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March 21, 2006

BBC2's The Plot against Harold Wilson - Harry Phibbs considers its claims

Posted by Harry Phibbs

The Plot Against Harold Wilson
BBC2, 16th March 2006

This is a fascinating story. The introduction declares:

30 years on it's high time that the story is told of an investigation which came close but not close enough to exposing a conspiracy to remove the elected Prime Minister.
Just because you are paranoid doesn't mean they are not out to get you. Harold Wilson's paranoia during his time as Prime Minister is well documented by his former spin doctor Joe Haines and policy head Bernard Donoughue who have each had their diaries published. Wilson was preoccupied with press hostility, dark forces, dirty tricks, bugging devices and so on.

This film's claim that we had "come within a inch of our very own military coup" may be an exaggeration. There is also some confusion over just what circumstances and motivation would prompt a coup attempt. Was the prime move from the CIA, or MI5 or the British Army? Or was it just disparate grumbling?

By the end of the film I was convinced that there was some serious and high level plotting going on - whether it was one joined up plot or a series of different plots. Barrie Penrose and Roger Courtiour were BBC "investigative journalists" (by the way most journalists investigate things) called in by Wilson shortly after he resigned as Prime Minister to expose what he believed had been going on.

Wilson says of MI5 "renegades":

They would naturally be brought up to believe that Socialist leaders were another form of Communist.
So one explanation was simply that some right wingers were bad losers. Having failed to defeat Wilson at the ballot box they wanted to defeat him in other ways.

On this basis the suggestion that Wilson was a Soviet spy was just an invention, a smear. But this film can not make up its mind whether to entirely dismiss the idea.

Not all Soviet spies were Communists. Could Wilson have been blackmailed? Donoughue seems to think he might have been. Noting frequent past visits of Wilson and his secretary Marcia Williams to the Soviet Union, Donoughue says:

It may be that at some point while in opposition he did or accepted something that worried him. His degree of nervousness about some exposure was blatant. He did not display the confidence of someone who knew this was all wrong.
Peter Wright of MI5 says:
It was the number of times he went to the Soviet Union. It wasn't just once or twice.
A complementary theory was that the Soviets murdered Wilson's predecessor as Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell who died unexpectedly in January 1963.

James Jesus Angleton, a senior figure in the CIA, is cited as believing claims by Soviet defector Major Anatoliy Golitsyn in 1961 that there was a:

KGB plan to assassinate a western politician and replace him with a Soviet puppet.
Gaitskell's subsequent death understandably prompted suspicion.

Chapman Pincher of the Daily Express says:

The Russians had invited Gaitskell who was then the Leader of the Labour Party over to Moscow for talks and [in preperation] he was invited to attend the Soviet Consulate. While he was there they served him tea and biscuits and very shortly after that he was taken ill and after that he died of a condition that is rare in the northern hemisphere called Lupus Erythematosus.
Pete Bagley, Head of CIA anti Soviet Counter Intelligence from 1963-67, says in a gentle and measured tone:
So once you assume that it was true that there was a murder. Then the next question is: Was it Gaitskell? If all that comes together and the answer to all of that is "yes". Then of course you would say: Who is Harold Wilson? Here is a possibility. Let's look at it. It has to be done discreetly.
It is not as if the Soviets had any scruples about murdering people or blackmail. Both were part of the regular KGB production line. On the other hand they might have bumped off Gaitskell purely in the hope that Wilson would be a bit more left wing, a bit more friendly to them. They might have thought this was worthwhile even if Wilson was not a fully paid up Soviet agent.

The motives of some of the plotters, such as SAS founder Sir David Stirling and General Sir Walter Walker can not have been motivated by anything so trivial as party politics. They must have believed that there was a break down in law and order which offered an opportunity for a Communist takeover.

The film suggested that the election of Ted Heath in 1970 caused the plotters to lose interest until Wilson's return to power in 1974. But I would have thought that a coup against a Heath government that had failed to maintain public order would have been equally plausible.

The programme disclosed how a misunderstanding once led to the former Foreign Secretary Lord Owen being fingered as a Communist agent. Owen says:

A civil service Permanent Secretary came in and told Harold Wilson I was a Soviet spy. He said:
"You can't be serious".

It must have caused a certain amount of anxiety because I was minister for the Navy and I did know rather more than I probably should have done about Polaris and other nuclear issues. I had been confused with Will Owen who was a left wing Labour MP. It was cock up rather than anything else.

According to the commentary:
Even after Will Owen was cleared of the spying charges MI5 believed their informant when he went on to identify several trade union leaders as Soviet agents.
Cleared is one way of putting it. On investigation Will Owen was found to have been taking money from Czech intelligence since the late 1950s, though he was known as "Greedy bastard" by the Czechs for the paucity of information provided. He was "cleared" of espionage after it was accepted that the information he passed was not secret.

One irony was that at the time the only substance that Penrose and Courtiour came up with was over a missing social security file for Norman Scott, whom the Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe was accused of attempting to murder. Although political opponents, Thorpe had been in contact with Wilson lamenting MI5 attempts to smear him. The investigation ended up bringing the whole affair into the open and far from helping Thorpe brought about his political downfall, although he was eventually acquitted of conspiracy to murder.

A lot of questions are left unresolved. Wilson swamped his contacts with information and many of the leads were not followed up. One dilemma for the programme makers was that in order to take the idea of a planned coup seriously it was necessary to acknowledge that there was a serious question about the maintenance of national security. If there was nothing to worry about and it was only a few crackpots, then it is harder to suggest they would have gained the necessary degree of support for such a thoroughly unBritish activity.

Harry Phibbs is a journalist.

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