Cowboy Coups

Phillip Knightley

  • Smear! Wilson and the Secret State by Stephen Dorrill and Robin Ramsay
    Fourth Estate, 502 pp, £20.00, August 1991, ISBN 1 872180 68 X

In the summer of 1975 I was invited by a man I knew had contacts in MI5 to have lunch at the Special Forces Club in Knightsbridge. He wanted me to meet ‘someone from the office’ who had a story which might interest the Sunday Times, where I was then working. There was another guest, an aristocratic young man from the City whose role appeared to be that of prompting the MI5 officer – for that is what I took the man from ‘the office’ to be – when he hesitated over a real or pretended indiscretion. The conversation was all to do with the extent to which the Russian Intelligence Service had penetrated British life. The MI5 officer quickly dispensed with the Wilson Government – its penetration was taken as read – slandered Wilson’s own loyalties and those of several members of his Cabinet, and then moved on to the Royal family.

The thrust of his accusations was that Mountbatten, ‘a dodgy character’, had managed to slip onto the staff at Buckingham Palace a secretary who was either still a member of the Communist Party or had once been, and who was also eminently blackmailable. Further, MI5’s efforts to have this person dismissed as a security risk had got nowhere with the Queen: ‘but this was understandable given the political views of the Royal family.’ This appeared to be too much even for the young man from the City.‘You’re not trying to tell us that the Royals are’ – lowering his voice – ‘a bit left-wing.’ The MI5 officer was triumphant. ‘Always have been, old boy,’ he said. ‘Always have been.’

That was the extent of the revelations. Needless to say, I wrote nothing, but when Anthony Blunt, Keeper of the Queen’s Pictures and her third cousin once removed, was finally publicly exposed three years later as a onetime Soviet spy, I wondered if the luncheon had not been some convoluted MI5 way of trying to get the Sunday Times interested in a mole hunt in Buckingham Palace.

With this as background, few of the accusations in this disjointed, rambling book came as a surprise to me. It is nevertheless an impressive and important book. The authors have pulled together a series of events that occurred during the years when Harold Wilson was either Prime Minister or Leader of the Opposition, and without being too conspiratorial, have constructed a thesis about the way Britain worked at that time and, no doubt, still works today.

They describe a power structure of which the elected government is only a temporary part. The other roles belong to the ‘permanent government’, a term coined by Anthony Verrier to cover the Cabinet Office, the upper echelons of the Home Office, Foreign Office and Ministry of Defence, and the ‘Permanent Secretaries Club’, the very senior civil servants who are often called the ‘Mandarins’; the City of London, led by the Bank of England and its Governor, the press; and think tanks and opinion-forming bodies like the Royal United Services Institute and the Royal Institute of International Affairs. These are the relatively open parts of the power structure. Their influence is acknowledged – if underestimated – and is even the meat for jokes, as witness the situation comedy Yes, Minister and its sequel Yes, Prime Minister. The covert side consists of the security services, and in particular MI5, of whom Wilson said in 1987: ‘They thought that they ran the whole show under the Crown.’ As we will see, MI5 certainty behaved during the Wilson era as if it was beyond the control of the elected government, and as if, when it desired, it could not only ignore the wishes of the prime minister and his Cabinet but work to thwart them.

When Harold Wilson came to power he gave notice that he planned to ignore these old rules and run the country according to the mandate he believed the voters had given him and his party. The permanent government could not believe his cheek. Wilson recalls being forced to listen to the Governor of the Bank of England, Lord Cromer, demanding ‘immediate cuts in government expenditure, and particularly in those parts of government expenditure which related to the social services. It was not long before we were being asked, almost at pistol point, to cut back on expenditure, even to the point of stopping the road-building programmes, or schools which were only half-constructed.’ Pressure from the permanent government continued. After Labour had won the election of October 1974, Tony Benn was appointed Secretary of State at the Department of Industry. On his first day in the office he was greeted by his Permanent Secretary, Sir Anthony Part, with the words: ‘I presume, Secretary of State, that you do not intend to implement the industrial strategy in Labour’s programme.’ When Benn said he did indeed intend to implement the strategy, Part declared war on him, and since the Wilson Government had a majority in the Commons of only three, Benn’s socialist industrial policies were doomed from that moment on.

MI5 apparently had established the custom of calling on a new prime minister when he took office and slipping him its dossiers on MPs so that he could read them before making his appointments. The dossiers contained the results of surveillance, telephone taps, mail intercepts, information from agents, gossip and tittle-tattle, including the who-is-sleeping-with-whom variety. Wilson called in the then head of MI5, Roger Hollis, and told him that MI5 would in future have to seek his personal approval before investigating any MP. Telephone-tapping, the interception of letters, the examining of bank accounts were specifically forbidden. And Wilson warned Hollis that he would not be prepared to accept the evidence of Soviet defectors as justification for any investigations of MPs.

To say that MI5 did not like the Wilson approach would be an understatement, and the evidence suggests that MI5 simply ignored his orders. Wilson’s Lord Chancellor, the highest legal officer in the land, was Gerald Gardiner, a pacifist who played a leading role in the movement to abolish the death penalty, and was an initial sponsor of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Believing with some reason that all this would mean that MI5 had a file on him, he asked when he took office to see it. MI5 refused his request and referred him to the Home Secretary, Frank Soskice. Embarrassed, Soskice told Gardiner that he too was not allowed to see MI5 files. Later Gardiner became convinced that his office telephone was being tapped by MI5 and that his office was probably bugged. ‘When I really wanted to speak to the Attorney-General in confidence, I took him out on one or more occasions in the car because I knew the driver, and I knew she would never have allowed the car to be bugged without my knowledge.’

Wilson did not know that his orders were being ignored. As prime minister he had every right to believe that he and his government were running the country. But he suspected that something was wrong, and this was the beginning of what his enemies called his paranoia. But people were plotting against him. He had challenged the traditional power structure, and the permanent government and the secret state did not like it. As Wilson’s friend Lord Goodman put it, ‘they saw a really dangerous threat to their well-being.’ So they moved to get rid of Wilson.

MI5 took the lead. They put it about that the Prime Minister was a security risk: on one of his many trips to Moscow, they said, he had been photographed by the KGB in compromising circumstances with his political secretary, Marcia Williams, and had then been blackmailed to do the KGB’s bidding. He had surrounded himself with ministers who were either secret Communists or Communist sympathisers.

Given the fierce libel laws in this country there was no way such allegations could be published in the normal manner. Instead MI5 leaked the smear to journalists who obligingly wrote stories hinting at the substance, while sometimes hypocritically expressing their distaste: ‘some rather unworthy attempts to find skeletons in Mr Wilson’s cupboard’ (Daily Telegraph) and ‘a Tory sex-smear campaign against Wilson’ (Private Eye). The role of such journalists is worth a book of its own. Auberon Waugh’s involvement, in Private Eye and the Spectator, can be explained in terms of his mischievous iconoclasm. But what are we to make of Chapman Pincher, who does not seem to mind the fact that the secret state regarded him as ‘a contact who could be used to plant leaks’. Did Mr Pincher never think of asking himself why the secret state wished to plant these leaks? Or did he know and approve?

Not that the rest of what used to be Fleet Street can be considered clean. Again, hard evidence is scarce, but even if we believe only half the statements in this book, most of the national newspapers at that time (as, probably, now) had at least one person on the staff who was either a security services officer, an agent or an informer. Peter Wright of Spycatcher fame, a former MI5 officer whose evidence has to be treated cautiously, says that Cecil King, the Daily Mirror boss, ‘was a long-time agent of ours’. Perhaps. Or did Mr King, like other Fleet Street executives, simply exchange information over a long lunch or a clubland dinner?

While the secret state was planting its smears in the press – and using its agents and informers among journalists to monitor the success of those plants – it was also doing its best to dig up new dirt on the Wilson Government. Here, again, it was helped by a network of people apparently only too willing to inform on their colleagues. This was the sort of thing expected of the Soviet Union, where reporting to the KGB on your neighbours and associates was so common as to be considered normal. In the light of this book, we may have to consider whether this is not also a part of the British way of life. According to the authors, Henry Kerby, a Tory MP, reported to MI5 on his fellow Parliamentarians. George Wigg, a Labour MP, told MI5 all he could find out about what was going on in 10 Downing Street. MI5 had a fink in Transport House. Someone on the staff of the Daily Herald, a Labour newspaper, is thought to have reported regularly to his CIA contact.

There were other ways of obtaining information about Wilson and his colleagues. His home and office and those of his professional advisors were burgled more than a dozen times. There were two break-ins at the offices of Lord Goodman, Wilson’s chief legal adviser. Goodman has no doubt who was responsible: ‘a few cowboys in MI5 who saw in Harold Wilson a danger to their whole scheme of life’.

The culmination of this campaign against Harold Wilson, the elected prime minister of the country at the time, came with various coup plots in the late Sixties. The most notorious of these involved Cecil King, who had been pushing the idea of a national government, a coalition of the centre. When he made no headway with this, King had a meeting on 8 May 1968 with Lord Mountbatten. It is unclear who initiated the meeting, but there seems to be agreement that it broke up when one of those attending, Lord Zuckerman, Wilson’s Chief Scientific Officer, stormed out saying something like: ‘This is rank treachery. All this talk of machine-guns at street corners is appalling.’

The authors say that King’s coup has come to be reported as a joke, but that it is likely that King was the front man for something far more substantial – a putsch backed by senior civil servants, the City and the military, for instance – and that the whole story has yet to be told. The 1968 meeting was certainly not some aberration on King’s part: how otherwise do we explain the testimony of such a reliable figure as the military historian, John Keegan, who says that he heard King tell a group at Sandhurst in 1975 about the need for the Armed Forces to act to save the country. Keegan says: ‘I had no doubt I was listening to a treasonable attempt to suborn the loyalty of the Queen’s officers.’

To those who believe that the checks and balances present in British society make such a coup impossible, the authors point out that the key factor would be the Army, that it would be possible for the Army to take over the running of the country, and that such a thing would be constitutional, not technically a coup. If law and order breaks down, if the government of the day appears unable to cope and the opposition unable to form a government, then the Crown can legitimate intervention and ‘activate’ the Army. Is this what King had in mind? Why otherwise would he have involved Mountbatten, a representative of the Crown with a military background, not a raving Rambo of the Right (as we have seen, some section of MI5 considered him a ‘pinko’), and therefore more likely to command the loyalty of the thinking members of the military forces if he ordered them to move against the Government.

These coup plots came to nothing. Wilson won four general elections, two of them in the face of a determined assault from the secret state and the media – and of quite a lot of back-stabbing from Labour Party colleagues who never accepted him as legitimate leader of the Party. This says a lot about his ability as a politician. Some readers have seen this book as an attempt to rehabilitate Wilson’s reputation. It may well have that result. But its importance is that it reveals the secret wellsprings of power in Britain and puts us on guard against the machinations of the secret state. Until we reform the Secret Intelligence Service and MI5 they will remain a threat to any Labour government and thus a threat to democracy. As David Cornwell – the spy writer John le Carré, who was in the security forces himself – said in the Independent earlier this year, if a Labour government were to win the next election, ‘the secret services would be cuddling up with the Conservative Party in exile day and night’.