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Harold Wilson - A Very British Coup

A coup requires no ideology and few actual supporters. It becomes possible, Edward Luttwak says in his study Coup dEtat, when a political system becomes so discredited that it loses legitimacy. The UK parliamentary system is sound, and the only rumour of a coup in recent memory was a laughable plot by the press baron Cecil King in 1968, when he attempted to recruit Lord Mountbatten in a bid to unseat Harold Wilsons government.

Wilson had views on reds under the beds. In the run up to the 1976 Labour Party conference, Michael Foot made it clear that he would not support a witch-hunt. "There is room in our party for many different shades of opinion. At the Tribune meeting that night, Eric Heffer directly countered Callaghan by saying that this was no time to return to the witch-hunts of the past". Prime Minister James Callaghan, former Prime Minister Sir Harold Wilson, and Ronald Hayward, general secretary of the Labor party, all publicly called for study of leftist infiltration by the party's national executive committee. But what was in question is a relatively miniature and even then divided organization that called itself "Trotskyist."

Responsible for trade under the postwar Attlee government of 194550, Harold Wilson attempted to increase exports to the USSR. Wilson, in 1947, was president of the Board of Trade - the government department in charge of international commerce. Wilson constantly ran up against United States Government opposition towards any growth in such trade. Wilson felt that the United States used the hysteria of the cold war to prevent Britain from increasing its trade with the USSR. His was not a position that was likely to be viewed with favor in MI5.

In fact, there was near hysteria in MI5 when Wilso was sent to the USSR to negotiate the sale of 20 advanced jet engines. To Stalins amazement, the British Labour government and its Minister of Trade, Sir Stafford Cripps, along with Harold Wilson, were perfectly willing to provide technical information and a license to manufacture the Rolls-Royce Nene. Jet engines were not included in the Trade Agreement with Russia of December, 1947. Those supplied to Russia were exported under contracts signed in August 1946, and March 1947. Wilson oversaw the selling of Rolls-Royce engines to the Soviet Union, in line with an agreement made prior to his appointment. The engine was reverse-engineered, produced as the Klimov RD-45, and subsequently incorporated into the MiG-15.

Wilson was rumoured to have been a Soviet agent after negotiating the sale of the advanced aircraft jet engines to the Soviet Union. Wilson was warned at the time by Prime Minister Clement Attlee and Chancellor Richard Stafford Cripps that this could well become a poisoned chalice. Indeed it did, as Wilson was never forgiven by the CIA, or sections of the British security services, for allowing the deal to go ahead. Wilson was only a junior Minister carrying out a Cabinet decision, but from that point on he was viewed with suspicion by MI5 officers.

When the unexpected death of Hugh Gaitskell led to the election of Wilson in 1963, MI5 immediately tried to recruit Wilson's campaign manager, George Caunt, to spy on the Labour leader. Shortly before the 1964 election, the FBI told MI5 that it had discovered a KGB mole who had been operating inside MI5 in the key post-war period. The fact that Sir Anthony Blunt was a KGB agent and had close connections with the Queen was certain to create a spy scandal as damaging as that of Kim Philby. Even worse for MI5 was the knowledge that it had been tipped off about Blunt's spying a decade earlier and had failed to take action. It now feared that Wilson would use the opportunity of the scandal to dismember its organisation.

Sir Roger Hollis, then director-general of MI5, and Arthur Martin, head of the counter-espionage department, decided on a cover-up and did not even tell the outgoing Tory Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan. Instead, Blunt was granted immunity and was interrogated by Peter Wright, who made the position clear in "Spycatcher", when he wrote: "We had strict orders from successive Director-Generals to do nothing that might provoke Blunt to go public. All that was concealed from Wilson when he became Prime Minister, and he was also not informed when Hollis and his deputy, Graham Mitchell, eventually came under suspicion as KGB moles".

Other news was kept from Wilson. In 1961, Anatoli Golitsin, a KGB defector, had arrived in the USA with all sorts of wild allegations few of which yielded anything of substance except the identity of the Admiralty spy, John Vassall. By coincidence, shortly after Wilson's election as Leader of the Opposition, Golitsin was sent to Britain to be interviewed by MI5. His agreed fee was 10,000 a month70,000 at today's priceswhich was a considerable incentive to keep the interest of his MI5 hosts. Although he had made no mention of it during his two-year interrogation in the USA, Golitsin now told MI5 that he had heard of a KGB plot to kill the leader of a west European political party so that its man could take over. That was all that Peter Wright and other extreme right-wingers inside MI5 needed to confirm the suspicions that had been hanging around ever since the jet engine trade deal and Wilson's annual visits to the USSR while in opposition. They believed that the assassinated party leader had to be Gaitskell.

Oblivious to the suspicions of MI5 and the CIA, the new Labour Prime Minister Wilson issued instructions that MI5 was to stop tapping the telephones of Members of Parliament, although it never occurred to him that MI5 could continue to get access to the information gleaned from taps on Members of Parliament run by the CIA or GCHQ. He also instructed that MI5 should stop using Members as agents without knowing that one Tory Member, Captain Henry Kerby, had been used by MI5 to ingratiate himself with Wilson's shadow Cabinet colleague George Wigg by spying on the Tory party for Wigg.

The instructions from Wilson caused deep resentment inside MI5, where some officers retaliated by leaking damaging bits of gossip about members of Wilson's Government from MI5 files to the press. That was of course a breach of the Official Secrets Act 1911, but no one was ever prosecuted.

MI5 believed that seven members of Wilson's Government and three other Labour Members of Parliament were either spies or at the very least security risks. Only one of those 10, Will Owen, the Member of Parliament for Morpeth, eventually turned out to be guilty. He had been taking 500 a month from Czechoslovakian intelligence in exchange for low-grade information that it could most probably have got cheaper by buying Hansard and reading the quality press. All the other names on MI5's list were completely innocent, but that did not stop MI5, in particular Peter Wright, hounding Bernard Floud, who had been devastated by the death of his wife. MI5 pursued him until he finally committed suicide in a moment of despair.

When Treasury Minister Niall MacDermot had his promotion to the Cabinet blocked following MI5 pressure on Wilson, he resigned from politics in disgust. The other seven Members on MI5's list were John Diamond, Tom Driberg, Judith Hart, Stephen Swingler, John Stonehouse, Barnet Stross and, of course, Wilson.

The MI5-inspired rumours about Wilson eventually reached the ears of former Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, who asked James Scott-Hopkins, a former MI6 officer who had become a Tory Member of Parliament, to conduct his own investigation to discover whether there was any danger of Wilson's being blackmailed. In the summer of 1967, people from MI5 met people from the CIA, the FBI and the Australian and New Zealand security services in Melbourne, Australia, where they were addressed by Golitsin about his Wilson allegations.

Matters began to hot up when the press baron Cecil King, a long-standing MI5 agent, began to discuss the need for a coup against the Wilson Government. The Times even ran an editorial headlined "Is Britain heading for a military coup?" King informed Peter Wright that the Daily Mirror would publish any damaging anti-Wilson leaks that MI5 wanted aired, and at a meeting with Lord Mountbatten and the Government's chief scientific adviser, Solly Zuckerman, he urged Mountbatten to become the leader of a Government of national salvation. Lucky old Britain. Zuckerman pointed out that that was treason, and left the meeting. The idea came to nothing because of Mountbatten's reluctance to act.

Harold Wilson was not the only one under suspicion. While the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath) was Leader of the Opposition, the Tory Member of Parliament, Captain Henry Kerby was an MI5 agent who had ingratiated himself with George Wigg was used to spread rumours that the right hon. Gentleman was a homosexual who had had an affair with a Swedish diplomat. Doubts about the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup were not confined to the more extreme elements who clustered round Peter Wright. The newly appointed head of MI5, Mr. Hanleyotherwise known as Jumbodid not inform the right hon. Gentleman that investigations were taking place to try to determine whether Sir Roger Hollis had been a KGB agent.

The head of MI5 did not inform the Leader of the Opposition of MI5's doubts about Wilson, either, or reveal the contents of the file on Wilson that he had inherited from his predecessor, Furnival Jones, and which was kept in his safe, filed under the name "Henry Worthington". The second factor that increased MI5's alarm at the time was the rise in trade union militancy and the swing to the left in the Labour party. Any pretext that MI5 existed to catch Russian spies went right out of the window at that point. From 1972, there was a vast growth in the sections of MI5 that were involved with domestic surveillance.

Trade unionists, peace campaigners, Cabinet Ministers and political activists in their tens of thousands became the objects of illegal telephone taps and letter intercepts. Recruitment of agents on a scale not considered necessary even at the height of the cold war meant that, by the mid-1970s, even a small group of left-wingers meeting anywhere was likely to have an MI5 agent reporting back on its activities. By the end of the 1970s, 2 million British citizens had security files held on them by MI5.

A constant drip of innuendo about Wilson's loyalty was fed by MI5 to Private Eye, and Michael Halls, the liaison officer between No. 10 and MI5, considered Marcia Williams to be a security risk and funnelled damaging smears about her and Wilson to Private Eye. As Peter Wright put it in his book: most people in MI5 didn't have a duty to Parliament. They have a duty to the QueenIt's up to us to stop Russians getting control of the British government. Although it is easy to dismiss some of what I have described as the work of a lunatic fringe, the views of MI5 chief Sir Michael Hanley are well known. When he was asked at a seminar for junior MI5 officers what would happen if Michael Foot became Prime Minister, he replied: I and every other officer in the service will have to consider our position. Other officers in MI5 did not share Hanley's sense of resignation, and 30 MI5 officers, including Peter Wright, engaged, on Wright's own admission, in 23 criminal conspiracies and committed 12 acts of treason against the elected Government of the day.

Finally, what was happening came to the attention of Sir Maurice Oldfield, then head of MI6, who took Wright to dinner at Lockets restaurant in July 1975 and asked him about the extent of the plot in MI5 against Wilson. Having heard Wright out, Oldfield told him to put MI5 chief Hanley in the picture. This Wright did the next day, and in his book he says: Hanleywent white as a sheethe was learning that half of his staff were up to their necks in a plot to get rid of the Prime Minister. While Hanley was pondering what to do to defuse that time bomb, George Weidenfeld the publisher asked to see Wilson and warned him about the gossip.

A statement was made to the House admitting that there had been a "clockwork orange" plot against the Labour Government, and that the allegations in Peter Wright's book were effectively true. A special inquiry was set up to examine how people had been damaged in that process it was found that MI5 officers tried to nobble the inquiry set up to investigate the allegations made by Colin Wallace.

On 16 March 1976, 5 days after his 60th birthday, he stunned the nation when he announced his intention to resign, a decision that he claimed he had made 2 years previously. Wilson caused a political sensation when he announced he was to resign, just over two years into his fourth stint as Prime Minister. He had been Labour leader for 13 years and Prime Minister for nearly eight years.

James Callaghan, leader of the Labour Party, succeeded him to the role of Prime Minister. The unexpected nature of Wilsons departure gave rise to various conspiracy theories, and a suspicion in some quarters that Wilsons resignation was forced, for some secret reason.

Another Very British Coup

One of the most persistent controversies involving the Security Service during the 1970s and 1980s was the so-called "Wilson Plot", in which officers of the Service were accused of having conspired against the Labour Prime Minister Sir Harold Wilson. During his second term in office (1974-1976), Wilson appears to have become convinced that he was under constant electronic surveillance. His official biographer Philip Ziegler relates an account of Wilson's caution in the lavatory in Number 10, where "the Prime Minister pointed at the electric light fitting and made an exaggerated gesture of caution, putting his finger to his lips and indicating that confidential talk would be unsafe." Former US President George H. W. Bush, then director of the CIA, reportedly emerged from a meeting at Downing Street expressing amazement that "He did nothing but complain about being spied on!" Wilson's fears were publicised in July 1977 in an article in The Observer, in which he was quoted as claiming that a faction in the Service was mounting a "whispering campaign" against him and that he had been bugged.

On 12 May 1977 Barry Penrose and Roger Courtiour were summoned by Mr. Harold Wilson to his house in Lord North street. During that conversation he set out in detail and at subsequent meetings his allegations against the security services. "The Pencourt File", a book that was published about these matters, said: Sir Harold spoke in detail about the burglaries that he and some of his Labour colleagues in the Government had suffered. He spoke too about the extraordinary 'dirty tricks' which he said had been aimed against some of his Ministers in order to discredit them. He said the culprits were connected with South Africa and with intelligence circles in Britain itself.

There was an important story to be investigated, he said, and more than once he used the name Watergate to describe what had been happening in Britain. Sir Harold is quoted as saying: I am not certain that for the last eight months when I was Prime Minister I knew what was happening fully, in Security". The book goes on: He" Sir Harold really would not rule out the possibility that individuals working inside MI5, and even MI6, had contributed to the 'smears' which, he complained, had frequently appeared in the Press and elsewhere while he had been at Number 10". That is all on tape and availableto be heard by those who want to know the truth of what happened in that period because those two journalists made a point of taping what they were listening to.

Chapman Pincher had much to say on these matters. In his book, "Inside Story" he said: Wilson was reported as having accused certain officers of MI5 of having tried to undermine him and his government. He was quoted as believing that some of the disaffected faction in MI5 with extreme right-wing views' had even suggested that there was a Communist cell in the Cabinet and that he and Lady Falklender, his political secretretary, formerly Mrs Marcia Williams, were part of it.

Pincher went on: I have confirmed that these were indeed Sir Harold's views and that long before his feelings about MI5 became public knowledge he had been in the habit of sounding off about them in private This had come to my notice when a most eminent Oxford Professor wrote to me to describe what had happened at a literary lunch he had attended in Leeds in January 1977. 'I happened to sit next to Sir Harold He told me that MI5 had spied on him when he was Prime Minister, plotted against him, tried to secure his downfall. I was embarrassed by this conversation. Finally, I said "But isn't MI5 under the Prime Minister?" He replied, "Oh yes, on paper, but that didn't make any difference."' Mr. Pincher went on: "Some of Wilson's friends also told me that he had gone much further in his condemnation of MI5 in conversations with them."

The allegations resurfaced ten years later with the publication of Spycatcher, a book by former Security Service officer Peter Wright. He claimed that thirty Service officers "had given their approval to a plot" against Wilson. According to Mr. Wright, some Conservative Members of Parliament acted as conduits for the smear campaign against Harold Wilson which was organised from within MI5 by some 30 security officers, some very senior. They knew that the information they were receiving came illegally from within MI5. They did not stop it, nor did they report it to the Home Secretary. They just passed it on in the knowledge that it would destabilise the Labour Prime Minister and his Government.

Wright effectively discredited his own evidence the following year in an interview on the BBC's Panorama programme of 13 October 1988. He admitted that his figure of thirty officers was greatly exaggerated: "The maximum number was eight or nine. Very often it was only three."

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Page last modified: 25-11-2019 10:15:10 ZULU