Harold Wilson conspiracy theories
Since the mid-1970s, a variety of conspiracy theories have emerged regarding British Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson, who served as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1964 to 1970 and 1974 to 1976, winning four general elections. These range from Wilson having been a Soviet agent (a claim which MI5 investigated and found to be false), to Wilson being the victim of treasonous plots by conservative-leaning elements in MI5, claims which Wilson himself made.
Soviet defector Anatoliy Golitsyn is said to have told Alec MacDonald, who set up safe houses where Golitsyn could live, that Wilson was a KGB operative and that former Labour Party leader Hugh Gaitskell had been assassinated by the KGB to have the pro-US Gaitskell replaced as party leader by Wilson. However, Christopher Andrew, the official historian for Britain's MI5, has described Golitsyn as an "unreliable conspiracy theorist".
In his controversial memoir Spycatcher (1987), former MI5 officer Peter Wright stated that the head of the CIA's Counterintelligence Division, James Angleton, told him that Wilson was a Soviet agent when Wilson was elected Prime Minister in 1964. Wright said that Angleton said he had heard this from a source (whom he did not name but who was probably Golitsyn). According to Wright, Angleton offered to provide further information on the condition that MI5 guarantee to keep the allegations from "political circles", but the management of MI5 declined to accept restrictions on the use of the information and Angleton told them nothing more.
At the end of the 1960s, Wright wrote, MI5 received information from two Czechoslovakian defectors, Josef Frolík and František August, who had fled to the West, alleging the Labour Party had "almost certainly" been penetrated by the Soviets. The two named a list of Labour MPs and trade unionists as Soviet agents.
MI5 maintained a file on Wilson, repeatedly investigating him over the course of several decades before officially concluding that Wilson had had no relationship with the KGB; nor had it ever found evidence of Soviet penetration of the Labour Party. Wilson claimed he was a staunch anti-Communist.
The 1968 plot
In his 1976 memoir Walking on Water, Hugh Cudlipp recounts a meeting he arranged at the request of Cecil King, the head of the International Publishing Corporation (IPC), between King and Lord Mountbatten of Burma. The meeting took place on 8 May 1968. Attending were Mountbatten, King, Cudlipp, and Sir Solly Zuckerman, the Chief Scientific Adviser to the British government.
According to Cudlipp:
"[Cecil] awaited the arrival of Sir Solly and then at once expounded his views on the gravity of the national situation, the urgency for action, and then embarked upon a shopping list of the Prime Minister's shortcomings. He explained that in the crisis he foresaw as being just around the corner, the Government would disintegrate, there would be bloodshed in the streets and the armed forces would be involved. The people would be looking to somebody like Lord Mountbatten as the titular head of a new administration, somebody renowned as a leader of men, who would be capable, backed by the best brains and administrators in the land, to restore public confidence. He ended with a question to Mountbatten--would he agree to be the titular head of a new administration in such circumstances?"
Mountbatten asked for the opinion of Zuckerman, who stated that the plan amounted to treason and left the room. Mountbatten expressed the same opinion, and King and Cudlipp left. King subsequently decided to override the editorial independence of the Daily Mirror and wrote and instructed to be published a front-page article calling on Wilson to be removed by some sort of extra-parliamentary action. The Board of the IPC met and demanded his resignation for this breach of procedure and the damage to the interests of IPC as a public company. He refused, so was dismissed by the Board on 30 May 1968.
In addition to Mountbatten's refusal to participate in King's mooted plot, there is no evidence of any other conspirators. Cudlipp himself appears to see the meeting as an example of extreme egotism on King's part.
A later memoir by Harold Evans, former Times and Sunday Times editor, observed that the Times had egged on King's plans for a coup:
Rees-Mogg's Times backed the Conservative Party in every general election, but it periodically expressed yearnings for a coalition of the right-centre. In the late 1960s it encouraged Cecil King's lunatic notion of a coup against Harold Wilson's Labour Government in favour of a government of business leaders led by Lord Robens. In the autumn election of 1974, it predicted that economic crisis would produce a coalition government of national unity well inside five years and urged one there and then between Conservatives and Liberals.
A BBC programme The Plot Against Harold Wilson, broadcast in 2006, reported that, in tapes recorded soon after his resignation on health grounds, Wilson stated that for eight months of his premiership he didn't "feel he knew what was going on, fully, in security". Wilson alleged two plots, in the late 1960s and mid-1970s respectively. He said that plans had been hatched to install Lord Mountbatten, Prince Charles's great uncle and mentor, as interim Prime Minister. He also claimed that ex-military leaders had been building up private armies in anticipation of "wholesale domestic liquidation". On a separate track, elements within MI5 had also, the BBC programme reported, spread "black propaganda" that Wilson and Marcia Williams (Wilson's private secretary) were Soviet agents, and that Wilson was an IRA sympathiser, apparently with the intention of helping the Conservatives win the 1974 election.
Alleged 1974 military coup plot
On the BBC television programme The Plot Against Harold Wilson, broadcast on 16 March 2006 on BBC2, it was claimed there were threats of a coup d'état against the Wilson government, which was corroborated by leading figures of the time on both the left and the right. Wilson told two BBC journalists, Roger Courtiour and Barrie Penrose, who recorded the meetings on a cassette tape recorder, that he feared he was being undermined by MI5. The first time was in the late 1960s after the Wilson Government devalued the pound sterling but the threat faded after Conservative leader Edward Heath won the election of 1970. However, after a coal miners' strike Heath decided to hold an election to renew his mandate to govern in February 1974 but lost narrowly to Wilson. There was again talk of a military coup, with rumours of Lord Mountbatten as head of an interim administration after Wilson had been deposed. In 1974 the Army occupied Heathrow Airport on the grounds of training for possible IRA terrorist action at the airport. However Marcia Williams (a senior aide and close friend of Wilson) asserted that the operation was ordered as a practice run for a military takeover or as a show of strength, as the government itself was not informed of such an exercise based around a key point in the nation's transport infrastructure.
The Peter Wright allegations and Clockwork Orange
Peter Wright claimed that he was confronted by two of his MI5 colleagues and that they said to him: "Wilson's a bloody menace and it's about time the public knew the truth", and "We'll have him out, this time we'll have him out". Wright alleged that there was a plan to leak damaging information about Wilson and that this had been approved by 'up to thirty officers'. As the 1974 election approached, the plan went, MI5 would leak selective details of the intelligence about Labour leaders, especially Wilson, to 'sympathetic' journalists. According to Wright, MI5 would use their contacts in the press and the trade unions to spread around the idea that Wilson was considered a security risk. The matter was to be raised in Parliament for 'maximum effect'. However Wright declined to let them see the files on Wilson and the plan was never carried out; but Wright does claim it was a 'carbon copy' of the Zinoviev Letter which had helped destabilise the first Labour Government in 1924.
In July 1987, Labour MP, Ken Livingstone used his maiden speech to raise the allegations of a former Army press officer, Colin Wallace, that the Army press office in Northern Ireland had been used in the 1970s as part of a smear campaign, codenamed Clockwork Orange, against Harold Wilson and other British and Irish politicians.
In Defence of the Realm (2009), the first authorised history of MI5, by Christopher Andrew, it was shown that MI5 kept a file on Wilson from 1945, when he became an MP – because communist civil servants claimed that he had similar political sympathies. However, Defence of the Realm claims that there was no conspiracy against Wilson, and repeats the Callaghan government claim that there was no bugging of 10 Downing Street. Doubt was cast on this claim, however, in 2010 when newspaper reports made detailed allegations that the bugging of 10 Downing Street had been omitted from the history for "wider public interest reasons". The government did not issue a denial of the allegations. In 1963 on Harold Macmillan's orders following the Profumo Affair MI5 bugged the cabinet room, the waiting room, and the prime minister's study until the bugs were removed in 1977 on James Callaghan's orders. From the records it is unclear if Harold Wilson or Edward Heath knew of the bugging, and no recorded conversations were retained by MI5 so possibly the bugs were never activated. Professor Andrew had previously recorded in the preface of the history that "One significant excision as a result of these requirements (in the chapter on The Wilson Plot) is, I believe, hard to justify", giving credibility to these new allegations.
Intelligence historian Jon Moran, concluded in 2014:
- The characterisation of Harold Wilson as paranoid does not take account of the political context of the time, which was characterised by a paranoid political style generally which applied to both left and right (including MI5 itself). The suspicion of Wilson and others towards the unlawful activities of the security services and other right wing figures resulted from concrete domestic and international developments discussed in more detail below. Andrew is correct to be sceptical, and there remains limited evidence of a ‘plot’, if a plot is defined as a tightly organised high-level conspiracy with a detailed plan. However there is evidence of a conspiracy: a loosely connected series of unlawful manoeuvres against an elected government by a group of like-minded figures.
In popular culture
The novel and television series A Very British Coup were based on the allegations, using fictional characters.
In Charles Stross's short piece "The Golden Age of Spying" (included in the novel The Jennifer Morgue), Ernst Stavro Blofeld states that his opposition to the British government was based on the fact that Wilson and Callaghan were communist agents.
Anatoliy Golitsyn's allegations of Wilson being a KGB Operative would form the basis of the web-based alternative history story and later novel Agent Lavender: The Flight of Harold Wilson, in which Wilson is revealed to have been a KGB Agent recruited during his University years at Oxford by his tutor, his attempts to flee the country in November 1975 when activated going awry.
The 1980s sitcom Fairly Secret Army centres around a paramilitary group created to stage a coup in order to rescue Britain from trade union militancy.
- Wilson Doctrine, a ban on the tapping of MPs' and Peers' telephones
- Leigh, David (1988). The Wilson Plot: How the Spycatchers and Their American Allies Tried to Overthrow the British Government. Pantheon Books. ISBN 978-0-394-57241-3.
- Moran, Jon. "Conspiracy and contemporary history: revisiting MI5 and the Wilson plot[s]." Journal of Intelligence History (2014) 13#2 pp 161-175
- Wright, Peter (1987). Spycatcher. William Heinemann. ISBN 0-85561-098-0.
- Leigh, p. 80.
- War and Intelligence Conference Archived 17 June 2009 at the Wayback Machine.
- Christopher Andrew, Spy Wars: Moles, Mysteries and Deadly Games By Tennent H Bagley Reviewed by Christopher Andrew, The Sunday Times, 24 June 2007
- Wright, p. 364.
- Michael Evans, "Wilson cleared of KGB threat in MI5 inquiry", The Times, 4 May 1987.
- Cudlipp, Hugh (1976). Walking on Water. The Bodley Head. p. 326.
- Cudlipp, pp.326–327.
- Adam Curtis (2011). Every Day is Like Sunday.
- Evans, Harold (1994) . Good Times, Bad Times (paperback ed.). Weidenfeld & Nicolson. p. 326. ISBN 978-1-857-99124-6.
- Private Eye, 20 December 1968.
- Wheeler, Brian (9 March 2006). "Wilson 'plot': The secret tapes". BBC News.
- Peter Wright, Spycatcher (William Heinemann, 1987), Ibid, p. 369.
- "Chronology of the Conflict 1987". Cain.ulst.ac.uk. Retrieved 25 September 2008.
- MI5 kept file on former PM Wilson, BBC News, 3 October 2009
- Brendan Bourne (18 April 2010). "Allegations No.10 was bugged by MI5 'removed' from official history". The Sunday Times. Retrieved 20 April 2010.
- Jason Lewis and Tom Harper (18 April 2010). "Revealed: How MI5 bugged 10 Downing Street, the Cabinet and at least five Prime Ministers for 15 YEARS". Daily Mail. Retrieved 20 April 2010.
- Jon Moran, "Conspiracy and contemporary history: revisiting MI5 and the Wilson plot[s]." Journal of Intelligence History (2014) 13#2 pp 161-175, quote at p 162.