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The Wilson Plot: How the Spycatchers and Their American Allies Tried to Overthrow the British Government by David Leigh

26 October 2007

I’ve acquired a copy of the BBC2 television programme The Plot Against Harold Wilson, in which journalists Roger Courtiour and Barrie Penrose described how Wilson contacted them in the late 1970s to give them information about various plots against him during his premiership. It seems as good a time as any to post this little review.

The Wilson Plot: How the Spycatchers and Their American Allies Tried to Overthrow the British Government by David Leigh

Generally, I am not one for books on conspiracy theories. Most of the time they smack of lone individuals sitting in darkened rooms, meticulously crafting cunning hats out of aluminium foil ‘just in case’. And at times, The Wilson Plot veers into this realm — the full name of the book is overly dramatic, to say the least. But Observer journalist David Leigh’s account, published in 1988 the wake of the debacle over former MI5 officer Peter Wright’s Spycatcher, adds quite a lot of damning evidence to corroborate one of Wright’s more controversial claims: that certain well-placed members of the British (and American) secret services believed that Prime Minister Harold Wilson was an agent of the Soviet Union. Leigh sets out to prove that Wilson was not and could not have been on the Soviet payroll, and at the same time does his best to expose much of the darker side of Cold War espionage…including the often vicious ‘dirty tricks’ carried out against Wilson and many others who were unfortunate enough to fall foul of the Anglo-American ‘spycatchers’.

First and foremost, ‘overthrow’ is not the right word at all in this context. British Intelligence’s intereference with Harold Wilson was not some kind of Mossadeq Lite or Nasser Mark II. Granted, some of the same ideas and thought trends that contributed to suspicions surrounding Wilson had roots in the same anti-Communist mania that powered both of the abovementioned incidents. There was a similar streak of paranoia involved as well — most notably concerning the unexpected death of the right-leaning Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell, which some of the more obsessed chose to regard as a KGB-backed assassination that would allow Wilson to succeed to the Labour leadership and thence to the premiership. But none of the plots and plans that Leigh recounts come close to government-toppling. Most never got farther than sordid whispering campaigns, usually hinting that Wilson had been compromised in some nebulous sexual escapade involving either his political advisor Marcia Williams or Cabinet Minister Barbara Castle. The intelligence services’ fascination with sex and its use as a weapon is certainly nothing new, and in the political context it certainly comes across as the product of a number of people with more time on their hands than they really ought to have had.

What is disturbing, in Leigh’s account, are the power games that were rife within MI5 and MI6 during the Cold War — and the near-complete lack of accountability for the resulting damage and repercussions. The defections of Kim Philby and Guy Burgess led to more than a few in-house mole hunts that slandered reputations and destroyed careers. MI5’s decades-long cover-up of Sir Anthony Blunt‘s war-time espionage appears to have played a key role in the 1967 suicide of Labour politician Bernard Floud. The testimony of rather suspect defectors like Anatoliy Golitsyn, amongst others, caused Anglo-American as well as inter-departmental strife. The people crafting the cunning aluminium foil hats in those days were wielding an unpleasantly large amount of power to make other people’s lives miserable. The Wilson Plot may be over the top and unnecessarily dramatic at times, but I think that Leigh’s underlying message cannot be overstated: There are those in the intelligence services whose view of the world is (to be frank) utterly divorced from reality, and if there is no sense of accountability for their actions then it is hardly surprising if innocent people are caught in the crossfire.

One comment

  1. During the Wilson years apparently a very large number of eastern block visitors arrived to the U.K.

    I met two of them whilst staying at a cheap B&B at Leeds near the University. Whilst I was there, Party’s were held including lecturers from the University.

    My concerns regarding their presence were many.
    We were at the height of the Cold War – Cultural
    Visits? I was given some items from one of the Russians ( woman ) Self Treatment Prescriptive Drugs.
    They were not allowed to go to any hospital or Doctors Surgery! Any serious illnesses were a home trip for treatment.
    My main concern was – Why were they there?
    What were they really doing? Who allowed them into the country? Were they being monitored by our Secret Service?

    1967 / 1968



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