The British Coup Conspiracy

From 1960 onward, there was a significant upswing in the fortunes of the right wing. There was George Lincoln Rockwell’s American Nazi Party, Falangists in Spain and Algerie Francaise in France. By the 1970s, Britain neared collapse. Trade unions paralysed the country at will, seeing 12.9 million working days lost to industrial action in each year of the decade. Historian Dominic Sandbrook said the unions’ role now “seems as alien as the Church in medieval society”. After Harold Wilson’s left-wing Labour government was elected in 1974 and raised the top rate of income tax to 98%, talk of a coup increased.

 

A movement called GB75 was created by David Stirling, founder of the SAS, described by his biographer as “well to the right of the Conservative Party”. He thought of Labour’s left wing as “a cancer”. Members included a Jersey-based arms dealer, ex-soldiers and spies, all with links to the military and intelligence. There were also supporters in the civil service, politics and business. Tiny Rowland has been named repeatedly. When The Times newspaper ran a story on the proposed coup in 2009, it didn’t mention that one of those involved was a senior Times executive, as detailed in the memoir of one-time Times Home Affairs editor, Peter Evans. It should also be remembered that between the two elections of 1974, this newspaper published articles discussing the conditions that could make a military coup in Britain legitimate.

 

The biggest loonies thought Wilson and his government were communist sympathizers, even Soviet agents. Stirling called his movement “an organization of apprehensive patriots” while The Guardian newspaper described it as “half-daft, half-dangerous”. This was a time when the UK government lost a European court case over its use of torture-lite in Northern Ireland, techniques copied from the warm and caring North Koreans. The case was won on appeal.

 

Googling, it doesn’t help that GB-75 is also a guitar string.
The plan was to seize Heathrow, the BBC and Buckingham Palace. The Queen would recite a statement urging the public to support the armed forces because the government could not keep order. An internment camp would be set up on the far-flung Shetland Islands. The cabinet would be imprisoned on the QE2, one particular left-wing Labour leader assassinated and Wilson’s government replaced with one headed by Lord Louis Mountbatten, Prince Philip’s uncle.

 

Mountbatten took part in the education of Prince Charles, for instance in affairs of the heart. His written advice included: “In a case like yours, the man should sow his wild oats and have as many affairs as he can before settling down”. He later decided Prince Charles had had his fun and tried to fix him up with his granddaughter, Amanda Knatchbull. Prince Charles proposed, but Amanda had been somewhat put off the idea of becoming a core member of the Royal Family when Mountbatten, her grandmother and youngest brother were killed by a bomb on a boat, the work of the INLA. The INLA was an offshoot of the IRA terrorist movement referred to by that group as “the space cadets” on account of their drug usage. Moutbatten’s legs were blown off and he drowned.

 

Moutbatten was certainly approached. In an interview with Frank Melville of TIME in 1978, he said that in 1968 he was approached by Cecil King, chairman of the International Publishing Corporation, publisher of Britain’s largest circulation newspaper, the Daily Mirror. He died in 1987. King’s mother was the sister of Lords Northcliffe and Rothermere, who supported Adolph Hitler and British fascists in the 1930s. King had a personal grudge against Wilson, who had declined to propose King for a hereditary title he deeply desired. King asked if Mountbatten would take over the country should the need arise, to which Mountbatten said “my retort was to kick him out”. King’s version of events is that he was summoned by Mountbatten, who spoke of countering the Wilson government, prompting King to suggest the time could perhaps come when Mountbatten could become head of government. King alleges that a coup was never discussed. Mountbatten never reported the encounter to Downing Street. Amongst pinkoes, legend has it that he had a map on his office wall showing how a coup could be effected.

 

One-time intelligence officer Brian Crozier admitted the army was lobbied in the cause of a coup by himself and others. Others who spoke of it were Tony Benn, Peter Wright, Robin Ramsay, Stephen Dorril and Paul Foot. That last one is, at least, a pretty credible journalist, whose name was given to an award for journalist. The matter was discussed in Who Killed Diana? by Peter Hounam and Derek McAdams.

 

Wilson was certainly the target of a smear campaign by the security services. Insinuations ranged from mere extra-marital shenanigans to KGB agent-hood. The satirical magazine Private Eye in particular was approached with these stories. Cecil King said the Daily Mirror would publish anything MI5 wanted. Former Daily Express defense correspondent Chapman Pincher freely admitted to spreading such rumors.

 

The CIA’s head of counter-intelligence, James Jesus Angleton, thought Britain was heading towards becoming ungovernable, and he colored the US administration’s attitude to it. Angleton made his views known to Peter Wright, earning himself a place in the book Spycatcher. He had been told by Soviet defector Anatoliy Golitsyn that Wilson was a KGB mole whose rise to power was facilitated by the KGB’s poisoning of the previous Labour leader, Hugh Gaitskell. Gaitskell had opposed unilateral nuclear disarmament, to which his party was leaning. He was regarded as the next prime minister of Great Britain.

 

Gaitskell died of lupus disseminata, an autoimmune disease, after being served tea and biscuits at London’s Soviet consulate. His doctor was suspicious because lupus was rare in temperate climates and Gaitskell hadn’t recently been anywhere he could have contracted it. The doctor contacted MI5, leading Peter Wright to ask the advice of the chief doctor at the government’s chemical and biological warfare center at Porton Down. Wright was told that nobody knew how lupus was contracted, although it was suspected that it was a form of fungus.

 

Wilson actually had some involvement with the KGB. During his reign as President of the Board of Trade in the late 1940s, he embarked upon trade missions to Russia sufficiently often to arouse the interest of Peter Wright. He became friendly with two Russians, Anastas Mikoyan and Vyacheslav Molotov, a relationship which continued into his time as a member of the Opposition. His talk of British politics was relayed to the KGB, who rated it highly and assigned him the codename “OLDING”. The KGB records that “the development did not come to fruition”, but a communist civil servant spoke positively of Wilson in a tapped ‘phone call.

 

In early 1974, the right-wing Spectator magazine predicted “Britain is on a Chilean brink”. A coup there in 1973 was in response to a threat to bourgeois rule by the working class. In the US, William Buckley spoke similarly. Given that all members of the military take an oath to the monarch and not the government or a constitution, a coup in Britain could even have been carried out legally. There were coups in Greece in 1967, Portugal in 1974 and Spain in 1981.

 

The military siege of Heathrow airport in January 1974 is said to have been a dress-rehearsal for a coup. Officially, it was announced that “terrorists may try to mount an anti-aircraft attack with missiles. Troops and police are attempting to cover areas over which aircraft pass low as they take off and land” (Times, Jan 7th). 400 troops set-up checkpoints for a mile around Heathrow and sent out “patrols as far as Windsor and Eton in the West, and as far as Chiswick in the East” {Daily Telegraph, Jan 7th). Since a terrorist with a SAM7 could knock out an airliner from anywhere within 50 miles, this isn’t terribly plausible. Wilson wasn’t informed of these maneuvers in advance, a general problem causing him to later remark that at the end of his stay in Downing Street he didn’t feel he “knew what was going on, fully, in security”.

 

Baroness Falkender, then Marcia Williams, was private then political secretary to Wilson, and is said to have been the inspiration behind the BBC comedy Yes, Minister. She said of this episode, “It was a rehearsal, nothing more”.

 

British support for a coup in Italy was discussed in 1976 when the Italian communist party Partito Comunista Italiano (PCI) made electoral headway. The Foreign Office said an Italian communist government might “be an event with catastrophic consequences”. Documents circulated in British government circles spoke of how to avoid communist rule, including “Option No 4: subversive or military intervention against the PCI“. The PCI narrrowly lost an election to the Christian democrats by 34.3% to 38.7%.

 

Anyone doubting that members of the British establishment could eject an elected government from power should remember that they did exactly that in Australia in 1975. Gough Whitlam’s narrowly-elected Labor Party was unable to pass a budget thanks to Opposition activity. Without money, the country would have shut down. Parliament was told that pursuit of an $A 4 billion loan had ended but two cabinet ministers continued unofficially. The Queen’s representative, Governor General Sir John Kerr, dismissed the government.

 

A Czech defector named three Labour MPs as Soviet agents: John Stonehouse, postmaster general under Wilson, Bernard Floud and Will Owen. Floud is, at least, known to have been innocent, despite Peter Wright’s best efforts to falsify documents. Unfairly, Wilson’s treasury minister Niall McDermot was obliged to leave office in 1968 when MI5 officer Patrick Stewart accused his Russian-born wife of contact with the KGB.

 

MI5 had a file on Wilson under the name Norman Worthington. From 1972, the organization spent less of its time pursuing Soviet spies, and more on trade unionists, peace campaigners and political activists. By the end of the 1970s, they had files on more than two million British citizens. According to Peter Wright, MI5 indulged in 23 criminal conspiracies and committed twelve acts of treason against the elected government. At the behest of the head of MI6, Maurice Oldfield, Wright told his boss Sir Michael “Jumbo” Hanley of the state of affairs. Per Spycatcher, “Hanley . . . went white as a sheet . . . he was learning that half of his staff were up to their necks in a plot to get rid of the Prime Minister”.

 

After his resignation, Wilson discussed the possibility of a coup with BBC journalists Barry Penrose and Roger Coutiour. He encouraged them to speak to Colin Wallace, an intelligence officer who had been involved in an operation known as “Clockwork Orange”, which originally sought to discredit members of the IRA and UVF, but later encompassed mainland UK politicians, including Wilson. Wallace was jailed for manslaughter after attempting to expose the affair. Wilson said, “We came within an inch of a coup”, but the journalists’ attentions were diverted by the sex scandal involving Liberal party leader Jeremy Thorpe, leading to their sacking by the BBC. Decades later, Penrose said, “in answer to the question ‘how close did we come to a military government’ I can only say – closer than we’d ever be content to think”.

 

It didn’t help that by then Wilson was suffering from Alzheimers and given to paranoia. Files released in 2005 show he was concerned that, at home on the Scilly Isles, he was being eavesdropped by Russian ships disguised as trawlers. MI5 discovered no evidence supporting this, but advised Wilson not to use a walkie-talkie.

 

Of course, it never happened. Margaret Thatcher’s election in 1979 was orchestrated by Airey Neave, said to have been closely connected with GB75 and later assassinated by the INLA. GB75 supposedly strengthened Thatcher and co by making them look sane by comparison. Just goes to show: you don’t need a coup to end up with a dreadfully right-wing government.

Written by Timothy Chilman (ephedrasa@hotmail.com)

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4 thoughts on “The British Coup Conspiracy

  1. Smiler 01/18/2011, 4:32 am:

    Just read your article about a British coup. Was a serving soldier at in late 1975. Was asked by an officer from another unit the following question, " Would I fight for the Queen or the Government ?". My unit had been involved at Heathrow in 1974. I understood what he meant, he meant a coup, he had a list of our names. He was a major with para wings on his shoulder and was accompanied by a WO2, they were from 2SG. I think he was the former C.O. of the Guards Para, but not able to confirm that.

    • Mark 10/16/2011, 10:19 am:

      Major Mark Mackenzie Carnegie-Brown?

      • Smiler 10/18/2011, 12:52 am:

        I don't think it was Mr Carnegie Brown, been many years..I don't know any firm facts, thats why it all intrigues me..I was in Pirbright at the time..so was 2SG rear party( Queen Elizabeth Barracks)..so was Guards Para (D Lines ? ), they were due for disbandment under Major Corbett IG..just coincindence I suppose..by the way, I answered that I would fight for the Queen..Quis Separabit.

  2. Smiler 10/18/2011, 8:57 am:

    ..sorry, meant Major, not Mr.

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