yet even against the right-wing Wilson government plots of this character were actually being organised by elements of the military and the City of London. In the plot of Cecil King, it has recently been reported in an article in the Evening Standard, Sir Oswald Mosley, the former fascist leader, was to be included in a government with Mountbatten! Thus the web of the conspiracy spread quite far.

The splitting of the Labour Party by the Council For Social Democracy, now the Social Democratic Party, has been a deliberate plot on the part of capital to try and weaken the Labour Party and prevent it coming to power. This is because the Labour Party membership and that of the trade unions have begun to move towards the left. In 1974 there were articles in The Times which indicated vaguely suggestions of a coup to try and keep the working class in order at the time of the miners’ strike. A whole series of inspired articles appeared in The Times, and an extremely reactionary conservative journalist in the United States, William Buckley, wrote an article suggesting that the military in Britain were preparing for a coup.

Suggestions of this sort evaporated when in The Times one of the capitalist historians pointed out, in effect, what Napoleon had long ago explained: that you can do anything with bayonets except sit on them. The historian wrote about the Kapp putsch, when the military attempted to seize power in Germany in 1920. The reply of the workers was a general strike which paralysed the government. Even the civil servants participated. Nothing moved, there were no communications and the government did not even have a typist or clerk. The army generals were compelled to march out of Berlin and hand power back to the Social Democratic government. This douche of cold water put a stop to the talk of a coup at that particular time.

Nevertheless, on the television General Kitson has been interviewed indicating that it might be necessary for the military to “take over against terrorist plots and conspiracies” which might develop in Britain! This could be the pretext on the part of the military, as it was the pretext for action on the part of the military in Spain. Again, a cold douche of reality was given to this situation when The Times correspondent interviewed some non-commissioned officers, sergeants and corporals, and some of the privates in the army. The soldiers, preserving anonymity, explained that their officers were incapable of organising a dance, never mind a coup d’etat. All the work of the army, they explained, was done by the rank and file, especially the non-commissioned officers, the sergeants and corporals.

However, while the reports might seem a question of fantasy and infantile dreams on the part of the military officers in Britain, and of those elements of the City and big business who would like to try and discipline the working class as they have been disciplined in Chile, nevertheless it is necessary for the advanced, active layers in the labour and trade union movement to take such warnings seriously.

World capitalism is entering a new period of crisis unexampled since the 1930s. The economic boom and upswing of the 1950 to 1975 period is now over a long period of crisis, of short booms and slumps, opens up. The ruling class can no longer afford the luxury of increases in the standards of living of the working class, except for very temporary periods. This will mean an intensification of the class struggle to a level never reached in the history of Britain and of other countries in the West in the past. The same instability which has affected the colonial or ex-colonial countries during the course of the last 30 years—with a whole series of coups, counter-coups, revolutions, and counter-revolutions— now also opens up for the countries of the West. This is shown by what happened in Spain in the recent period.

In the past, the argument has been that while these things happen in other countries, it is impossible in Britain. Yet these revelations of conspiracies and plots on the part of various military generals and big business personalities are an indication that with the deepening crisis of capitalism, the ruling class in desperation could take to this road, if they saw that there was no other way out. The fact that a Conservative member of the Shadow Cabinet, Airey Neave, who was very close to Margaret Thatcher, should raise the question of a conspiracy to prevent Tony Bonn from becoming prime minister is an indication that Tory politicians would be prepared to take action along these lines.

In 1911 the Tory Party actually supported the treason of Sir Edward Carson, leader of the Ulster Unionists and a former Tory minister, who mustered 100,000 Ulster Volunteers to block the Liberal government’s Irish Home Rule Bill. Under the new historical conditions, the tops of the Tory Party could behave in exactly the same way.

The fact that it was Mountbatten who was involved in this projected conspiracy is not an accident. Mountbatten was very close to the Royal Family, an uncle in fact of the Queen’s consort, Prince Philip. The ruling class has been very careful to preserve the monarchy’s powers of veto. This was shown when they were used in November 1975 in Australia-through Sir John Kerr, the Governor-General appointed by the Queen—for the dismissal of the Labour government led by Gough Whitlam. In the same way in Britain, the monarchy still formally has the power to select who should be prime minister and the power to dismiss a prime minister and the government. In the event of a royalist plot of the character that has been suggested, the monarchy could be used at a time of desperation on the part of the ruling class exactly as it was used in Australia to dismiss the government there.

What is really revolting is the hypocrisy of the press, and especially of the television and radio. These hypocrites have retailed the statements of the Council for Social Democracy—Shirley Williams, Rodgers, Owen and the others—in attacking the Militant tendency as being ‘undemocratic’. Yet these gangsters would be quite prepared to turn to the use of force against the working class if that seemed to be the only way to preserve the profits, income, power and privileges of the capitalists.

The one thing that blocks the way for a peaceful transformation of society in Britain is the attitude precisely of the Social Democrats and of their counterparts in the Solidarity group of Labour MPs. They do not wish to provoke the ruling class by suggesting a change in society. Yet all the developments of the last decade have been an indication of the stormy road that lies ahead for the working class. Millions of unemployed. No way out for the youth. Lowered real wages for the working class as a result of inflation, or as a result of an ‘incomes policy’, as advocated in an alternative by Healey and the Solidarity MPs. Even powerful sections of the working class like the miners, the water-workers and others have not gained wage increases to compensate for the rate of inflation, especially when one takes into account the tax deductions from their wages.

A new period opens up in which only the transformation of society will solve the problems of the working class. What is necessary is for a Labour government to operate on the policy which is advocated by Militant. Break the power of big business by taking over the major companies and organise production on the basis of a plan. Unless this is done it will be inevitable that in desperation the ruling class will try and solve the problems of their shattered system at the expense of the standards of living and of the rights of the working class.

The price of liberty is eternal vigilance, it has been said! All the class rights which the working class possesses—the right to strike, the right to organise, the right to free speech, the right of free press—were not granted voluntarily by the ruling class, but were only gained as the result of the struggle of the working class. Even the right to vote freely can be taken away by the Tories and the ruling class when it threatens their system. We see already how they have prepared to abandon the old system and return to proportional representation in a desperate attempt to put a brake on a leftward moving Labour government.

The working class, in defence of their rights and interests, can only rely on the trade unions and the Labour Party. The working class can rely only on their own power and strength, their own organisation and their own consciousness and solidarity. It was only this power which led to the defeat of the Heath government by the miners in February 1981. Thatcher in panic drew back from a confrontation with the miners over pit closures, because the working class is a thousand times more powerful than it was at the time of the general strike in 1926.

What is necessary is the realisation among the active layers of the trade union and labour movement of the need for a socialist change of society as a pressing problem. This in its turn can be carried to the mass of the working class and prevent this nightmare of plots and counter-plots, of conspiracies and the other developments which show, as far as the ruling class is concerned, what is lurking in the background. They are thirsting for revenge to try and teach the working class a lesson. If they have failed to do so up to the present time it is because of the fear of the strength of the organisations of the working class.

Unless this strength is organised to change society then inevitably, not only in Britain but in other countries of the West, similar conspiracies will take place. Failure to transform society can lead to a situation where civil war in Britain becomes possible. The working class will never tamely accept the taking away of their rights. They will react as the Spanish workers reacted at the time of the civil war in 1936. They will defend all their rights, including the right to vote, and will not accept their being taken away without a struggle.

Postscript: “It might have been otherwise…”

By Lynn Walsh

It was in the wake of the so-called “Hollis affair”—revolving around press allegations that Sir Roger Hollis, head of MI5 between 1956 and 1965 (who died in 1973), had in fact been a Russian agent—that the Sunday Times and The Times decided to rake over the details of the King/Mountbatten meeting of May 1968. The incident had first been revealed in Cudlipp’s memoirs. Walking on the Water, way back in 1976. In 1981, however, the leading characters were apparently extremely embarrassed by the renewed interest in their 1968 discussion, including Cudlipp who had first spilled the beans (Mountbatten had been assassinated in Ireland in 1979 by the Provisional IRA).

Cudlipp indignantly denied that the King/Mountbatten meeting had anything to do with a military coup d’etat plot. According to him, the 1968 plot actually investigated by MI5 was something completely different. It was the other plot, Cudlipp claims, which was described by MI5’s former chief, Sir Furnival Jones, as a conspiracy of “civil servants and military”, a “pretty loony crew”, to overthrow Wilson’s government. There was no connection between that plot, Cudlipp says, and the King/Mountbatten meeting. If this is true, however, it means there was not just a plot—there were two plots!

In a long article in the right-wing academic journal, Encounter (September 1981) Cudlipp argued that King’s initiative in approaching Mountbatten was merely a misguided attempt to canvass support for an alternative to Harold Wilson as prime minister. “Mr King… considered that Mount-batten was the sort of leader people would be looking for as the titular head of a new administration if, as he wrongly prophesied, Wilson’s government disintegrated. The only mention of armed force by Mr King was in the sense that they would be involved in restoring order after the chaos he was expecting. I am astonished that the whole matter has been revived so many years later.” Cudlipp also quoted King’s comment on Walking on the Water, “the plans and ambitions attributed to me at the end of my time at the Mirror are purely fanciful.” Cudlipp also reported King’s statement that he did not “recall Zuckerman marching out saying ‘treachery’.”

So perhaps the plot of 1968 was really just a figment of the imaginations of The Times’s over-zealous journalists.

However, in a later edition of Encounter (January 1982) Louis Heren, deputy editor of The Times when the King/Mountbatten story was published, forcefully refuted the idea that it was all a “non-story”. “I had known Mount-batten in India,” writes Heren, “and his political ambitions certainly went beyond being the last Viceroy and the first Governor General of India. A very senior member of his staff described him as ‘Tricky Dicky’—this was before Richard Nixon had emerged from Congressional obscurity—and quit in disgust.”

Heren accepted “that there had been no talk of a coup d’etat”. But he went on: “perhaps it was a non-story and not worth the immense effort put into it; but I disagree. It might have been otherwise…” The Times, he continued , had “also plumbed the depths of unease which pervaded Whitehall at the time—Rumours that Cecil King was a key figure in the Putsch may not have reached Hugh Cudlipp, but many of the men we interviewed remembered this and other disturbing rumours. Some may have been nothing more than “loose talk by gin-sodden generals,” as a former Director of MI 5 remarked to us; it would seem that they were taken seriously enough to be investigated by the security service.”

Lord Zuckerman also wrote a brief reply to Cudlipp in Encounter (January 1982). He clearly did not believe that reports of the King/Mountbatten meeting had been exaggerated, and indignantly rejected the idea that he had overreacted to King’s proposals. Zuckerman clearly could not believe that King had failed to hear his comment that it was “rank treachery”; “Mr King would have had to be very deaf indeed not to have heard what I said. I had no doubt about the intent of what he had been saying, even though I do not recall…that the words ‘military coup’ were ever used. As Lord Cudlipp has written, Mr King had been talking about what he saw as the imminent disintegration of Harold Wilson’s democratically elected government; about the likelihood of civil disorder following, with bloodshed on the streets; about the possible need to call in the armed forces; and about machine guns at street corners. Lord Cudlipp relates that Mr King went on to say “that people would be looking for someone like Lord Mountbatten as the titular head of the new administration’, ending by asking whether Lord Mount-batten would agree to be the titular head of, presumably, a non-democratically elected administration. Call it what you will, this talk sounded to me like an invitation to participate in an action of treachery or treason.” Incidentally, Cudlipp in his Encounter article quotes Mountbatten’s own comments in 1978 to another Times journalist: “Cecil King came to see me, at his own request, and said would I take over the country, to which my retort was to kick him out…”. Cudlipp puts this down to Mountbatten’s “expansive, reminiscent mood”, dismissing it as a “pithy titbit.”

But the more they try to explain the incident away, the more evidence comes out. What has filtered out is still only part of the story. It would be too much to expect the capitalist press to reveal the whole truth. Nevertheless, what has come out through the serious capitalist journals—not usually read by workers—confirms that, even at the first signs of serious economic and social crisis in 1968, there were discussions among the top representatives of capitalism of military or ‘constitutional’ coups against an elected Labour government.