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Harold Wilson and the insecure holiday walkie-talkie

A prime minister’s communications are vital – because without the ability to take in reports, and act on them, how can a PM express his power? Even when he is on holiday. But such comms have to be secure, in case they are intercepted, just as the PM’s person has to be protected from harm. That was as true in the 1970s when Harold Wilson (pictured) was premier for the second time, from 1974 to 1976, as chronicled in the memoir by John Warwicker, An Outsider at Number Ten: Protecting the Prime Ministers 1974-79 (published 2015 by the History Press), and confirmed by a file from the National Archives.

Wilson famously stayed with his wife Anne and son Giles regularly at their bungalow on St Mary’s, the main island of the Isles of Scilly off the coast of Cornwall; about as remote as can be in the UK, even including PM Boris Johnson’s holiday in the Scottish Highlands in summer 2020. Wilson (who was buried in the Scillies) and security entourage would fly from RAF Northolt on the outskirts of London, to the naval air station at Culdrose, and then take a Sea King Helicopter to the Scillies. With the eye of a bodyguard, Warwicker saw that the Wilsons’ dog Paddy was sometimes sick in the helicopter (‘not visibly popular with the crew, who might soon need to reconfigure the interior for a royal personage’). Warwicker had a copper’s dry sense of humour.

Even though once at the Scillies the ‘official world’ came to an end, Warwicker’s protection work did not; he had the Devon and Cornwall plain-clothes police to liaise with, who looked after the physical security of the Wilson’s bungalow ‘from a nearby observation post, and at night, with regular foot patrols’.

Harold Wilson’s staff and the Wilsons themselves settled into a holiday routine, Warwicker recalled. “On an average morning, the programme would start with a call from ‘Delta One to Delta Two’ on the personal radio network established by Whitehall for emergencies, and to maintain contact with the prime minister at any time when he was not near a telephone,” Warwicker recalled.

To 21st century readers in an always-on world, that may take some believing. Instead of a mobile phone, Wilson as the country’s political leader had at hand a ‘walkie-talkie’, in case – though the political temperature was not as hot as during the height of the Cold War – of emergency, up to a Soviet nuclear attack, in theory, as Warwicker acknowledged. To be more technical, to quote from the National Archives file Prem 16-273, Wilson carried around with him ‘a portable UHF transmitter-receiver’, ‘primarily to maintain contact with his temporary office’ on the island; and the PM had the ability ‘to speak direct to Whitehall using the transmitter-receiver by means of a link in the temporary office’.

As Warwicker wrote with dry under-statement, the man with the mundane detail to look after, ‘it was out of order to go to work with a flat battery or leave the set inadvertently switched off’, as the radio was sometimes the only contact with a potential ‘four minute warning’ – that is, of nuclear attack. Not that the radio was used for high politics: “His radio call might say that he would leave for the Co-op in five minutes.” It might mean in the morning Warwicker having to dress in a hurry and leave without breakfast to rendez-vous with Wilson outside the bungalow in good time to join the invariably pipe-smoking PM (and the dog Paddy) ‘for the ten minute stroll down the cliff path and along the Hugh Town shops’.

It’s the bane of a bodyguard’s life – and can be dangerously bad for the job of protecting the VIP – that the person protected may ask the bodyguard to carry shopping, look after children or hold a dog’s lead; Warwicker wrote that he was grateful Wilson never asked him to look after Paddy: “He fully realised that we were there to fight for his life – when needed”. In fact Warwicker and fellow detectives were appreciative for the Wilsons ‘accepting us as necessary everyday appendages in the most kindly way’, and not expecting the detectives to act like servants (implying that some VIPs did).

Also like all bodyguards of any era whatever the sort of VIP, Warwicker as much as the VIP also had to handle the public – who might be awed or annoyed by the Labour leader – and reporters and photogaphers (‘predators’ and ‘fact-finding sharks’ as Warwicker put it with a policeman’s distrust), sniffing for any story.

Warwicker’s sense of humour was never far away, as in his story of how the Wilsons plus detectives were dropped off on an island by a boatman and the weather turned stormed and all were soaked. Paddy the dog was sick.

On the difficult boat ride back to St Mary’s, Warwicker used his personal radio to message ahead to ‘Custom House’, the temporary office near the quay at St Mary’s, where ‘young ladies’ were in charge of the encrypted telex network that sent official communications to Wilson from 10 Downing Street. As an aside, Warwicker wrote: “I also hoped this call would keep the Soviet decoders busy, wallowing about on the listening spy ship.”

Earlier in his Scillies chapter, set in Easter 1975, Warwicker went over the risks to Harold Wilson when he followed his wife into the chilly water – more likely hypothermia, but in theory a torpedo from a Russian submarine, or rescue by ‘a Russian spy ship’. The Prem file (of papers from inside the prime minister’s office) shows that Harold Wilson was aware of the security risk from radio communications, and of Soviet shipping about.

For in September 1974 the Ministry of Defence replied to Lord Bridges of the Cabinet Office, after Wilson had asked; were Soviet intelligence vessels off the Scilly Islands while he was there? One such vessel was on patrol in the English Channel for most of the August 1974 Wilson was holidaying there – but only went west of Plymouth on one day, ‘when she was about 30 miles south-west of St Mary’s’, showing that the MoD was keeping a close eye on the vessel. As the MoD wrote: “The Russians maintain one of their intelligence gathering [fishing] trawlers in the Channel area throughout most of the year.” While the South-West Approaches were a regular fishing ground for the Soviets, this was not unusual, and not thought to show any unwelcome interest in Wilson and his radio communications.

The file did spell out that the PM or anyone speaking over the UHF radio was ‘en clair’, that is, without security, and at risk of interception. While the range was ‘theoretically fairly short’, the signal was at greater risk of interception during onward transmission from the Scillies to Whitehall. Hence advice on file not to use the walkie-talkie ‘for sensitive conversations’. Such as, presumably, going to the Co-op for groceries.


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