Undercover cops have been repressing progressive movements for centuries
As the timid ‘inquiry’ into undercover policing abuses stumbles on, a charity called the Centre for Crime and Justice studies have been researching the history and logic of political policing in Britain.
They’ve just released two reports on the subject – one on the history of the secret state and one on how it upholds hierarchical social relations against movements of dissent.
Here’s ten things we learnt from the first of these reports, on the history of SpyCops
1- SpyCops go way back – In 1794, while the French Revolution was going on across the channel, the Home Office sent two agents to spy on the ‘London Corresponding Society’. They wanted all men to have the vote and, for such dangerous aims, were banned in 1799. Spies were used to repress strikes and working-class uprisings right through the 19th and 20th centuries all the way up to the Miners’ strike and perhaps beyond.
2 – SpyCops tried to undermine anti-colonial struggles – As early as the 1930’s, Special Branch was sending undercover cops to the speeches of future Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. The Irish were another early and frequent target. We would know much more about this if it wasn’t for…
3 – The British government systematically shredding documents on how it ran its empire – From the 1950’s to the 1970’s, the British government shred it’s documents before leaving its colonies. This was called Operation Legacy. Even as late as 1991-1992, 170 boxes of some of the most sensitive imperial papers were destroyed in Whitehall, possibly in anticipation of a Labour government being elected in 1992. One Royal Navy ‘sensitivity reviewer’ said in 2016 that he used to shred, double-shred and then burn documents. Every government department still has a sensitivity reviewer.
4 – The Official Secrets Act is ignored when it suits government- The report calls the Act “a draconian piece of legislation wielded freely to intimidate civil servants and state officials into concealing almost anything to do with intelligence and operations”. While it’s used to threaten whistleblowers, it’s ignored when civil servants want to write their memoirs or spin doctors want to leak to the press or Special Branch want to let a BBC film crew in to make them look good.
5 – SpyCops repressed the movement for ‘bastard pride’ – At the end of the nineteenth century, the Legitimation League tried to remove the stigma around children born out of wedlock. A Special Branch officer regarded this as a “vigorous campaign of free love and anarchism” and set out to destroy it. The League’s publication ‘The Adult’ was charged with obscenity and the group collapsed. As the report says: “From the start, undercover operations betrayed a concern with more than just a group’s supposedly violent potential.”
6 – The suffragettes were spied on and repressed – At the time it was battling the Independent Labour Party, anti-colonial movements and Bolsheviks, one head of Special Branch said that the suffragettes were “a more troublesome problem than all the rest put together”. By 1912, every single telegram of the Womens’ Social and Political Union was being intercepted. Even in 1948, 20 years after women won the equal right to vote, MI5 was still discussing ways to “muzzle the tiresome Sylvia Pankhurst”.
7 – Anti-racist campaigners have been repeatedly targeted – In the 1960’s, centres of black politics and culture like the Rio cafe and The Mangrove restaurant in London were repeatedly raided on unfounded claims of drug dealing. Black Power leader Obi B Egbunna was jailed after an informant passed some of his writings to the police. The report sees this arrest as an attempt to pressure the BBC to drop a documentary on police racism they were about to run. Campaigners against South African Apartheid were treated similarly. Leading campaigner and now Labour Lord Peter Hain had a deputy who was an undercover cop. Surveillance of Hain continued after he became an MP. The government spent 25 years trying to infiltrate and surveille the Anti-Apartheid movement. In the 1990’s, a policeman called Peter Francis was deployed to spy on the Stephen Lawrence campaign and to dig up dirt on the murder case’s key witness Duwayne Brooks. Seventeen other family justice campaigns were also targeted.
8 – Peace activists have also been targeted – During World War One, the Union of Democratic Control and its 650,000 members wanted a negotiated peace, parliamentary approval of any peace deal and international arms controls. For this, their leaders were surveilled, harassed and imprisoned and their printers were raided. Later on, in the 1960’s, leaders of a CND breakaway group called the Committee of 100 were jailed under the Official Secrets Act. Others were banned from demonstrating and on one march, 1,134 people were arrested. In the 1980’s, the CND itself was also targetted.
9 – Spies may have tried to keep the Labour Party out of government – The report says that the involvement of MI5 in distributing the infamous ‘Zinoviev letter’ is “largely undisputed”. This forged letter suggested a plot between a Soviet official called Zinoviev and the Labour Party. It was given to the press in the run-up to the 1924 general election which the Conservatives went on to win. In the 1970’s, the secret services may have been trying to undermine Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson. According to the report: “Wilson and his political inner circle were targeted for propaganda, surveillance and harassment. They suffered repeated burglaries, during which particular files would go missing but valuables were left untouched…Conversations held in private in Downing Street were being inexplicably leaked, fuelling suspicion of Security Service bugs, and a shadowy intelligence unit within Britain’s military apparatus in Northern Ireland worked overtime to spread malicious rumours about Harold Wilson, according to one army whistle-blower.Ultimately, as Lord Hunt, Wilson’s cabinet secretary who investigated the whole affair, would later say: ‘there is absolutely no doubt at all that a few, a very few, malcontents in MI5 … [were] spreading damaging, malicious stories about some members of that Labour government”.
10 – But in government, the Labour Party has also used spies – Under the first Labour government in 1924, the editor of the Communist Party of Great Britain’s (CPGB) newspaper was arrested for urging the military not to slaughter striking workers at home. The Attlee government in 1945, the report says: “intensified many aspects of Britain’s political policing and intelligence apparatus” in response to the CPGB’s growing popularity. Attlee even declared a state of emergency and deployed 12,000 troops during a CPGB-backed dockers’ strike. Academics like EP Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm were also placed under surveillance.
Joe Lo is a freelance investigative journalist and writes for Left Foot Forward. Follow him on Twitter here.Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by becoming a Left Foot Forward Supporter today.