Harold Wilson: Elected by the people; Undone by the plotters

For most of the years Harold Wilson was prime minister he believed shadowy forces were destabilizing both him and his governments. A new documentary shows that he was right, writes John Booth.

Any lingering notion that Labour was a "moral crusade" died with those sacrificed in the war to remove non-existent threats wickedly urged upon a trusting people with faked documents. But early signs of the slide from the movement’s fundamental ethical identity could be seen in Thursday’s fine BBC documentary on the man who coined that phrase more than 30 years ago, Harold Wilson.

For witness after witness in The Plot Against Harold Wilson confirmed the former Labour prime minister’s belief that his government had indeed been systematically undermined by powerful, reactionary and undemocratic forces. By the end of the programme it was difficult not to see how isolated the Labour leader had been in fighting them.

A "moral" movement might have offered him some solidarity at the time. One committed to democratic accountability would certainly have learned enough from those events to ensure its next parliamentary majority would never permit any such thing to happen again — even less be abusing that popular support by playing footsie with the spooks in concocting a bogus prospectus for an illegal war.

Based on the secretly taped words of Wilson, what the documentary showed was profoundly shocking to any democrat. Senior members of the armed forces, the aristocracy, business, the media, Cold Warriors, professional anti-Communists, the British security services and the CIA went about dirty work that could have resulted in a military coup. When troops and tanks suddenly appear at Heathrow, when private armies are being openly talked about and the support of the Royal Family is being canvassed, we are not far from the abyss.

Wilson, despite being a four times election winner, could not indefinitely resist these pressures. After being unable to extract any reassurances from his country’s security chiefs or, through George Weidenfeld’s direct lines to the CIA, from those of America, Wilson gave up the unequal struggle and the premiership. Only then did he feel able to remind two BBC reporters, Barrie Penrose and Roger Courtiour, of the importance of journalism to democracy and point them in search of his many persecutors.

The Plot Against Harold Wilson did not explain many things, including why it took 30 years for tapes of obvious public interest to reach our ears. Had they done so sooner, not only may the victims of the plotting and its cover-up been less damaged, but the history of the country might have been different. Knowledge is power, and its denial has meant the winners in the Wilson plotting have been able to press their version of events upon a hitherto uninformed public.

It could have set a wider British context by saying that Wilson was wrestling with the massive problems resulting from the reactionary presence of a blinkered and inefficient Establishment, the messy ending of empire and the renewal of a British economy whose research, development, investment, marketing and industrial relations mirrored that imperial past.

It could have set Wilson’s battles in the world context of the end of the long postwar economic boom, the rapid rise in oil and commodity prices, the Vietnam war and the rapid resort to coups and manipulation that had removed Salvador Allende in Chile and Gough Whitlam in Australia. A thesis that pointed to the way decent people were being edged towards undemocratic actions by destabilizing smears and dirty tricks could have been illuminated by a quick glance at the similar strategy of tension in Italy at the time, one we now know had a large US intelligence input.

A more party political insight might have come by telling its audience that Wilson was always disliked and distrusted by many in his own government simply because he wasn’t their beloved Hugh Gaitskell. For some of them, whom we now know were linked to British and US Cold War operations in different ways, the smear that Wilson was a Kremlin agent suited their own ambitions very well. Their limited loyalty to Labour was shown just five years after Wilson’s resignation when they found Jim Callaghan no more to their taste and set up a new party to destroy the one that had given them their careers and public profile.

None of these observations are by way of criticism. In a 90-minute documentary that stuck rigorously to making public a limited part of what should be a wholly available public document, it did a remarkably good job. It illuminated a hidden part of important British history.

The Plot Against Harold Wilson also gave a hearing to one person who courageously tried to throw light on this dark period. Colin Wallace was an ex-Army press officer who blew the whistle on the smearing of elected politicians and was fitted up on a manslaughter charge for his pains. He was helped out of jail by an Army officer with a conscience, Fred Holroyd, with the help of Steve Dorril and Robin Ramsay. Their groundbreaking account of Wallace’s story first in Lobster magazine and then in Smear! Wilson and the Secret State encouraged Paul Foot to take up the cudgels. Wallace, after serving six years in prison, eventually had his conviction quashed.

None of this — the framing and smearing of democratic dissidents, the undermining of a Labour government by forces alien to democracy, the fact that the media were central to the plotting — has impinged in a positive way on the movement Wilson saw as a "moral crusade". Ambitious Labour politicos have either averted their gaze from intelligence matters or embraced the secret state at its own high estimation of its worth.

Today’s media — with all the communication advances since Penrose and Courtiour taped Wilson — have gained little from them, learned little from this history, have substituted commentators for reporters and celebrity infotainment for informed analysis. They are as happy now to recycle intelligence smears as exclusives as they were in Wilson’s days.

James Jesus Angleton, the then CIA head of counter intelligence and friend of Jonathan Aitken, was the source of most of the venom directed at Harold Wilson. Every day, on his way to work at CIA headquarters in Langley he would walk past the foyer’s Biblical injunction to staff — "the truth shall set you free". Wilson’s long-overdue revenge could be its adoption as the maxim or this country’s next moral crusade.

John Booth is a former Labour Party chief press officer, sacked in 1986 by Labour leader Neil Kinnock and his communications chief Peter Mandelson. In 1999 he was libelled in a biography of Mandelson, now the EU Trade Commissioner. He won the libel action against Rupert Murdoch's Harper Collins and used some of the settlement to stand against Mandelson in the 2001 general election in Hartlepool, County Durham, as Genuine Labour candidate.