First Thoughts: Military coups, hostage cover-ups – and irritating the Guardian editor

I wasn’t wholly surprised by Katharine Viner’s letter of reply detailing her paper’s recent triumphs. 

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A hopelessly divided government incapable of governing. A parliament acting, as some see it, unconstitutionally. A very left-wing opposition leader close to winning office. Businesses preparing for economic catastrophe. Hundreds of thousands marching in the streets of the capital. Fears that such demonstrations could turn violent. Fears also that the nation could break apart, losing nearly 40 per cent of its territory. In many countries, such turmoil would lead to a military coup. But it couldn’t happen here. Could it?

The last time coups were seriously discussed was during Harold Wilson’s Labour governments of the 1960s and 1970s, when the economy was fragile, industrial unrest widespread and Northern Ireland close to civil war. Some elements within the security services believed, as did a leading CIA operative, that Wilson was a Soviet agent and that Hugh Gaitskell, his predecessor as Labour leader who died suddenly from an autoimmune disease in 1963, was poisoned to make way for him. Most of the plots – which involved a variety of retired army officers and, in one case, a newspaper proprietor – envisaged installing Lord Mountbatten, the last viceroy of India, a former chief of the defence staff and uncle of the Duke of Edinburgh, at the head of a government of “national unity”. Beyond rumours, nobody at the time knew about such plans but, when they came to light years later, they seemed not so much sinister as comic.

What may now cause potential plotters to hesitate is the intractable puzzle of Brexit. On that, the armed services are almost certainly as divided as the rest of us.

By the book

Watching the Brexit debates, I was struck by how many MPs were reading from prepared scripts. Some spoke almost entirely with their eyes down, peering at a sheet of paper like police constables reciting evidence in court. The overall effect, on a subject that is supposed to raise high passions, was stilted and uninspiring. According to an official parliamentary guide, “MPs [should] address their speeches to the Speaker… using notes only”. MPs used to shout “reading!” to those who disregarded that custom. Traditionally, only ministers at the despatch box – and perhaps those making resignation statements – read things out. Backbenchers are supposed to listen to what parliamentary colleagues say and then counter, modify or support each other’s arguments. That’s why it’s called “a debate”.

A pity that, with viewing figures for BBC Parliament reportedly at record levels, MPs can’t put on a better show.

Secrets and lies

On my desk this past week has been a new book called Truthteller by my former colleague Stephen Davis. It’s about stories you’ve probably never heard of because governments covered them up or put out sufficient disinformation to convince the public that nothing was amiss.

One concerns BA149, a British Airways flight that left Heathrow on 1 August 1990 for Kuala Lumpur, via Kuwait City and Madras, just as the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. The plane carried 367 passengers and 18 crew. Despite official assurances that it was safe to fly, it landed in Kuwait with Saddam’s troops already in the airport’s vicinity.

The Iraqis held passengers and crew hostage for up to four months, sometimes without adequate food or clean drinking water. But when the plane landed, nine young men made a quick exit and were never seen again. Davis claims they were members of a highly secret team sent to Kuwait to acquire on-the-ground intelligence. BA149, he argues, was allowed to fly for their convenience, jeopardising the safety of 376 civilians for military purposes. Only one hostage died, from a heart attack. But several later committed suicide and many more developed chronic mental and physical health problems. American and French passengers received compensation; the British got nothing. No inquiry was ever held.

Davis, formerly editor of New Zealand’s biggest circulation daily paper, is the only journalist I know who has paid significant attention to BA149. Governments become ever more proficient in covering up inconvenient truths. How many other scandals have our rulers buried?

Long shot

In 2016, Leicester City won football’s premiership against odds of 5,000-1. Now, my home town may be on the brink of another sporting sensation against which you could possibly have got even longer odds at the start of the season. Its rugby union team Leicester Tigers, twice European champions, never out of the Premiership’s top six since the professional era began in 1996, face relegation. With two clubs below them, the odds are still against it but the fans (of whom I am one) are nervous. Why the Tigers, with four current England players in their back division, should be in such a plight is a mystery. Perhaps some perverse deity decrees that no city can have too much sporting ecstasy at once. Neighbouring Coventry was once a rugby superpower. As soon as Coventry City, once stalwarts of football’s old Third Division (South), won the FA Cup in 1987, the rugby team went into vertiginous decline. I hope the same doesn’t happen to the Tigers.

Organ recital

When I was an editor, I treated all criticism in other organs – mostly the Guardian – as opportunities for free advertising. So I wasn’t wholly surprised that, after this column included a 161-word item reporting male friends’ complaints (not my complaints) that the Guardian has become overly “feminised” (not my word), its editor, Katharine Viner, replied with a 192-word letter last week detailing its recent triumphs. A male friend describes her letter as “vainglorious” (again, not my word) but, as it says in The One Minute Manager, if you don’t blow your own horn, someone else will use it as a spittoon.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article appears in the 05 April 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit wreckers