Churchill: Covert warrior Mark 2

A series of recent blockbuster films have celebrated Winston Churchill as a great war leader and defender of freedom. But they have significantly failed to acknowledge in any way Churchill’s dedication to covert warfare and his complete lack of scruple in removing democratically elected governments.

In 1953, Churchill considered Dr Mohammed Mossadeq, Prime Minister of Iran, a threat to Western interests after he nationalised the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. So the PM fully backed the CIA and British intelligence moves to topple the Iranian leader (see Churchill: The covert warrior). In the same year, Churchill enthusiastically supported another successful coup against a democratically elected leader. But this ruthless regime change in Guyana (then British Guiana) has been largely shrouded in mystery.

MI5 files reveal that Churchill feared its left-wing leader, Cheddi Jagan and his wife Janet, who had founded the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) to campaign for workers’ rights and independence from British rule, would lead the colony – in northern South America – into the Soviet camp. The Americans, meanwhile, considered the Jagans part of an international communist conspiracy.

From the moment the PPP was formed in 1950 the Jagans were the target of intense surveillance by British intelligence. The following year, an MI5 agent commented: "Both are able and intelligent and the mere fact that Janet Jagan is white, young and not unattractive in appearance lends considerable interest to her activities and those of her husband.’ A later assessment concluded they were ‘not receiving any financial support from any communist organisation outside the country."

Moreover, according to William Blum, in his history of US/UK covert warfare since 1945, the PPP programme was hardly revolutionary. It encouraged foreign investment in the mining sector while boosting the rights of unionists and farmers, loosening the hold of the Church on education and ending the ban on "undesirable" books, films and records.

Yet, after the PPP won a huge majority in the 1953 elections, Churchill decided to act – sending warships and 700 troops (as part of Operation Windsor) to overthrow the government. So after just 133 days as chief minister, Jagan was arrested, the constitution was suspended and the governor was given emergency powers – which continued for the next three years. As Christopher Andrew records in his authorised history of MI5, Clement Atlee, leader of the Labour opposition, refused to offer Jagan any support, dismissing him and his PPP colleagues as "either communists or communist stooges".

British meddling did not stop with the 1953 regime change. Ten years later, Jagan’s PPP was again the ruling party, having won the 1961 election in a landslide victory against the People’s National Party, led by Forbes Burnham. But Britain was determined to prevent Jagan being head of the country once it was granted independence. With CIA backing, British intelligence organised and funded anti-Jagan protests which resulted in riots and strikes – and troops were sent in to restore order.

As Mark Curtis records in Unpeople: Britain’s Secret Human Rights Abuses: "The centrepiece of the CIA’s covert operation was funding a general strike which began in April 1963 and lasted for 80 days. CIA agents gave advice to local union leaders on how to organise and sustain the strike; with a budget of $1 million, they provided funds and food to keep the strikers going. This strike was publicly cited by British officials as evidence that Jagan could not run the country."

Thereafter, the British and Americans proceeded to rig the electoral system introducing a system of proportional representation which would bar Jagan from office. In the December 1964 elections, the PPP increased its vote to 46 per cent and gained more seats than any other party. But the new electoral system gave the two opposition parties a majority of seats so Burnham was asked to form a government. Guyana’s independence duly went ahead in 1966. As Curtis concludes: "The Anglo-American constitutional coup to remove the nationalist threat had successfully countered the democratic voice of the Unpeople of British Guiana."

Richard Lance Keeble is Professor of Journalism at the University of Lincoln and Visiting Professor at Liverpool Hope University.