There has been some debate about the significance of a warning issued this weekend through Rupert Murdoch’s Sunday Times by a British general that the army would “mutiny” and use “whatever means possible, fair or foul” should the new Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn ever get near 10 Downing Street.
Here is what the general says:
Owen Jones has wondered whether this is tantamount to a threat of a coup by the military. I think it would be foolhardy indeed to read it as anything else.
None of us should be surprised either. We have been here before. In the late 1960s and early 1970s serving British generals, former generals, members of the royal family and the British security services regularly spoke in such terms to each other – and even occasionally on prime-time television.
More than that, when they believed their privileges were under serious threat, as they did during Harold Wilson’s various governments of that period, they actively plotted for “regime change”, or a military takeover.
In what became a self-serving vicious spiral, the establishment’s fears were further stoked by the stream of black propaganda being fed to the British media by MI5, Britain’s version of the FBI. It painted Wilson’s government and the trade union movement as overrun with Communists trying to bring down the UK. One can imagine a Corbyn government will receive no better treatment from the UK media than Wilson’s did.
Like Corbyn today, Wilson was seen in the 60s and 70s as a major threat to the entrenched privileges of British elites.
There is a wealth of evidence for all this, though perhaps unsurprisingly many sources, including Wikipedia, casually dismiss these accounts as “conspiracy theories” – the ultimate way to shut down scrutiny.
But the evidence was so compelling even the BBC, hardly a risk-taking broadcaster at the best of times, girded its loins back in 2006 to make a documentary called “The Plot Against Harold Wilson”. In fact, as the 90-minute film makes clear by interviewing many of those directly involved, there was not one plot but many against Wilson. You can watch it below.
It probably all seemed like old, slightly quaint history to the BBC nine years ago. Now it sounds frighteningly relevant again.
Here is a fascinating line from one plotter, Sir General Walter Walker, at about 1hr 2 mins in. Speaking in the early 1970s, he says on film:
If you plot to destroy this present system, what are you doing? You are committing a form of treason. I have taken an oath of allegiance to my Queen and I am not prepared to see that oath interfered with.
For me at least, that puts the ludicrous current debate about Corbyn refusing to sing the national anthem in an even more sinister light. It also makes me wonder how the armed forces read the recent comment from the prime minister, David Cameron, that Corbyn poses a “threat to national security”.
Lord Mountbatten, the Queen’s cousin, a mentor to Prince Charles, and the chief of the defence staff at the time, became a figurehead for this group (45.30) and even approached the Queen Mother to seek her blessing for a military takeover. Walker says Mountbatten told him: “If you want help from me, will you let me know?”
David Stirling, the founder of Britain’s most elite military unit, the SAS, also confirmed to journalists that a coup against Wilson was seriously being considered (1.03). He contemplated bumping off trade union leaders to foment so much anger among workers that the military would be forced to move in to restore order.
Soon, the army, members of the royal family and the intelligence services were all considering how they might launch a military coup to stop a Communist takeover (the one that had been created in MI5’s lurid imagination). Brian Crozier, a former intelligence officer who supported a coup, says there was a “widespread attitude” in favour of it among the military (1.05)
It culminated in a show of force by the armed forces, which briefly took over Heathrow airport (1.06) without warning or coordination with Wilson’s government. Marcia Williams, Wilson’s secretary, called it a “dress rehearsal”. Wilson resigned unexpectedly soon afterwards, apparently as the pressures started to get to him.
As the BBC concludes:
The actions of Lord Mountbatten and senior military and intelligence officers undermined democracy and brought this country to the brink of a coup. Yet no one has been held accountable, there has been no proper inquiry.
Such an inquiry might have served at least as a small deterrent for those, like the general who approached the Sunday Times, who are thinking once again in terms of a coup.