Lord Mountbatten: Did Prince Philip’s uncle attempt to lead a coup against Harold Wilson’s government?
The fifth episode of season three of The Crown sees royal family member Lord Mountbatten approached to lead a coup against Harold Wilson’s struggling Labour government. How much of the drama is true? Andrew Lownie, author of a new book on the Mountbattens, explores the truth of the suggested coup attempt…
The fifth episode of the third season of The Crown, ‘Coup’, discusses the possible involvement in 1968 of Lord Mountbatten in a potential coup against the Labour government of Harold Wilson.
Although its claim that Mountbatten was motivated by pique at being sacked as chief of the defence staff is incorrect – Mountbatten retired naturally in 1965 at the age of 65 – there were certainly plans for such a coup. Indeed, if The Crown had drawn on my recent book The Mountbattens: Their Lives and Loves, which looks at the private correspondence of those involved in the coup, they might have stressed a greater role for Mountbatten. That’s because it’s clear he was far more involved than he or other collaborators publicly stated.
Harold Wilson had come to power in 1964, but by 1968 was beset with economic problems and industrial unrest. There were concerns about cuts in the armed forces, a belief that public spending needed to be reduced to help keep interest rates under control, and there were worries about the amount of power wielded by trade unions. Added to this, in 1964, Jim Angleton, the head of the CIA’s Counterintelligence Division, had told MI5, Britain’s domestic security service, that, according to a secret source he declined to divulge, Wilson was a Soviet agent.
For months during 1968, media tycoon and Bank of England director Cecil King publicly advocated the formation of a coalition government. At the end of April, King approached Mountbatten to sound him out about possibly becoming part of it. Mountbatten agreed that “talent and administrative ability which does not exist in Parliament must be harnessed. Perhaps there should be something like the Emergency Committee I ran in India”.
He agreed to meet King, together with the Mirror’s editorial director Hugh Cudlipp, on 8 May at his London home in Kinnerton Street – not the boardroom of the Bank of England as in The Crown – and brought along his unofficial advisor, Solly Zuckerman. According to Cudlipps’s autobiography, King asked Mountbatten if he would “agree to be the titular head of a new administration”, to which Zuckerman responded by getting up to leave, saying: “This is rank treachery. All this talk of machine guns at street corners is appalling. I am a public servant and will have nothing to do with it. Nor should you, Dickie [a common nickname for Lord Mountbatten].”
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Mountbatten expressed his agreement and Sir Solly departed. Only a minute or two elapsed between the departures of Zuckerman and King.
That might have been the end of the matter, but seven years later Cudlipp referred to the meeting in his memoirs, an account that was challenged by King who argued that: “The interview with Mountbatten, at which I was present, had no resemblance to the one described in your book.”
He released his diary entry for the May 1968 meeting, which gave a very different version of events: “Dickie does not really have his ear to the ground or understand politics. After Solly had gone, Mountbatten said he had been lunching at the Horse Guards and that morale in the armed forces had never been so low. He said the queen was receiving an unprecedented number of petitions, all of which have to be passed on to the Home Office. According to Dickie, she is desperately worried over the whole situation.”
A file note in Zuckerman’s private papers suggests that the collaborators had agreed a public version of events: “All I hope is that Dickie did not go beyond what we had agreed. The fact of the matter is – as Hugh Cudlipp knows only too well – that Dickie was really intrigued by Cecil King’s suggestion that he should become the boss man of a ‘government’… When I saw Dickie at Prince Philip’s diner party on 17th November, three nights after I started to dictate this note, he seemed very pleased with himself and thought the whole matter was settled – once again implying that his record of what had happened in an event would be the statement which history would accept.”
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In fact, Dickie in 1968 had put forward various names who might be ‘useful’ for such a national government. These included Zuckerman himself, the government’s advisor on nuclear matters; Air Vice-Marshal Deryck Stapleton, a former director of defence plans at the Ministry of Defence, who had retired that month as commandant of the RAF Staff College at Bracknell; Duncan Lewin, a former director of plans at the Admiralty; Lord Beeching, famous for his report on the railways, a deputy chairman of ICI and director of Lloyds Bank; and the businessman Sir Charles ‘Dick’ Troughton, who would become chairman of WH Smith in 1972.
He also suggested Sir William Armstrong, the head of the Home Civil Service; Sir Michael Cary, the second permanent under secretary at defence, dealing with the Royal Navy; and Jimmy Carreras, head of Hammer Film Productions – a “great go-getter” whom Mountbatten had met through the Variety Club. Political suggestions ranged from a former Labour chief whip, Lord Aylestone, and Barbara Castle to Roy Jenkins, Jim Callaghan, Reginald Maudling and, Alec Douglas-Home for the Foreign Office – “The people trust him,” said Mountbatten, “perhaps alone of the politicians.”
Lord Mountbatten’s political ambition
Mountbatten’s political ambitions were hardly new. In June 1946, whilst receiving his honorary degree at Oxford, Mountbatten had talked long into the night with Zuckerman, about the war, about the enormous problems that it had left behind, and about what his own future was to be. He wanted to return to the navy, but other ideas had been mooted, such as his becoming the governor-general of Australia. Zuckerman later wrote in his memoirs: “The one job that he felt that he could have done was that of prime minister, but that office had been closed down to him because of his royal connections. He and Edwina [Mountbatten’s wife] would have known how to handle the settling of ex-serviceman, and so on and so on. He talked as though there was nothing that he could not do.”
Dickie was immensely worried… he again said that with all his political experience, he might have made a better job of leading the country than had Attlee
In 1951, Zuckerman and Mountbatten had met again at a cocktail party given at Admiralty House: “He drew me aside, and we had a long talk about many things, but particularly about the sorry state of the country,” Zuckerman later wrote. “Dickie was immensely worried, and I was not surprised when he again said that with all his political experience, he might have made a better job of leading the country than had Attlee.”
The 1968 coup was only part of an ongoing battle that continued throughout the 1970s between politicians – in particular, Harold Wilson – and the ‘secret state’, largely represented by MI5. In July 1977, Zuckerman ran into Harold Wilson, who had unexpectedly resigned the previous year, at the queen’s jubilee party at Buckingham Palace. Zuckerman was being interviewed the following day by Barrie Penrose and Roger Courtiour who were writing a book about the plotting against Wilson.
Courtiour and Penrose claimed to have a senior MI5 officer as a source who, with others, “had told them that there was something much more substantial behind the story of a possible military takeover than people assumed. They then referred to Cudlipp’s account of the meeting with Mountbatten and explained that their MI5 informant had told them that the danger of a military takeover had been real. As they saw it, Cudlipp had indicated this in his account of the meeting with Mountbatten.”
Amongst those who had been approached was David Stirling, the founder of the SAS, who in the mid-1970s had created an organisation called Great Britain 75, recruiting members from the aristocratic clubs in Mayfair – mainly ex-military men (often former SAS members). Stirling's plan was simple: should civil unrest result in the breakdown of normal government operations, Great Britain 75 would take over.
According to the writer Charles Higham: “One who took the plot seriously, perhaps too seriously was Marcia Williams, Harold Wilson’s secretary, who apparently spoke to the press at a later stage, talking of Mountbatten as ‘a prime mover in the plan’. She added ‘Mountbatten had a map on the wall of his office showing how it could be done. Harold and I used to stand in the State Room at Number Ten and work out where they would put the guns.”
There’s no doubt that Mountbatten believed in strong leadership and that a national government might be required, and that he was vain and flattered to have been approached, and did not immediately reject the overtures – but ultimately any evidence that his own role went any further than a few conversations remains hidden.
Historian Alex von Tunzelmann, drawing on private information from Buckingham Palace, has suggested the advice came from elsewhere. “It was not Solly Zuckerman who talked Mountbatten out of staging a coup and making himself President of Britain. It was the queen herself.” Th altercation with the queen is a key moment in episode five.
Andrew Lownie is founder of the Andrew Lownie Literary Agency and the author of several books including The Mountbattens: Their Lives and Loves (BLINK Publishing, 2019)