Today in London’s conspiratorial history: discussions of a military coup, 1968.

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 MI5, 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 political secretary, told the Sunday Times (29 March 1981) that she and Sir Harold “had a suspicion that something was going on.” By all accounts there were two abortive plots for military coups in Britain – in 1968, and 1974.

The 1968 plot ended up somewhat abortive – although it seems the 1974 event went a little bit further.
Those behind the coup plots were generally rich and powerful figures in what was then termed ‘the establishment’. Many were convinced that reforms carried out by the Labour government of 1964-70, together with the increasing autonomy of workers in many industries, and social changes around sexuality, women’s rights, etc, were indicators that  Britain was on a slippery slope to becoming a communist nation. Various hard right-wing figures including James Goldmith, Ross McWhirter, Airey Neave, Lord Lucan, SAS founder David Stirling, John Aspinall and senior MI5 figures were alleged to have been involved in the 1974 plan.

At the heart of both plots lay the belief by (possibly barking) intelligence insiders that Prime Minster Harold Wilson was a Soviet spy. Soviet defector Anatoliy Golitsyn was supposed to have labelled Harold Wilson as a KGB spy, speculating that the previous Labour Party Leader, Hugh Gaitskell, was poisoned by the KGB so that he could be replaced by the more left wing Harold Wilson. In his book “Spycatcher”, former MI5 officer Peter Wright confirmed, Wilson was the victim of a protracted, illegal campaign of destabilisation by a rogue element in the security services and they were prompted by fears that Wilson was a Soviet agent.

MI5 repeatedly investigated Wilson over the course of several years looking for his “links to the KGB”. Wilson had made frequent visits to the Soviet Union as President of the Board of Trade in the late 1940s and early 1950s and this had more than aroused suspicion. However nothing concrete ever materialised.
Finally they officially concluded that Wilson had had no relationship with the KGB; nor had it ever found evidence of Soviet penetration of the Labour Party. Wilson claimed he was a staunch anti-communist.
In his controversial memoir Spycatcher (1987), former MI5 officer Peter Wright stated that the head of the CIA’sCounterintelligence Division, James Angleton, told him that Wilson was a Soviet agent when Wilson was elected Prime Minister in1964. Wright said that Angleton said he had heard this from a source (whom he did not name but who was probably Golitsyn). According to Wright, Angleton offered to provide further information on the condition that MI5 guaranteed to keep these allegations from “political circles”,[4] but the management of MI5 declined to accept restrictions on the use of the information and Angleton told them nothing more.

At the end of the 1960s, Wright wrote, MI5 received information from two Czechoslovakian defectors, Josef Frolík and Franti?ek August, who had fled to the West, alleging the Labour Party had “almost certainly” been penetrated by the Soviets. The two named a list of Labour MPs and trade unionists as Soviet agents.

In 1968 Cecil King, the publisher of the Daily Mirror, became involved with Peter Wright of MI5 in a plot to bring down the government of Wilson. Wright claimed in his memoirs, Spycatcher (1987) that “Cecil King, who was a longtime agent of ours, made it clear that he would publish anything MI5 might care to leak in his direction.”

Former Daily Mirror editor Hugh Cudlipp arranged for King to meet Lord Mountbatten, a member of the royal family, and recently retired Chief of the Defence Staff, who had been privately highly critical of the defence cuts made by the government. Solly Zuckerman, the government’s scientific adviser, was also invited to attend the meeting on 8th May. According to Cecil King’s account in his memoirs, Without Fear or Favour (1971), when he told Mountbatten of his plans, Mountbatten replied that “there is anxiety about the government at the palace, and that the queen has had an unprecedented number of letters protesting about Wilson”.

In his 1976 memoir Walking on Water, Hugh Cudlipp recounts a meeting he arranged at the request of Cecil King, the head of the International Publishing Corporation (IPC), between King and Lord Mountbatten of Burma. The meeting took place on 8 May 1968. Attending were Mountbatten, King, Cudlipp, and Sir Solly Zuckerman, the Chief Scientific Adviser to the British government.
According to Cudlipp:
“[Cecil] awaited the arrival of Sir Solly and then at once expounded his views on the gravity of the national situation, the urgency for action, and then embarked upon a shopping list of the Prime Minister’s shortcomings…He explained that in the crisis he foresaw as being just around the corner, the Government would disintegrate, there would be bloodshed in the streets and the armed forces would be involved. The people would be looking to somebody like Lord Mountbatten as the titular head of a new administration, somebody renowned as a leader of men, who would be capable, backed by the best brains and administrators in the land, to restore public confidence. He ended with a question to Mountbatten- would he agree to be the titular head of a new administration in such circumstances?”
Mountbatten asked for the opinion of Zuckerman, who stated that the plan amounted to treason and left the room. Mountbatten expressed the same opinion, and King and Cudlipp left. King subsequently decided to override the editorial independence of the Daily Mirror and wrote and instructed to be published a front page article calling on Wilson to be removed by some sort of extra parliamentary action. It appeared two days later, titled “Enough is enough”.
It read:

“Mr Wilson and his government have lost all credit and we are now threatened with the greatest financial crisis in history. It is not to be resolved by lies about our reserves but only by a fresh start under a fresh leader.”

The Board of the IPC met and demanded his resignation for this breach of procedure and damaging the interests of IPC as a public company. He refused, so was dismissed by the Board on 30 May 1968.

This is the accepted account – although it is fair to say that in the aftermath, with nothing having happened, most participants would presumably have been keen to distance themselves from the whole shebang. The picture of Mountbatten as having honourably shied away doesn’t quite fit with the alternative portrait of him with a map on his wall of how the coup would pan out…

A later memoir by Harold Evans, former Times and Sunday Times editor, observed that the Times had egged on King’s plans for a coup:
“Rees-Mogg’s Times backed the Conservative Party in every general election, but it periodically expressed yearnings for a coalition of the right-centre. In the late 1960s it encouraged Cecil King’s lunatic notion of a coup against Harold Wilson’s Labour Government in favour of a government of business leaders led by Lord Robens. In the autumn election of 1974, it predicted that economic crisis would produce a coalition government of national unity well inside five years and urged one there and then between Conservatives and Liberals.”

The 1974 plot was allegedly more serious. 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”. However there was a rumour that these exercise were in fact rehearsals for a coup against Wilson. His tory predecessor Ted Heath had been driven from office by a series of crises, but largely by the class struggle of powerful organized groups of workers, resisting government attempts to alter working practices and union laws. The squinty-eyed rightwingers who had already been ‘in’ on the idea of Wilson as a commie spy could only see these events as he prelude to a soviet-style takeover.

There was again talk of a military coup, with rumours of Lord Mountbatten as head of an interregnal administration after Wilson had been deposed. Baroness Falkender (a senior aide and close friend of Wilson) asserted that the army operation at Heathrow was ordered as a practice-run for a military takeover or as a show of strength, as the government itself was not informed of such an exercise based around a key point in the nation’s transport infrastructure

“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).
Peter Wright claimed that he was confronted by two of his MI5 colleagues and that they said to him: “Wilson’s a bloody menace and it’s about time the public knew the truth”, and “We’ll have him out, this time we’ll have him out”. Wright alleged that there was a plan to leak damaging information about Wilson and that this had been approved by ‘up to thirty officers’.[12] As the 1974 election approached, the plan went, MI5 would leak selective details of the intelligence about Labour leaders, especially Wilson, to ‘sympathetic’ journalists. According to Wright MI5 would use their contacts in the press and the trade unions to spread around the idea that Wilson was considered a security risk. The matter was to be raised in Parliament for ‘maximum effect’. However Wright declined to let them see the files on Wilson and the plan was never carried out but Wright does claim it was a ‘carbon copy’ of the Zinoviev Letter which had helped destabilise the first Labour Government in 1924.

On 22 March 1987 former MI5 officer James Miller claimed that the Ulster Workers Council Strike of 1974 had been promoted by MI5 to help destabilise Wilson’s government.

Was it all just the barmy ramblings of rightwing loonies? Much of the ’68 plot seems to have been on the nudge nudge level – suggestions and implications as a way of gauging how others felt. In the end capital was able, with the help of other groups of dedicated rightwing ideologues, to redirect the state of the British economy, as part of huge changes to global finance, and defeat the threat they saw as coming from the working class, but mostly within the normal healthy parameter of ‘democracy’. Thatcher etc. Although the evidence is there to show that the elements that worked towards or would have supported prospective coups were enthusiastic supporters of Thatcher and her ilk.


An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online


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