The overnight attempted coup on 15th and 16th July 2016 by sections of the Turkish armed forces against the Turkish government under President Erdogan raises issues to be addressed – some closer to home than many realise.
Countries ruled by unelected dictatorships are endemically vulnerable to coups by opposing factions and often with military involvement. Whether in a democracy or a dictatorship, though, military chiefs are not elected, yet they command forces created in the name of defence but more than capable of internal deployment for a variety of legitimate and illegitimate political ends.
Some such deployments may, in a democracy, be ordered by the government of the day and related to internal peace keeping – as with the initial sending of British army units into Northern Ireland in 1969 by the government of Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson.
At that time, civil rights protesters – who were non-sectarian, were engaged in highlighting institutionalised sectarian discrimination by the protestant unionist administration against the Roman catholic population. That population and the civil rights supporters were coming under increasing physical violence from a protestant supremacy whose dominance had never been challenged in the way it was by the civil rights movement.
The troops were sent in to Derry to act as a protective buffer between the largely Roman catholic residents of the Bogside area of the city and the protestant sectarian supporters of the annual Apprentice Boys parade, which made a ritual point of taunting the Bogside population.
Barricades were thrown up to shield streets from possible violent invasions whose active repulsion by stone throwing defenders was likely to be the subject of attacking charges by the more than compromised Royal Ulster Constabulary.
This flashpoint situation signalled a potential and swift descent into civil war – hence the decision by the Wilson government to send in the army; with units then needing also to be deployed to Belfast within days, as recourse to street rioting saw extensive physical barriers thrown up around Roman catholic residential streets, behind which the rule of the state quickly ceased to run.
Other such political ends of actual or potential military intervention in a democracy, like Turkey today and like Britain in the 1960s and 1970s – are generated from within the armed forces themselves, with coups planned to replace democratically elected governments which are not to the taste of the military establishment.
We are currently in the aftermath of an allegedly Islamist attempted military coup in Turkey against its current government. But back in 1968 and, most seriously in the mid-1970s – here in Britain – figures from our own military, royal family and press were actively involved in plotting coups against the Labour governments of Harold Wilson, fuelled by right wing paranoia about communist takeovers and an MI5 smear campaign labelling Wilson as a covert Soviet agent. Cold War perspectives were in good working order.
At the time, the right wing establishment believed that Britain was tumbling headlong into anarchy.
The trades unions were arguably at the height of their power, a power the government – a Labour government – had proved unable to contain.
At the end of the 1960s the unions had seen off the government attempt to curb their powers by negotiation, in the White Paper, In Place of Strife, from Barbara Castle, the then Employment and Productivity Secretary.
By the mid 1970s, the country was experiencing the flexing of union muscle in major strikes, like those by the coal miners which crippled electricity generation. This brought about the historic ‘three day week’ in the first three months of 1974, taking place during the conservative Heath government that intervened between the two Wilson Labour administrations. It saw businesses and industries restricted to a set three consecutive days’ of elecricity supply per week – and forbidden to put in more working hours on these days.
At the same time inflation was soaring; the top rate of income tax was an altitudinous 98% [then Labour Chancellor, Denis Healey, had famously promised ‘to make the pips squeak’]; and the British economy was in a state that made us known as ‘the sick man of Europe’.
The IMF was all over us. In 1976 we had to accept a £3.9bn loan from them [a massive amount of money then]; and we had to accept the searing austerity conditions attached to it.
Add the fact that the last remnants of the British Empire were changing their colours on the geopolitical maps and it is not hard to see the drivers of the right wing doom-sayers of the time – and the varieties of coup strategies they saw as the sole possible redemption of ‘their’ country.
It is hard to believe today, but at that time, within living memory, senior army officers such as Major Alexander Greenwood, General Sir Walter Walker and SAS founder, Colonel David Stirling, were actually creating private armies for potential deployment in their planned 1975 coup against Wilson.
Both this and the earlier 1968 coup scheme – led by newspaper owner, Cecil King – were said in a BBC television documentary of 2006 to have involved the Queen’s cousin, Prince Philip’s uncle and Prince Charles’s ‘honorary grandfather’, Lord Louis Mountbatten. Both planned coups intended to install him as leader of an emergency government of national unity to handle the aftermath.
Mountbatten’s compliance in the scheming was confirmed by Major Alexander Greenwood’s statement that Mountbatten had told General Sir Walter Walker: ‘If you want help from me, will you let me know?’.
The 1975 plot was to seize Heathrow airport, the BBC and Buckingham Palace – with at least the tacit support of the army and perhaps its active participation. The Queen was to be required to read a statement saying that the government was no longer able to keep order and asking the general public to support the armed forces. A former intelligence office, Brian Crozier, who was in favour of the coup and who admitted to lobbying the army on the matter, confirmed that there was a ‘widespread attitude’ amongst the military in favour of the coup.
In 1974, the armed forces themselves actually conducted a dry run of seizing Heathrow under the guise of a military exercise as part of anti-terrorist training – an ‘exercise’ of which they omitted to inform the Prime Minister, Mr Wilson.
A small delegation of the senior plotters – and Mountbatten may have been one present – went to see the Queen Mother, known to have right wing sensibilities. They hoped to gain the moral comfort of her private approval of their plan and possibly secure her willingness to act as some sot of interim Regent. After she had heard them out, she was reputed to have told them to ‘go away, dear and don’t be silly’.
This put down is thought to have contributed to the plotters not going ahead with the coup. More significant was the fact that in August 1974 Peace News, a pacifist publication, got hold of and published Colonel’s Stirling’s plan to use an organisation, Great Britain 75, that he was setting up and already had in recruitment mode. His aim was for this outfit to step in to take over the running of government temporarily, in the event of civil unrest rendering normal government unsustainable.
The ‘civil unrest’ scenario was not to be left to chance.
The plotters had a range of plans for making this happen – from destabilising the trades unions [about whose growing power the right wing schemers foamed at the mouth] to Stirling’s own unhinged proposition to assassinate some trade union leaders – provoking workers to take to the streets and making military intervention necessary to ensure public order.
The Peace News revelations scuppered Great Britain 75 and the coup did not materialise.
Britain at large knew nothing about any of this until almost thirty years later.
Rumours of planned action against Wilson had circulated for some time – but had been dismissed as paranoid fantasies of Wilson’s own.
After his shock resignation in 1976 [in the knowledge that he was already suffering from the Alzheimers that was fast to destroy his fine mind] he was interviewed, at his own request and on tape, by the top investigative journalist partnership of Barrie Penrose and Roger Courtiour.
These interviews and their content – much of which was authenticated by informed third party sources – formed the basis for the 2006 BBC television documentary on the matter, which placed the facts powerfully in the public domain. [This 90 minute programme – The Plot Against Harold Wilson, is viewable here on You Tube.]
Consigning the plots of military coups in Britain to establishment reactions to the unbuttoned times of 1960s and 1970s would, however. be a serious mistake.
Far from ‘way back then’, it has been revealed that considerations here today, of similar bent and in the same milieus, have been generated by the prospect of Jeremy Corbyn getting to lead a UK government.
The very fact that such an unlikely hypothesis is enough to turn up the burners for the Blimps of today to cook up subversive schemes of this order testifies to their specific mindset – and can hardly be any more reassuring to the undogmatic centre ground in Britain than is the thought of the Corbynista groundtroops running the rule.
On 20th September 2015 the Murdoch Sunday Times reported the following in respect of Jeremy C0rbyn’s election as Labour leader:
“A senior serving general said that the armed forces would take ‘direct action’ to stop a Corbyn government downgrading them and said his victory had been greeted with ‘wholesale dismay’, even among Labour-supporting soldiers.
‘There would be mass resignations at all levels and you would face the very real prospect of an event which would effectively be mutiny’, the general said. ‘Feelings are running very high within the armed forces. You would see a major break in convention with senior generals directly and publicly challenging Corbyn over vital policy decisions such as Trident, pulling out of NATO and any plans to emasculate and shrink the size of the armed forces.
‘The army just wouldn’t stand for it. The general staff would not allow a prime minister to jeopardise the security of this country and I think that people would use whatever means possible, fair or foul to prevent that.
‘You can’t put a maverick in charge of a country’s security.’ ”
It is worth noting that the Trident issue is to come before parliament tomorrow, 18th July 2016 – and to wonder just what threats have been privately issued to politicians by the military lobby in advance of that vote. If the vote is for the abandonment of Trident – a decision for which there is an objectively stronger defence case than is the decision to retain it – the armed forces may need to be under special watch.
The ‘senior serving general’ who spoke last September had himself made the approach to the Sunday Times. Whether or not he was also a publicity hound, he certainly meant for the threat he voiced to be put in the public domain.
If this stuff was being said publicly by a serving senior representative of the armed forces, you can be sure that the same sentiments will have been more explicitly transmitted to senior anti-Corbyn figures in the Labour party; and will have played their part in bringing about the current mass revolt against him by the party’s parliamentary faction.
It is also indicative of the mindset of armed forces chiefs that the actual ’emasculation and shrinking of the size of the armed forces’ that took place under the Conservative /Liberal Democrat coalition government of 2010-2015, under the Strategic Defence and Security Review conducted immediately by Conservative then Defence Secretary, Liam Fox, caused no such direct public confrontation from the general staff. But even a hypothetical plan to do the same thing by a left wing Labour government is enough, in these quarters, to fuel notions of using ‘whatever means possible, fair or foul’ to overthrow the will of what would be a democratically elected administration.
Military coups can occasionally be welcomed by the people in an oppressive regime where army intervention is seen as protective of the interests of the people – an interpretation which may, on occasion, contain some truth but which will always be short of the full truth.
In a democracy, however, interventions in the policies, however unpopular, of elected governments by powerful unelected forces of any kind can never be acceptable, even in contemplation. The electorate has regular statutory opportunities to get rid of any government for any reason its majority chooses – and democracy requires us all to accept the will of the majority in free elections.
Back in 1986 there was a moment when the Queen made a rare – and possibly her only – serious mistake in politically overreaching herself.
The apartheid government of the day in South Africa had attacked positions held by the resurgent African National Congress [ANC]. The British Commonwealth was about to convene in conference. There was a powerful move amongst Commonwealth leaders to impose punitive economic sanctions on South Africa. This was going to come to the conference for discussion.
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was openly opposed to sanctions on the grounds that they also cost those who impose them and that they are erratic in effect.
The country at large felt for the oppressed black citizens of South Africa and Thatcher’s stance was unpopular.
On the eve of the conference Buckingham Palace leaked to the then Today newspaper that the Queen, concerned for the financial impact of sanctions on the black communities, had, in the weekly audience, ‘told’ the Prime Minister to support the conference proposal for sanctions.
Although the newspaper named no source for its information, it was fairly quickly accepted to have come from the Queen’s Press Secretary of the time, Michael Shea, who could not have done this without prompt or approval from his boss.
The immediate reaction in the country was delight that Lizzie was socking it to Thatcher, with a sense of a bond forming between monarch and people against an often unpopular and always autocratic Prime Minister.
This feeling was fleeting.
There was then a period of quiet where the nation remembered that at least the PM had a mandate she had fought for, where the Queen was effortlessly unelected and was abusing her position. Her ritual role requires her not to make public any personal opinion on the policies of the government of the day. The Queen’s care for the black citizens of South Africa was not the sole driver of this intervention. She has always seen the Commonwealth as something of a personal fiefdom of which she is a fond head and which, in some way, may have seemed to carry less of an obligation to non-intervention.
Suddenly the nation had a glimpse of a monarch courting public support and favour on an occasion where her legitimate ‘advice and warning’ to the Prime Minister was, equally legitimately, being disregarded.
That pause for thought became a tricky moment for Queen, with a healthy renewal in the minds of the public of the meaning of democracy and an unease at the action of the Queen – who never made such an error again.
The decisions of large democratic majorities are beyond question. The truth of democracy, though, is that small majorities carry the day and must be accepted by all concerned.
This is a tough but necessary call. It places a duty on the political administration in question to govern with due regard and respect for the will both of the winning majority and of the very substantial minority Any government that does not accept this democratic responsibility will, sooner or later, face the electoral consequences of its disregard.
That is the way things need to be left to work in a democracy.
Self-appointed intervention by the armed forces to derail the policy of an democratically elected government is never legitimate.
In Turkey we have seen the people themselves successfully assert their proper authority in support of their elected government against military irregulars, however hugely irresponsible was President Erdogan’s broadcast call for them to take to the streets – which was as likely to see their disastrous bloodshed as their chance success.