Britain: Undercover Policing Inquiry – spying on socialists

Police surveillance (photo: Paul Mattsson)

Almost six years after it was set up, the first phase of the Undercover Policing Inquiry – the Mitting Inquiry – finally took place for fourteen days from 2 November 2020. An opening statement to the Inquiry was made by the legal team for three Socialist Party members.

The first tranche of the Inquiry covered the formation of the ‘Special Demonstration Squad’ (SDS) in 1968, then known as the Special Operations Squad, and its activities up until 1972. The next phase, covering from 1973–1982, is due to take place in the spring of next year. The Inquiry as a whole, chaired by the retired judge Sir John Mitting, is expected to finish as late as 2026.

Moving at a snail’s pace the Inquiry is also not very public. Unlike other recent public inquiries, the first phase was not live-streamed as demanded by core-participants. 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 received none of the police files relevant to them. The SDS reported to MI5, the domestic secret security service, but the latter’s actions are not part of the Inquiry.

Even so, for anyone wanting to understand the role of the police and other state agencies the Inquiry has already provided valuable material. The callous sexism of undercover officers’ behaviour has been starkly revealed. “If you ask me to infiltrate some drug dealers, you can’t point the finger at me if I sample the product”, was how one ex-undercover officer giving evidence attempted to defend the widespread and highly-abusive practise of spycops having relationships with women while undercover. The previous attempts of the Metropolitan Police to argue that this practise was not sanctioned from the top have been completely discredited. More than thirty women are known to have been deceived in this way, the earliest from 1975.

The intertwining of the SDS and blacklisting organisations, resulting in thousands of trade unionists being unable to work, has also been confirmed. The Consulting Association was a secret body of most major construction firms which kept a blacklist of thousands of construction workers. The police’s internal spycops investigation, Operation Herne, produced a report which concluded that police, “including Special Branches and the Security Services, supplied information to the blacklist funded by the country’s major construction firms, The Consulting Association”. Beyond the construction industry the Special Branch Industrial Unit was set up in 1970 “with the aim of monitoring trade unionists from teaching to the docks”. This was effectively a resource for employers: a government-funded national blacklist of trade union activists.

Most illuminating, however, is the central justification that the various police and state barristers gave for their actions.  About individual instances they are willing to admit – now – that many were pointless. The second woman to be recruited to the SDS, for example, wrote reports on the Women’s Liberation Front’s plans to bake for a children’s Christmas party and to hold a jumble sale. Both reports were copied to MI5 but, giving evidence to the Inquiry, the ex-spycop had to admit that her work had “not really yielded any good intelligence”.

Unconvincing attempts were made to deny that the SDS had ever set out to infiltrate black justice and family campaigns, often grieving the death of a family member at the hands of the police or racist gangs. They could not deny that they had been spied on, however – including Stephen Lawrence’s family. The Home Office described them as victims of “collateral collection of intelligence”.

Fear of revolution

But the right to spy on the left was vociferously defended. SDS was set up specifically in response to the anti-Vietnam war movement. Without exception the legal representatives of different state agencies justified this on the grounds of fearing revolution. As a barrister for the spycops put it, “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 Inquiry’s Queen’s Counsel (QC – senior barrister) concluded: “there were fears, in official circles, that the same was occurring in London and could grow out of hand”.

The SDS was founded as a result of fear of revolution and its brief was to counter “subversion”. The Inquiry’s QC pointed out that the security services at the time were functioning under the 1952 ‘Maxwell Fyfe Directive’ which declared that their job was to protect the country from “persons or organisations” that might be “judged to be subversive of the state”. He explained that the definition of subversive activities written into the Secret Services Instruction Manual, under which he claimed SDS operated, was “those which threaten the safety or wellbeing of the state and which are intended to undermine or overthrow parliamentary democracy by political, industrial or violent means”.

What would be the overthrow of parliamentary democracy by ‘political’ means? Clearly, as far as the security services were concerned, it included the policies of Militant (now the Socialist Party) which aims to build mass support for a socialist programme – meaning the nationalisation of the major corporations and banks that dominate the economy, allowing the development of a socialist planned economy allied to a massive extension of democracy.

Marxists point out that the capitalist state is not neutral but ultimately acts to defend the interests of the ruling class. The Inquiry confirms in every detail that this was the role of the SDS. Almost all of the organisations infiltrated by spy cops were on the left.

It seems that Militant, now the Socialist Party, was mainly spied on directly by M15, rather than the SDS. No doubt this was because we organised effective mass struggles that took on and defeated Thatcher’s government – including in the leadership of Liverpool city council and then spearheading the poll tax non-payment campaign. Whistle-blower David Shayler reported to the Socialist newspaper in 2001 that, when he first started working for MI5’s counter-subversion unit in 1992, Militant’s headquarters were bugged. In their book, Defending the Realm, partly based on interviews with Shayler, Mark Hollingsworth and Nick Fielding estimate that there were 30 MI5 agents within Militant in the same period. The exclusion of MI5 agents from the Inquiry means that nothing is likely to be revealed on their infiltration of Militant or other workers’ movement organisations.

Spycops in the Socialist Party

In addition, however, we also had our own ‘spycops’. The whistleblowing of one of them, Peter Francis, was one of the catalysts for the Inquiry being instigated. Starting in 1993 he infiltrated Youth Against Racism in Europe (YRE) and Militant over several years. As a result Lois Austin and I, then national officers of YRE, were granted core-participant status. In addition, Socialist Party member Dave Nellist is a core-participant – as a BBC documentary had already revealed back in 2002 that the West Midlands police spied on him, at the behest of M15, when he was the Labour MP for Coventry South East from 1983 to 1992. An edited version of our legal team’s opening statement to the Inquiry follows this article.

Correctly the statement makes demands on the Inquiry to “end all political policing” and for “a police force which is democratically controlled and accountable to the communities that they should be serving”. There is no prospect of this being the result of the Inquiry, however. The Opening Statement for the Metropolitan Police declared that “undercover policing continues to be a vital and sometimes the only way of combating crime and protecting the safety and security of the general public”. Their lawyers attempted to disguise the reality of this statement by referring to the role of undercover policing in combatting crimes including “drugs dealing, firearms dealing, contract killing” and more. This was a complete diversion as even they do not attempt to accuse the organisations 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.

The real meaning of the Met Police position was clear from what followed, where their QC highlighted the Covert Human Intelligence Sources Bill, the ‘Spy Cops Bill’ currently in parliament, and specifically that it allowed spying for the purposes of “preventing disorder, or in the interests of the economic wellbeing of the United Kingdom”. The bill does not only give legal cover for spying by state agents in general but would also explicitly protect them if they commit crimes while undercover.

The QC for the Home Office followed up by declaring that “subversion was a real phenomenon in the 1970s and 1980s, and it is still a real phenomenon now”. Referring to the past, he went on: “It follows from the fact that the main threat to public order resided with political and protest groups and that the main source of subversion was political and protest groups that there was a great deal of overlap between the work of the SDS and MI5”.

It is very clear that, as far as the Home Office and the Metropolitan Police are concerned, it remains justified to infiltrate organisations because they organise mass protests, or strikes, that threaten the profits – or ‘economic wellbeing’ – of sections of the capitalist class, or more broadly because they are popularising a socialist programme.

It is true that – while defending their right to continue spying on the left – the lawyers for various state agencies also argued that after the collapse of Stalinism, the “far left became of less interest to MI5 and the SDS”. Defending the Realm also says that MI5 infiltration of Militant and other socialist organisations decreased markedly from the mid-1990s. It is probably true that, in the period of capitalist hubris that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, their temporary confidence in the seeming triumph of their system did lead to a lessening of their fear of the left.

That era is long past, however. Capitalism is in its worst crisis since the 1930s. Discontent at the existing order is on the rise and with it a growing interest in socialist ideas. There is no doubt that, among the tools the capitalist class uses to defend its system, spy cops and their ilk will continue to feature. As in the past, however, they will ultimately be able to do nothing to stop the growing success of the socialist movement but, by reporting on it, will only increase the fears of their masters that their system’s days are numbered.

The following are extracts from the Opening Statement by James Scobie QC (Garden Court Chambers), Piers Marquis (Doughty Street Chambers) and Paul Heron (Public Interest Law Centre) on behalf of Dave Nellist, Lois Austin, Hannah Sell, Richard Chessum and ‘Mary’. The full statement can be found at

The bulk of the tactics that have outraged and disgusted society to the extent that this Inquiry had to be called, were being used as far back as 1975. They were not aberrations. They have repeated time and time again. They were systematic and systemic.

Lois Austin and Hannah Sell helped set up Youth Against Racism in Europe; a campaigning group aimed at a united response to racism and racist violence. It was a mass protest movement, advocating peaceful change, combating racism with socialist ideas rather than violence and campaigning around the concept of ‘jobs and homes, not racism’. A significant part of their campaign was against the British National Party (BNP) in Tower Hamlets and South East London. In the latter, the BNP set up their headquarters in Welling. They began recruiting locally, even outside of schools, and the incidence of racist attacks increased significantly and escalated in severity. In February 1991 Rolan Adams was murdered. In July 1992 Rohit Duggal was murdered. In April 1993 Stephen Lawrence was murdered. That is real crime that needed to be prevented. That is a job for the police.

YRE campaigned to close down the BNP Welling headquarters, lobbying the local council and organising large demonstrations to show that the violence and racism was not acceptable and that the closure of that office had widespread public support. It was in this context that they were infiltrated by the Undercover Officer Peter Francis.

Peter Francis’s deployment lasted for five years. It started within YRE but followed Hannah Sell and Lois Austin over the years into Militant Labour. Francis was followed into Militant Labour, which was by then known as the Socialist Party, by another officer, Carlo Neri.

Tactically, Francis and Neri followed the SDS playbook to the letter. They used the whole array of dirty tactics that had been in play for at least 20 years.

Agent provocateurs

But where they were fundamentally different to Rick Gibson [an earlier spy cop] was their willingness to encourage and even engage in criminality. Hannah Sell and Lois Austin, within YRE, argued that defeating racists and fascists was a political task, that needed patient campaigning in working-class communities. YRE was prepared to defend itself against attack from fascists, and on occasion had to do exactly that. But the group’s aims and methods were political.

Peter Francis, on the other hand, repeatedly tried to persuade YRE activists to engage in violence with fascists. He encouraged activists to attack others, not only in direct opposition to the ethos and aims of YRE but also completely contradicting the stated aims of the SDS and the purpose of the police force that is supposed to protect us.

A few years later in 2003, Carlo Neri took things much further than Peter Francis had ever done. He took anti-fascist members of the Socialist Party to show them a charity shop in West London, that was being used as a front for raising money for fascists.

He told them that it was owned by a well-known Italian fascist, who had been convicted in his absence in Italy for being a member of the political wing of the Armed Revolutionary Nuclei, a fascist terrorist group. That group was implicated in the Bologna bombing of 1980, which killed 85 people. The shop was on a residential street. On more than one occasion Neri suggested that they firebomb the premises. Burn it down. Not only were these undercover police officers encouraging crime, they were [unsuccessfully] encouraging serious crime.

Francis and Neri infiltrated and interfered with Militant Labour and the Socialist Party, which we say is the tip of the iceberg. Bearing in mind the leading role of Militant supporters in Liverpool city council, the poll tax campaign and anti-racist campaigns, we contend that political policing by SDS and MI5 was sanctioned at the highest levels.

This political interference goes back historically at least to the mid to late 1980s. Dave Nellist was the Labour Party Member of Parliament for Coventry South East from 1983 to 1992. He was always, avowedly, a socialist member of the Labour Party. He was a constituency MP who was well known for his support of the Militant newspaper and a member of the Socialist Campaign Group, of Labour MPs, which included Jeremy Corbyn, Tony Benn and Dennis Skinner.

He was thoroughly committed to his constituents, spending a significant part of his time in his constituency concentrating on local issues. Alongside that local commitment he nevertheless managed to maintain one of the highest voting records in parliament, throughout his nine years as an MP. It was widely known throughout his time in parliament that he only retained part of his MP’s salary for himself and his family. Every year he lived off the average wage of a skilled worker in Coventry. The rest of his salary was donated to the labour movement and to socialist causes.

He organised the opposition to increases in MPs’ pay, forcing a vote in July 1987, arguing that Members of Parliament should live at the same standard as those they represented: 36 MPs voted against the pay rise, whilst more than 400 voted for it. Eventually, in 1992, he was expelled from the Labour Party as a result of his dedicated opposition to the poll tax and his support of the estimated 14 million people who could not or would not pay that tax. His constituency party was suspended and another Labour candidate was imposed on Coventry South East. Ironically that was the year that he was awarded the ‘Backbencher of the Year’ Award by the Spectator.

MI5 contacted the West Midlands Police Force and having been tasked to infiltrate Militant they targeted Dave Nellist. We know this only as a result of the police admissions on a documentary programme, True Spies, broadcast back in 2002. An agent supposedly tasked to infiltrate Militant, in fact ‘cultivated’ Dave Nellist, getting close to him, helping him and accompanying him to meetings. The clear inference is that an undercover officer was planted within his Labour Party constituency office.

This is not the only example of M15 operating covert surveillance of organisations within which Militant supporters had won elected positions. When cabinet papers from 1984 were released under the thirty year rule they revealed that Cabinet Secretary Lord Armstrong, at the behest of M15, presented a paper expressing concerns about the election of Militant supporters in the civil servants’ trade union, CPSA.

The result was the establishment of the Orwellian-sounding ‘Interdepartmental Group on Subversives in Public Life’, with prime minister Margaret Thatcher recorded as stating that the civil service should be “very ready to sack subversive trouble makers”. This was government-sanctioned victimisation of democratically elected trade unionists. Meetings of the Interdepartmental Group were attended by the Metropolitan Police Deputy Assistant Commissioner and officials from the security services.

Who decided?

As for Dave Nellist: at what stage did the Security Service and the police start to work so closely together that MI5 was asking the West Midlands Police to infiltrate a serving Member of Parliament? How were the West Midlands Police in such a position as to be able to manage that kind of a deployment? This Inquiry has prioritised questions in respect of the London based SDS. But the West Midlands Police were able to put an officer into an MP’s constituency office. They were spying on one of their own elected representatives.

This goes beyond the SDS. Political policing was taking place nationwide. How did this specific infiltration happen? The Chief Constable must have been asked. Who was that officer accountable to? How could such an assault on democracy be sanctioned without asking high authority? What authority? Did the West Midlands write to the Home Office for authority in respect of this ‘request’? If not, why not? Is it really conceivable that they did not? Which Home Secretary did they ask? Between 1983 and 1992. Was it Leon Brittan? Douglas Hurd? David Waddington? Kenneth Baker? Who was it?

And how could a Home Secretary endorse this kind of policing, without recourse to the prime minister? Is it really credible in any way that this could be the work of a ‘rogue’ or ‘maverick’ minister of state, without the highest authority being engaged? And this brings us to the key question in this Inquiry. How high did this go?

We know that at its conception the SDS was authorised and funded by the Home Office. We know that there was clear concern from the outset that the existence of the squad could cause “acute embarrassment” for the Home Secretary. The Home Office needed assurance that a “careful watch” be kept to “guard against disclosure”. In 1969 Commander Smith of Special Branch wrote: “The Home Office view may be that the exceptional methods as practiced by the Squad are only justified in special circumstances when the importance of the product outweighs the political danger run by the government should its existence and methods of operation be officially exposed”.

There was clear recognition of Home Office, and government, involvement. And there was clear recognition that the government was terrified of exposure. We also know from the witness statement of ‘David Robertson’, that Special Branch would go to extreme lengths to make sure that responsibility for the unit was never discovered. When his deployment was discovered by campaigners, the fear of exposure within the Metropolitan Police was so extreme that both the Head of Special Branch and the Deputy Commissioner went to speak to him in person. They instructed him to say that he was acting “completely off his own bat”. You carry the can.

Are we really going to be told that all of this was off the officers’ own bats? Thus far, the disclosure from the Inquiry has consisted of material from police files only. On the face of it, there have been no internal government documents sourced from government files, provided to us.

Inquiry or cover-up?

This Inquiry has access to more than any campaigner could ever have access to. It can be done. The question is: will it be done? And so far, the indications are that it will not be. It has been five years since this Inquiry was announced. Our core participants in the later tranches have not received a single statement or a single page from the police files that were kept on them.

This spying was conducted on an industrial scale. But how many of these individuals have been contacted and told that they were direct or indirect targets of undercover policing? How many have been asked for their accounts? We cannot ask them; we know who some of them are, but for us to have even have had sight of the material in the first place we have had to sign Restriction Orders preventing us from disclosing their contents. How is this an open Inquiry, seeking to get to the truth of what we contend are state crimes committed over decades, on its own people? We have not even been told the names and number of groups that were targeted. We have had documents provided with names of organisations blacked out. How can the public get any idea of the magnitude of what is state-sanctioned criminality and gratuitous abuse of its powers?

If the democratic rights of ordinary citizens are to be protected, this Inquiry has to go further than that. It has to concentrate on the victims; properly include them, provide them with the material and representation that they need to be able to genuinely assist.

It has to behave in an objective, open and democratic way. Otherwise it is simply mirroring the approach taken by the state and the SDS. It has to genuinely deal with accountability. It has to properly investigate where and with whom the responsibility lies. It has to delve into the state’s fear of discovery. It has to ensure that it does not end up like the superior officers of ‘David Robertson’, trying to find a way to make the foot-soldiers ‘carry the can’.

And when it has concluded, we seek not just a condemnation of the methods, but an end to all political policing. For a police force which is democratically controlled and accountable to the communities that they should be serving.


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December 2020