Corbyn, national security, and democracy

By Bernadette Meaden
September 20, 2015

Does the British establishment, in its entirety, really believe in democracy? Perhaps for some elements, the best reply to that would be – up to a point.

With reports that elements of the British Army may rebel if Jeremy Corbyn is elected Prime Minister, and a serving general quoted as saying "The Army just wouldn't stand for it", it seems that some in our established institutions regard democracy as optional. We are allowed to make our choice, but if they do not regard it as an acceptable choice then they may feel perfectly entitled to disregard it.

It is interesting to note in this context that soldiers in the British Army are required to swear an oath of allegiance to the Monarch and to their superior officers – not to the country, its people, or its elected government. As the website of the Royal Anglian Regiment explains, "by tradition the loyalty of the Army is to the Monarch and not the State."

An Army rebellion against a Corbyn premiership may seem a fanciful scenario for many reasons, but perhaps it wouldn't be the first time that the establishment had decided to oust an elected Prime Minister. In the 1970s, it is believed that plans were made to overthrow Harold Wilson's government. In his book Spycatcher, Peter Wright alleged a campaign of destabilisation by elements of the security services, who spread anti-Wilson propaganda throughout the media, including claims that the Prime Minister was an IRA sympathiser.

According to Wright, the plan was that once the public had been persuaded that Wilson was a threat to national security, the military would seize strategic locations like Heathrow airport and the BBC, and Lord Mountbatten would step in as interim prime minister. In the event , Harold Wilson unexpectedly resigned, an announcement which stunned his Cabinet and was described as a political bombshell. You can watch a BBC docudrama about this extraordinary time here.

This ambivalent attitude towrds democratically elected governments has not been confined to the United Kingdom. Gough Whitlam, who was Prime Minister of Australia from 1972 to 1975, pursued many policies which were seen as a threat to establishment interests. He opposed nuclear weapons testing, abolished royal patronage, and drafted legislation on Aboriginal land rights, which as John Pilger has pointed out, "raised the ghost of the greatest land grab in human history, Britain’s colonisation of Australia, and the question of who owned the island-continent’s vast natural wealth." This could have had ramifications throughout the former colonies of the British Empire.

Gough Whitlam, the elected Prime Minister of Australia, was proclaimed a threat to national security and on 11 November 1975, was dismissed by the Queen's representative, the Governor-General Sir John Kerr.

It is interesting to view the current media frenzy surrounding the Leader of the Opposition in this historical context.


© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden

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