Almost six years after its establishment, the public inquiry into undercover policing has finally begun. It was set up by Theresa May, then home secretary (interior minister), to head off growing pressure following a series of revelations about ‘spycops’.
Environmentalists exposed an undercover police spy – Mark Kennedy – in their ranks. He and others were revealed to have had relationships with women activists while undercover, even having children in some cases. These abusive and deceitful relationships caused great harm to the women affected.
Another spycop, Peter Francis, who infiltrated Youth Against Racism in Europe (YRE) and the organisation which led it, Militant Labour – now the Socialist Party – revealed what he had done and demanded a public inquiry. As his barrister put it in his opening statement to the inquiry, Francis became a whistle-blower because “the public have a right to know what is done in their name and paid for by their taxes”.
The inquiry is not, however, shaping up to meet Francis’s desire to let the public know what happened. It has not released the names of the big majority of the organisations spied on. Nor has it given us the real or even the cover names of the majority of spies. The ‘non-state core participants’ – those who were spied on – have, in almost all cases, still not received any of the police files relevant to them.
The inquiry reports that it has received over one million pages of documents, but less than 6,000 have been released to the core participants.
The Queen’s Counsel (British senior barristers) for both the inquiry and for the majority of spycops, point out that the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS) – the Metropolitan Police’s spycops organisation from 1968 to 2008 – was funded by the Home Office and reported to M15 (domestic spy agency), which benefited “greatly from the intelligence product” it secured.
Yet, many key documents on the links between the three bodies – for example from a 2014 report on the Home Office’s funding of SDS – are absent, presumably shredded.
Window on the state
Even so, for anyone wanting to get a glimpse of the racism and sexism that was rife, and also to understand the role of the police and other state agencies, now and in the past, the Inquiry has already provided valuable material
Oliver Sanders QC, representing 117 spycops, defended undercover policing as nothing new, and “its lawfulness was confirmed” as far back as 1833 by a parliamentary select committee. He did not add that the committee was responding to complaints about the early Metropolitan Police’s routine use of police spies and excessive force when dealing with ‘unlawful political assembly’.
The Met’s defence at that time was that they had employed the least intrusive and coercive methods necessary for the proper enforcement of laws and the maintenance of the public peace. Identical to Sanders’ defence 190 years later!
Back in 1833, the inquiry exonerated the Met of the charges. One of the first tasks undertaken by the newly legal police spies was infiltrating and reporting on a major strike by London tailors in 1834.
It is significant that in 1833, the role of police spies was openly discussed at a parliamentary select committee. At that stage, only one in seven adult men – and, of course, no women – had the right to vote. The franchise was limited to property owners who, via ‘watch committees’, went on to have considerable rights to demand the police acted in their interests.
When the working class won the vote, however, they did not win democratic control of the police or other state agencies. On the contrary, as the inquiry has already illustrated, the forces of the state continued to act, ultimately, in the defence of the capitalist elite. Many aspects of their work were, and are, shrouded in secrecy.
At today’s inquiry, the solicitor advocate for the Met explained the SDS had two central roles: “gathering intelligence for the purposes of preventing public disorder”, and “to assist the security service in its task of defending the UK from attempts at espionage and sabotage and from actions of persons judged to be subversive of the security of the state.”
Much emphasis was given on how spycops infiltration of protest groups resulted in demonstrations and protests being more peaceful. No evidence was given for this, however. On the contrary, the potential for violence on demonstrations was illustrated by pointing to two people killed on them in the 1970s – Blair Peach and Kevin Gately – without pointing out that both demonstrators were killed by the police!
In one of the countless examples, Peter Francis described how in 1993 he spied on YRE’s mass demonstration against the far-right British National Party. Far from leading to peaceful policing, that demonstration was savagely attacked by the Met.
In addition, the National Union of Mineworkers’ barrister gave evidence as to how state infiltration was just one aspect of the sustained onslaught that striking miners faced from the police and other state agencies during their year-long strike (1984-85): “11,313 miners were arrested… 7,000 injured, 5,653 put on trial, 960 dismissed from their employment and 200 imprisoned.”
The second role of the SDS, however, even more starkly reveals in whose interests they acted. It was founded in 1968, following an anti-Vietnam war demonstration outside the US embassy in Grosvenor Square, London, where 250 protesters were arrested.
Labour’s James Callaghan was Home Secretary at the time, and is reported to have been “very concerned about the October [anti-Vietnam war] demonstration”.
The QC for the inquiry summed up the reasons for SDS’s establishment as follows: “Our government was concerned about communism, particularly but, importantly for our purposes, not limited to, the Soviet version. The United States was deeply involved in an increasingly unpopular war in Vietnam”, and “that conflict was the subject of the mass demonstrations and public disorder on the streets of London which led to the formation of the SDS.
“Public disorder and discontent amongst students were widespread in Europe, notably in Paris. There were fears, in official circles, that the same was occurring in London and could grow out of hand. In far-left circles, some at least were hoping that it would do so. The Communist Party of Great Britain was not an instigator of mass protest. It was advancing its aims through a different strategy. We shall hear evidence that Maoist and Trotskyist groups were organising with determination, as were other groups, at a time of heightened political consciousness.”
Other barristers for the state also gave considerable emphasis to events taking place in France. The barrister for the Met, for example, stated: “In France, there was widespread civil unrest, with mass protests, general and wildcat strikes, industrial action, rioting and the occupation of universities and factories”.
The spycops barrister added: “1968 was marked by an upsurge in unrest and disorder: the Prague Spring and the subsequent Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia; near-revolution in France; student protests across Europe”.
The foundation of the SDS is uniformly justified by fear of the revolutionary events taking place in France – where ten million workers occupied the factories – and elsewhere, spreading to Britain. From the outset, its focus was overwhelmingly on infiltrating the left.
All of the eleven MPs known to have been spied on, for example, were in Labour and generally on the left. They included Dave Nellist, Socialist Party member and Coventry South East Labour MP (1983-92).
Also infiltrated were black justice and family campaigns, some of them grieving the death of a family member at the hands of the police or racist gangs.
Of the 1,000 organisations it is known to have infiltrated, only three are thought to be right wing.
To try and justify this to the inquiry, state barristers have so far used a mixture of diversionary hyperbolic lies and internally contradictory arguments. On the one hand, they argue spying is necessary in order to uncover serious crimes like sex trafficking, drug dealing and so on.
This is a complete diversion. Even they do not attempt to accuse the organisations the SDS infiltrated of being involved in such crimes, and undercover officers tasked with uncovering serious crime are part of another department not dealt with by the inquiry.
Then they argue that they were worried about a foreign power – the Soviet Union. Yet they are forced to recognise that the Soviet-backed Communist Party of Great Britain was not “an instigator of mass protest”.
Most of the groups they spied on were opposed to the Stalinist regime in the Soviet Union, and many were supporters of Leon Trotsky – who had been murdered on Stalin’s orders as a result of his intransigent opposition to Stalinism and his fight for workers’ democracy in the Soviet Union.
Finally, they fall back on arguing that those they spied on were in favour of some form of “totalitarian” alternative to “parliamentary democracy”.
This is a complete lie. For example, Militant, now the Socialist Party, which the inquiry barrister admits was spied on by MI5 as well as the SDS, then and now, argues for an enormous extension of democracy; calling, for example, for the abolition of the undemocratic House of Lords, for MPs to be elected for a maximum of two years and subject to recall by their constituents, and to receive a maximum salary commensurate to a skilled worker’s wage.
Their final straw man is that the past is another country, and what was done then is not relevant today, because “following the end of the Cold War” the “far left became of less interest to MI5 and the SDS”.
Yet this too is contradicted by their defence of a continued ‘right to spy’, including the Met’s barrister pointing to the ‘Spycops’ Bill currently passing through parliament, which would authorise state agencies “to participate in criminal conduct where the conduct is necessary and proportionate”, and pointing to “necessity for these purposes”, including defending “the economic wellbeing of the United Kingdom.”
What does this mean other than the ‘economic wellbeing’ of employers facing their workforce going on strike or, more broadly, growing support for socialist ideas that threaten the ‘economic wellbeing’ of Britain’s capitalist elite?
Despite the lack of information and the state barristers’ desperate attempts to disguise it, the reality that the SDS existed to defend the existing order – an order where a tiny minority own and control the main industrial and financial levers of society – came through loud and clear in the first week of the inquiry.
Those that were spied on were considered a potential threat to that order. Militant stood for, as does the Socialist Party today, the nationalisation – under democratic workers’ control and management – of the major corporations and banks that dominate the economy.
Militant was able to lead effective mass struggles that took on and defeated Thatcher’s government – including in the leadership of Liverpool City Council, and then spearheading the 18 million-strong poll tax non-payment campaign. This is what made us a target for the state.
Today, in a world where Britain’s billionaires’ wealth has increased by more than a third in the last year – while unemployment soars, and where there is growing discontent with the existing order – it is laughable to suggest that ‘political policing’ against the left has ceased.
For five years, until the start of this year, one of the left MPs that the SDS spied on was leader of the Labour Party – Jeremy Corbyn.
When he was first elected, Britain’s most senior general expressed his “worry” that Corbyn’s programme might ever be “translated into power”. And there can be no doubt that while the head or the army ‘worried’, other state agencies were spying.
In 2017, Corbyn’s radical programme led to the biggest increase in votes for any party in one general election since 1945.
Britain’s capitalist class was clearly terrified – not so much of Corbyn himself – but that if he won a general election, mass popular pressure could push his government into taking far-reaching socialist measures.
Corbyn has now been defeated, but new possibilities to build mass support for socialist ideas will again develop. Given the pro-capitalist right’s increasing stranglehold on the Labour Party, the development of a new, mass party with a socialist programme will be posed sooner rather than later.
Just as in the past, no amount of political policing will be able to prevent this. 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.
But this did not prevent the Bolshevik party leading the October 1917 Russian revolution, in which the working class was able to take power for the first time.
Nonetheless, the workers’ movement needs to fight for an end to all political policing, and for a police force that is genuinely democratically-controlled and accountable.
Despite its limitations, the spycops inquiry gives an opportunity to publicise the repressive role of state agencies during the last 50 years in acting to defend the existing capitalist order, and the measures they were prepared to take in order to do so.