History

Tanks On The Runway

How close did Britain come to a Coup d'état in 1974?

In this long-read feature, BFBS explores how far-reaching alleged plots in the 1970s to oust a democratically elected Prime Minister went, and who was accused of being involved. Using historic written sources and the words made by various figures - including Prime Minister Harold Wilson himself, given in interviews after leaving office - the article sets out the claims and examines them almost 50 years on.

June 29, 1974. British Army units in armoured vehicles arrive at Heathrow Airport and secure roadblocks. Soldiers dressed in camouflage and holding machine guns take up defensive positions and are looking out. Roadblocks are established, would-be travellers are questioned by armed men. The deployment, which took only hours to execute, has been a success. Heathrow – the world's busiest airport - is secure.

The action was later described as an "opportune time to test our procedures and at the same time show our preparedness to deal with such incidents."

The sight of uniformed members of the British Army stationed – apparently on exercise – at a location that lent itself to terrorism (the Munich Olympic Games in 1972 were fresh in the memory) offered reassurance. For some people, though, the unannounced deployment of soldiers onto England's streets caused alarm.

One such person was Harold Wilson.

The Prime Minister, it would later be claimed, had not been given forewarning of the army's deployment to Heathrow. It was a complete surprise to the people who ought to have been in the know. For a man whom historians have remarked upon as naturally paranoid, this unexpected military movement in the civil space caused great stress. 

But, was the Prime Minister justifiably anxious? Described as an exercise, was the troop deployment actually something else? Something more sinister? Was it, as would be claimed later, an overt demonstration of the ease in which soldiers could deploy to and hold critical civic assets?

Or was it simply just an exercise?

Watch original newsreel footage of the army's activities at Heathrow Airport in 1974.

 

The Claims

The most important place to start when looking at the various claims about the plots to bring about a change in Prime Minister in the 1970s is with a man who was himself a Prime Minister – Harold Wilson.

In his resignation speech, given on March 16, 1976, Harold Wilson alluded to his suspicions of foul play during his tenures in office. He said:

"Every Prime Minister has his own style. But he must know all that is going on."

Soon after leaving office, Harold Wilson went a step further. He explicitly made claims to two BBC journalists, Barrie Penrose and Roger Courtiour. The ex-Prime Minister spoke of the concerns he had about elements of the security services he felt had viewed his premiership with suspicion. In the discussion, which was secretly recorded by the two journalists, Harold Wilson said:

"I have become quite concerned about one section of Mi5.

"They are very right wing, they are blinkered. They would naturally be brought up to believe that a socialist leader is a Communist."

Harold Wilson directed the men to interview Marcia Williams (later Baroness Falkender), a political aid and close friend. Marcia Williams made further claims against the security services to the two journalists. 

She asserted:

"MI5 were making a mockery of us. Those people ought to be exposed for who they really are."

Below, a Movietone news bulletin reports on the unexpected news of Harold Wilson's resignation in 1976.

Harold Wilson and Marcia Williams' claims were later broadcasted as part of the BBC documentary 'The Plot Against Harold Wilson'. These were summarised by academic Jon Moran in an article for the Journal of Intelligence History. Titled 'Conspiracy and Contemporary History: Revisiting MI5 and the Wilson Plots', Jon Moran outlined a "more protracted series of moves in the mid-1970s, the result of which may have been to force Wilson's resignation."

The plot remains an interesting and unresolved debate in contemporary intelligence history. - Jon Moran.

Did the claims add up to anything more than an audacious conspiracy theory, or was there truth in the idea that MI5 agents were actively undermining the Wilson government? Did those officials have even a shred of evidence of any wrongdoing against the Prime Minister? What was the genesis of any plot against him?

According to Jon Moran, there was "evidence of a conspiracy" not only by the security services but a wider group of influential individuals, which he detailed as:

"…a loosely connected series of unlawful manoeuvres against an elected government by a group of like-minded figures."

But who were those like-minded figures?

The Political Landscape

There was little consensus politically in the late sixties and seventies regarding the policies each of the main political parties offered voters and how the population swayed between supporting Labour and the Conservatives. Whereas today one party has been in power for more than a decade, and before that, a different party was in power for even longer, during the sixties and seventies, general elections were commonplace (perhaps not too dissimilar to now). Still, the victor of those elections frequently changed.

Harold Wilson became the Labour leader in 1963 after the sudden death of his predecessor, Hugh Gaitskell.

In later claims against him, the death of Gaitskell was alleged to have been the result of a KGB assassination, thus clearing the way for Harold Wilson and the leadership.

We will explore this remarkable accusation, including where it originated, later. However, within a year of rising to power at the top of the party, Labour narrowly won the 1964 general election. Harold Wilson, and Labour, won a further election in 1966 which provided the Prime Minister with an increased majority and more power. 

Harold Wilson at the United Nations in 1965. UN

During this second term, the economy struggled. The culmination of this was, in 1967, the devaluing of the pound by Wilson's Government. This was a heavily divisive action and served to cause a reaction not just formally through political opposition, but also informally. Perhaps another way to describe this would be to call it covert in nature by influential figures which collectively has been described as 'the establishment.'

Jon Moran deals with this in his article. He says:

A core idea of critics was that a network of power existed which functioned behind the formal institutions of British politics. 

In the 1980s and 1990s, the journal Lobster consistently argued of the power of a parallel right wing power structure. In a plethora of articles, it examined the networks linking defence, industry, finance and the media in the UK, and the founders of Lobster have continued to produce detailed work examining the operation of a parallel state. Similarly, the diaries of certain cabinet Ministers such as Ton Benn pointed to what he called a secret or shadow state which manoeuvred against those who opposed nuclear power.

The MI5 Officer

In the book 'Spycatcher', author Peter Wright – a former Assistant Director of MI5 – revealed that he was one of a group of Mi5 agents concerned about Harold Wilson. He claimed discussions between security services officers and other figures were afoot in 1968 (shortly after the pound's devaluing), but more seriously again in the mid-1970s surrounding removing Harold Wilson from Downing Street. 

So controversial was the publication of Spycatcher, Margaret Thatcher's administration banned its publication in the United Kingdom, which was later overturned in the courts. 

In dealing with the Wilson plots, in his book Peter Wright said:

"Much has been written about Harold Wilson and MI5, some of it wildly inaccurate. But as far as I am concerned, the story started with the premature death of Hugh Gaitskell in 1963. Gaitskell was Wilson's predecessor as Leader of the Labour Party. I knew him personally and admired him greatly. I had met him and his family at the Blackwater Sailing Club, and I recall about a month before he died he told me that he was going to Russia.

"After he died his doctor got in touch with MI5 and asked to see somebody from the service. Arthur Martin, as the head of Russian Counterespionage, went to see him. The doctor explained that he was disturbed by the manner of Gaitskell's death. He said that Gaitskell had died of a disease called lupus disseminata, which attacks the body's organs. He said it was rare in temperate climates and that there was no evidence that Gaitskell had been anywhere recently where he could have contracted the disease. 

"Arthur Martin suggested that I should go to Porton Down, the chemical and microbiological laboratory for the Ministry of Defense.

"I went to see the chief doctor in the chemical warfare laboratory, Dr. Ladell, and asked his advice. He said that nobody knew how one contracted lupus. There was some suspicion that it might be a form of fungus and he did not have the foggiest idea how one would infect somebody with the disease. I came back and made my report in these terms."

Spycatcher, by former Mi5 officer Peter Wright, was originally banned from publication.

In the chapter, Peter Wright said that while he and Dr Ladell were keeping their ear out over a few years for anything from Russia that might implicate them in Gaitskell's death, if a Russian mole within MI5 had back-briefed Moscow to tread with caution in the matter, they would have inevitably drawn a blank. 

Peter Wright and Dr Ladell did draw a blank.

But the internal suspicions held by elements of Mi5 did not stop there. According to Peter Wright, there were other matters in Harold Wilson's backstory that attracted concern.

Peter Wright continued:

"It was inevitable that Wilson would come to the attention of MI5. Before he became Prime Minister he worked for an East-West trading organization and paid many visits to Russia. Mi5, well aware that the KGB will stop at nothing to entrap or frame visitors, were concerned that he should be well aware of the risk of being compromised by the Russians. When Wilson succeeded Gaitskell as Leader of the Labour Party, there was a further source of friction between himself and MI5. He began to surround himself with other East European émigré businessmen, some of whom had themselves been the subject of MI5's inquiries."

Peter Wright described a visit from CIA Agent and friend James Angleton after Harold Wilson became Prime Minister in 1964. James Angleton, who was then CIA Counterintelligence Chief, informed MI5 of a piece of intelligence he owned. 

Peter Wright said:

"Angleton came to offer us some very secret information from a source he would not name. The source alleged, according to Angleton, that Wilson was a Soviet agent. He said he would give us more detailed evidence and information if we could guarantee to keep the information inside of Mi5 and out of political circles. The accusation was totally incredible, but given the fact that Angleton was head of the CIA's Counterintelligence Division, we had no choice but to take it seriously. Not surprisingly the management of MI5 were deeply disturbed by the manner in which Angleton had passed this information over."

The terms of James Angleton's offer were ultimately turned down by MI5, and at that point no further information was forthcoming. However, a file on the matter had been created. Peter Wright described a later meeting with James Angleton in Washington DC. The American failed to convince him of the evidence again. And so, at that stage in the 1960s, the matter was treated as little more than hearsay. 

However, other events would reignite suspicion. Writing in 'Spycatcher', Peter Wright moved on:

"… by the end of the 1960s information was coming to MI5's attention which suggested that there almost certainly was Soviet penetration of the Labour Party."

Associate Deputy Director of Operations for Counterintelligence - CIA - James Angleton. USGOV

This new information had originated from Czechoslovakian defectors, who had named several Labour MPs and trade unionists as "successful recruits." And, via a turned Soviet agent called Oleg Lyalin who stated that he had a friend who claimed to be in contact with a Lithuanian émigré called Joseph Kagan, a close friend of Harold Wilson.  

Peter Wright described this:

"Kagan had helped finance Wilson's private office, and had even lent him an aircraft during elections, and Wilson had been much photographed wearing Kagan's raincoats, which he manufactured in a factory near Leeds."

In any event, Harold Wilson found himself suddenly out of office in 1970 and occupying the opposition benches in the House of Commons. Soon after his departure, he arranged to discuss his relationship with Joseph Kagan with the security services. He was informed of the suspicions held by MI5 of his friend and financier. According to Peter Wright, the former Prime Minister did not take the information well and stated that he had never discussed confidential matters of state with Joseph Kagan "at any time." Peter Wright said:

"Wilson interpreted MI5's interest as a crude attempt to smear the Labour Party and him."

The Political Opportunism  

The furore caused by the allegations led to the new Prime Minister, Ted Heath, requesting to see the files on the former administration (those now in opposition) and the concerns held by MI5. Peter Wright claimed that such files were provided, which led to the incumbent Downing Street administration's ability to politicise the information to the Conservative Party's benefit if it so wished. Peter Wright himself provided a "lengthy brief" but states that he drew "no conclusions, but neither did I leave anything out."

This meant that when Harold Wilson unexpectedly returned to power after the snap general election of 1974 (the first of two that year), there was compromising information in the hands of not only MI5 but also the opposition. It was no longer a contained situation within the security services.

Ted Heath (left) became Prime Minister in 1970 and was defeated by Harold Wilson in 1974. Here, Heath meets US Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara in 1966 while still in opposition. Department of Defense (US)

A Retired Spy With A Point To Make?

In concluding 'Spycatcher', Peter Wright made remarks about both the activities involving plots against Harold Wilson at the time of his second tenure as Prime Minister and his own treatment at the hands of his employer, MI5.

Peter Wright said:

In 1972, I finally learned that the promise MI5 had made to me in 1955 about my pension was not to be honoured. In order to join the Service I had been forced to give up fifteen years of pension rights with the Admiralty…

… It was a bitter blow, and did much to sour my last few years in the Service.

Peter Wright continued by outlining a meeting with an unnamed businessman, whom he had been engaged with over possible employment, and who had a proposition for the would-be retired spy. He claimed to have taken an immediate disliking to the man, yet admitted that he did attend a further meeting. On that occasion, there were other individuals present, "to discuss his proposition in more detail."

TV comedian Rik Mayall reads an extract from the banned Peter Wright book Spycatcher, at an event organised by the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom at Conway Hall in London. Former Monty Python member Michael Palin is seated on the right. PA

Writing in his memoir, Peter Wright said:

"His colleagues were a ramshackle bunch. They were retired people from various branches of intelligence and security organizations whose best years were behind them. There were others, too, mainly businessmen who seemed thrilled to be in the same room as spies, and did not seem to care how out of date they were."

This time my would-be employer came straight to the point. 

"We represent a group of people who are worried about the future of the country," he intoned. 

He had something of a look of Angleton on a bad night about him. He said they were interested in working to prevent the return of a Labour government to power.

"It could spell the end of all the freedoms we know and cherish," he said.

The others nodded.

"And how do you suppose I can help?" I asked.

"Information," he replied, "we want information and I am assured you have it."

"What precisely are you after?" I inquired.

"Anything on Wilson would be helpful. There are people who would pay handsomely for material of that sort."

Peter Wright insisted on having returned to MI5 following the lunch, detailing the conversation to his superior. He states that he offered his boss the idea of participating in the group as an undercover agent to collect information, but this suggestion was declined. According to Peter Wright, his boss was not fully aware of the Labour Leader's intelligence files. It was agreed that they would be re-examined. At that stage, the Heath Government was faltering. The opposition, led by Harold Wilson, was set poised to return to Downing Street should an election be called. 

In early 1974, an election was called, and Labour won it. Wright picked up the story in the final few pages of his 'Spycatcher' memoir …

"As events moved to their political climax in early 1974, with the election of a minority Labour Government, Mi5 was sitting on information which, if leaked, would undoubtedly have caused a political scandal of incalculable consequences. The news that the Prime Minister himself was being investigated would at the least have led to his resignation. The point was not lost on some MI5 officers. 

What follows in Peter Wright's book is the most remarkable of his accusations against his former employer, MI5. No doubt the very words that led to successive governmental inquiries in the years following 1974, and the subsequent rebuke by the security services that still has a place on the Mi5 website half a century on:

"One afternoon I was in my office when two colleagues came in. They were with three or four other officers. I closed the file I was working on and asked them how I could help.

"We understand you've re-opened the Wilson case," said the senior one.

"You know I can't talk about that," I told him.

I felt a bit lame, but then I did not much enjoy being cornered in my own office. 

"Wilson's a bloody menace," said one of the younger officers, "and it's about time the public knew the truth."

Peter Wright continued by explaining that similar feelings had existed in Mi5 during 1968, soon after Harold Wilson had devalued the pound. He writes:

"There had been an effort to try to stir up trouble for Wilson then, largely because the Daily Mirror tycoon, Cecil King, who was a longtime agent of ours, made it clear that he would publish anything that MI5 might care to leak in his direction. It was all part of Cecil King's "Coup," which he was convinced would bring down the Labour Government and replace it with a coalition led by Lord Mountbatten. 

Harold Wilson addressing a press conference during the second of two general election campaigns of 1974. Seated beside him is Denis Healy, chancellor of the Exchequer. PA

On the activities by MI5 officers in the run-up to the 1974 election, Peter Wright accused former colleagues of: 

" ... arranging for selective details of the intelligence about leading Labour Party figures, but especially Wilson, to be leaked to sympathetic pressmen."

"Using our contacts in the press and among union officials, word of the material contained in Mi5 files and the fact that Wilson was considered a security risk would be passed around.

"Soundings in the office had already been taken, and up to 30 officers had given their approval to the scheme. Facsimile copies of some files were to be made and distributed to overseas newspapers, and the matter was to be raised in Parliament for maximum effect. It was a carbon copy of the Zinoviev letter, which had done so much to destroy the first Ramsey MacDonald Government in 1928.

"We'll have him out," said one of them, "this time we'll have him out."

Ultimately, Peter Wright conceded that he decided to have no part in the plot presented to him by the "up to 30 officers" he claimed were involved in it.

The Old And Bold Military Men

At the start, we briefly detailed the British Army's manoeuvres in the June of 1974 at Heathrow Airport and the surrounding area. Just a few months into his second stint as Prime Minister, Harold Wilson viewed this matter suspiciously. His close friend and ally Marcia Williams would claim later that the activity was planned without the Government's knowledge. Was it a warning shot to any Prime Minister – in office or otherwise – that the military could be used quickly and effectively to hold streets and areas in and around London? Were there dark forces at play that June morning when tanks rolled onto the runway?

Or was this all a nonsensical conspiracy theory?

When exploring the criticism levelled at Harold Wilson during his time in office or in opposition, some interesting names appear in the picture. Those names include SAS founding member, David Stirling, and former General Sir Walter Walker. 

David Stirling, the founding member of the SAS, in 1942. Crown

In the 1970s, David Stirling and Sir Walter Walker claimed to be the leaders of dormant groups poised to "assist" in domestic operations should the need arise. Sir Walter Walker and his somewhat conservative views on state matters were detailed in the Jon Moran paper. 

He said:

"Voices on the right believed Wilson was moving the country towards communism, including General Walter Walker. Walker had been the Commander in Chief Allied Forces, Northern Europe 1969-1972. Following his retirement, he expressed himself politically, arguing about 'the communist trojan horse in our midst, with its fellow travellers wriggling their maggoty way inside its belly.' With regards to Northern Ireland, it 'should now be declared a proper operational area, or even a war zone, in which would-be murderers caught carrying or using arms would be subject to summary trial and execution.'"

Of David Stirling, Jon Moran remarked …

"According to David Stirling, founder of the SAS, the left had a 'stead encroachment on the public enterprise system, together with the forcing of trade union members on to the executive board of companies' and was a 'realizable threat of a magnitude this country has never faced before'. Stirling was also publicly arguing for some kind of parallel 'volunteers' organization to be in place of a 'crisis'."

Sinister stuff. However, could it be argued that the two retirees described here were acting out notions of nostalgia? The good old days when the Empire reigned supreme. By 1974, as much as Sir Walter Walker and David Stirling might have taken displeasure in the fact, Britain was an altogether different place. Harold Wilson and his lawful election victories were part of that change. 

Yet, none of this directly accuses or implicates serving army officers or those in a relevant position to arrange something as large scale as the deployment of armoured vehicles to the world's busiest airport. However, that changes when the next revelation in the Jon Moran academic paper is detailed. 

It involved a man called Brian Crozier. Jon Moran wrote:

"Others were directly urging for some sort of intervention, including Brian Crozier a right-wing journalist with connections to the security services. Crozier engaged in anti-communist propaganda and briefings and openly talked to the benefits of military coups in talks to British army officers.

"After a talk at an army staff college, he received a letter from the Commander saying 'Action which armed forces might be justified, in certain circumstances, is in the forefront of my mind at the moment, and I do hope we may have the chance of carrying the debate a stage further.'"

One can only guess what the unnamed military commander meant by using the phrase "a stage further".

Harold Wilson at a Press Conference after announcing that he was to give up office as Prime Minister once a successor had been elected. PA

The Climbdown And Rebuke

It should be stated that MI5 outright deny claims of political interference and wrongdoing. On their website to this day, a page exists that sets out the accusations by the late Sir Harold Wilson and Peter Wright, detailing the inquiries conducted by successive Governments and which exonerated MI5 from malpractice in the "so-called Wilson plot". 

A year after the publication of 'Spycatcher', Peter Wright admitted he had exaggerated the number of MI5 officers involved in the plot described by him of that day in the office in 1974. 

MI5 draw attention to this on their official website almost 50 years on. It states:

"Wright effectively discredited his own evidence the following year in an interview on the BBC's Panorama programme of October 13, 1988. He admitted that his figure of thirty officers was greatly exaggerated: "The maximum number was eight or nine. Very often it was only three." When pressed further and asked, "How many people, when all the talking died down, were still serious in joining you in trying to get rid of Wilson?", Wright replied, "One, I should say." The interviewer asked, "Is that part of the book perhaps an exaggeration of what you recall now?" to which Wright responded, "I would say it is unreliable."

The curtain falls for Harold Wilson as he leaves 10 Downing Street for the last time. Mr Wilson had tendered his resignation to the Queen and was succeeded by James Callaghan. PA

Successive governments held inquiries, both following the remarks made by Sir Harold Wilson himself after leaving office and following the publication of the controversial memoir of Peter Wright in the late 1980s. In dealing with the latter, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher declared in a statement the accusations baseless. 

Margaret Thatcher said:

"The Director General of the Security Service has reported to me that, over the last four months, he has conducted a thorough investigation into all these stories, taking account of the earlier allegations and of the other material given recent currency. There has been a comprehensive examination of all the papers relevant to that time. There have been interviews with officers in post in the relevant parts of the Security Service at that time, including officers whose names have been made public.

"The Director General has advised me that he has found no evidence of any truth in the allegations. He has given me his personal assurance that the stories are false. In particular, he has advised me that all the Security Service officers who have been interviewed have categorically denied that they were involved in, or were aware of, any activities or plans to undermine or discredit Lord Wilson and his Government when he was Prime Minister. The then Director General has categorically denied the allegation that he confirmed the existence within the Security Service of a disaffected faction with extreme Right-wing views. He has further stated that he had no reason to believe that any such faction existed. No evidence or indication has been found of any plot or conspiracy against Lord Wilson by or within the Security Service.

"Further, the Director General has also advised me that Lord Wilson has never been the subject of a Security Service investigation or of any form of electronic or other surveillance by the Security Service."

Thatcher
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was the second Prime Minister to oversee inquiries into claims of plots against Harold Wilson.

Another notable historian who has dealt with the so-called Wilson plot is the author of 'Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5', Christopher Andrew. In his thousand pages of history on the secretive organisation, he largely dismissed claims of plots amounting to anything like coup d’états against Harold Wilson.  

However, in researching his magnificent book, Christopher Andrew did uncover evidence which provided compelling evidence that bugging devices were placed in Downing Street from 1963 to 1977. Crucially, this covered both of Harold Wilson governments and the Conservative administration of Ted Heath. This revelation, seemingly at odds with the statement made by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, was initially blocked from publication on the grounds of it being in the "wider public interest," to do so. However, the whole matter, including details of the efforts made to block it, was later reported by the Mail on Sunday. It is not clear whether those devices were ever turned on, as reported at the time by the newspaper: 

"The files also contain no 'product' – transcripts of conversations overheard by the devices – suggesting that the bugs, while working, were not being actively used by MI5."

'The Defence of the Realm: The Authorised History of MI5' by Christopher Andrew.

One thing that is perhaps clear from the troves of written material supporting and rebuking ideas of political interference by "likeminded individuals", as described by Jon Moran, is that Harold Wilson was probably the most divisive Prime Minister of the twentieth century. 

Those who wished to discredit him based their ambitions on his dealings with individuals connected to the Soviet Union, the West's greatest enemy. 

But perhaps more than anything, it was his divisive policies that really provided the fear behind any plot to oust him. While there is evidence pointing towards organisations and officials acting improperly or questionably, there is none that proved Harold Wilson was a Russian agent. The period in question sits at the peak of Cold War tensions. On both sides of the curtain, skulduggery was commonplace, either at the hands of domestic agents or foreign.

Politically paranoid? For decades that accusation may have suited those who wished to downplay the seriousness of what the Labour leader saw as dark forces actively working against him. Perhaps, if he were still alive today, Sir Harold Wilson would feel vindicated about the suspicions he had for the establishment around him. 

Did the tanks on the runway that June morning represent more than they at first alluded? Perhaps we will never know. Maybe those commanding the units on the ground themselves never did know either. But all these years on, with coup d’états happening in parts of the world right now, it is a fascinating thought to ponder: how close did we come to one ourselves?