Since I believe that even this first step towards disarmament would dangerously weaken our defences … and since I regard it as my duty to safeguard, not to destroy, this country’s defensive capabilities, this is an order that I cannot pass on. I have therefore no choice but to resign.
I have the honour to remain Your Majesty’s obedient and devoted servant,
Hector Boreham, Air Chief Marshall.
Constantine Fitzgibbon, When the Kissing Had to Stop (Cassell, 1960)
The 1970s were not a good decade for those publications, writers and campaigners who found themselves looking down the barrel of long-forgotten and presumed-defunct legal blunderbusses: the sillier bits of the Official Secrets Act (Time Out/the ABC trial defendants), blasphemous libel (Gay News) and criminal libel (Private Eye in its confrontation with Sir James Goldsmith).
But before all these came the surprising reappearance of the law on incitement to mutiny, activated in 1973 against seasoned troublemaker, and alumna of Cheltenham Ladies College, Pat Arrowsmith (and others) for distributing leaflets advising British soldiers to refuse to serve in Northern Ireland.
Arrowsmith was convicted. These days we seem, however, to take a more enlightened view of mutinous talk. On 20 September 2015, an unnamed senior general was quoted thus in the Sunday Times regarding the prospect of not only a Jeremy Corbyn premiership but of one in which the Labour leader would attempt to implement his policies on the nation’s defences (or the lack of them, depending on your point of view):
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 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.
There would be mass resignations at all levels and you would face the very real prospect of an event which would effectively be a mutiny.
Here is how we handle this sort of thing in laid-back, super-tolerant 2015, in stark contrast to crisis-torn, paranoid 1973: the Ministry of Defence deprecated the remarks, but, according to the Independent, on 21 September, ‘[a] spokesman ruled out a leak inquiry on the grounds that it would be almost impossible to identify the culprit. Despite cutbacks, there are still around 100 serving generals in the army.’ Well, quite. What can you do?
At once, the online world resounded to accusations that a coup d’état was being planned in the event of a Corbyn election victory. One typical comment referred to the anonymous general as a would-be junta hawk.
In tandem with this came references to rumours of a planned coup in the mid-1970s. In the past (although, hearteningly, not this time, as far as I can tell) these rumours have tended to be thoughtlessly and/or lazily conflated with actual public proposals, again in the mid-1970s, for ‘private armies’ to ‘support the civil power’ (i.e. break strikes and keep order); General Sir Walter Walker’s Unison movement (later Civil Assistance) and SAS founder Colonel David Stirling’s Great Britain 75 organisation being the most noted examples. (Both men were at the time retired from the forces).
On the face of it, these three types of heavy, quasi-political manoeuvres by top military types are very different. Mass resignations may add up to a mutiny, but not to a coup. Neither does the establishment of civilian volunteer organisations have any necessary connection with the unconstitutional installation of a military government.
Those fearing a putsch against a (very) hypothetical prime minister Corbyn can relax. All we have here is one general (with no mandate to speak for anyone else) sounding off about his own (likely) resignation. This isn’t South America in the 1970s. It isn’t even Britain in the 1970s. And most of ‘Britain in the ʼ70s’ did not, in reality, have much in common with the image we have of it today, garnered from novels and on-screen dramas in which Lord Lucan is forever colluding with Loyalist gunmen and CIA agents to ‘off’ Harold Wilson and install MI5’s house crackpot Peter Wright as a dictator. (I exaggerate only slightly.)
Nothing to see here, let’s all move along.
Or perhaps we ought to tarry a while. These three strands of top-brass intervention in public affairs are not quite as distinct as they may seem.
To start with, General Walker presaged the establishment of Unison with an interview in the Evening News in 1974 in which ‘he raised the possibility that the Army might have to take over in Britain’, according to his obituary in the Daily Telegraph on 13 August 2001.
Regarding Unison/Civil Assistance, there was a very blurred line between running essential services and taking over the administration:
[He] announced that if the Government was too feeble, he would be prepared to organise a civilian force of volunteers with the skills and determination to run the country. [Italics added.]
Martin Walker, The National Front (Fontana, 1977)
Colonel Stirling’s GB75 is by far the better-known outfit today, with a consequently more sinister reputation. Designed to be very much smaller and more ‘elite’ than Unison/Civil Assistance (which General Walker hoped would boast three million members), it was (allegedly) recruiting among former SAS officers and other ex-military types. Given Colonel Stirling had, prior to founding GB75, been involved in a private military/mercenary company, one of whose alleged projects was involvement in a failed coup against Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi in the early 1970s, it is not unreasonable to entertain the thought that he may have had something similar in mind for his troubled homeland (although without the ‘failed’ aspect, obviously).
We shall never really know. Peace News obtained a copy of the plans for GB75 (or some of them, at any rate) and published the Colonel’s intentions in August 1974. ‘Stirling had hoped to maintain secrecy until mid-1975’, according to Martin Walker. His Wikipedia entry suggests that, ‘dismayed by the right-wing character of many of those seeking to join GB75 – [he] abandoned the scheme.’
That Stirling was shocked – shocked! – by GB75’s having attracted right-wingers may sound implausible, but he had lived in Africa after leaving the army ‘where he founded the Capricorn Africa Society to promote racial harmony’, according to his obituary in the New York Times on 6 November 1990, so perhaps they were simply the wrong sort of right-wingers…
How close were General Walker and Colonel Stirling to the rumoured 1974 coup? Robin Ramsay, editor of Lobster magazine and an authority on the period, is sceptical:
He [the author being reviewed] has a coup being plotted by David Stirling’s GB75 in 1974. For this there is no evidence and he offers none. Stirling was preoccupied by the ‘left threat’ in the trade unions; and GB75, if it ever really existed – it might just have been a psy-ops job; all we saw were some bits of paper – was talking of stepping into the breach and keeping the UK power generation industry going in the event of a left shutdown.
As for the larger Unison/Civil Assistance group, which claimed 100,000 volunteers by August 1974:
[It] quickly degenerated into a national joke, with some of its members calling for licensed brothels, and others for a ban on pornography, as solutions for the national ills. (Martin Walker op. cit.)
But the talk, at least, was for real, with suggestions that an army takeover of Heathrow Airport in 1974 – ostensibly an exercise in case of an IRA assault – was a dry run for a coup (in which the classic targets are transport and communications points):
More recently, the economic and political crisis which began in 1974 … had the prime custodian of the national myth [of political stability], The Times itself, musing on the likelihood of a military coup. (ibid.)
How does our bashful modern-day general fit into all this? Well, if, as we have seen, there is a very smudgy boundary between ‘running essential services’ and ‘running the country’, so there is between mass resignation/mutiny and unconstitutional political activity. The general said a Corbyn government would not be ‘allowed’ to dismantle Trident, presumably meaning the weapons system would remain in military hands. Nor would the hypothetical prime minister be allowed to downsize the conventional forces or leave NATO, according to the Sunday Times.
With all this beyond the control of Number 10 or Parliament, and instead being decided by military officers, you would have to ask, as did Nigel Lawson in the context of European economic and monetary union, ‘Who then would be the government?’
In reality, none of this is very likely, not least because a Corbyn premiership is not very probable. But to end where we began, it is perhaps unsurprising that the general is unlikely to face prosecution. I am indebted to Geoffrey Robertson for this observation from 1993:
[The] most powerful incitement to disaffection was made in the 1987 election campaign by the Prime Minister, Mrs Thatcher, who announced that service chiefs should consider resigning in protest if the Labour party were elected and sought to implement its non-nuclear policy.
Freedom, the Individual and the Law (Penguin)