Mountbatten's secret role in 'propaganda war'

What posture should the Queen's cousin adopt if he met the rebel leader? Prime Minister's suggested answer: "Bow stiffly and condescendingly and treat as a private person," writes John Crossland.

What if there is a demonstration outside Government House? Prime Minister's suggested answer: "Rely on tall guardsmen." What if no clearance for landing the royal plane? This would merely show the rebel leader's loyalty to the Queen as "completely bogus rather than constitute a snub for the Queen herself".

This is not a plot for a Feydeau farce. It is the scenario for a mission dreamt up by Harold Wilson when Prime Minister for reasserting royal authority in Rhodesia in 1965. He envisaged Lord Mountbatten flying into Salisbury at a few hours notice on the pretext of investing the beleaguered governor, Sir Humphrey Gibbs, with the KCVO, but actually to rally loyal support and score a propaganda victory.

Mountbatten, approached informally by the Prime Minister, responded enthusiastically. He wrote to Wilson on 19 November 1965: "The deplorable situation in Rhodesia is getting worse and the effect on the Commonwealth and on our relations with the Afro-Asian bloc may be disastrous if no active steps are taken. This step can hardly fail to help our cause if we collect my party in secrecy and only ask for Rhodesian . . . clearance two hours before take-off.

"We shall have had the publicity on take-off for the world to see, that we meant business if the Rhodesians subsequently refused to let us land. I shall be seeing Her Majesty this evening at Luton Hoo and will ask her not to allow any consideration for my safety to influence her decision."

The Queen, who may already have heard of another eccentric government scheme to win hearts and minds by scattering leaflet appeals to loyalty in her name over the Rhodesian bush veldt, asserted her royal prerogative to abort the mission.

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