Spycops: When the public is the enemy

PAUL HERON, Legal Director at the Public Interest Law Centre, and a member of the Socialist Party, was one of the lawyers representing three core participants in Tranche One of the recent Undercover Policing Inquiry. Below he outlines his views on its conclusions – both the realities it recognises and its stark omissions.

For more than four decades, the Metropolitan Police (MPS), the Security Services, the government, and the British state maintained a veil of silence regarding political policing. They concealed from public scrutiny the system of state-sponsored surveillance carried out by British police officers. The endorsement of political policing extended to the highest echelons of government.

The discovery of this level of political policing is owed to the courageous women – mainly grouped in the organisation Spies Out of Lives – who were deceived into engaging in intimate relationships with undercover officers (UCOs). Their unwavering determination and advocacy compelled Theresa May to announce a public inquiry in 2015, which has begun to lift the veil of secrecy. Shamefully, UCOs infiltrated campaigns advocating for family justice, a grievous violation of trust and privacy. To compound the scandal, UCOs were deployed to spy on the Stephen Lawrence Family Campaign, exacerbating the sense of betrayal and injustice.

The Undercover Policing Inquiry (UCPI) concluded Tranche One (covering 1968-1982) on 22 February 2023. It has set a target to finalise and complete its investigations by 2026. So far, the disclosure accompanying the live testimony from non-state Core Participants (CPs), UCOs and police managers has begun to expose a colossal scandal.

The Inquiry Chair released an Interim Report based on the findings from Tranche One on 29 June 2023. In this tranche of the inquiry, alongside colleagues Piers Marquis of Doughty Street Chambers, and James Scobie KC of Garden Court Chambers, I represented Lindsey German, a former leading member of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and a founder of the Stop the War Coalition. ‘Mary’, a member of the International Marxist Group (IMG) and a supporter of workers’ rights. She was deceived into a sexual relationship by a UCO. Finally, Richard Chessum, who was an activist in the Troops Out Movement.

However, my involvement in the Inquiry began further to instructions received by Lois Austin and Hannah Sell – both leaders of Youth against Racism in Europe (YRE) and also former MP Dave Nellist. All three are members of the Socialist Party and will give evidence in later tranches.

Tranche One

Tranche One of the Inquiry covers the years 1968 to 1982. In our submissions to the Inquiry we argued that the Metropolitan Police established the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS) in July 1968 as a direct response to the growing anti-war movement in Britain concerning the war in Vietnam. In that same year, the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign (VSC) organised two significant demonstrations in March and October. There is no doubt that the first demonstration caused alarm amongst leading police officers, senior civil servants, and those in the Cabinet.

The disclosed documents from the Inquiry show that undercover officers were deployed to attend VSC meetings. Their role involved attending, then discreetly observing from the back, taking notes, and relaying information to their Metropolitan Police managers. The monitoring of the VSC continued as it prepared for the subsequent major anti-war demonstration in October 1968.

However, as our submissions illustrate, the Security Services were taking an interest in the work of the SDS as early as August 1968. A document dated 2 August 1968 reveals that they already had an interest in the political policing. Meetings were subsequently held between MI5 and the Metropolitan Police to discuss “arrangements to cover the demonstration in Grosvenor Square on 27 October”. From this point, and throughout the 1970s, MI5 increasingly assigned tasks for the SDS, tasks relating to infiltrating campaigning organisations and hoovering up information. Regular meetings were held between police managers and MI5, enabling the latter to begin to dictate the deployment of undercover officers and specify who they should target.

The SDS, initially modest in size, expanded its influence and obtained funding from the Home Office during Harold Wilson’s Labour government. By the early 1970s, the SDS adopted a strategy of deep undercover operations, aiming to gather extensive information. Infiltration of organisations lasted up to four to five years. UCOs assumed the identities of deceased children to establish fabricated backgrounds and cover stories. The SDS’s annual reports provide clear details of the expenses incurred by UCOs for accommodation and vehicles, with government approval granted on a yearly basis. Between 1968 and 2008, the SDS successfully infiltrated and monitored over 1,000 groups, including political parties, anti-racist organisations, and peace groups.

There was a significant shift from the establishment of the SDS in 1968, to how it operated by the early 1970s. As we explained to the Inquiry, undercover officers began not only staying in organisations for years, they also began to take leading positions in those campaigns or political parties. However, it is noteworthy that despite this extensive documentation, there is a glaring absence of any information directly pertaining to public order concerns. Despite the SDS being established to provide information to prevent public disorder, this never materialised. As we, alongside other legal colleagues argued, the primary motivation behind infiltration was never truly about maintaining public order. Instead, it was a deliberate political choice made by the British state to undermine left organisations engaged in political campaigning.

Interim report

The UCPI published the Undercover Policing Inquiry – Tranche One Interim Report, on 29 June 2023. Two major arguments have been presented by the lawyers for the Metropolitan Police in defence of the operations conducted by the SDS. First, it was claimed that the SDS provided vital and detailed information to prevent public disorder. Secondly, it was argued that the SDS supplied essential and detailed information to counteract ‘subversive’ activities by groups and individuals purportedly seeking to overthrow the government.

The Interim Report dismisses both of these arguments. Regarding the prevention of public disorder, the report clearly states that the deployments of undercover officers made minimal contributions to policing public order. In fact, only a small percentage of the reports (approximately 8% between 1975 and 1978) addressed matters that could be loosely associated with public disorder. Even in those cases, the assistance provided by the SDS was negligible. Ultimately, the report concludes that the actions taken by the SDS were unjustifiable, as the desired outcomes did not outweigh the means employed.

Regarding the allegation of ‘subversion,’ the Interim Report concludes that hardly any groups posed a genuine threat. The Chair of the report holds the opinion that out of the numerous infiltrated groups, only three could be considered to have met the aforementioned criteria – Provisional Sinn Fein, along with two unnamed groups that were discussed in closed hearings. Consequently, it can be inferred that none of the non-state, non-police Core Participants fulfilled the required criteria.

During Tranche One Richard Chessum and Lindsey German testified. Both individuals were involved in activism and campaigning during the 1970s and were subjected to surveillance, resulting in extensive files being opened on them. Not only were those actions of the SDS completely unjustified, we are deeply concerned that Richard’s case led to his blacklisting. We are disappointed that at this stage the Interim Report has stayed silent on his blacklisting specifically, and the issue of blacklisting generally – which we had raised in our submissions to the Inquiry.

On behalf of our clients, we presented arguments stating that the highest-ranking officials within the Metropolitan Police, Home Office, and Security Services were fully aware of illegal and unethical practices by no later than 1975. These authorities were well aware that the justifications put forth regarding public order and subversion were non-existent. It is worth noting that the Security Services and senior officers of the Metropolitan Police were aware that undercover officers – such as ‘Rick Clark’, who infiltrated the leadership of the Troops Out Movement and created a state of paralysis in the group – would engage in activities that inevitably destabilised organisations.

Political motives

The Interim Report stays largely silent on the taking of positions by undercover officers. This in our view is a major weakness. There can be no argument against the fact that there was a fundamental change in strategy by undercover officers – they began to take positions in the organisations, and we suspect this came from the top.

The Interim Report acknowledges that there was no justification, based on public order or subversion, for the SDS to exist. However, it not only continued to exist after its initial founding, but throughout the 1970s it expanded and thrived. The Inquiry must provide an explanation as to why the methods and practices of the SDS persisted during this period, and even beyond 1982. Our clients firmly believe that the only plausible explanation is that a deliberate decision was made at the highest levels for the SDS to continue to engage in surveillance, monitoring, and infiltration of socialists, anti-racists, and social justice campaigners for political and ideological motives.

We will continue to argue that the long-term strategy of the state was political policing, aimed at blacklisting individuals and groups, and creating a comprehensive database of files. No other explanations can suffice.

Trade unionists, socialists, anti-apartheid activists, communists, anti-racists, and individuals advocating the withdrawal of troops from Ireland were extensively monitored and documented by the SDS. Officers like Rick Clark willingly exploited and manipulated people, invading their personal lives and employing sexual tactics to enhance their own credibility. They abused friendships and subverted the efforts of genuinely dedicated activists.

It is important to note that Clark’s actions were not those of a renegade officer; they were sanctioned and directed from the highest echelons. All of his reports were forwarded to MI5. In a testimony provided to the Inquiry by ‘Witness Z’, MI5 confirmed that the impetus to investigate these organisations often originated from the prime minister and Whitehall.

In 1976, the government authorised the continued operation of the SDS. This authorisation was approved by Robert Armstrong, later known as Baron Armstrong of Ilminster, who held the position of cabinet secretary under Margaret Thatcher (from 1979 to 1987) and headed the Home Civil Service. Prior to this, between 1970 and 1975, he served as the principal private secretary to two prime ministers, Edward Heath and Harold Wilson. The overall strategy was financed and overseen by a collective of state institutions, ranging from MI5 to Special Branch. The Home Office and the Foreign Office were also deeply involved in this endeavour.

Specifically, the Foreign Office provided funding for the Information Research Department (IRD), a unit dedicated to anti-communist propaganda and surveillance operations. Furthermore, the Foreign Office channelled funds into a front organisation known as the Industrial Research and Information Services (IRIS), which engaged in efforts to influence trade union elections. IRIS operated under the guise of conducting industrial research, while clandestinely pursuing political objectives.

The Inquiry Chair has failed to properly engage with the reason the SDS continued. If it was not there to deal with public order, or ‘subversion’, then what were the reasons? We say it was political policing. In our concluding remarks to the Inquiry we stated: “In their defence, the British establishment claimed to be defending democracy, but it was not a defence of democracy, it was the undermining of democracy in defence of the establishment”.