I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
By the late 1960s, the socialist government of Britain’s Prime Minister Harold Wilson was presiding over an economic downturn. A group of business leaders and aristocrats began hatching a plot to take down the government and replace it with men such as themselves. Lord Louis Mountbatten, a grandson of Queen Victoria and second cousin of Queen Elizabeth II, expressed interest in being the nominal head of such an administration.
Middle and working class Brits were doing quite well in the 1960s. Wages were up and people were able to buy cars and appliances for the first time. Trade unions were flexing their muscle and demanding better working conditions. The first wave of baby boomers was coming of age and getting quite rebellious.
In 1964, Harold Wilson led his socialist Labour Party to victory in a general election. But, it turned out to be a bad time to take over the reins of power. The industrial powerhouse that the country had once been was undergoing a wrenching dislocation. Its manufacturing supremacy was being challenged by nimbler economies such as those of Japan, the United States, and Germany.
Increasing labour strife led to strikes that crippled the country. Annual inflation was climbing into the double digits. Taxes were rising, in particular for the wealthy, to pay for increased government spending. Then, in November 1967, the government devalued the pound by 14 percent. That set the cat among the corporate pigeons in the nation’s board rooms.
Cecil King: Chief Conspirator
Cecil King was a newspaper tycoon who inherited the gig from his family, which contained several lords and other aristocrats in its pedigree.
Towards the end of the 1960s, King developed the notion that the United Kingdom was headed for disaster and that a great man was needed to rescue the country from its imminent demise. King was clearly deeply impressed with his own business skills, so when he looked in the mirror and saw just such a great man staring back at him he came to believe that destiny was calling out to him.
King held dinner parties at his newspaper headquarters. His biographer, John Beaven, writes that he used these gatherings “to persuade other business leaders that there would have to be an emergency government containing men like themselves. King feared there would be hyperinflation and even bloodshed in the streets.”
There were those who thought King had gone off his rocker and counselled against his planned coup, but King pushed ahead.
The Plot Thickens
Cecil King recruited Peter Wright, an assistant director of MI5, Britain’s security service. Wright had been involved in a long-term effort to root out Soviet agents who were buried deeply in the U.K’s spying apparatus. He would certainly be aware of the rumours that Prime Minister Harold Wilson was a Soviet agent.
Others sounded out about participation were Lord Cromer, Chairman of the Bank of England, Coal Board chairman Lord Robens, and Sir Basil Smallpeice, head of the Cunard shipping line. Blue bloods and reliably conservative to the core.
But, they needed a figurehead, someone highly respected and not tainted by the grubby business of business. Lord Louis Mountbatten hove into view; uncle of Prince Philip, Royal Navy Admiral, and recently retired Chief of the Defence Staff. He was known to be angry about military budget cuts instituted by the Wilson government.
A Fateful Meeting
King wrote that when he first put the idea Mountbatten he replied there was a need for “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.”
Like King, Mountbatten was somewhat in awe of his own leadership qualities and organizational abilities, although these talents had previously escaped the notice of others. Mountbatten was also vain and flattered to be asked to take on a role for which he believed he was born.
In early May 1968, Cecil King and his editorial director Hugh Cudlipp met with Mountbatten at his home. Also at the meeting was senior civil servant Sir Solly Zuckerman.
The idea of Lord Mountbatten, known to his friends as “Dickie,” becoming titular head of an interim government was raised, at which Solly Zuckerman got all huffy.
Hugh Cudlipp wrote in his autobiography that Sir Solly said “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.” Meeting adjourned.
Cecil King had an entirely different recollection of the meeting. He released his diary’s contemporaneous account: “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.”
We need a third-party arbiter, and here one comes in the shape of Sir Solly Zuckerman’s private papers: “Dickie was really intrigued by Cecil King’s suggestion that he should become the boss man of a ‘government.’ ” Zuckerman added that Mountbatten made several suggestions about people who would be good cabinet members.
According to historian Alex von Tunzelmann, the Queen got wind of what Lord Mountbatten was up to and ordered him to back off. Harold Wilson continued to serve as prime minister in Number 10 Downing Street until his resignation in 1976.
- In past generations, Lord Mountbatten’s enthusiasm for joining a coup to bring down the duly elected government would have meant a stay in the Tower of London and a date with the headsman. As it was, capital punishment was suspended in Britain in 1965, although the crime of treason was still punishable by death until 1998.
- Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten was the main architect of the near-suicidal raid on Dieppe in August 1942. Against the advice of many, more than 6,000 soldiers, mostly Canadian, attacked the heavily defended French port. It was an unmitigated disaster with more than 1,000 young men being killed in just six hours. As noted by Legion, a Canadian military history magazine, “Mountbatten was allowed to rewrite the draft [report on the raid] to make it almost totally self-serving.”
- “The UK Economy in the 1960s.” Tejvan Pettinger, Economicshelp.com, April 6, 2016
- “Cecil King.” John Simkin, Spartacus Educational, undated.
- “The Day the Mirror’s Megalomaniac Tried to Launch a Political Coup.” Roy Greenslade, The Guardian, September 16, 2011.
- “Lord Mountbatten: Did Prince Philip’s Uncle Attempt to Lead a Coup Against Harold Wilson’s Government?” Andrew Lownie, BBC History Extra, November 29, 2019.
- “DIEPPE: ‘They Didn’t Have To Die!’ ” J.L. Granatstein, Legion, July 1, 2012.
© 2019 Rupert Taylor
Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on December 08, 2019:
It isn't clear how she found out.
Kari Poulsen from Ohio on December 08, 2019:
All that planning down the drain at the Queen's request. Did Solly tell her?