With undercover policing under the spotlight, these operations will continue with extra efforts to hide them from public scrutiny writes NICK WRIGHT in the Morning Star
THE Spycops inquiry, more properly the Undercover Policing Inquiry, continues to let slip an occasional nugget from the mountainous, if heavily redacted, pile of documents introduced into evidence.
The focus of the inquiry is the investigation of a long period of undercover infiltration into more than a thousand political groups.
The starting date is 1968 and the attention is on two Metropolitan Police units, the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS) and the National Public Order Intelligence Unit (NPOIU). This reflects one aspect of the secret state’s anxieties as the post-war period of growth began to falter while the freeze on politics that the cold war imposed was beginning to melt.
Intelligence gathering was the principal function of these units and they deployed over a thousand officers in a new and wide variety of target organisations.
This expansion took the work of Britain’s archipelago of secret police structures beyond its surveillance and interference in the Communist Party, in industrial disputes, internal trade union struggles and Irish republicanism and its routine counter-intelligence functions.
In as far as public order and demonstrations offered a threat to the stability of the state these intelligence-gathering functions were complemented by the creation of police public order units charged with buttressing the routine policing of street events.
The brutality of these units became a scandal when, in 1974, Warwick University student Kevin Gately was killed on an anti-National Front demonstration.
The demonstration was organised by Liberation, formerly the Movement for Colonial Freedom. It was here that I gained an insight into the relationship between police intelligence gathering, political action and public order. I had been working full time for Liberation and its key London organiser, Kay Beauchamp, asked me to arrange the security in a rear section of the march.
Possessed of a deceptively mild manner and acute political judgement (she had been the sole woman among the team that established the Daily Worker in 1930) she brought great experience as a key organiser in the anti-fascist and post-war period.
Various Trotskyist and Maoist elements were refusing collective discipline — and some trade union people were anxious about this. Our intelligence was that a provocation was planned and Kay asked me to maintain a discreet cordon sanitaire.
The procession — headed by a police control vehicle and the London Co-op loudspeaker van — entered Red Lion Square and turned right, away from a dense police cordon guarding the short street entrance to the National Front meeting to conduct its open air meeting as agreed with the police.
A tail end contingent then entered the square, linked arms — possibly the most perfomatively stupid thing to do when getting into a fight with the police — and charged the police lines. To confront the police the charge had to wheel left. Inevitably this meant its momentum was weakened and as it collided with the police line it was swiftly broken up.
The police foot detail easily absorbed the charge and the mounted police set about the crowd.
From my viewpoint it was clear that the police knew exactly what was going to happen and timed their actions with precision. That is how Kevin Gately died of a head injury sustained in those brutal moments.
These events and the subsequent Scarman inquiry are brilliantly detailed in Only One Died by Liberation’s general secretary Tony Gilbert. When the amateurish bravado of the rag-tag-and-bobtail of Maoists and Trotskyists met the carefully choreographed actions of the police nothing went exactly according to plan.
Unless, that is, agents provocateurs among the demonstrators were deployed with that intention and/or the police wanted to blood their new Special Patrol Group.
The weak rationalisations of the police commanders collapsed under sharp cross examination and they finished up blaming each other for their inevitable mistakes of omission and commission. Lord Scarman, predictably, found no-one responsible for Kevin Gately’s death. The scene was set for further deaths at the hands of the riot police.
Star readers will know from the excellent reporting by Bethany Rielly and Ceren Sagir that the present spycops inquiry is looking at the situations where undercover police infiltrated and subverted various groups and movements, stole the names of dead children, created fake identities to support their cover stories and deceived women into intimate relationships.
The trail of damaged lives and the emotional damage that ensued has put undercover policing under a spotlight. The courage and tenacity of the women involved and the revelation that the criminal justice system was corrupted with the police concealing evidence means that these kinds of operations will continue with extra efforts to hide them from public scrutiny.
Among the interesting documents that have surfaced in the inquiry is the weekly timetable of an induction course for Special Branch officers.
Day one starts with the usual courtesies and and sessions on the role of regional Special Branches and the Metropolitan Special Branch and a scary introduction into the Threat from Subversion.
A session on the Communist Party is supplemented by one on Subversion in Industry.
Our dedicated public servants get a crash course in Trotskyists, anarchists and the quaintly entitled Subversion in the UK Coloured Community before breaking for drinks parties.
Soon they are on to Soviet Bloc subversion and eurocommunism, international communist front organisations, international politically motivated terrorism and liaison arrangements within the EU.
Regional Special Branches and the big daddy Metropolitan Police SB are the foot soldiers and bag carriers of the Security Service — as MI5 (Military Intelligence, Section 5) is known — because, as police officers, they have the power of arrest which officers in the Security Service don’t.
Extensive though are the activities of police Special Branch officers most strategic direction and much of the task-setting of Britain’s secret police empire is located more in the security architecture of the central state apparatus rather than the police.
MI5, like MI6 — the Secret Intelligence Service — is under the direction of the Cabinet Office’s joint intelligence committee (tellingly a 1936 offshoot of the committee on imperial defence) and is subject to oversight of a kind by the Commons joint intelligence committee. This is chaired by the Tory MP Julian Lewis who, I am told, fancies himself as something of an intelligence service intellectual although not everyone takes him at his own estimation.
Lewis started his political career as a student entryist into the Newham Labour Party in an operation to counter left-wing opposition to the sitting MP Reg Prentice. Prentice defected to the Tories and Lewis emerged as a Tory and has subsequently carved out a career as a cold war prima donna.
Cambridge history professor Christopher Andrew, the in-house historian of both MI6 and MI5, makes the point that the distinctions between strategic and tactical intelligence are rather blurred. His authorised histories, Secret Service and Defence of the Realm, are useful if highly selective introductions to the obsessions of our ruling class, the scale of its secret police operations and to the legends with which they explain the world.
Naturally, tensions exist between Britain’s domestic, counter-intelligence and foreign intelligence bureaucracies and always have done. In the interwar years — when capitalist crisis made class politics particularly intense — MI5 made a grab for a bigger slice of the domestic pie and its anti-communist obsessions reflected the British state’s eternal perception that the workers’ movement was both the the enemy within and without.
It is also worth remembering that pre and post war MI5 was not an exclusively domestic operation but was active in the colonies where insurgencies threatened British imperialism.
The novelist John Le Carre spied for MI5 on fellow students at Oxford. This was before becoming a teacher at Eton. He recounts how — before his transfer to foreign intelligence — his duties included attending the funerals of those among the state’s long-standing MI5 assets within the Communist Party who had died in harness and apparent good standing with the party.
In 1956 a Privy Council report revealed just how wide was the remit of the secret police: “One of the chief problems of security today is thus to identify the members of the British Communist Party, to be informed of its activities and to identify that wider body of those who are both sympathetic to Communism or susceptible to Communist pressure and present a danger to security.”
Just recently the Stop the War Coalition’s indomitable convener Lindsey German — for years a leader of the Socialist Workers Party — gave evidence at the spycops inquiry. Documents submitted in evidence illustrate the obsessive detail of the surveillance that she underwent.
We now know that high levels of surveillance were extended to everything from animal rights activists to anti-nuclear campaigners.
This outrages people but secret police surveillance and subversion is responsive to whatever threats our ruling class and its functionaries perceive as important. In the end, in the face of overwhelming popular action, it becomes simply the means by which our rulers come to understand how their system is unravelling.
Nowadays the labour-intensive work of mapping the political and social connections of the left, the labour movement and a great range of campaigning organisation is much easier for the secret police. With Facebook the data entry work is done by the left itself.
If Keir Starmer’s praetorian guard (and Israel’s assets in Britain) can spend hours trawling Facebook and Twitter in their hunt for the unwary so can the state.
It is important to keep a sense of balance. All states have such systems to defend their social order and these develop in response to the nature of the perceived threat and include a close monitoring and manipulation of the far right.
But the secret police are useful right up to the moment when they cease to be — when the ruling class can no longer rule in the old way and the people are unwilling to be ruled in the old way