The role and the background to police spy Peter Francis as revealed in the book Undercover: The True Story of Britain’s Secret Police.
Police spies are nothing new in the workers’ movement. Famously, prior to World War One, two of the six Russian Bolshevik deputies (members of the Duma parliament) were among numerous police spies that had infiltrated the party. This did not prevent the Bolshevik party leading the 1917 Russian revolution, in which the working class was able to take power for the first time.
Undercover: The True Story of Britain’s Secret Police, by Guardian journalists Paul Lewis and Rob Evans, exposes more recent attempts by the state to infiltrate socialist and radical organisations. It does not concentrate on analysing what took place, but gives a vivid description of it.
Protest outside Scotland Yard, 9.7.13, photo N Caffferky
It tells the story of the Special Demonstration Squad, a sub-division of Special Branch, formed in 1968 in response to the anti-Vietnam war movement. Funded directly from the Treasury with the ’enthusiastic’ support of Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson, its official role was to provide ’sufficient and accurate evidence to enable the police to maintain public order.’
Unlike other police squads, its task was not to collect evidence to be used in a police trial but to provide the state with information about potential ’civil unrest’; ie, any protest movement which the state considered a potential threat to capitalism, no matter how remote.
Its first target was the anti-Vietnam war movement, the second the anti-apartheid movement. It also targeted environmental and animal rights campaigns. The book reveals that at least one spy, ’Bob Lambert’, was believed by animal rights activists to have planted a bomb in their name.
Throughout the book it is clear that the spies also act as agent provocateurs, encouraging activists towards violent actions. In addition, some formed relationships and even had children with activists, with devastating consequences for the women affected.
In the 1990s the SDS had moved on to the mass movement of predominantly young people against racism. The racist murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence was one of four racist murders within two miles of the far-right British National Party (BNP) HQ.
Peter Francis (known to us as Pete Daley), one of the ten-strong SDS squad, infiltrated Youth Against Racism in Europe (YRE), a European-wide mass movement against racism. In October 1992 over 40,000 attended the biggest anti-racist, anti-fascist all-European demonstration ever, in Brussels, Belgium.
Youth Against Racism in Europe (YRE) protests outside Scotland Yard, photo Richard Newton
YRE also co-organised the 1993 50,000 strong demonstration to demand the closure of the far-right racist British National Party (BNP) HQ in Welling, south east London.
YRE was led by members of Militant Labour (now the Socialist Party) and Francis also infiltrated it, briefly becoming secretary of Hackney Militant Labour branch. Peter Francis is the only one of the SDS spies to have turned whistleblower, and the Undercover book therefore inevitably concentrates on his activities.
None of the activities organised by YRE or Militant Labour were secret, the police could just as easily have found out what we were planning by attending our public meetings! And police infiltration could not derail YRE. On the contrary, the anti-racist movement of the early 1990s succeeded in getting the BNP HQ shut down, and of reducing the BNP to a tiny rump organisation for the next decade.
However, it is interesting to read Francis’s comments, and those of other spies from the time, which indirectly confirm the correct approach YRE took on a number of issues.
Clearly, the brutality of the police against anti-racist activists shocked Francis. He states: "I also witnessed numerous acts of appalling police brutality on protesters. I became genuinely anti-police." In addition, he was impressed by the bravery of young activists in the face of that brutality.
Of the YRE stewards on the massive October 1993 anti-racist demo, which was viciously attacked by the police, he says: "I was pleasantly surprised by the balls they had, considering that some of them were injured."
The YRE-led stewarding of that demonstration prevented the police’s attempt to completely break it up, and potentially even prevented loss of life as thousands of people were crushed when they became trapped against a wall trying to escape police batons. Nonetheless, Undercover reports that 41 demonstrators were injured that day.
In the run-up to the demonstration there had been sharp disagreements on stewarding between YRE and the Socialist Workers Party-led Anti-Nazi League that co-organised the demonstration. YRE argued for mass stewarding, involving the trade union movement, with stewards linking arms to attempt to protect the demonstration from the police.
The ANL, by contrast, argued that stewarding was unnecessarily ’macho’ and that protesters should sit down in front of the police lines.
On the day many ANL stewards joined with YRE and adopted our tactics, as it was clear that they were the only way to try and protect the demonstration.
This disagreement has now been lost in the mists of time, but is briefly reflected in Undercover when it is reported that on the demonstration: "…There is another SDS officer in the Anti-Nazi League running backwards, calling on the crowds to go with him away, trying to get people to follow him… The ANL did not have the same reputation for street confrontations. It would have been out of character – and frowned upon – for Black’s SDS colleague to do anything other than try to lead his friends away from the violence."
But while Francis’s infiltration has led to an interesting book, and had no serious detrimental effect on the anti-racist movement, it did do serious damage to anti-racist activists.
It has already been revealed by the Guardian, to mass revulsion, that Francis tried to find ’dirt’ on the Lawrence family. Francis himself is clearly, to his credit, guilt ridden about the effect of his infiltration, particularly as he feels it affected the black justice campaigns that YRE took part in.
In the first seven years of the 1990s a total of 484, mainly black and Asian people, died following actions by the police. There were therefore countless families campaigning for justice after the death of their loved ones. Francis says: "By targeting the [black justice] groups I was convinced I was robbing them of their chance to find that justice."
Francis estimates that Special Branch already had around 100 files on members of Militant Labour and YRE, and that he opened another 25. One of those was Frank Smith, a construction worker and anti-racist activist. The Guardian has now revealed that the police passed that information straight to the construction companies. So as a result of campaigning against racism Frank was blacklisted and unable to get work in the construction industry.
This highlights very clearly that the police are not a neutral force, but are part of a state machine, which has the role, ultimately, of maintaining and defending the dominant interests of the capitalists.
We live in a society where a tiny number of giant corporations – around 120 – dominate the economy. The state plays a vital role in defending the rule of this tiny elite. This does not only apply to the police.
No one who has experienced Britain’s vicious anti-democratic, anti-trade union laws could doubt that the courts are used to try to prevent workers fighting in defence of their interests. Unelected high court judges are overwhelmingly drawn from the ’1%’ with over two-thirds of them educated at public schools. Even the minority that come from other backgrounds are thoroughly inculcated with the attitudes of the capitalist class.
Today, even more than in the 1990s, the most thinking section of the capitalist class is terrified of the potential for mass growth in support for socialist ideas, including of the Socialist Party. No wonder. Their system is in its worst crisis since the 1930s. The gap between rich and poor is at its highest level since World War Two.
In Britain the number of billionaires increased from 77 to 88 in the last year alone, while the average wage has fallen by over £3,000 a year in four years. Mass movements – like in Turkey and Brazil recently – will also erupt here.
Police infiltration is not a thing of the past. The SDS has been disbanded. However, it has been replaced by the National Public Order Intelligence Unit. According to Undercover each member of the Unit costs the taxpayer £250,000 a year.
It is essential that socialists campaign for a democratic workers’ inquiry into police infiltration of protest groups, along with the abolition of the Special Branch, the riot police, and all other repressive police units, alongside other demands for democratic rights including abolition of the anti-trade union laws. Books like this assist in revealing the real role of the state to a wider audience.
However, no amount of police infiltration of left-wing organisations will prevent future mass movements – they will take place because of workers’ and young people’s own experience of austerity and the inability of capitalism to meet their aspirations.
Such movements may start by simply expressing anger at capitalism, rather than seeing the possibility of a socialist transformation of society, but on the basis of experience there will be opportunities to win millions to a socialist programme.