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Strange Days: Conspiracy Corner


The Harold Wilson Conspiracy

The hunt for a secret scandal that would explain Wilson's resignation as PM in 1976

Harold Wilson

Harold Wilson.
Evening Standard/Getty Images


On 22 August this year, The Times published the latest episode in the long-running saga of “Why did Harold Wilson resign as Prime Minister in 1976?”

The fascination this story appears to have for sections of the media is curious, as we have known for many years from his closest confidants that Wilson resigned because he was basically knackered; and, specifically, because his memory was deteriorating and he was afraid that he might have what we now call Alzheimer’s disease (a cond­ition from which Wilson’s father had suffered). [1]

This is too prosaic for some, though, and they keep looking for the secret scandal that they know must be the real explanation for Wilson’s departure. The Times gave us the reminiscences of a barrister, Sir Desmond de Silva, who, in 1976, was representing two men charged with the burg­lary of Wilson’s house back in 1974. Among the items stolen were some personal papers. Preparing for the trial, de Silva read these papers and found a 1974 letter from a businessman called Eric Miller advising Wilson to sell shares in Miller’s property company. [2] De Silva comments:

“Before the committal proceedings, when I could have revealed [under the law of the time] the contents of that letter and other documents in the box of material recovered by the police, Wilson resigned.”

And that’s it. There was a letter, which might have been embarrassing had it been made public, and Wilson resigned. A clearer example of the post hoc ergo propter hoc fall­acy – since that event followed this one, that event must have been caused by this one – is hard to imagine.

The Times followed its tiny ‘scoop’ with a scrambled version of three other familiar ‘British conspiracy theories’, as they put it, concerning Wilson.

“One conjecture connects Harold Wilson to the sudden death of Hugh Gaitskell, his predec­essor as leader of the Labour Party. It claims that Gaitskell, a pro-American, had been assassinated by the KGB in order to install a communist sympathiser as probable future Prime Minister. Anatoly Golitsyn, a Soviet agent who had defected to the West, claimed that Wilson had been acting as a KGB informer after visiting Russia in the late 1940s as President of the Board of Trade.”

Did Golitsyn allege this? Some members of MI5 certainly speculated that Wilson might have been recruited by the Soviets on his trips behind the Iron Curtain, but they never found any evidence.

“A meeting held between Lord Mount­batten of Burma, several senior journalists and government advisers has long been the foundation for claims that a plot existed in 1968 to depose Wilson and to replace him with an interim government led by Mountbatten.”

The meeting in 1968 was actually between Mountbatten, Daily Mirror owner Cecil King and Sir Solly Zuckerman, the government’s chief scientist. King had been machinating against Wilson for years at this point.

“A similar incident, and one that is said to have progressed farther after Edward Heath, the Tory leader, narr­owly lost the 1974 general election to Wilson. Conspiracy theorists say that the Army, mobilised at Heathrow, apparently for anti-terrorism training, was preparing a military takeover under the command of Mountbatten and senior intelligence staff.”

Wilson himself was suspicious of the Army display at Heathrow but no ‘conspiracy theorists’ have alleged that Mountbatten was involved in the events of that year. Even ‘conspiracy theorists’ know that Mountbatten’s role was in 1968.

Missing, of course, from the Times piece was any mention of that news­paper’s own role in all this. Times journalist of the period, Home Affairs editor Peter Evans, tells us in his recent memoir that at least one senior Times executive was involved in the discuss­ions in 1968 which centred round a regime headed by Lord Mountbatten. [3]

And the newspaper added to the paranoia of the period between the two general elect­ions in 1974 by running articles discussing the conditions under which a military coup in Britain would be legitimate. [4]

1 The latest of those confidants to explain all this is Bernard Donoughue in his Downing Street Diary, London 2005.
2 Miller was one of a number of dodgy businessmen who attached themselves to Wilson and gave him money to run his private office (there was no state funding in those days for politicians), the other famous example being Joseph Kagan. For a time, Miller was stepping out with Wilson’s private secretary, Marcia Williams. Miller committed suicide and Kagan went to prison. No one ever accused Harold Wilson of having good taste where his business friends were concerned.
3 Peter Evans: Within the Secret State, Book Guild, Brighton, 2009, pp89–91.
4 For example, Lord Chalfont: “Could Britain be heading for military coup?”, 5 Aug 1974; and editor Charles Douglas-Home: “It would not take a coup to bring British troops onto the streets”, 16 Aug 1974.

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