Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Spooky but true

It may only have been TV theatre but the Spooks storyline about the foiling of a coup d’etat in Britain, broadcast on BBC1 Sunday and Monday evening, was not at all off the wall. In fact, the drama not only felt real but to a greater extent than many viewers may have realised was also case of art imitating life itself.

In Spooks, which romanticises the spy agency MI5, loyal officers uncovered a plot by MI6, the counter-intelligence agency, a media tycoon, a corrupt businessman, the cabinet secretary and sections of the police and army, to install a dictatorship in Britain. Plotters used the cover of terror attacks – which MI6 knew about beforehand but allowed to take place – as well as state-organised provocations to destabilise the country and pave the way for a coup.

Fantasy and fanciful? Not really. In real life and in recent times, the spy agencies, as well as the army, have actually been involved in plots to destabilise and overthrow elected governments in Britain. In 1968, a period of mass upheavals in Britain and worldwide, senior army figures, together with press baron Lord Cecil King and Lord Mountbatten, a member of the royal family, and senior intelligence agency figures, discussed the possibility of a coup in to overthrow Harold Wilson’s Labour government. It was put on ice when the government swung to the right and attacked militant trade unions.

The plans for a coup were dusted down when Labour was returned to office in 1974 after a miners’ strike had brought down the Tory government of Edward Heath. Senior army officers had reassessed their role in modern British society and decided unilaterally that collaboration with civilian authorities was necessary to prepare for a state of emergency. One of the fruits of this new collaboration was a series of joint police/army exercises at Heathrow Airport in 1974. The first of these was held in January, while Heath was still in power but the remaining three were held in June, July and September.

The initiative for these unprecedented exercises did not come from either Heath's or Wilson's government. The responsibility for them lay with the metropolitan Commissioner of Police, then Sir Robert Mark. For the first two exercises spurious "anti-terrorist" excuses were given. For the last two none were even offered. Wilson’s personal assistant, Marcia Williams, told the Sunday Times in March 1981: ". . . . . Harold was worried about the business when troops did an anti-terrorist exercise at London Airport. He said to me: ‘Have you ever thought that they could be used in a different way? They could turn that lot against the government totally.’"

Wilson's apparent fears were well founded because both the army and MI5 had already shown their contempt for his government. MI5 had vetoed the appointment of a number of his colleagues to the cabinet on the grounds of "security", while in Northern Ireland the spy agencies and the army had seized control of events. In May 1974, right-wing Protestant forces organised a strike to break the power-sharing agreement politicians had agreed. The army pointedly refused to carry out instructions from Wilson’s government to intervene to maintain electricity generation. There is evidence that MI5 and Loyalists then organised bombings in Dublin and Monaghan, killing 33 civilians, which they then blamed on the IRA. MI5 succeeded in ousting MI6 from Northern Ireland and together with the SAS, inaugurated a shoot-to-kill policy.

So the troops at Heathrow in 1974 were part of a dry run for a coup. The first admission that the rumours were true came eventually from Field Marshall Lord Carver, six years later, during a Cambridge Union debate on pacifism. When questioned, he denied that either he or "senior" officers had been involved: ". . It was exactly the opposite in that a certain interview took place by a young journalist at the Army HQ near Salisbury, Wiltshire, in which not very senior, but fairly senior, officers were ill advised enough to make suggestions that perhaps if things got terribly bad, the Army would have to do something about it."

More than 30 years later and there is discontent in the army about New Labour’s foreign adventures – with soldiers despatched to fight without adequate equipment – a looming fuel crisis, a credit boom threatening to end in tears, an unpopular government and the possibility of unstable coalition politics ahead. The state within the state is no doubt watching all this very closely… and plotting and planning.

Paul Feldman, communications editor

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Oh this blasted internet of ours! The prolatariate are SO on to us now. It's ruining our business interests. You are on to us. It will have to be open war against the little man then, forget your coup d’etat.
We are not amused.
Yours faithfully,
THe Queen & Sam Allerdyce.