Rarely does a political spy novel contain so much historical fact, as opposed to fiction, and written in such a gripping manner as Edward Wilson’s ‘A Very British Ending’. Like Wilson’s other novels, this one, first published in 2015, makes no attempt to mask the author’s own socialist political sympathies. For reasons that are self-evident his novels have received scant coverage in the press and media. They have simply buried it.
This story charts the drama of events which unfolded in Britain in the 1960s and 1970s centred on the attempts of the security services to undermine and overthrow Harold Wilson’s Labour government. It is portrayed through the eyes of William Catesby, a dissident MI6 agent – SIS – and his boss Henry Bone who struggle to thwart the plots and coup against Wilson. Throughout the narrative the struggle between the right pro-capitalist wing of the Labour leadership and the socialist left is portrayed with historical accuracy.
The story begins with Catesbury - at the end of the second world war - assassinating a former Nazi commander attempting to flee captivity with the assistance of the US secret service - the CIA. Harold Wilson, in 1947, as Head of the board of Trade had overseen the selling of Rolls Royce engines to the USSR despite the agreement being made prior to Wilson’s appointment. Wilson was warned by Attlee and Stafford Cripps at the time that this could well become a poisoned chalice later. Indeed it did as Wilson was never forgiven by the CIA or sections of the British security services for allowing the deal to go ahead. Later he resigned from the Labour cabinet in protest at the introduction of prescription charges which was linked to opposition to increased defence expenditure. For these reasons, he was viewed with extreme suspicion by them. In fact, as the book reveals, Wilson was never trusted and was suspected of being a Soviet agent.
Labour politician, Hugh Gaitskill, the favoured candidate of the right-wing, the capitalists and the CIA and MI5/6, died at an early age, vacating the Labour leadership. This paved the way for Wilson to be elected and defeat George Brown. The real class nature of the Labour right-wing is well portrayed in the novel. In one chapter a house party is hosted by Gaitskill – or “Gaiters” as his friends called him- in 1956 in a leafy Hampstead suburb. Present at the party is Kit Fournier, CIA agent and labour attaché at the US London Embassy together with other friends from the ruling elite of capitalist society. “The house was bursting with refined British voices and urbane British elegance…They (the CIA) were grooming the non-socialist pro-American wing of the Labour Party for power – an Oxbridge led elite that felt comfortable within the traditional ruling circles of Britain. There was no way that Washington was going to let its unsinkable aircraft carrier be taken over by mutineers…” observed Catesby. As Militant was attacked by the Labour Party right-wing in the late 1970s and 1980s we published a pamphlet exposing the links between Dennis Healey and Labour's right-wing with the CIA.
Plots and intrigues
The novel runs through the subsequent elections which Labour won in 1964, 1966 and again in 1974 under Harold Wilson's leadership. Here the campaign of plots and intrigues by the state machine and sections of the ruling class is fully depicted in the novel. The background to these events is a massive upsurge in the class struggle and strikes.
At the time a section of the ruling class and the state machine were flirting with the idea of overthrowing the Wilson government by a military coup if necessary. The Times daily ran an editorial headlined “Is Britain heading for a military coup?” These events are brought centre stage in Wilson's novel. In the novel and in real life tanks and army divisions were deployed to Heathrow airport – without the Labour Minister of Defence being informed on two occasions. Northern Ireland, Catesby and Bone concluded, was being used as a training ground for operations in Britain.
A retired general in the novel mobilises a secret “army” to be used to break a general strike and and to fake sabotage by the domestic “enemies of the state”. In real life, a retired General Walker organised such a force, as was reported at the time and covered in the Militant newspaper. Discussions within the clubs of the ruling elite and maverick sections of the “secret state” are well depicted in this novel centred on possible plans for a coup headed by a member of the royal family. As was subsequently revealed, at the time, Earl Mountbatten and “dissident” elements in the state machine had considered such options. As the unnamed press baron in the novel sates, “there is no constitutional problem involved. The oaths of allegiance taken by the military are to the Crown, not to elected members of parliament”.
At the time the ruling class in Britain held back from taking such a drastic step. However, there is no doubt that more maverick sections of them and sections of the state machine were considering such an option. However, the ruling class as a whole pulled the rug from under them as this was not in their interests at the time. This is reflected in the novel when the unnamed member of the Royal family storms out of the meeting. The banker later does the same declaring to the army general present, “I am not taking orders from you”.
The election of Ted Heath as Conservative Prime Minister in 1970 and the bitter strikes and social upheavals also feature in the novel including the two miners’ strikes and three day week which ultimately ended with the defeat of Heath’s government and return of Labour under Harold Wilson to power in 1974.
The crisis in Britain is not the only drama drawn out in the stormy events of this period. The removal of Gough Whitlams’ Labour government in Australia, the military coup in Chile and many other events are all drawn into the drama of this novel.
Correctly Edward Wilson dismisses the idea propagated in Washington and elements in the British “secret state” that Harold Wilson was a Soviet agent. “He is not even a socialist let alone a Communist” comments Catesby, at one stage. In the novel, Catesby is rather too sympathetic towards Harold Wilson who although the candidate of the Labour left was not a socialist and whose government had attempted to introduce the anti-union ‘In Place of Strife’ legislation.
Significantly Edward Wilson challenges the idea of the CIA that the aim of the USSR was “world domination” as part of an international revolution. Significantly, Catesby even invokes Trotsky to refute these claims. “Caseby stared into the fire. The “Team B” Americans seemed unaware that Trotsky’s scheme for world revolution had been rejected long before Trotsky had been murdered with an ice axe. Since then, the Soviet Union had turned into a paranoid inward-looking state. Catesby reflected – and not for the first time – what would have happened if Trotsky had come to power instead of Stalin. And what role, thought Catesby, would he himself have played in such an alternative universe...?”
The novel covers the election of Margaret Thatcher and the defeat of Heath who the plotters regard as “unreliable” and “a queer”. Anticipating more recent trends the banker involved in the coup plot muses “what we will see in the future... is the privatisation of British foreign and military policy”.
This is a dramatic and highly enjoyable novel based on events that occurred at the time. Edward Wilson, a native of Baltimore, USA, served in the Vietnam War in the Special Forces unit. Following this he renounced his US citizenship and eventually emigrated to Britain where he became a teacher and later a novelist. Read this novel and you will not be disappointed. It will assist understanding how the British ruling class will react to defend its interests when they are threatened.
‘A Very British Ending’ by Edward Wilson, Published by Arcadiabooks Ltd. £8.99