The plans for coups against Harold Wilson (1916-96) during his two periods as Labour prime minister (1964-70; 1974-6) sound like something out of a television drama series of the 1970s or 1980s. To some degree this allowed the fragments of information about these incidents to be dismissed as spurious. However, as time has passed more evidence has come to light that a group of MI5 officers, i.e. staff of Britain's Security Service, had planned to overthrow Wilson and had even discussed their plot with Lord Louis Mountbatten, a cousin of the Queen, an Admiral of the Fleet (equivalent to a Field Marshal) and the last Viceroy of India. Suspicions about such a plot were steadily confirmed as accurate notably by the autobiography of Peter Wright, one of the conspirators, 'Spycatcher' (1987), by revelations from a secret enquiry carried out by Cabinet Secretary Lord Hunt in 1996, then by the BBC documentary 'The Plot Against Harold Wilson' (2006) and even the official history of MI5, 'Defence of the Realm' (2009).
It appears that the first plot developed in 1967. Wilson had been in power since 1964, having run a minority government until 1966 when he won a majority. Wilson had been an MP since 1945, when he had been seen as one of the new, young MPs who would develop on the legacy of the Attlee government (especially as so many of its ministers were weary or ill from wartime service). Wilson rose quickly, becoming President of the Board of Trade, overseeing trade and industry at the age of 31. He held this post until resigning in 1950 over prescription charges. Wilson appeared to be modern, seeking to develop British industry and technology to be world-leading and his vision for Britain can be summed up as a technocracy combined with a meritocracy. Though he looked to modern industries rather than the old heavy industries that the Labour Party had grown out of and notably he made effective use of the media, he was a Socialist and believed in trying to create a fairer society with opportunities for all based on ability. During his periods in power, society became more liberal with legalisation of homosexuality, divorce and abortion, removal of theatre censorship, the ending of the death penalty. Wilson like many Labourites came from a Non-Conformist Christian background but was tolerant of these reforms, which, in effect allowed the 'Swinging Sixties' to occur in the UK, which was style leader for the world during his second term of office, 1966-70.
In terms of immigration, whilst legislating against racist behaviour, the government introduced legislation, the Commonwealth Immigration Act 1968, limiting immigration, building on the Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1962 which for the first time ended the automatic right of Commonwealth citizens to move to the UK. The largest group of immigrants arriving at the time were Ugandan Asians expelled by the Amin regime, around 30,000 of the 50,000 sent out of Uganda, came to the UK. Given their treatment in Uganda they could more properly be considered asylum seekers. Other groups such as the 120,000 Poles who came in the 1940s and 21,000 Hungarians after the failed uprising of 1956 could also be considered in this category given the regimes they were fleeing. Immigration from the Commonwealth was around 130,000 people per year in 1961 and had fallen to 72,000 a decade later. Part of the issue was that whilst up until the mid-1960s with unemployment as low at times, as 40,000, the British economy had been growing and had had a high demand for a range of workers, not only unskilled but semi-skilled like transport workers and skilled like nurses. By the end of the 1960s with the economy stagnating and right-wing racist rhetoric, notably from Conservative maverick, Enoch Powell, there was a feeling even in the Wilson government that immigration should be restricted. This approach clearly seemed to be complying with the wishes of those who were seen as extreme even in the Conservative Party (Edward Heath kicked Powell out of the Shadow Cabinet in April 1968 and he never held political office again, though he remained an MP until 1987; after 1974 for the Ulster Unionists rather than the Conservatives), but clearly was insufficient to lessen overall right-wing opposition to Wilson.
In developing meritocracy, Wilson began the country's move to the comprehensive education system so removing the strict channelling of children at 11, which was applied in a very erratic way dependent not only on ability but on gender (girls had to get higher scores in the 11+ examination to attend grammar schools than boys) and the availability of grammar school places in a locale (meaning that the mark attained in the 11+ needed to attend a grammar school in one district may be far higher than even in a neighbouring district). Wilson also oversaw the rapid expansion of higher education. There was the creation of the Open University to allow people to study degrees while working, making use of television and radio broadcasts. His government also saw the opening of five 'plate glass' universities (termed 'new' universities at the time), though this trend had begun under the Conservatives with the University of Sussex (1961), what would later become University of Keele (1962) and the University of East Anglia (1963) it was accelerated under Wilson; twelve other institutions which would later become full universities were established 1964-8. The nature of these universities was often focused on liberal arts and on engineering and technology, so, in step with the Wilsonian vision far more than the 'ancient' universities which had dominated the sector up until then.
The Wilson governments, as with the Heath government (1970-4) that they sandwiched, faced immense economic challenges. The lagging of British productivity behind competitors notably the USA, West Germany and Japan and the artificially high level of the pound in terms of exchange rates and this connection to British sense of pride, presented real challenges for a stable economy. Britain being excluded (mainly as result of the opposition of President De Gaulle of France) from European Economic Community (EEC) until 1973, despite repeated applications, made the trade situation harder as old markets outside Europe turned to other sources of products rather than the UK.
With the fading of the post-war boom, starting in 1971 and increasing with the oil price rises of 1973, made it far more challenging for the UK which unlike many of its competitors had failed to modernise its industrial plant or its working practices since the end of the Second World War. Wilson had been keen in the late 1940s to introduce what was termed 'Mitbestimmung' in West Germany, i.e. the representation of the workforce on boards of companies. This meant that by the 1960s there had developed a harsh divide between workers and management in a way which was avoided to a great extent in West Germany and France. Consequently, trade unions clung to traditional methods of improving the conditions and pay of their members, during a time of increased consumption (itself constantly damaging the balance of payments due to the amount of finished goods imported into the UK) provoking strikes that further damaged productivity. Wilson had long been an advocate of economic planning along the lines of what had been successfully carried out in France since 1946 and was being pursued in West Germany with a lighter touch. However, employer resistance to any intervention in its methods, particularly in manufacturing, sunk the 1966 National Plan almost before it had started. These problems continued in the 1970s leading, after Wilson stepped down in 1976 due to the onset of Alzheimer's, his successor James Callaghan effectively abandoning Keynesian economic approaches in favour of monetarist ones laying the ground work for Margaret Thatcher's harsh economic policies when she came to power in 1979.
On these bases you can see why many right-wingers in British civil society, especially among the elites, saw Wilson as a threat. His policies seemed to be shaking up the social structure and giving opportunity to people who in the past had been excluded from it, so opening up competition for opportunities to upper-middle class and upper class (nowadays effectively social group A on the NRS social scale; they give no classification to the 2% of the population who are deemed upper class people, I would call them A* or something) people who had been unchallenged even following the upheaval of the Second World War. On a moral grounds he seemed to have permitted if not actively encouraged the creation of the derided 'permissive society'. Of course, many upper class people had long behaved in this way anyway, but again by allowing such behaviour more broadly it seemed to be a threat to the established hierarchy; removing their exclusive right to divorce (which at one stage had needed an act of parliament in each case, to be permitted) and homosexuality. In addition, as across society, there were many in the upper class 'Establishment' who could be morally indignant at these steps. Wilson also seemed to want to exert more government control over business and evolve so-called 'corporatist' approaches, i.e. the involvement of employers, workers and government in planning the economy. National and regional planning boards created under Wilson, though generally ineffectual, seemed to herald this form of at least 'indicative' planning and thus appeared to reduce the rights of company owners to run their companies the way they wished.
Possibly Wilson's periods in office represented the most extensive attempt to shake up the established societal and industrial structures that had been seen in the UK. Whilst the Attlee governments 1945-51 had nationalised generally inefficient sectors of the economy and raised the school leaving age, they had in effect been carrying out remedial actions which should have occurred in the 1930s. Those governments in large part, with some exceptions such as Aneurin Bevan, were rather obsequious to the established elites in British society. Whilst Wilson did not take them on head-on, he did introduce steps which for the first time in British history really challenged the established order. The basis of this, I believe, was not revolutionary, but in fact from Wilson's belief both that British industry needed to shake off old approaches in order to be successful in the increasingly competitive and steadily globalising world and because of his belief in the fact that people should advance due to their abilities not because of their social status at birth. Of course, such attitudes can seem unexceptional, but as we are witnessing with the current government policies, to those in the elites, they can indeed seem both truly revolutionary and a genuine threat, to their status, and by their usual assumption, to the security of the UK.
Wilson was portrayed as being either a Soviet agent or at least a Communist sympathiser. This was despite him doing nothing to weaken Britain's stance against the USSR, its membership of NATO or its special relationship with the USA, though, like many across the political spectrum he did question the USA's steadily increasing intervention in Vietnam. It is possible that members of MI5 and especially among elite circles did not distinguish between Wilson's Democratic Socialism and what they saw as Communism, it all seemed to threaten their position. Wilson had been a leading member of the Attlee governments and they were notable for their opposition to the USSR, for example in developing a British atomic deterrent, and opposing the increase of Soviet power in Eastern Europe, and, in particular, any Communist influence in the trade union movement. Many right-wingers tend(ed) to see the trade union movement as a radical, almost revolutionary movement, when, in fact its members even historically, have often been conservative, if not Conservative, and certainly opposed to the revolutionary rhetoric of groups like the Communist Party and later Militant Tendency and Socialist Workers' Party. However, as I have noted on this blog before, during the Cold War, policy was often based on lazy, crude assumptions rather than any attempt to take a view of reality. Basically Wilson was perceived as a dangerous radical who needed to be removed.
The first plot against Wilson arose in 1968 with up to 30 members of MI5 including Peter Wright, involved. Initial discussions occurred at Mountbatten's flat on 8th May 1968 between newspaper owner Cecil King, MI5 agent, editor of the left-wing 'Daily Mirror'and chairman of the International Publishing Corporation (IPC),then the largest media group in the world, with 200 publications; Hugh Cudlipp, his deputy; Lord Louis Mountbatten and Sir Solly Zuckerman, scientific advisor to the government. Zuckerman highlighted that the plans were effectively treason and this seemed to scare off Mountbatten. The second plot developed in 1974. That year Wilson managed to win elections in February and October so as to obtain a reasonably large enough majority to pass legislation. Wilson's return to power had followed a period of harsh industrial unrest under Heath, with violence of the picket lines. It was a period in which the country had experienced more states of emergency than at any time in the 20th century, and in 1973-4 there had been the 'three-day week' period in which factories were only able to work three days per week due to power shortages caused by industrial action. Heath had portrayed the February 1974 election as being on the basis of deciding who ruled the country, i.e. the elected government or the trade unions. This seemed to confirm all the suspicions right-wingers had been harbouring since the late 1960s of a revolutionary threat which they believed Wilson was in effect de facto leader of.
The 1974 plot was more widespread involving (as yet) unnamed military commanders one believed to be a major-general, discontented right-wing MI5 officers including Wright and Lord Mountbatten once again. It is not clear why the conspirators involved Mountbatten especially as he had baled out in 1968. Mountbatten did not have a record of being anti-democratic, unlike, for example George V or Edward VIII. He had a military record in commanding but also planning operations and developing new military technology, but had also overseen the ending of British rule in India. After his assassination by the IRA in 1979 it was revealed that he had actually supported the reunification of Ireland, the key objective of the IRA and contrary to the opinion of the Conservative Party and many members of the Labour Party, especially in the 1970s. Mountbatten had owned a house in the Republic of Ireland and this actually made him an easy target for the IRA. Mountbatten became increasingly concerned at the use of nuclear weapons and the risks they presented to the planet. Mountbatten was not renowned as an anti-Communist though he had been close to members of the last Tsar's family.
Perhaps it simply came down to Mountbatten's personal characteristics as he was renowned for being very ambitious and vain. Possibly telling is Philip Ziegler's comment about him in 'Phoenix: Mountbatten: The Official Biography' (2001), that '[t]he truth, in his hands, was swiftly converted from what it was, to what it should have been.' These traits, it appears would have made him ideal for being flattered or frightened into back a coup. In 1968 the plan had been for him to head a government of 'national salvation'. It was reported by the 'Evening Standard' in 1981 that King had wanted elderly Fascist Sir Oswald Mosley included in the government. However, it was not clear whether the post-coup covernment would have drawn on elected representatives, perhaps something like the National Government formed in 1931, or would have been more thoroughly authoritarian in nature. Interestingly some commentators point to the removal of the Australia led by Gough Whitlam, in November 1975, not by him being voted from office, but through the use of the Queen's royal prerogative exercised through the Governor-General, Sir John Kerr. If this could be done to another country, even if it was in the Commowealth, it seems it would have been accepted as legitimate if Mounbatten in some kind of Governor General (a role he had held in India after independence) position would have overseen the removal of the elected government.
The coup certainly would have required the ousting of the elected prime minister, Harold Wilson, from office. How this would have been achieved is an interesting question. If the government had not been removed by royal prerogative, I imagine we would have seen Wilson compelled to resign on grounds of ill health, as he was in fact to do two years later anyway. This approach would fit with the scenario envisaged in the fictional 'A Very British Coup' (novel 1982; television series 1988) written by Chris Mullins who seemes to have been inspired by the rumours of the planned coup against Wilson. Given the closeness of both the February and later the October elections, it would also have been easy to have 'found' some improprieties and nulified the election. Perhaps, influenced by the coup supported/funded/organised by the CIA and the US company ITT, against Salvador Allende, President of Chile, in September 1973, they would have had Wilson shot dead in the confusion.
The closest the UK came to the coup was in 1974. On 5th January, 400 soldiers of the Blues & Royals Guard regiment not only took over Heathrow airport but also set up checkpoints up to 1 mile (1.6 Km) out from the airport and patrols went to Windsor, Eton and Chiswick 14-20 Km from the airport. They were reportedly there to deter terrorists who had taken hand-held anti-aircraft missiles from a Belgian Army base at Duren. However, a terrorist using such weapons could have been effective against commercial aircraft up to 80 Km from Heathrow. There was inadequate explanation for why rather than lorries and jeeps which were available at the Windsor barracks from where the units had been sent, they arrived in Scorpion light tanks and Saracen, Saladin, and Ferret armoured cars, even though the use of the weaponry of these would have been very hazardous in the built-up areas around Heathrow. There has been speculation that this was a practice run for a coup, notably to enable the return of units loyal to the conspirators back into the UK. Journalist Duncan Campbell, however, believes that it was a reaction to a genuine terrorist threat (the 1970s witnessed attacks by Arab nationalists, German and Italian revolutionaries and regional-change groups like the IRA and ETA using a range of bombing, kidnapping and assassination techniques), probably the fear of a small nuclear device being triggered at Heathrow by European revolutionaries.
August 1974 seemed to be the time for a coup. The right-wing newspaper, 'The Times' ran stories which seemed to be building up to this: Lord Peter Chalfont, 'Could Britain be heading for military coup?' on 5th August 1974; and the editor Charles Douglas-Home 'It would not take a coup to bring British troops onto the streets', 16th August 1974. In an article in the 'Sunday Times', 29th March 1981, Lady Falkender, at the time Marcia Williams, Wilson's political secretary, said both she and Wilson certainly believed in the risk of a coup. She claimed Mountbatten had a map on the wall of his office showing how power could be seized in London. Williams believed guns would be sited on Horse Guards parade, close to the rear of Number 10 Downing Street. In June 1974, a repeat of the January occupation of Heathrow by troops alarmed Williams in particular as the prime minister had not been informed that the exercise would be occurring. I have no details of what units were used but it seems to have been similar to the earlier occupation.
It is interesting that Guards units were used. In theory these are guardian units of the monarch and in the plans for defending the capital during the period of unrest in the 1910s. One can imagine that the Household Division which, historically, consists of the units that defend the monarch would have been used. There were six regiments (now seven with the addition of the London Regiment in 1992) in the division, the Blues & Royals (Royal Horse Guards and 1st Dragoons) and the Life Guards, 'cavalry' regiments, i.e. armed with light tanks and armed cars; the Grenadier Guards (I cannot find for certain, but probably based in West Germany at the time), the Coldstream Guards (based at Aldershot in Hampshire which is 53 Km from London), the Scots Guards (based at Catterick in North-East England but serving in Northern Ireland at the time), the Irish Guards (though they garrisoning Hong Kong at the time) and Welsh Guards (based at Aldershot). Of these, all bar the Irish Guards had served in Northern Ireland already. The Household Division are commanded by a major-general, who is also General Officer Commanding London District. At the time (1973-6) this was Major-General Sir Philip Ward, and once he had left the army there were allegations of misappropriations in companies for which he was director. It may only be a coincidence that a major-general was among the suspects, but it seems unlikely that the insurgents could have expected to seize key points in London if Ward opposed them. In addition, units under his command, the Blues & Royals were used during the January operation at Heathrow.
Another key regiment that was overseas at the time, was the Parachute Regiment. Until August 1974, all three of its full-time battalions were serving in Northern Ireland as part of Operation Banner. Given the paratroops experience in urban settings in Northern Ireland over the previous five years, they would have been an ideal force for a coup. Paratroopers had been notable in anti-government action in France in the 1960s and seemed happy to gun down civilians and carry out a political role as shown by their involvement in the Bloody Sunday killings in January 1972. Paratroopers are lightly armed troops used to seizing points quickly and holding them for at least 24 hours. This would have been the kind of action the coup leaders would have needed if they were to take and hold central London. However, it seems given the intense IRA activity at the time, the conspirators may have been loath to denude Northern Ireland of this force.
Let us imagine, in the face of quite a great deal of evidence, that there was serious planning for a coup and that it this was put into effect. An article from 'Militant' produced in April 1981, which you can find posted all over the internet, is very dismissive of this ever happening. The author is blinded by his belief in the incompetence of officers and the faith that ordinary soldiers would refuse to take part in unconstitutional activity. This delusion was held by left-wing commentators in the 1910s as I have noted on this blog before. You only have to look at the activities of the British Army while in Northern Ireland to see that there was never any qualms shown by the ordinary soldier to obeying commands which led to the deaths of unarmed civilians, especially, if, as would have been the case, they had been indoctrinated to believe the people they were fighting were dangerous revolutionaries threatening the safety of the country. Margaret Thatcher was very successful in the mid-1980s in portraying striking coal miners as the 'enemy within' and the police seemed to need no encouragement to treat them violently. Scenes of Metropolitan police dragging a man from his wheelchair and then across the street on the tarmac just last week shows these attitudes have not changed. In addition, remember that in 1974 there were far fewer sources of information. There were only three television channels and very few commercial radio stations. There was no internet or tweeting or sending videoes on mobile phones, almost all information came through the newspapers and a handful of broadcasts which could be easily controlled. I imagine the BBC Television Centre in White City would have been one of the targets of the conspirators.
It is interesting to speculate on whether the insurrectionists would have been opposed by other sectors of the military. Of course the British police are not armed so it would have come down to whether Wilson could have called upon trusted commanders with other units around London to come and oppose the guards and paratroopers, perhaps 10,000 troops with a reasonable array of armoured vehicles suited to patrolling London. Given that Mountbatten is likely to have been very visible and the coup would have received backing at least from the 'Daily Mirror' which at the time had a circulation of over 5 million readers, though they may not have supported the coup, other commanders may have been ambivalent and simply bided their time. If Ward was on board with the coup or at least had stood by as it was carried out, then being GOC London, other unit commanders would have found it difficult to intervene. Within 24 hours a combination of Guards and Paratroop units could have seized key points across London, again it is interesting that their numbers would have been similar to those envisaged for the necessary defence of London from an uprising outlined at the start of the First World War. The 'Militant' article misses the fact that it did not even need a majority of soldiers to comply with the coup, only a small select band of elite troops could have delivered up everything the insurgents needed.
Either there would be a media blackout or a statement that due to some terrorist threat, the military had had to secure key locations in London. This would be very credible at the time given IRA activity. Ward was to have his house damaged by an IRA bomb that year (though I can find no details of the date from online sources about the terrorist activities of the IRA. If you want an even deeper conspiracy theory you could conjure up a scenario in which British forces masquerading as the IRA went after the members of the proposed coup. Thomas MacMahon had planted the bomb which killed Mountbatten, a crime he was sentenced to life imprisonment for, though he was released in 1998. The bomb was detonated by an unknown person who has never been uncovered). Wilson would be removed from office and taken to some 'secure' location, possibly an army base or effectively put under house arrest at Chequers, the prime minister's official country residence. Parliament was in session at the time, but as you can see from Hansard there was discussion about bringing forward the Summer Recess due to the burden of work with the legislation trying to be brought forward with Wilson still head of a minority government.
Let us assume, then, with soldiers loyal to the coup holding all the key locations in London, with Cecil King dictating to all the media what they should be saying about the incident (and in some ways the occupation of Heathrow in January had been a dry run for this media aspect as well as the military logistics), the Queen then prorogues parliament using her royal prerogative and Mountbatten becomes head of an interim government, acting as a kind of domestic governor general. Presumably his government would consist of a mix of loyal officers, businessmen and possibly politicians who could support his regime. It is interesting speculating on who it would consist of.
I doubt Sir Oswald Mosley would be a genuine candidate. He was 78 in 1974 and three years later was suffering from Parkinson's Disease; he died in 1980. Another nice conspiracy candidate would be Lord Richard Lucan a former lieutenant in the Coldstream Guards, part of the Household Division, who disappeared in November 1974 following the murder of his children's nanny. Perhaps like Ward and Mountbatten he was the target of those 'cleaning up' after the suspected coup and Sandra Rivett got caught up in the attempt to kill him. It seems unlikely that mainstream Conservatives such as Edward Heath would have welcomed a suspension of democracy and so the support for the government of Mountbatten would most likely have drawn on business leaders and specialists, most of which are forgotten now. Director-Generals of the Confederation of British Industry of the time, seem to have been supporters of the corporatist approach, it appears because they felt it might actually bring the wage restraint they were seeking.
One obvious candidate for a position in the post-coup government would have been the outspoken anti-Communist, General Sir Walter Walker. He had retired from the Army in 1972 having reached the heights of NATO Commander in Chief of Allied Forces in Northern Europe. He had been featured in a documentary about his life which was never aired. Both inside and outside the military he both argued that the Soviets were a genuine threat and that the state of the UK, especially the militancy of trade unions, was making the country vulnerable to Communist infiltration. In August 1974 he set up Unison, which later became Civil Assistance an anti-Communist group aimed at securing volunteers to run services during a general strike. This was condemned by Labour as a fascist movement. In turn Walker stated openly that he believed Wilson was a Communist and running a Communist cell in 10 Downing Street.
Walker's demand for 'dynamic, invigorating, uplifting leadership' that was 'above party politics' certainly seems to fit with the model of a Mountbatten government. His letter to 'The Daily Telegraph' outlining this need garnered support from Sir William (later Lord) Cayzer, a shipping magnate: Admiral of the Fleet Sir Varyl Begg (who had retired as Governor of Gibraltar in 1973), Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir John Slessor (retired from active service and a member of Somerset County Council at the time) and the radio/television celebrity and author Michael Bentine (Bentine was a friend of Prince Charles, who acknowledged Mountbatten as his mentor) as well as other generals and politicians.
Another such man was Colonel Archibald Stirling, a former Scots Guards officer and founder of the SAS. Like Walker he was concerned about the rising power of trade unions but it was not until 1975 that he set up GB75 very much along the lines of Civil Assistance. Stirling established arms dealing and mercenary companies (quite a fashionable development in the 1970s), Watchguard International Ltd. and KAS International. He ran a television company, T.I.E. as well and was involved in an attempt to overthrow Colonel Gadaffi, dictator of Libya 1970-1. Stirling certainly seems the kind of man the insurgents would have wanted and his companies may have been what was referenced in talk of 'private armies' being involved in the coup.
What policies would the Mountbatten government have introduced? Presumably in the short term at least there would have been censorship of the media, which as noted above, would not have been difficult anyway. There may have been a curfew, again, given how Britain had only seen the end of limited hours of electricity this would be something else that could be excused away by circumstances. Perhaps the policy of internment, in force in Northern Ireland at the time, i.e. arrest of suspects and detention without warrant or trial would have been brought to Britain and used against those the governments wanted removed. Perhaps the British police would have begun to be armed the way the Royal Ulster Constabulary was. Protests especially by strikers are likely to have been banned. It seems likely that there would be anti-trades union legislation introduced, ending picketing, compelling secret ballots and other policies that would be introduced once the hardline Margaret Thatcher came to power.
There would presumably have been some alterations to the electoral system so as to avoid the minority governments seen in 1966 and 1974, with a rule such as the party winning the majority would automatically get two-thirds or five-eighths of the seats, a policy often used in states seeking more established, usually conservative governments. It is quite likely that many Labour leaders would be pressured to resign; Michael Foot, Secretary of State for Employment under Wilson in 1974, was later also accused of being a Soviet agent. and it seems like this left-wing Socialist would have been removed or pushed from the political scene along with Wilson. In their place more 'trustworthy' Labour politicians like James Callaghan and Peter Shore would have been encouraged to come to the fore. Given changes to the electoral system, and some boundary changes of the kind being considered now, the Mountbatten government would have probably assured Labour would have remained out of office.
An interesting question is around the Mountbatten government's policy towards Northern Ireland. British troops had gone into the province in 1969 to protect the Catholic population from Protestant attacks and were initially welcomed. The province was ruled by a Protestant government autonomous in the UK and with a different set of political parties to Britain. Subsequently antagonism developed between the Catholic population and the British Army who seemed only there to enforce the Protestant government's restriction of Catholic civil liberties. Very rapidly the so-called 'long war' developed with the British battling terrorist activity by the Provisional IRA a Marxist group which had appeared in December 1969 from the broader Irish Republican Army which dated back from Ireland's war with Britain 1916-22; this split was around how to respond to the Protestant attacks stemming from their opposition to Catholics' demands for civil liberties 1968-9. As well as being Marxist, the Provisional IRA ironically sought the merging of Northern Ireland with the staunchly Catholic Republic of Ireland, assuming that they could subsequently bring about a revolution in the united Ireland. The Conservative Party was strongly supportive of the continuation of the Union between Great Britain and Northern Ireland (the party's full title is still the Conservative & Unionist Party) though Labour was more ambivalent. Wilson planned, in 1971, that on return to office, he would initiate a 15-year plan for the unification of Ireland. In addition, he produced the 'Doomsday' plan in 1974 to separate Northern Ireland from the UK and turn it into a dominion. Neither of these plans was ever enacted and Labour members, notably James Callaghan, prime minister 1976-9, were opposed to the breaking of the Union.
Most of those who would have formed Mountbatten's government would be Unionist in sentiment and the forces that they had depended on to put them into power would have had experience in the previous five years of fighting in Northern Ireland, thus this government would be expected to take a strongly Unionist line and carry on or increase the repressive measures in the province. However, we know Mountbatten favoured the unification of Ireland and owned a house in the Republic of Ireland. Perhaps he would have seen an opportunity to begin steps towards unification. This would have put him at odds with the others in the post-coup government.
Internationally, it seems like that the USA, having only pulled out of Vietnam in 1973 would have welcomed the apparent robust British steps taken against the domestic threat of Communism. I think Britain's partners in the EEC, which the UK had joined in 1973 would be more alarmed. They were excluding Spain because it remained under the control of General Franco so a similar looking regime appearing in a member state would have been alarming. Perhaps the Mountbatten government would have withdrawn the UK from the community rather than having the referendum about the terms of membership in June 1975.
I imagine that the Mountbatten government would not have remained in office indefinitely. It may have held elections sometime in 1975 and it seems likely that Margaret Thatcher leader of the Conservative Party since February 1975 would have come into office. Given the sense that the coup had been necessary to see off the Communist threat posed by the trade unions, her anti-union legislation presumably would have been widely welcomed and policies of the mid-1980s would have been witnessed 5-7 years earlier. Given the Mountbatten interlude, it would probably be likely that from then one more military officers and business leaders would feature in cabinets, just as a reminder to the public, that, if necessary, democracy could be suspended once again to 'reorganise' things. The hostility to unions in the mid-1970s and the genuine belief in threats from the USSR would probably have played into Thatcher's hands and actually made this restriction on democracy acceptable if not popular, to sufficient members of the electorate. The coup would have probably divided the population even more widely than was even the case at the time. Young people growing up during the coup may have seen a need to fight against the Establishment, because it had brought home to them the kind of things that in the past had been seen only as happening in far away places or Northern Ireland which to most people in Britain seemed an alien, lawless place inhabited by killers. Given how scarred Northern Ireland remains even now, I am very grateful Britain never came too close to its set-up (to clarify, the United Kingdom consists of Great Britain (England, Wales and Scotland) and Northern Ireland).
Looking back on the Mountbatten interlude in British democracy, I think Britons would see themselves differently to the way we do. To some degree it would take the sting out of the whining about unions, the unemployed, immigrants, etc., because no longer people could say, well, if someone strong took power all of that could be resolved. Maybe it would remain a threat to use against anyone who appeared radical and each decade people would be looking for the 'strong men' who could be called in if 'needed'. Assuming free speech was restored at some time after 1975, then we might be more proud of it. However, censorship of behaviour and attitudes might be stronger and with the coup the progress of women's rights and gay rights in the UK may have been set back a great deal. There is a good chance that many liberal minded people and certainly Socialists would have left the country. My family almost left for Australia in 1975 and it seems that if the coup had occurred and they could get out the country, I would be writing this from southern Australia rather than southern England.
Not having a coup in 1974 hardly turned out much better for the UK. Pressured by the IMF to abandon Keynesianism and plagued by trade unions who could not see that they were rushing the country towards the New Right Thatcher regime, Britain did not deal with the economic problems plaguing the Western world any much better than the USA and the EEC countries. The arrival of Thatcher in 1979 meant the introduction of many of the policies the Mountbatten government would probably have imposed five years earlier, and the division and suffering that they caused still scar Britain today as we face a second round of such policies simply accelerated and made harsher. We even seem to be having the militarisation of our civil society now in the way that presumably the Mountbatten government would also have encouraged. In many ways Britain with a military government 1974-5 would probably not look too different today as our country currently appears. As with so many 'what ifs?' however, the general picture tends to neglect the bitter personal experiences for those trade unionists and other activists interned and those of us who would have had to emigrate or face living in a Britain with democracy even more curtailed than it is.