Alleged coups and government traitors: conspiracy theories in 20th-century British politics
It is comforting, here in oh-so-sensible Britain, to think that people who fall for conspiracy theories are just crazy, or American, or both. But that’s a little too easy. Phil Tinline investigates why theories predicting military coups and puppetmaster financiers have gripped the political imagination for more than a century...
One of the spurs to conspiracist thinking is the fear, or reality, of overwhelming defeat by a hostile force – and in democratic politics, that goes with the territory. When your opponents are in government, it’s all too tempting to see your plight as the work of dark forces.
Ever since the advent of mass democracy in Britain in 1918, mainstream politics has been coloured by fears of devious plots at the heart of power. One side detects the hidden hand of bankers, tycoons, and democracy-hating generals. The other shudders at the thought of shadowy infiltrators in the civil service, the media and the unions.
Conspiracy thinking has tended to be stronger on the left, which has spent much more time out of power than in it.
Labour in the 1930s
In 1931, the Labour Party was in office for only the second time, with no majority, as unemployment soared towards 3 million. As the benefits bill forced up borrowing, confidence slumped, and investors hurried to sell sterling. Labour chancellor Philip Snowden (seen above, right) feared uncontrollable inflation.
The government desperately needed to reduce spending and secure a loan from American banks. This, Snowden insisted, meant cutting unemployment benefit. Late on Sunday 23 August, at a crunch cabinet meeting, nine Labour ministers refused. Snowden and prime minister Ramsay MacDonald broke away, abandoning Labour to form a new emergency “national government” dominated by Conservatives.
Next morning, on hearing this shock news, the nine dissenting ex-ministers met and went through a draft paper by one of their number. This laid out a conspiracy theory: that the government had been broken by a financiers’ plot. A message from a New York bank had been read out at that Sunday night cabinet meeting; they contended the bank had ordered the British government to cut unemployment benefit as the price of a loan.
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Labour’s parliamentary leaders joined union chiefs in passing the accusation to the Labour newspaper the Daily Herald. This splashed the story on its front page as the “secret reason” for the split.
In reality, though, there was no gloating conspiracy to nobble the Labour government. The reason that the American bankers, the City, the Bank of England, Conservatives, Snowden and MacDonald all agreed on the necessary course of action was because their economic beliefs meant they saw no alternative. As the historian Philip Williamson has shown, the New York bank’s message was merely responding to Snowden’s own proposals.
Yet many in Labour sincerely believed the bankers had broken their government: in the election that October, two thirds of the party’s candidates made that accusation. Despite its interim leader Arthur Henderson admitting it was a myth, the story haunted Labour for decades, entrenching its suspicions of City and establishment conspiracies.
Harold Wilson versus Lord Mountbatten?
For our second example, we need to fast forward to 1968. Labour was again in power, this time with a big majority. Nevertheless, as strong trade unions kept wages high, and the pound once again came under intense pressure, prime minister Harold Wilson became increasingly embattled. Some blamed union pay demands and strikes. There was much talk of the need for a national government, rule by businessmen, or even a forced seizure of power.
In the decades since, many people have come to believe that Britain came very close to a coup to oust Wilson in favour of an “emergency” government, with Lord Mountbatten, former chief of the defence staff and Prince Philip’s uncle, at its head. Military figures were said to have been waiting in the wings.
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This has elements of truth – but, as the political scientist Michael Barkun has argued, one characteristic of conspiracy theory is the notion that “everything is connected”. That is what happened here. At the heart of the story is a meeting Mountbatten had in May 1968 with Cecil King, a director of the Bank of England and chief of the company that owned the hugely popular Daily Mirror.
King was convinced that the economy was about to collapse, and thought there would have to be an emergency government. He put this to Mountbatten via his deputy Hugh Cudlipp, a Labour-supporting, working-class Welshman, who was friendly with the noble earl.
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Mountbatten had been Britain’s last Viceroy of India, and when partition triggered a wave of intercommunal bloodshed, he volunteered to chair an emergency committee to restore control. Now, as he worried over Britain’s domestic struggles, Cudlipp reported him saying: “Perhaps there should be something like the Emergency Committee I ran in India.”
Together, they drew up a list of names, including ex-military figures and moderate politicians, and agreed a meeting with King. This took place at Mountbatten’s Belgravia flat, along with his friend Solly Zuckerman, Wilson’s chief scientific advisor. King set out his nightmare scenario: a tanking pound would bring on political collapse, and the army would try to restore order by, among other things, installing machine guns on street corners.
Wilson would be forced out, and, King suggested, Mountbatten might serve as the figurehead of an emergency government. Zuckerman stormed out; Mountbatten, he realised, was “really intrigued”. According to palace rumours, it was Queen Elizabeth II herself who talked him out of it.
Cecil King set out his nightmare scenario: a tanking pound would bring on political collapse, and the army would try to restore order by, among other things, installing machine guns on street corners
No evidence has emerged, however, that Mountbatten was making the sort of complex, high-risk plans needed to seize power. And, for a purported plotter, Cecil King was remarkably keen to tell anyone who would listen. This included members of Wilson’s own cabinet, such as Tony Benn, who developed what he called a “conspiracy theory” that “the City was planning a coup against the government”.
Benn informed Wilson, who thought King was mad. But the PM also seemed “rather agitated and excited”. Imaginations were outstripping reality. It was when the details of the meeting were revealed eight years later that all this was blown up into a conspiracy theory – thanks to Wilson himself.
The King-Mountbatten cause célèbre
On 11 February 1976, shortly before he resigned as prime minister, Wilson met Zuckerman at a lunch at the Savoy Hotel. Zuckerman told him that Cudlipp’s forthcoming memoir was going to make the King-Mountbatten meeting public. Wilson knew that it had happened, but not the lurid details, such as King’s talk about machine guns.
He hurried to tell his political secretary Lady Falkender, who recalled that he was “absolutely bursting” with the news. Here at last, he seemed to believe, was confirmation of all those rumours of a coup plot. But Wilson had connected two separate stories: the King-Mountbatten meeting, and the hostility to his government among some serving military officers.
Falkender relayed Wilson’s “confirmation” to the journalists Barrie Penrose and Roger Courtiour, who then spoke to an ex-chief of MI5, who revealed that, in the late 1960s, the security service had indeed investigated coup talk among “gin-sodden generals”. But without specific evidence of a link, the meeting in no way confirmed that there was a serious plot to oust the government by force.
All this only really became a cause célèbre in 1981, when Wilson made public his belief that the 1968 meeting was to discuss King’s “plans for a coup to take over the machinery of government”. He was in no position to know but, with an ex-premier’s stamp of authority, the “coup” was now established “fact”, into which other tales of apparent plotting could be folded.
Evidence of conspiracies against democratic government should be taken very seriously indeed. But cobbling together a sprawling myth may not be the most effective approach
The Guardian noted that, in the period of the King-Mountbatten meeting, “a Times reporter uncovered virulent criticism of the government, and some thirst to remove it, in a Wiltshire officers’ mess”. But that report was dated 23 May 1972, four years after King’s meeting, under a Conservative government. Another ominous incident was the appearance of troops outside Heathrow airport – but that happened in January 1974.
If all this revealed a coup plot, it was an unusually relaxed one. Evidence of conspiracies against democratic government should be taken very seriously indeed. But cobbling together a sprawling myth may not be the most effective approach. As in 1931, these stories reveal not a single plot, but a shared belief: that the unions were too powerful, and the only way to curtail them and force down wages was an emergency government.
All of this just underlined the need for new thinking. Soon, Margaret Thatcher would provide a different, once unthinkable, solution: let unemployment climb. Thatcher’s shock rise would itself generate further conspiracy theories.
Enoch Powell and his “rivers of blood”
The British right was not immune from all this. In the 1945 general election, Conservative candidates from Winston Churchill down warned that Labour would push its plans through by turning authoritarian. Some cast its national executive committee as a shadowy cabal, ready to co-opt or oust the party’s leader, Clement Attlee – or, according to one minister, impose a dictatorship.
The biggest impetus for rightwing conspiracism was the radical social change that came to a head in the 1960s. To some, this felt like a hydra-headed, existential threat that had to have a single explanation. The most visible exponent of this was the renegade Conservative politician Enoch Powell.
His notorious “rivers of blood” speech in April 1968 – delivered amid the same economic crisis as King’s meeting with Mountbatten – was a conspiracy theory about establishment collusion to impose mass immigration on Britain. The outrage that this provoked from newspapers and politicians was driven in part by their fear that the public were all too susceptible to Powell’s incendiary rhetoric.
He responded by turning the idea of a gullible public misled by men who abuse their power back against his accusers, declaring, “the politics of the last few years have been little more than a series of conspiracies conducted by the politicians and the press against the common sense of the public”.
This is another staple element of conspiracy theories: the notion of the easily manipulated masses cast into a stupor by a shadowy elite, from which the plucky maverick must awaken them. In the 1970 general election, Powell fleshed this out in more inflammatory speeches, claiming to detect an “enemy within” conspiring to “brainwash” the British people on race and economics alike.
Another staple element of conspiracy theories is the notion of the easily manipulated masses cast into a stupor by a shadowy elite, from which the plucky maverick must awaken them
Powell charged that civil servants had faked immigration statistics, “cruelly and persistently” misleading the voters, implying that they were Soviet spy-style infiltrators. The enemy within expanded to encompass radical students, “anarchists”, protesters against apartheid, nationalists and republicans in Northern Ireland, and strikers – until, finally, Powell pursued his obsessions into the wilderness.
But the spectre of an enemy within scheming to destroy democratic government would be revived by Thatcher during the 1984–85 miners’ strike.
The threat of outside influences
Other 1970s rightwingers, rooted in the military and intelligence services, spied a similar array of enemies, but had a more coherent vision of the dark force hovering behind them. They thought it was the KGB.
In 1974, retired general Sir Walter Walker warned incessantly of Soviet-backed subversion in the trade unions, and formed a volunteer organisation to intervene if strikes caused social collapse – which many on the left duly took as more evidence of rightwing coup plotting.
When the showdown that Walker anticipated – a winter general strike – failed to materialise, his supporters drifted away. He complained that “on the instructions of the communists and extremists, the mass media went all out to expose, ridicule and destroy me”.
But what had really wrecked his reputation was acting on exactly this sort of aggressive fantasy. Walker’s successors in the pushback against union power formed a group called the National Association for Freedom. This did have fresh ideas, but some of its leaders remained stuck in a conspiracist mindset – such as the ex-officer John Gouriet, who was convinced strikes were part of an “international conspiracy”.
When a fellow Naff leader was shot dead by the Irish Republican Army, Gouriet spied a “KGB-motivated crime”. While there was evidence of communist subversion in Britain, Walker and Gouriet expanded it into an explanation of everything objectionable – but casting your opponents as puppets of secret plotters just dodges the hard work of winning them over with political argument.
This was not the first time that people whose status seemed under threat from their fellow citizens had detected the hand of Russia pulling the strings. Nor would it be the last. Whatever your politics, the onset of conspiracist thinking needs monitoring – not because we will ever be free of it, but because the polarisation, needless fear and loss of trust that it breeds need at least to be held at bay.
This article was first published in the May 2023 issue of BBC History Magazine
Phil Tinline is the author of The Death of Consensus: 100 Years of British Political Nightmares (Hurst, 2022) and presenter of the BBC Radio 4 programme Conspiracies: The Secret Knowledge, which is available on BBC Sounds
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