We Asked a Defense Expert What a British Military Coup Would Actually Look Like
It's not going to happen, but what if it did?
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
The world is a scary place. Anarchists are attacking cereal cafés, cafés want to force you to eat cereal like a child, and Katie Hopkins has recently joined the Mail Online. What I've never feared, however, is the prospect of a military coup. That was until just over a week ago when the Sunday Times reported that an unnamed current British army general had suggested a coup might be likely should Jeremy Corbyn be elected Prime Minister. According to the general, a Labour government led by Corbyn could face an army "mutiny" should Corbyn—a veteran peace campaigner—attempt to downgrade the armed forces by pulling out of NATO or scrapping Trident.
The general was quoted saying "the Army just wouldn't stand for it. The general staff would not allow a prime minister to jeopardize the security of this country and I think people would use whatever means possible, fair or foul to prevent that."
Although the general did clarify that he was referring to "mass resignations at all levels," rather than literally dragging Corbyn and his Mao bike out of Number 10, his threat of "an event which would effectively be a mutiny" is still pretty full on, and sounds like something more suited to Chile in the 1970s than the UK today.
To find out whether I was being complacent, I interviewed Nick Watts, a defense expert and Deputy Director General of the UK Defence Forum, to find how likely a British military coup really is.
VICE: So, what issues could lead to a British coup?
Nick Watts: I think the military would be concerned about a danger to British national security. They would have to think, "We, the military, really know what the security concerns of the UK are. And you here today, gone tomorrow politicians don't understand these national security concerns. You politicians are either cravenly running after public opinion, or you're beholden to your real paymasters, the trade unions. And we—the military—won't stand for any of that nonsense, because it will make us weaker as a nation. So we're going to take matters into our own hands."
What would a military coup look like in practice?
The civil service would be the first port of call; you'd probably take over the Cabinet Office, which is the central nervous system of Whitehall. That would be job number one. It wouldn't be that difficult actually, it's just over the road from the Ministry of Defence, and the security isn't that great anyway.
Then you'd have to encourage the PM to leave 10 Downing Street. That would be physically easy. Although I suppose after that you'd have to deal with a potential rising against the coup, in the shires, which could mean having to put the army out on the streets.
So who would be leading the resistance?
I think a rising in the shires, in the countryside, would be against the coup. It would be like in Moscow in 1991, when certain factions of the Communist Party rebelled against Gorbachev at the time, and the people stood around the parliament building and physically stopped the army from getting inside it.
What about within the army?
You need to remember that army personnel swear allegiance to the Queen, and that's understood to mean the Queen and her government. So I think a military general would be met by considerable resistance from within the army rank and file if he tried to lead a coup against Her Majesty's Government.
What would the Queen do?
Well the Queen's the head of the armed forces. So I think there would be a mighty edict from Buckingham Palace against this. She'd have to go on TV and say, "I am the Sovereign and the armed forces must be loyal to me and my ministers, so don't do anything silly chaps, you're not helping the situation." So, ironically, really, the Queen would have to come to the aid of Jeremy Corbyn as a democratically elected Parliamentarian.
So the leaders of the coup would need to get to the Queen also?
Well, they could try and take over the BBC to prevent her doing a broadcast, but other broadcasters are available, like Sky and ITN. But it wouldn't matter. With social media now, the civilian militia would be on their phones, saying, "Get down to Leeds Town Hall, get down to Derby Market Place." So I think the shires could rise against the army.
How would the civilian militia fight the army?
It would have to be passive resistance, in line with Cold War politics. But remember that the British army is very small. The whole army's only 80,000 people, including all the noncombatants like medics and cooks. You could fit the whole army in Wembley stadium. But you could still have a nasty situation like the Tiananmen Square massacre, with civilians being gunned down by the military. It wouldn't be pretty.
Would we have to worry about bread queues on the streets of the UK?
I think we'd be OK, unless ferry ports and roads were blockaded by protestors, in which case there could be issues.
Would Britain be vulnerable to external aggressors?
I don't think anyone would invade us, but we would be vulnerable in areas that we are already at risk. For example, the Argentinians could nip over and grab the Falkland Islands. And the Spanish could grab Gibraltar back. We'd be an absolute laughing stock internationally. All of the influence we've built up through soft power tools like the British Council and the BBC would be gone. We'd be a joke; we'd be a Gilbert and Sullivan country.
OK, finally, how do you actually remove a sitting Prime Minister?
You need to do what the Soviets did with Gorbachev. So, you wait until Corbyn's on holiday. British Prime Ministers always go to Chequers, which is of course run by the state anyway. So when he goes there, you take his phone away and put him under house arrest.
And then you just tell everyone, "The PM is indisposed." You "invite" Corbyn to step into a Puma helicopter, and you spirit him away. By this point, you're running the country now. And once you've taken Jeremy Corbyn to a secret destination, you get him to issue a statement officially handing power over to you, General Sneaky, as Lord Protector. Don't forget, we did this before, with Oliver Cromwell, so it's not entirely unknown.
Wow, that sounds really disturbingly easy. Could this ever happen?
I think it really is an amusing speculation, but please do reassure your readers that the likelihood of this is very remote. They shouldn't worry.
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