Here’s what we know about an alleged plot to overthrow a democratically-elected government
The fifth episode of The Crown season three is titled ‘Coup’ – which is pretty accurate, as the drama shows newspaper boss and Bank of England director Cecil King (Rupert Vansittart) trying to woo Lord Mountbatten (Charles Dance) to lead a coup d’état against Harold Wilson’s government.
Here’s what you need to know about the real-life history that inspired this episode of Netflix’s royal drama:
But was Lord Mountbatten approached by Cecil King about overthrowing the government?
We still don’t know everything that went on behind closed doors, but what we do have is an extraordinary memoir by newspaper editor and publishing boss Hugh Cudlipp. ‘Walking on Water’ recounts a 1968 plot by his colleague, the newspaper magnate Cecil King, to bring down Harold Wilson and install an unelected government. At the head of that government would be Lord Louis Mountbatten.
At the time, Cecil Harmsworth King was Chairman of the International Publishing Corporation, which was then the biggest publishing empire in the world and owned the Daily Mirror. He was also a director at the Bank of England, and had a very high opinion of himself.
King felt that Britain was heading for total political and economic collapse, and that Wilson’s administration would either disintegrate or be forcibly removed.
Cudlipp summarises King’s view like this: “Before, during or after this debacle there would be violence and bloodshed in the streets, the docks and the factories beyond the strength or patience of the police to subdue or contain… a new administration would be urgently required, perhaps a new regime if only for a limited period, dominated by new men or at any rate not by political hacks. Parliament, which had dug its own grave, would temporarily lie in it until national dignity and morale were restored. Parliament would remain the legislative chamber but it was futile to look solely to Parliament for the leadership required.
“What would be the role of the Royal Family, and who among those on or near the throne would occupy the centre of the stage? Who would be the titular head of the new regime? What was required was a man of courage and impartiality, widely known to the public and accepted as a leader; a Royal Connection would clearly be no disadvantage. Earl Mountbatten?”
Cudlipp adds: “In an era when the reputation of politicians had sunk so abysmally low, when nothing short of a revival of national pride led by disinterested men of power and action would change the course of events, it occurred to King that this legendary personality int he history of our times was surely the man for the hour as the titular head of the Emergency Government.”
King was already considering getting his dream-leader on board in August 1967 when he noted a conversation in his diary between Cudlipp and Mountbatten. “Hugh asked him if it had been suggested to him that our present style of government might be in for a change. He said it had,” King wrote. “Hugh then asked if it had been suggested that he might have some part to play in such a new regime. Mountbatten said it had been suggested, but that he was far too old.”
King made no secret of his distaste for the Wilson government, and others started to catch hints of his plans – though press reports said he was pushing for a “coalition government”. King issued a response, which said: “A coalition at this moment is just not on, and will not become so unless the political situation deteriorates still further, which it may.”
This careful wording was very deliberate. King confided in his diary: “Politicians seem incapable of understanding that when I talk of coalition I am talking of the future not of the present. The whole episode is interesting as it would not have been given the prominence it was unless people are thinking in terms of a National Government.”
King and Cudlipp met with editors within the IPC publishing group over dinner to discuss the Wilson question, but it was not a wild success. They were dubious about supporting what King really wanted: a “Wilson Must Go” campaign and a newspaper-led plot to unseat the Prime Minister.
Did Lord Mountbatten consider the coup against Harold Wilson?
As we see in The Crown, some of the manoeuvring did actually go down at the Burma Star Association annual reunion – but Cecil King wasn’t the one who made contact. Instead, when a mutual friend mentioned Cudlipp’s name to him, Lord Mountbatten issued an invitation to meet him at the Royal Squadron – or at Broadlands in Romsey, his country house.
Cudlipp took himself off to see Lord Mountbatten at Broadlands and discuss current affairs over a glass of sherry. According to Cudlipp’s account, Mountbatten was concerned about the state of the nation but did not seem inclined to get involved in politics or economics.
“Political manoeuvre, in favour of whatever person or persons or faction, however lofty and disinterested the motives, was none of the business of the man who was ‘Uncle Dickie’ to both the Queen and her husband and personal ADC to Her Majesty since 1953. What he was hoping for was a massive resurgence of the British spirit.”
In The Crown, we see Mountbatten summoned to the Bank of England for a meeting, before inviting everyone to his Broadlands country home to hear his response to their plot. If Cudlipp’s account is to be believed, this is a fictionalised version of events.
Nevertheless, a meeting between King and Cudlipp and Mountbatten was arranged for the afternoon of 8th May 1968 at the Lord’s London residence in Kinnerton Street. On the day, Mountbatten phoned Cudlipp to say he was also inviting Sir Solly Zuckerman, Chief Scientific Adviser to HM Government.
Cudlipp recalled: “He [King] awaited the arrival of Sir Solly and then at once expounded his views on the gravity of the national situation, the urgency for action, and the embarked upon a shopping-list of the Prime Minister’s shortcomings… He did the talking and I sat aback in my chair to observe the reactions, detecting an increasing concern on the part of the two listeners.
“He explained that in the crisis he foresaw as being just around the corner the Government would disintegrate, there would be bloodshed in the streets, the armed forces would be involved. The people would be looking to somebody like Lord Mountbatten as the titular head of a new administration, somebody renowned as a leader of men who would be capable, backed by the best brains and administrators in the land, to restore public confidence. He ended with a question to Mountbatten – would he agree to be the titular head of a new administration in such circumstances?”
The reaction was not as hoped. Mountbatten turned to his friend: “Solly, you haven’t said a word so far. What do you think of all this?”
According to Cudlipp, “Sir Solly rose, walked to the door, opened it, and then made this statement: ‘This is rank treachery. All this talk of machine guns at street corners is appalling. I am a public servant and will have nothing to do with it. Nor should you, Dickie.’ Mountbatten expressed his agreement and Sir Solly departed.
Only a minute or two elapsed between Zuckerman’s departure and King’s. Lord Mountbatten was, as always in my experience, courteous by firm: he explained explicitly but briefly that he entirely agreed with Solly and that sort of role, so far as he was concerned, was ‘simply not on’.”
And that was that. Two days later, Cecil King decided to go ahead even without “the titular blessing of Lord Mountbatten”, and pushed through a Daily Mirror front page calling for Wilson’s downfall. He was dismissed as Chairman of the publishing group 21 days later.
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