Since Sir Harold Wilson resigned from his position as Prime Minister in 1976, worrying rumours emerged surrounding MI5’s hostility towards his Labour government.
By 1987, ex-security officer Peter Wright had publicly claimed that British intelligence plotted a coup d’état to oust the Labour PM from Downing Street. Supposedly, the favoured replacement for the Labour government was Lord Mountbatten – Prince Phillip’s uncle and previous Chief of Defence.
Gossip of this undemocratic plot has become so far-reaching that MI5 now maintain an entire feature on their website dedicated to debunking the claim.
So, is there any truth behind the plot? Over the years, ideas of MI5 resistance to the Labour government have been massively mythologised. Wilson and the British intelligence community demonstrated a flawed, yet overall practical relationship.
However, whilst coup claims have been massively overstated, there is some menial grounding to the conspiracy.
The frosty context of the Cold War bred widespread distrust, with leftist circles treated with increasing suspicion by Western intelligence communities. The 1960s saw numerous USSR spies exposed as having operated within the British government. To counter this, MI5, alongside SIS (otherwise known as MI6) produced collaborated FLUENCY investigations into potential Soviet penetration into their intelligence institutions.
Instead, these inquiries have been accused of fuelling McCarthyism and general anti-left attitudes within Britain’s more evangelical intelligence officers.
Unfortunately for Harold Wilson, the Prime Minister’s political associations in his early career had already lumped him into a watchlist. Wilson’s 1947 debut as Secretary of Overseas Trade had allowed him to undertake recurring international trips behind the Iron Curtain and into the heart of the USSR. At the time, Wilson’s visits had roused the interest of MI5.
As common practice, a file on Wilson was opened under the alias ‘Norman John Worthington’. MI5 frequently used the euphemism ‘digging with the wrong foot’ to describe dubious liaisons with the Soviets. In their eyes, Wilson was certainly burrowing. These trips, combined with Wilson’s friendship with Bloc businessmen and known British radical leftists, furthered concerns regarding Wilson’s political intentions.
Alongside MI5 caution, the head of the CIA, DCI James Angleton, indulged in similar ideas. Wilson’s promotion to Labour leader had occurred following Hugh Gaitskell’s untimely death. Angleton was alarmed by this, as Soviet intelligence defector, Anatoliy Golitsyn, had previously advised the CIA that the USSR had planned to assassinate a top Western politician and plant a communist mole as his replacement. To Angleton, Wilson’s ascension appeared to mirror this description. The DCI became obsessed with the idea that Wilson was under USSR influence.
Uncertainty lingered within parts of the CIA, with Angleton spearheading slander of Wilson.
Similarly, in 1974 a small faction of MI5 were allegedly influenced by Wilson’s policies and character to take action against the PM; regardless of whether he was truly a mole. Peter Wright initially claimed that around thirty officers agreed to leak false information to the press. They were to inaccurately suggest that Wilson was a security risk and unfit for Downing Street in an attempt to take him down.
An earlier 1968 discussion of disposal from press tycoon Cecil King had indicated that many elites within the press would potentially support smear action against Wilson. Wright stated that by 1974, the MI5 faction began to consider their next move. The group believed that they could secure action from newspaper aid where Cecil King had previously failed, whilst again possibly suggesting to impose Mountbatten.
However, though Wilson may not have won over the more conservative individuals of British intelligence, the claims of such significant difficulties have been sensationalised. In reality, Wilson’s rapport with British intelligence highlights a mutually functional relationship between the pair. Both MI5 and Wilson collaborated readily in the battle against the USSR.
Christopher Andrew asserts that the threat of a tangible plot was essentially ‘non-existent’. Though Cold War tensions created an atmosphere of suspicion around the globe, the impact of this upon Wilson and MI5 has been falsely overestimated. Wright’s 1987 account has acted as a basis for later claims of an MI5 plot, yet it remains unsubstantiated. Importantly, the MI5 individuals who demonstrated prejudice against Wilson were minimal in their numbers.
In a later BBC Panorama interview, Wright revoked his claims of wide scale MI5 conspiracy. Instead, he admitted that only around three renegade individuals were dedicated to the removal of the Labour government. Further evidence suggests that senior intelligence leaders tolerated Wilson’s left-leaning government and adhered to his rule, regardless of any contrasting personal or political opinions.
Wilson’s period in office increasingly demonstrated that he was opposed to the USSR’s communism, and therefore trustworthy and non-threatening. As for the CIA’s suspicions, Angleton retired in disgrace as a maddened conspiracy theorist. His recurring and baseless accusations towards those within his own service, as well as within other Western bureaucratic institutions, had destroyed his credibility and undermined his career.
Overall, although MI5 demonstrated mild stirrings of disagreement with Wilson, the myth of significant planned action against him does not appear plausible. Wilson’s relationship with British intelligence was imperfect, but not significantly irregular.