Wednesday, March 15, 2006

We Don't Do That Sort of Thing Round Here

Unlike those undisciplined, emotional, permanently unsettled types in continental Europe, the British don't go in for coups, revolutions and the like. Of course not. We don't do political enthusiasm. Britons favour rational, consensual, measured, cautious evolution and sensible, constitutional change. Radicalism does not run in our blood - we like cricket, cups of tea, stiff upper lips and artfully meaningless conversations about the weather, whereas the Italians, the French, the Germans and so on get rather over-excited about things, gesticulate wildly when talking and, before they know what they're doing, are storming the Bastille or burning down the Reichstag.

Complete shite of course. One can only hold to such a nonsensical view of British history if one conveniently forgets such episodes as the Civil War, the removal of King Charles' head from his royal shoulders and the appearance on Britain's streets of tanks, armoured vehicles and machine gun nests during the General Strike.

It's interesting, in this context to see what people will make of the TV drama, The Plot Against Harold Wilson, to be shown tomorrow on BBC 2 at 9pm. The drama focuses on an alleged MI5, military, ruling class plot to destabilise and remove the Prime Minister. As Jonathan Freedland writes, 30 years ago, the

"establishment [was] trembling at what it saw as Britain's inexorable slide towards anarchy, if not communist rule. Institutions were collapsing, inflation was rising, tax was at a near-mythic top rate of 98%, and Britain was losing the last outposts of empire. Above all, the trade unions, riddled with leftists and Soviet sympathisers, seemed to have the nation under their thumb. "It was no longer a green and pleasant land, England," recalls retired Major Alexander Greenwood, Colonel Blimp made flesh.

The great and the good feared that the country was out of control, and that Wilson lacked either the will or the desire to stand firm. Retired intelligence officers gathered with military brass and plotted a coup d'etat. They would seize Heathrow airport, the BBC and Buckingham Palace. Lord Mountbatten would be the strongman, acting as interim prime minister. The Queen would read a statement urging the public to support the armed forces, because the government was no longer able to keep order.

It sounds fantastic, almost comic. But watch Greenwood talk of setting up his own private army in 1974-75. Listen to the former intelligence officer Brian Crozier admit his lobbying of the army, how they "seriously considered the possibility of a military takeover". Watch the archive footage of troop manoeuvres at Heathrow, billed as a routine exercise but about which Wilson was never informed - and which he interpreted as a show of strength, a warning, even a rehearsal for a coup. Listen to the voice of Wilson, who five weeks after resigning summoned two BBC journalists to tell them, secretly, of the plot. "

It's one of the central ideological myths, and an important constitutive factor of ruling class hegemony in this country, that Britain's elite (if it is admitted that there is one) is nothing like those in other countries - that the UK establishment is deeply committed to the (class-neutral) rule of law and to constitutional niceities. A military dictatorship might have been possible in Spain, Turkey or Greece, but it could never have caught on here. Who could seriously entertain the possibility of military dictatorship in Britain? This documentary should at least shake those comfortable and lazy assumptions.

Staying on the topic of British military coups, Chris Mullin's A Very British Coup, has been reissued by Politicos. Wonder if they'll repeat the TV dramatisation?

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