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January 24, 2013 4:51 AM   Subscribe

The British Coup Conspiracy In early 1974, the right-wing Spectator magazine predicted “Britain is on a Chilean brink.
In March 1981 the Sunday Times carried an article which indicated that there were suggested preparations for a military coup d’état in Britain in 1974.
2006 BBC programme The Plot Against Harold Wilson.
David Leigh: The Wilson Plot: How the Spycatchers and Their American Allies Tried to Overthrow the British Government.
What If The Coup Against Prime Minister Harold Wilson Been Carried Out?
Cecil King's Plot to Overthrow Harold Wilson.
A biography of Prime Minister Harold Wilson known as Norman John Worthington on his MI5 file.
wiki. This was 1974 Britain. Some background.
posted by adamvasco (38 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite

 
Since the primary sources of the rumor that Wilson was an infiltrator seem to be Golitsyn and some lesser Iron Curtain defectors, it's not implausible that this could have been a destabilization attempt by the Soviet Union, is it? In other words, weaken the enemy by exploiting their fears; if their fears are of you, play to them without directing them at yourself: The ensuing self-doubt and circles of accusation would deflect resources they could otherwise be aiming at you. (And keeping in mind I'm positing a scenario: I have no idea what actually happened and won't pretend otherwise.)
posted by ardgedee at 5:17 AM on January 24, 2013


I think the British kind of lost it a bit that year. I don't know quite why: I suppose the sixties had destroyed the old world while the fab new psychedelic world they promised had failed to materialise. At any rate the universal atmosphere of not-quite-rational depression was extraordinary. Everyone you spoke to would rabbit on about how the British GDP was now lower than Morocco's, or Malta's, or some nonsense like that. No comedian could do his act without saying "We all need a laugh in these dark times, don't we?" I think it's an index of how negative and deranged everybody seemed to be that these fatuous plots were taken half-seriously. No-one thought they would have to do anything in order to overthrow the government, just wait a few months until the inevitable total collapse of civil society.

Then again, Slade were riding high in the charts at the cutting edge of popular music, so dark times indeed.
posted by Segundus at 5:26 AM on January 24, 2013 [4 favorites]


I'm genuinely shocked. I thought everyone loved Slade.
posted by oh pollo! at 5:31 AM on January 24, 2013 [7 favorites]


All I can say is that when punk came along a few years later nihilism seemed refreshingly upbeat.
posted by Segundus at 5:38 AM on January 24, 2013 [9 favorites]


Didn't Wilson have a plan to stage his own death and disappear? Or was that some other Prime Minister? Granted, staging his own death and not disappearing would have been weirder.
posted by hoyland at 5:41 AM on January 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


There was enough talk about rightwing coups in the UK in the seventies that one supporting character in a sitcom at the time was a retired colonel plotting one, though I'm buggered if I can remember the title.
posted by MartinWisse at 5:56 AM on January 24, 2013


Fall and Rise of Reginald perring - it was Reggie's brother in law, Jimmy. Had his own spin off on Channel 4 - Fairly Secret Army. Played by Geoffrey Palmer.

See also The Mayfair Set by Adam Curtis.
posted by Grangousier at 5:59 AM on January 24, 2013 [3 favorites]


Perrin, not perring, obv.
posted by Grangousier at 5:59 AM on January 24, 2013


pdf of The Lobster : Wilson MI5 and the rise of Thatcher; covert operations in British Politics 1974 - 78.
posted by adamvasco at 6:06 AM on January 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm glad that at least we in the U.S. aren't alone in having nearly suffered a right-wing military coup against a democratically elected government.
posted by edheil at 6:16 AM on January 24, 2013 [2 favorites]


Didn't Wilson have a plan to stage his own death and disappear? Or was that some other Prime Minister?

Perhaps you're thinking of Australian PM Harold Holt, who disappeared whilst swimming, and whose body was never found, with some claiming that he defected to China, who sent a submarine to pick him up.
posted by acb at 6:17 AM on January 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


I missread that as "Didn't Wilson have a plan to stage his own death by drop bear", found the second reading much less fun.
posted by jeffburdges at 6:20 AM on January 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


May be as good a place as any to plug David Peace's 1974, a novel centered around the story of the Yorkshire Ripper. It is the most unrelenting crime/horror novel I've ever read.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 6:27 AM on January 24, 2013 [2 favorites]


Perhaps you're thinking of Australian PM Harold Holt, who disappeared whilst swimming, and whose body was never found, with some claiming that he defected to China, who sent a submarine to pick him up.

I think I was thinking of John Stonehouse.

Also 1974. I guess this is as good excuse as any to start reading David Peace again.
posted by hoyland at 6:28 AM on January 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


On a related note, one junior member of Wilson’s cabinet did stage his own death in 1974 (and was later revealed to have been an agent for Czechoslovak military intelligence).
posted by misteraitch at 6:29 AM on January 24, 2013


hoyland - snap!
posted by misteraitch at 6:30 AM on January 24, 2013


I'm glad that at least we in the U.S. aren't alone in having nearly suffered a right-wing military coup against a democratically elected government.
posted by edheil at 2:16 PM on January 24 [+] [!]


Yet more proof that Smedley Butler was an incredible man.
posted by Drexen at 6:38 AM on January 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


...with an incredible first name
posted by C.A.S. at 6:44 AM on January 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm reading Michael Smith's "The Spying Game" at the moment and am just coming up to the part about MI5 and Wilson. Flicking ahead it appears that the majority of the threats originated with Golitsyn. Peter Wright (of "Spycatcher" fame) was the main individual behind the theory being publicised (along with Arthur Martin, another mole-hunter). He admitted in an interview with the BBC that the theory itself was "unreliable".

When asked about the suggestion that 38 officers were involved in the conspiracy (the figure quoted from Spycatcher) he replied that this was an "exaggeration" and that "...the maximum number was maybe eight or nine...very often, only three..." and when pressed with the question "How many people, when all the talking died down, were still serious in joining you in getting rid of Wilson" answered "One, I should say".

Not exactly as terrifying as it sounds laid out above but "Wright" from the horse's mouth. All this, along with F-Branch (anti-subversion) surveillance of Union and NCCL (now Liberty) officials ended up eventually leading to the 1989 Security Service Act, mostly due to a fear that the ECHR would end up kicking over the ant hill and causing no end of problems for Five and it's political masters.

I'd heartily recommend the book to anyone interested in the British Security Services, it's certainly better than most others I have read on the subject.
posted by longbaugh at 6:52 AM on January 24, 2013 [4 favorites]


It just seems so implausible looking back on it now; a Labour Party politician was considered a threat by the Establishment!
posted by Abiezer at 7:17 AM on January 24, 2013 [2 favorites]


> At any rate the universal atmosphere of not-quite-rational depression was extraordinary.

Absolutely, though us kids thought it was great having dinner by candlelight; cream of chicken soup heated on a camping stove because of the power cuts, while your parents fretted over the noise of the generator from the smug b's down the road who had all their light on.

Robyn Hitchcock caught the vibe perfectly: 1974
posted by scruss at 7:18 AM on January 24, 2013 [4 favorites]


Since the primary sources of the rumor that Wilson was an infiltrator seem to be Golitsyn and some lesser Iron Curtain defectors, it's not implausible that this could have been a destabilization attempt by the Soviet Union, is it?

Yes, but a far more plausible hypothesis is that all was grounded in Golitsyn's not inconsiderable ego and the far-right bias of his Western debriefers (I mean, even J. Edgar Hoover apparently found Golytsin to be something of a diva).
posted by Skeptic at 7:20 AM on January 24, 2013


It was in the air in those years of heightened class conflict across Europe; you had Operation Gladio tinkering with various democracies for the greater good TM.
posted by Abiezer at 7:24 AM on January 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


Operation Gladio really deserves a proper FPP, Gladio was the Italian unit and was only the first "stay-behind army" to be publicised. It's amazing how many of these groups ended up with connections to right-wing terrorist organisations (they were mostly designed around this to be fair).

Members of Gladio also ended up with links to organised crime and the P2 Lodge in Italy amongst other things. Weapons stored for Gladio use in the event of Soviet invasion were used against anti-mafia crusaders in Italy (it is suspected that much of the explosives used in the car bombs many years ago were sourced from these caches).

I'd recommend starting here for the fascinating history.
posted by longbaugh at 7:40 AM on January 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


The classic 1998 Channel 4 TV drama A Very British Coup is... oops, WAS available on Hulu until recently for US viewers. Anyway here's an excerpt clip. Commentary by the original book author here
posted by Bwithh at 7:54 AM on January 24, 2013


Gladio previously.
Then we have to mention Cercle Pinay and we run out of tinfoil helmets to go round except....
posted by adamvasco at 8:34 AM on January 24, 2013


A big second for "A Very British Coup". That came immediately to mind as I read the FPP. A terrific show, if you can find it.
posted by hwestiii at 9:00 AM on January 24, 2013


Ah yes, Gladio, aka the bungles who directly armed the cocaine and heroine smuggling gangs in the Netherlands with their stupid, stupid "stay behind" armories.

Another reason to be skeptical of those who don't believe in conspiracy theories.
posted by MartinWisse at 9:24 AM on January 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


Speaking of 'A Very British Coup', the novel was remade into a mini-series on Channel 4 this past year.

It's called 'Secret State' and it's available on 4oD (region-restricted streaming, sadly).
posted by yellowcandy at 11:56 AM on January 24, 2013


Then again, Slade were riding high in the charts at the cutting edge of popular music, so dark times indeed.

You think you had it dark? We Yanks had Quiet Riot. At least you had the genuine article.
posted by jonp72 at 2:48 PM on January 24, 2013


Check out "Strange Days Indeed: The Golden Age of Paranoia" by Francis Wheen. It begins with the head of the Civil Service (the Sir Humphrey role in Yes Prime Minister) assembling the Heads of all civil service departments and telling them to go home and prepare to be overrun by socialist revolutionaries who were sure to take over the nation in days.
posted by devious truculent and unreliable at 3:26 AM on January 25, 2013


The managing director of Cunard, John Mitchell, was approached by 'army and secret service people' who were preparing a military coup; they asked if he would lend them the QE2 as a 'floating prison for the cabinet.'
posted by adamvasco at 4:29 AM on January 25, 2013


Incidentally, Slade were a far sight better than anything produced nowadays. They had good tunes and you could hear all the words.
posted by devious truculent and unreliable at 4:50 AM on January 25, 2013


I feel like Spooks missed a great opportunity to do a "the PM is secretly a terrorist" episode.
posted by cthuljew at 7:03 AM on January 25, 2013


I feel like Spooks missed a great opportunity to do a "the PM is secretly a terrorist" episode.

Given that they killed off the entire cast like twice over, it's fairly astonishing they never got round to it. (I still haven't seen the last series or two. If Harry doesn't survive, don't tell me.)
posted by hoyland at 7:56 AM on January 25, 2013


I feel like Spooks missed a great opportunity to do a "the PM is secretly a terrorist" episode.

In real life, it's not that much of a secret.
posted by Grangousier at 7:11 AM on January 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


Spooks is awful. The Sandbaggers is where it's at.
posted by longbaugh at 11:58 PM on January 27, 2013


Personally, I'm a big Callan fan. That series was killing off above-the-title stars unexpectedly and mid-season, quite possibly before some of the Spooks writers were born.
posted by Grangousier at 10:36 AM on January 29, 2013


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