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Cecil King's Plot to Overthrow Harold Wilson

John Simkin

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Harold Wilson became the prime minister after the 1964 General Election. However, he was only able to obtain a five-seat majority in the House of Commons. After the 1966 General Election this majority was increased to 97. Some members of MI5 believed that Wilson was a Soviet agent. Anatoli Golitsyn also told them that Hugh Gaitskell had been poisoned by the KGB. Peter Wright, a senior figure in MI5, explained in his biography Spycatcher: "The story started with the premature death of Hugh Gaitskell in 1963. Gaitskell was Wilson's predecessor as Leader of the Labour Party. I knew him personally and admired him greatly."

Cecil King became chairman of International Publishing Corporation, the owners of the Daily Mirror in 1963. In 1965 he became a part-time director of the Bank of England. He was also a part-time member of the National Coal Board (1966–9) and a member of the National Parks Commission (1966–9). King also thought he should become a member of the Harold Wilson government. King's biographer, John Beavan, has argued: "King felt that what he believed to be his special gifts as an administrator might be put at the service of the nation when the inevitable catastrophe came. He tried, at the dinner parties he gave in his ninth-floor suite in the Mirror's glass building, to persuade other business leaders that there would have to be an emergency government containing men like themselves. King feared there would be hyperinflation and even bloodshed in the streets. Cudlipp and his political executives had a hard time keeping this nonsense out of the paper. They tried in vain to convince King that, though the government deserved criticism, his fears were wildly excessive."

In 1968 Cecil King became involved with Peter Wright of MI5 in a plot to bring down the government of Harold Wilson and replace it with a coalition led by Lord Mountbatten. 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."

Hugh Cudlipp, the editor of the Daily Mirror, arranged for King to meet Lord Mountbatten, the 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, he 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".

According to Stephen Dorril and Robin Ramsay, the authors of Smear! Wilson and the Secret State (1992): "King then delivered a version of his preoccupations at the time - approaching economic collapse and ineffective government, with a Prime Minister no longer able to control events. Public order was about to break down leading to social chaos. there was a likelihood of bloodshed in the streets." At this point Zuckerman got up and said: "This is rank treachery. All this talk of machine guns at street corners is appalling." He also told Mountbatten to have nothing to do with the conspiracy to overthrow Harold Wilson.

Two days later, King published an article in the Daily Mirror under his own name entitled "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." Three weeks later the directors of International Publishing Corporation unanimously dismissed King.

That is now the official story. However, in Cudlipp's autobiography, he argues that it was Lord Mountbatten who instigated the meeting on 8th May and was really the head of the conspiracy.




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An incredible story there, John.

I got Wrights Spycatcher, Leighs The Wilson Plot, Mountbattens Eighty Years in Pictures and Zieglers Mountbatten off the shelf now and am mightily confused, but very interested. A timely exploration, imo. It seems the meeting arose from a meeting on 5th May and could be very well be a Mountbatten instigated event. Culdipp went to see Mountbatten (5 May and the meeting was in Mountbattens house.. Leigh has Zuckerman leaving Mountbattens house after ''This is rank treachery'' and refers to the Bio as a source for Mountbatten toying with the idea of leading a National Government (though he doesn't specify when).

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  • 5 months later...

I remember this being shown as a docudrama in 2006.It was a good programme.

Harold Wilson's belief that he was the victim of a secret service plot to discredit him is well documented.

But new revelations in BBC drama documentary The Plot Against Harold Wilson, to be broadcast next Thursday, suggest the Labour prime minister was also convinced he was the target of plans to stage a military coup - and that the Royal Family backed it.

The story sounds barely credible - a sign, perhaps, that Wilson was suffering from paranoia - but it is backed up by corroborating interviews with other senior figures from the time.

The then BBC journalist Barrie Penrose has outlined some of the detail of the new evidence in an article in this week's Radio Times.

He stresses the need to bear in mind the backdrop to the alleged plots, telling the magazine: "Our establishment, from the intelligence services down to parts of Fleet Street, were paranoid about the threat of communism. So paranoid it seems, they were prepared to believe a prime minister of Britain was an active Soviet spy."

At a time of continuing Cold War tensions, industrial unrest was rife, the country had suffered power cuts and a three day working week and in 1975 the government was being warned privately that the economy faced "wholesale domestic liquidation" unless it could tame inflation.

While some on the hard left believed revolution was imminent, former military figures angry at the extent of union control were building private armies, in preparation for the coming conflict.


And it is these mercenaries, the programme says, that Wilson feared would be used to stage a coup against him - and that the British army might not come to his aid.

In his book Spycatcher, Peter Wright tells of a plot to force Wilson's resignation by MI5 agents convinced he was a Communist spy. Wright's account is often dismissed as an exaggeration, but the drama documentary claims fresh evidence of plots.

The meetings with Wilson the programme is based on were secretly recorded in 1976 by journalists Barrie Penrose and Roger Courtiour, weeks after his shock departure from Number 10.

"Wilson spoke darkly of two military coups which he said had been planned to overthrow his government in the late 1960s and in the mid 1970s," Penrose writes.

"Both were said to involve high-ranking elements in the British army, eager to see the back of Labour governments.

"Both involved a member of the Royal Family - Prince Louis Mountbatten."

Lord Mountbatten would be installed as an interim prime minister following the military coup, Wilson believed.

Secret recordings

Baroness Falkender, Wilson's political secretary, also told the two journalists about her belief military coups had been planned and that she and Wilson would be arrested with the rest of the Labour cabinet, Penrose writes in the Radio Times.

"Unbeknown to Wilson, Courtiour and I secretly recorded many of our meetings with him, almost always conducted at his Georgian house at 5 Lord North Street, close to the House of Commons," Penrose says.

"The cumbersome machine was smuggled into his study in a briefcase carried by Courtiour. Over a period of nine months we accumulated hours of tape recordings. Those tapes have, since then, remained untouched in the loft of my Kent home and at Courtiour's London home."

Wilson told the journalists they "should investigate the forces that are threatening democratic countries like Britain".

They were also startled to be told at their first meeting with him: "Occasionally when we meet I might tell you to go to the Charing Cross Road and kick a blind man standing on the corner. That blind man may tell you something, lead you somewhere."

The pair were never asked to go to Charing Cross Road but Wilson went on to tell them about his distrust of a group of MI5 officers, who he said were trying to smear him by planting stories in the press about him being an adulterer and a Communist spy.

In one of the secretly recorded tapes Wilson says: "I am not certain that for the last eight months when I was prime minister I knew what was happening, fully, in security."

New witnesses interviewed for the programme talk about these military coups and Mountbatten's role in them. Penrose says they confirm such plotting "wasn't in the fevered imagination of an embittered ex-PM".

Penrose concludes his Radio Times article: "You may ask, at the end of the programme, how much of it can be believed. My view now, as it was then, is that Wilson was right in his fears.... 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."



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