…but how long would they stay there?
It could happen – not soon, and probably not for a very long time – but let’s indulge ourselves and imagine a Labour Party that’s rediscovered its soul, led by a true socialist, someone trusted by the people and trusting in the people, winning a general election. And let’s go one step further and fantasise that there are sufficient left-wing MPs to push through a truly radical, transformative programme. The stuff of dreams, but isn’t that what many of us would dearly love to see? What would “The Establishment” have to say about that? How would the grandees of the Civil Service, the heads of industry, the aristocracy, the media, Global big business, the military, MI5, the CIA, shadowy organisations such as the Ditchley Group, the dark money brokers, the Trilateral Commission, the City, the Chipping Norton Set, the hedge funds, the oligarchs, and all the other unelected holders of power react to a socialist UK? They have an absolute belief in their entitlement, something akin to the divine right of kings – democracy be buggered.
The first Clem Atlee government (1945-1950) is rightly lauded for ushering in a programme of reforms that changed the face of the nation. It’s overlooked that that in winning its landslide election victory, the Labour Party was not only opposed by the Tories and a press that was promising Bolshevism and Soviet tanks on the streets if it won, but also by a centrist rump within the party that was distinctly lukewarm on socialism. By the time Atlee won his second short term (1950-1951) the rot had set in; the Establishment was reasserting its authority.
Few prime ministers have aroused as much mixed feeling as Harold Wilson (1964-1970 and 1974-1976), and few such controversy. He was that horrible little man, or a Soviet agent, or a milksop centrist, depending on where one stood. His premiership was enabled by a Conservative Party, low on intellect, that had simply run out of steam, and an Establishment that had been caught with its trousers round its ankles too many times. Sleaze is nothing new. It was a time of great change and it was time for a change.
Elements within MI5 believed Wilson had been a Soviet agent. He’d certainly been to Moscow on occasions in the 1950s, fulfilling roles within the shadow cabinet – as had many others. Soviet defector Anatoliy Golitsyn maintained that Wilson was a Russian agent planted expressly to take over from Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell, who’d allegedly been poisoned. Although Golitsyn was soon discredited, the theory about Wilson proved to have a lot of staying power.
(In his novel Midnight Swimmer, the novelist/historian Edward Wilson tells of a diplomat making a covert mission to East Germany in 1963 to help diffuse the Cuban Missile Crisis. That diplomat, he maintains, was Harold Wilson. Fiction, yes, but maybe HW is owed a brownie point or two.)
The 1960s brought in the Beatles, Swinging London, a World Cup victory and what Wilson termed “the white hot heat of the technological revolution.” How left-wing was the Wilson government? It oversaw advances in education, health, housing, gender equality, price controls, censorship, divorce, child poverty, pensions, the decriminalisation of homosexuality and the abolition of capital punishment. It increased taxation (to a top rate of 98%) and kept the UK out of the Vietnam War. Could it have done better? Absolutely! But… The Establishment hadn’t simply gone away. Indeed, it was seething and doing its utmost to block left-wing reform at every turn. Maybe Wilson was a very canny operator, maybe he was pushing as hard as he dared.
The Establishment certainly plotted against Harold Wilson. Numerous sources, including the very mainstream TV dramatisation “The Crown”, tell of the 1968 meeting between Hugh Cudlipp, newspaper editor (the Mirror among others), Cecil King, head of the International Publishing Corporation, Sir Solly Zuckerman, Chief Scientific Advisor to the British government, and Lord Mountbatten. King was the leading advocate for the removal of Harold Wilson and the implementation of an interim government – comprised of industrialists, bankers, aristocrats and the military. The country had clearly gone to the dogs under Labour and only a coalition of the great and the good would be able to save it. While intrigued and evidently sympathetic, Lord Mountbatten thought the scheme a tad undemocratic and refused to be part of it. The plan lost its impetus, but it was typical of the Establishment’s mindset at the time.
After stepping down from office in 1976 Wilson was convinced that he’d been the subject of constant surveillance and dirty tricks. Both he and Marcia Williams, his political secretary and confident, revealed information to BBC journalists Barrie Penrose and Roger Courtiour that pointed to both continuous MI5 bugging of Number 10 and military plotting against him and the Labour government. A litany of dirty tricks and black propaganda. The two journalists describe that episode as “the British Watergate” and retrospectively deeply regret not following up on what they later became convinced was compelling evidence. The incoming 1974 Labour government was greeted by an unsanctioned military exercise at Heathrow Airport involving numerous troops and tanks. This was taken as a warning shot fired across Labour’s bows, although the given explanation was that it was an anti-terrorism rehearsal. There are numerous reports of ex-SAS Colonel Blimps gathering clandestine paramilitary groups to claim the streets in the event of an insurrection. And numerous high profile military figures privately and not so privately believed Wilson’s centre-left government was led by Communists.
Peter Wright, ex-MI5 and author of “Spycatcher”, talks of colleagues spelling out “We’ll have him out this time,” and labelling Wilson “a bloody menace.” Wilson and his close colleagues were also also hit by over ten burglaries in two years, in which only sensitive files and documents were taken. Was Wilson bugged? It seems highly unlikely that he wasn’t. MI5 went to the extraordinary length of issuing a public rebuttal of the spying accusations; that could be seen as the most compelling evidence that they’d been up to no good.
In the excellent Channel Four film “A Very British Coup”, 1988, adapted from Chris Mullin’s 1982 novel of the same name, adapted by screenwriter Alan Plater, a genuinely socialist Labour leader, Harry Perkins, is swept into Number 10 by a landslide election victory.
Implementing a policy of re-nationalisation and open and honest government, along with withdrawal from NATO and unilateral nuclear disarmament, the new government is soon under attack from the media, MI5, the CIA, the Civil Service, right wing union leaders and fifth columnists within the party (one is actually dead ringer for Andrew Adonis). When a campaign of increasingly desperate and unscrupulous dirty tricks only leads to a snap election and another Perkins landslide, the Establishment falls back on its last resort: sending in the military. Although fiction, the film has an absolute ring of authenticity about how the Establishment reacts to threats to the status quo.
Since Wilson we’ve had Labour governments led by Blair and Brown, but evidently the Establishment didn’t see them as at all threatening. Because of course they weren’t. Since then there just happened to be a brief beacon of hope in the form of Jeremy Corbyn.
While there’s little doubt that in his heart Corbyn is a democratic, humane socialist, the programme on which he tried to get Labour elected was far from firebrand socialism. It was pretty mainstream social democracy – a European-looking mix of public ownership, constrained capitalism and the building of a greener infrastructure. But the Establishment is so far to the right, so confident that it can get most of the population to swallow its messaging, that it succeeded in painting Corbyn as some sort of Red menace. He was hung out to dry by all and sundry, including his own party. What the Establishment would do to a real life Harry Perkins would turn “A Very British Coup” into a documentary. We now have a Labour leader who’s a paid-up member of the Establishment, and the prospect of a transformative, socialist government is farther away than ever… And if we did get one, it would face the very worst the Establishment could throw at it..
Where to go for the left? Maybe there’s a chance that the nation’s ever growing inequality will rouse people from their selfies, TVs and reassuring certainties. Maybe as things get tougher people will begin to see the value of community action and projects a bit more. Maybe local, micro-economies will make inroads into the hegemony of the big corporations. Maybe people will want to have more control over their lives and also decide to look at worthier representatives. Only by seeing socialism in action will a majority of the people come to see the benefits of socialism. Hopefully at some point there will be a groundswell of people power, because as things stand the Establishment is sitting very pretty and conventional party politics is a busted flush.
A socialist in Number 10? Someone trusted by the people and led by the people? A fervent hope. Would that tenure be cut tragically short? A mass, populist movement willing to take to the streets might just deter the forces of reaction – but we underestimate the Establishment’s reach, lack of scruples and malevolence at our peril.
Paul Halas’s escape from 1970s hippidom was the discovery that he could invent stories. He spent forty years contributing to various Disney magazines and books, as well as a variety of non-Disney comics, books and animated films. His retirement from commercial writing coincided with Jeremy Corbyn becoming the Labour Party leader, which led to five years’ political activism. He left the party two years ago with a heavy heart.