It was 30 years ago today

January 7, 2000

Harold Wilson was prime minister and British troops were invading Anguilla. Huw Richards reports from the Public Record Office on government papers released under the 30-year rule.

* Anguillan antics

In March 1969, a detachment of British paratroopers - accompanied, to cartoonists' delight, by the Metropolitan Police - was sent to the Caribbean island of Anguilla, which was bidding for independence.

The imbroglio was aptly described by Sir Michael Palliser, foreign affairs adviser to prime minister Harold Wilson. It was "entertaining, but a shade mystifying", he told the PM.

Wilson, in his memoirs, conceded that he had always had doubts about whether the decision to send troops in was right.

Codenamed Operation Sheepskin, the March 19 landings on Anguilla might better have been called Operation Pig's Ear. The papers released this week reveal that the government was losing confidence in its key man, former colonial civil servant Tony Lee, even before the troops landed. Intelligence reports proved to be wide of the mark, and the invasion angered recently decolonialised nations such as Jamaica and Uganda. They asked why Britain intervened so fast in (black) Anguilla after spending four years failing to do so in (white) Rhodesia. The invasion also irritated Canada - not warned of British use of a base in Newfoundland because of a clerical error.

Anguilla had worried the Foreign Office since 1967, when it became part of the new "associated state" of St Kitts-Nevis-Anguilla - independent in all but defence and foreign policy. Separated from the two larger islands by 110km of sea, Anguilla's 6,000-strong population never accepted the new order. In July 1967, they voted to seek independence. In August 1967, a note in Wilson's correspondence points to fears that American gambling interests, seeking a pliable offshore host, were behind the attempted secession.

In February 1969 a second bid for secession was led by a local politician, Ronald Webster. Asked for assistance, the Wilson government sent junior minister William Whitlock, handily on tour of the Caribbean at the time, to the island. Whitlock landed on March 11 but, after an initially friendly greeting from Webster and his followers, was intimidated into leaving.

Within 72 hours the decision to land troops was taken. Lee, who was known on Anguilla, was appointed Her Majesty's Commissioner, his task to "restore law and order and good government on the island of Anguilla by peaceful means".

The government had concerns about Lee even before the landing. On March 16, Lee protested to Whitlock that the landing would be "resisted with force". Whitlock, passing on the message to Wilson, warned that Lee was "extremely volatile", and a foreign office official said he was unlikely to last long in the job.

The day after the landing, the British representative in Antigua said Lee needed "strong political guidance". A series of messages from Lee saying "the atmosphere of fear has hardened somewhat" did little to still concerns. On March 25, the cabinet heard of doubts about "whether he had displayed sufficient firmness".

Two senior Foreign Office officials were dispatched to report on the situation, followed by Britain's ambassador to the United Nations, Lord Caradon (Hugh Foot). Caradon told the Foreign Office: "Tony Lee should soon go on leave." He went, for good, on April 12.

The report from the two senior FOofficials, Galsworthy and Sewell, is a masterpiece of late colonial loftiness. It describes Anguillans as "suspicious, ignorant, fiercely independent and with a tradition of evading rather than observing the law". A capacity for self-deception made them "far harder to deal with than cleverer opponents".

Wilson's response, clearly suspecting that one of the reasons for worrying about the island was unfounded, was to ask "Where are the gangsters?" If there were any, the Metropolitan Police never found them. A "Caribbean Commission" with representatives of West Indian governments was asked to consider the question of Anguilla's future. The island was formally separated from St Kitts-Nevis in 1980. The two larger islands obtained full independence in 1983. Anguilla remains a British dependency.

* Tony Benn saves Concorde

"The minister of technology rejects the possibility of withdrawing from Concorde now," complained the prime minister's economics adviser on October 23 1968.

The technology minister was Antony Wedgwood Benn. The economics adviser was Andrew Graham, a 26-year-old at the start of a career in government and academic life that has taken him to the acting mastership of Balliol College, Oxford.

Benn was well disposed towards the supersonic aeroplane both as an enthusiast for technology - he noted it was the one area in which Britain had a sizeable lead over the United States - and as MP for the Bristol constituency that would be hardest hit if it were cancelled.

He was caught between the French, whose commitment to Concorde exceeded even his own, and cabinet colleagues desperate to get shot of it. In August 1968 the cabinet took the view that Concorde "should never have been allowed to start". They decided to seek "a strategy for future withdrawal".

Graham's memo noted that the project had never been justified on purely economic grounds and "future costs seemed to be rising faster than current expenditure". Noting worries over Concorde's projected payload, he speculated that the end product might be a plane "able to carry only its pilot".

What held the government back from cancellation was the development agreement with the French, inherited from the Conservatives in 1964. Elwyn Jones, the attorney-general, warned when the issue went again to cabinet in March 1969 that unilateral withdrawal was likely to lead to defeat in an international court.

Jack Diamond, chief secretary to the treasury, was all for pulling out anyway, arguing that the alternative was continuing to pour money into an uneconomic proposition. He questioned whether the French would sue.

Benn argued "that the aircraft should be given a chance to prove itself". He won the case for postponing a decision until the end of 1969. Returning to the debate in December, Benn could point to encouraging test results - although the aeroplane's economic prospects looked as gloomy as ever.

By obtaining a commitment for six more months, Benn unwittingly took the issue out of Labour's hands. By the end of June 1970, the Conservatives were in power.

* Organ transplant decision

Organ transplants were a comparative novelty in the late 1960s, and so were the ethical problems that went with them.

The Wilson government set up an advisory group on "transplantation problems" - and disliked the answers it got. The 11-strong group divided on the issue of whether organ donation should be on the basis of contracting out - organs would be made available "unless a potential donor had indicated unwillingness" - or contracting in, whereby the donor must have given prior permission.

The majority opted for contracting out, subject to strict safeguards.

The cabinet received the report on July 10, 1969 together with the view of its social services committee that it was doubtful whether the majority report could be implemented "at present". It concluded that the public would find the contracting-out model "wholly unacceptable".

If the cabinet had welcomed the report, a version of it would have been published as a white paper, in preparation for legislation to amend the Human Tissue Act of 1961. Instead cabinet decided "the advice should be published in a form that made it clear it was notI government policy".

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