When the generals prepared to seize power in Britain

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

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

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

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.