“I swear by God that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, her heirs and successors and that I will, as in duty bound, honestly and faithfully defend Her Majesty against all enemies.” The Armed Forces oath of allegiance to the Queen.
Let’s start by turning the clock back a century. In Britain during the years immediately prior to the outbreak of the imperialist war in 1914, rising tensions in continental Europe and beyond had not been a matter of great concern. After 1911 it was rather the “Irish Question” that dominated political discourse on domestic and foreign affairs, and, specifically, the near-certainty of the passage through parliament of a Bill that would grant a form of limited Home Rule to the whole of Ireland. Such an outcome, it was hoped, would end a conflict between Irish nationalism and the English colonial ruling class that had rumbled on for much of the nineteenth century. After twelve years of unbroken Conservative rule a Liberal government had been elected in 1906 which, together with 83 Irish Nationalists and 30 newly elected Labour MPs held 512 parliamentary seats, a huge majority of 354 over the 158 Conservatives. By 1911 the prolonged battle between the government and the unelected, Tory dominated House of Lords over the “People’s Budget” had led to the Parliament Act which removed the right of the second chamber to reject money bills passed by the House of Commons and replaced their power of veto over other bills by the right to delay them for a maximum of two years. Astonishing as it seems today, even these limited encroachments on the bastion of power and privilege were regarded by its defenders as signs of diabolic revolutionary intent. It is against this background that the Asquith government in 1912 introduced the long-delayed and obstructed Irish Home Rule Bill.
In Ireland support for home rule was strongest among the Roman Catholic population which made up 73% of the whole. The Protestant population was concentrated predominantly in the nine northern counties of the province of Ulster. Protestants formed a majority in six of these counties. The other three, Donegal (the northernmost county in Ireland), Monaghan and Cavan had Catholic majorities. Ulster Unionists at the time made much of the need to defend the Protestant people of Ulster from being submerged by the Catholic masses that would subjugate them if the Nationalists were to achieve home rule. But their real aim was to preserve the Union at all costs and by whatever means.
The outbreak of war in Europe in August 1914 shelved the Home Rule issue for the time being on the assumption that the war would be short. In the perspective of history it has also tended to eclipse the dark and disreputable political and military intrigues that, between 1912 and 1914 brought Britain closer to military rebellion and civil war than at any time since the Jacobite rebellion. Those events are hardly remembered or referred to now (except in Ireland) and when they are it is usually claimed that things were not as serious as they seemed and that there was never any real threat to democracy or of military coups. While the armed forces can and do overrule parliamentary government in some countries, it could never happen here.
Unionist opposition to the Parliament Act of 1911
The Parliament Act of 1911 was hardly radical. A radical act would have abolished the unelected, undemocratic second chamber as a relic of medieval aristocratic power. But that would have been beyond the wit or wishes of a Liberal government that was still denying the vote to women and committing to jail those who actively demanded such rights. But the Tory Unionists realised that the Act rendered useless their domination of the House of Lords as it no longer gave them the power to veto the Home Rule Bill, only to delay its enactment. They and their allies in the armed forces therefore argued (spuriously) that since the constitutional means to prevent the break-up of the United Kingdom no longer existed, they had no choice but to resort to extra-parliamentary means. That was the view taken by the Ulster Volunteers who organized and trained to resist home rule by force. Their leader, the demagogic Unionist MP, Sir Edward Carson, was a lawyer who had successfully prosecuted Oscar Wilde for homosexuality. He was described by the historian LCB Seaman as “reckless, dangerous and unconstitutional.” The Ulster Volunteer Force, as it became in 1913, was openly encouraged by Bonar Law, the Ulster- born Canadian leader of the Tory/Unionist opposition in Parliament who was later to become prime minister. It is sometimes claimed that the Unionists were bluffing, actually trying to force Asquith to abandon home rule, or to force him out of office. The new monarch, George V, made no secret of his opposition to Irish home rule, telling Asquith that there should be another election before the Home Rule Bill was put onto the statute book, although there was absolutely no constitutional obligation to do so. In an attempt to deny the government the ability to use the army to enforce home rule once the Bill had passed, they attempted to disrupt the passage of the Army Act.
Army top brass such as former Commander in Chief Lord Roberts, of Kandahar and Boer War fame, and Sir Henry Wilson, Director of Military Operations at the War Office, made no secret of their opposition to home rule and of their support for Bonar law and the Tory/Unionist opposition. The crisis intensified in the early months of 1914. Carson hinted in a speech to parliament that he was about to organize a military coup in Ulster. The army C in C in Ireland, Sir Arthur Papet, announced that officers at the Curragh army headquarters near Dublin would resign en masse or simply disappear if they were ordered by the government into action against the UVF in Ulster. This amounted to a threat of military rebellion endorsed by the Tory/Unionists and the highest ranking officers in the British Army. The UVF smuggled 30,000 rifles and 3-5 million rounds of ammunition supplied by Germany, into Ireland at Larne, Donaghadee and Bangor. Despite the illegality of this operation, the British Army and the Royal Irish Constabulary did nothing to intercept it. They simply turned a blind eye. When, in a nationalist counter-operation an attempt was made near Dublin to smuggle arms to the National Volunteers which had been formed to resist the UVF, 3 Irish nationalists were killed and more than 20 injured. Faced with the threat of military rebellion the Asquith government effectively capitulated to the Unionists. Any hopes of home rule would only proceed on the basis of partition – the separation of part or all of the province of Ulster from the rest of Ireland.
100 Years Later. HM Armed Forces and Politics Today
Could anything similar happen today? To seriously suggest that there could be circumstances where it might happen is to lay oneself open to ridicule. Britain is a democracy, it is argued, and the notion that there could be anything resembling a military intervention against the elected government is the stuff of loony-left fantasy. It is less likely to happen here, we are given to believe, than anywhere else in the world.
Well, fifty years ago something similar did occur again. In 1964 a Labour government led by Harold Wilson was returned to office for the first time since 1951. Shortly afterwards in 1965 the white minority racist administration in the British colony of Rhodesia unilaterally declared itself independent. This Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) was illegal and clearly intended to prevent Rhodesia following the negotiated de-colonization trend of the 1960s towards majority rule in Africa. Many white Rhodesians, including members of the Rhodesian Police, were former British servicemen. The proper course would have been for the Wilson government to issue the Smith regime with an ultimatum to rescind UDI and, if they failed to do so, to send in the army against them. UN military support might also have been requested, and would have been forthcoming. Wilson refused to take this course and there was no British military intervention. Why not? The Smith regime and the right wing press in Britain warned ominously of the consequences of sending British soldiers to subdue their “kith and kin.” According to Denis Healey, who was secretary of defence in the Wilson government at the time, there were “mutinous mutterings among senior officers.” The government opted instead for sanctions against Rhodesia. These were completely ineffectual as it was known they would be. They were broken with impunity by South Africa and Portugal. The national liberation struggle continued for another 15 years until Zimbabwe won its independence in 1980.
1960s and 1970s: Plots against Wilson.....
There is overwhelming evidence that MI5 plotted over many years to remove Harold Wilson from power. Wilson was a mainstream social democratic Labour leader. Nothing in his tenure of office as prime minister for eight years between 1964 and 1976 suggests that he was a radical leftist. Nevertheless MI5 had a permanent file on him started in 1945 when he held ministerial office in Atlee’s government. Preposterously, they believed him to be a KGB agent. Cecil King, head of the International Publishing Corporation tried to enlist Lord Louis Mountbatten in a plot to remove Wilson from power in a coup and lead a government that would, King claimed, have the respect and support of the armed forces. Mountbatten declined the offer. There is strong evidence that the occupation of Heathrow in an army exercise in 1974, about which the government had been given no information, and which was later explained as a practice run for action against the IRA, was actually linked to the plot to topple Wilson. There remains much that has not been explained about Wilson’s sudden and unexpected resignation in 1976. A veil has been drawn over these murky intrigues involving the security forces and the military. There is every reason to be concerned that the same combination of anti-democratic forces in the higher echelons within the ruling class establishment are no less reactionary and no less alert today than they were in the past. Occasionally the veil slips and we get an insight into their mind-set and preoccupations.
....2015 – 2020: Plots against Corbyn?
Such was the case when in September of last year an unidentified “senior serving general” was quoted bythe Sunday Times as saying that “feelings are running very high within the armed forces” about the possibility of a Corbyn government. “You can’t put a maverick in charge of a country’s security. You would see...generals directly and publicly challenging Corbyn over ...Trident, pulling out of NATO and any plan to emasculate and shrink the size of the armed forces...There would be mass resignations at all levels...which would effectively, be a mutiny.” He was reported as claiming that if a government led by Corbyn attempted to take such radical steps “the army just wouldn’t stand for it. The general staff would not allow a prime minister to jeopardise the security of the country and I think people would use whatever means possible, fair or foul, to prevent that.”
The comments of this anonymous “senior serving general” amount to approval of military rebellion and coup d’etat. But his remarks have made no great stir. There has been no clamour to demand his identity and prosecution. The Ministry of Defence has limited itself to the observation that the general’s remarks were ”not helpful.” But they ruled out any leak inquiry as they claimed that there was no possibility of identifying him. It is difficult t avoid the impression that for the MoD his remarks were “not helpful” because he let the cat out of the bag by blurting out widely held opinions among high ranking officers that should not be made public. As the Sunday Times revealed that the officer had served in Northern Ireland it shouldn’t be beyond the powers of military intelligence to discover his identity if they really had any interest in doing so.
The intense hostility towards Corby in such circles comes as no surprise. It is shared by the Tory leadership, most of their supporters in the Tory press and much of the political establishment. Cameron has described Corbyn as a “Britain-hating” apologist for terrorism. His failure to join in the singing of God Save the Queen and bow sufficiently obsequiously to the monarch is treated as evidence of base disloyalty to the nation. His opposition to nuclear weapons and his commitment to British nuclear disarmament mean he refuses to defend the country against attack. In short, he is unpatriotic and unfit to lead the country. Given the ubiquity of such hostile accusations against him, it is hardly surprising that there are those in the higher ranks of the armed forces who think like the unidentified serving general quoted above, and, faced with the prospect of Corbyn becoming prime minister, “just wouldn’t stand for it.” The same line of thought is evident in the response of the Head of the Armed Forces, Sir General Houghton when asked what he thought of Corbyn’s pledge never to use nuclear weapons if he were to become prime minister. He replied:”It would worry me if that thought was translated into power.”
The Loyalty Oath
In a Guardian article (Unfriendly Fire: Would a Corbyn government lead to a military revolt? 25. January 2016) Andy Beckett quoted a posting on the Army Rumour Service website (Arrse): “What’s wrong with a coup if the generals are loyal to the Crown. Let her [the Queen] decide who runs the country.” This may be laughed off as the wish-dream of an immature fascist-inclined ignoramus, but there are likely to be those in more senior ranks who, albeit with greater sophistication, hold similar views. Members of the armed forces swear an oath to bear “faithful and true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, her heirs and successors.” They swear to defend her against all enemies. The armed forces are authoritarian and hierarchical. Some would say all armed forces have to be. People who voluntarily join the armed services generally do not do so because of any passionately-held belief in democratic principles or practices. A culture exists and is nurtured which distinguishes between “us” (the armed forces) and “them” (civilians, or “civvy street”). “We” defend “them” from whoever we are told are “the enemy.” In the hierarchical class system with its plethora of absurd ranks and titles that passes for democracy in Britain, it is taken for granted that an unelected head of state in the person of a hereditary monarch will reign in perpetuity. That everyone should be duty-bound to abjure the principle of democratic citizenship in favour of the status of “subject” of the monarch, is to any serious democrat patently absurd and demeaning. Yet the armed forces oath of loyalty rests firmly on this premise. All who swear the oath are in duty bound to do so “honestly and faithfully.” The oath binds them, not to defend a democratic constitution, but rather to serve and defend a named unelected head of state, Queen Elizabeth II, and her heirs and successors. In this respect it is very similar to the oath that, from 1934, members of the German armed forces were required to swear to a named individual as head of state – Adolf Hitler.
Could it happen here?
In the past, as we have seen, high ranking officers and members of the British intelligence services have, in their fervid imaginings, concluded that democratically elected governments and political leaders posed a grave threat to Britain’s national security. They have spoken and sometimes acted as though they were the true guardians of “the national interest” , believing that they were entitled to use whatever means “fair or foul” might be needed to bring down an elected government.
Members of the British ruling class generally like to present an image of moderation and reasonableness. It is assumed that any government of the left would never try to move beyond the parameters of what is acceptable to the mainstream political establishment. But if, perhaps in the not too distant future given the unprecedentedly unstable state of the world, a government they chose to regard as “far left” were to be elected, committed to a radical shift towards socialism in domestic and international policy, can we be sure that those same forces who have in the past become so agitated with such little cause, would remain confined to barracks?
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
Britain today is a “universal surveillance” state. The close association between GCHQ/MI5 and the NSA/CIA has been exposed by Edward Snowden beyond possibility of denial. Under the cloak of the “war on terror” everyone can be spied upon all the time. But while in other countries where the intelligence services have amassed such vast powers of surveillance there has been widespread public opposition, in Britain the response has been muted. With one or two notable exceptions theliberal media, far from expressing outrage, have meekly acquiesced. Partly, at least, this may be explained by the glamorous aura that in the public imagination pervades the British intelligence services. The glories of empire have long since faded away, but the myth of a heroic British agent bestriding the narrow world like a colossus of righteousness, fighting for justice and slaying the dragons of evil, was brought alive more than 60 years ago. In the twilight days of the British Empire, the racist imperialist Ian Fleming, following in the footsteps of such predecessors as G.A. Henty, P.C. Wren and John Buchan, created his alter ego in the person of James Bond. For 54 years cinemagoers have followed his exploits on the screen, where the worst (though not all) of Fleming’s racism, sexism and homophobia have been expunged. The fantasy world in which Bond operates has made a successful transition from the cold war era of the late twentieth century which provided a barely plausible raison d’etre for the earlier movies, to the less predictable and more chaotic twenty first century. The one element that has remained unchanged is the myth of a post-imperial hero who keeps the flag of freedom flying while on Her Majesty’s Secret Service.