Government ministers backed the “penetration” of left-wing campaign groups by undercover police officers pretending to be activists for years, according to documents released at the inquiry into the decades-long practice.
A succession of Labour and Conservative Home Secretaries agreed to the secret police plan, which was driven by a fear of “revolutionary movements”.
In 2011 activists and journalists exposed undercover officers who had spent years infiltrating hundreds of left-wing groups. The “undercover” police officers spent months, or even years, pretending to be political activists. Many tricked women into long term relationships in their “undercover” identities. Some even fathered children before disappearing back into the police. Revulsion at this behaviour, and at their spying on the Stephen Lawrence campaign, led to a public inquiry, that finally started last month.
Among the thousands of documents released by the much delayed Undercover Inquiry can be found the revelation that right from its inception in 1969, the Home Office approved the plan. Government ministers were fully informed of the activities of the Special Demonstrations Squad (SDS), reading about its activities with approval and agreeing to its ongoing funding.
The SDS was part of Special Branch, the police organisation originally set up to deal with terrorism, but which also ran “political” policing and ran spying operations on campaigners. The documents lay bare the reactionary attitudes that informed the controversial police tactics, with the police viewing the Women’s Liberation movement, children against caning, trade unionists wanting higher pay or Black people looking for justice as somehow suspicious and dangerous.
The Undercover Inquiry has so far only published SDS annual reports from the 1970s. However, what we know of SDS activity since then shows the long-running squad was consistent in its tactics, infiltrating campaign groups with undercover police operatives.
“F.4” is the Home Office/MI5 unit dealing with “counter subversion”. A 1969 note from F.4 says that the undercover operation was set up to deal with the “threat to law and order presented by the new revolutionary movements” – the “Trotskyist, Anarchist and pro-Chinese” groups which were “responsible for demonstrations which could easily have erupted into violence along the lines of the Paris ‘revolution’ of May 1968”. In 1968 there was a wave of unrest across the world, including large, rowdy anti-Vietnam War demonstrations leading to confrontations in Grosvenor Square, near the US Embassy.
The note says the police tried to find out what was going on inside these new movements by using “informants, often with a criminal background, paid by results, and working essentially for mercenary motives or because of some hold exercised over them by the Police”.
However, blackmailing or paying criminals to inform on the radical groups didn’t work, so the police decided to disguise themselves as activists instead. They used the so-called “Hairy Squad” of police “disguised as militant characters and deployed to infiltrate the trouble-making revolutionary groups”.
Some of the most revealing documents are annual reports on the SDS. These were sent by the Metropolitan Police to Sir James Waddell, a top Home Office civil servant. The inquiry has released the first five annual reports into the SDS, from 1969 to 1974, and they show that the undercovers operation was fully understood and approved by the highest levels in the government and police, including the home secretaries of the time.
The covering letter for the 1971 annual report says the Metropolitan Police Commissioner “takes a personal interest in the activities of the squad” and asks for the “Secretary of State’s authority” – meaning the Home Secretary – to continue the work.
A page from an SDS annual report listing political groups that were infiltrated
In theory the spying was justified by the need to stop demonstrations descending into disorder. However, right from the beginning, there was mission creep. General intelligence on the left unrelated to supposed disorder on demonstrations became an ever-more valuable bonus.
The 1970 report says, “The culling of intelligence of interest to Special Branch and the Security Service by Squad officers either entrenched in extremist organisations or acceptable associates of them is a bi-product of increasing value.”
By 1972 these “bi-products” were becoming “of increasing value to police, the Security Service and other government departments.”
The documents show that from 1968 to 2011 the SDS spied on over 1,000 political groups, a staggering figure. The mission spread way beyond the revolutionary groups like the International Socialists or International Marxist Group. In the annual reports SDS boasted about spying on benefit Claimants Unions, Tenants Unions and campaigns against developers like the Battersea Redevelopment Action Group (BRAG). The annual reports show that the government approved of the spread of spying.
SDS spying was intense, creating detailed files on individuals. The 1972 report says “all the leading personalities and the majority of the rank and file of left wing extremism have now been identified, documented and photographed”. The report boasts about “the thousand or so meetings and demonstrations attended by the Squad annually” freeing up the many other Special Branch Officers who normally attended these events in plain clothes to take notes.
The squad began with about 20 officers, all men, based in a pair of secret flats. This was to hamper their activities, but the 1971 report announced that, “the arrival of a second woman officer has added considerably to the Squad's flexibility, and has proved invaluable in the comparatively recent field of ‘Women's Liberation'”. What the police called a “comparatively recent field” was a new wave of Women’s Liberation activism that burst into life in the UK in the 1970s, fighting for equal pay, better childcare, better access to contraceptives and abortion, and against the gross sexism of the time. The first “Women’s Liberation” march happened in London in 1971. The following year, feminist activists disrupted the sexist spectacle of the Miss World pageant.
A Text from an SDS annual report discussing the difficulties infiltrating Black political groups
A lack of diversity on the force also presented problems for infiltrating Black liberation groups. The very first annual report on SDS in 1969 says that “’Black Power’, and ancillary coloured organisations” were a key target. However, the SDS 1972 annual report, using offensive language that was commonplace at the time, complains that “coloured” organisations “because of their exclusivity, continue to be resistant to penetration, due to the shortage of ethnically qualified officers.”
The solution to this problem was to infiltrate campaign groups supported Black struggles but which included white people: “When such [Black] groups solicit the support of less racially selective organisations, for their demonstrations, however, they become immediately, if temporarily, more susceptible.” This was also a long-running tactic for SDS, which spied on the Stephen Lawrence campaign by using one of their white officers undercover in Youth Against Racism in Europe – a left-wing organisation offering support to the campaign.
The SDS were very worried about the potential for Black people to become more involved in left-wing politics.
The 1974 annual report considered “Future Activities”, said that “Fortunately for the police, the ‘ultra left’ has been somewhat inept at establishing a successful rapport with the coloured community, and amongst the coloured people themselves there is much disunity caused by political and ethnic reasons. Should these differences be overcome, a serious threat to public order could emerge, and events in this field are being closely watched by SDS.”
Police spying was shockingly widespread. Bizarrely, the 1972 list of “Organisations Penetrated” includes the Schools Action Union. This was a school kids’ protest group that demonstrated for the right not to be spanked, slapped or beaten with a cane by schoolteachers. SDS were worried the anti-caning kids were led by left-wingers and didn’t believe they were really protesting against corporal punishment. The SDS report says Schools Action Union support was “attributable to latent truancy” rather than a “genuine desire by many children to follow the teachings of Chairman Mao”. SDS spying did not stop the Schools Action Union having success. Following its protests, the Inner London Education Authority banned corporal punishment from primary schools in 1974, before it was banned nationally in 1986.
Fear of university student movements also runs through many of the
reports, which is unsurprising as SDS was formed in response to 1968’s student-led activism. The 1972 report warns that “Students too are showing greater signs of affinity with the workers” as “the economic situation is affecting the value of their grants and their chances of satisfactory postgraduate employment”. Students were a concern to the SDS because, “They are traditionally the least inhibited of demonstrators and because their campuses are sacrosanct and nationally widespread, they are not easy to identify.”
SDS also spied extensively on trade unionists, with government backing, according to the reports. The 1973 annual report warns, “The economic crisis and industrial unrest offer all the left-wing extremist groups clear opportunities for causing trouble as most of them are well aware” and that the growth of the left meant “even greater militancy in strikes and demonstrations can be expected”.
Many of the SDS reports reiterate this point. In 1974 the SDS report says, “Obviously the growing economic problems in this country will be seized on by the ‘ultra left’ as an ideal opportunity for them to further their skills at disruption, by strikes and anti-government demonstrations, and any attempt to legislate for more moderate wage increases, or indeed any form of wage restraint, will unite all sections of the militant left, including the Communist Party of Great Britain.”
There is considerable evidence that Special Branch shared files with a secretive employers group called the Economic League. This organisation kept a blacklist of files that big companies used to weed out “militant” trade unionists who fought for better safety conditions or higher wages from job applications. So the SDS’s activities may have forced some workers into unemployment.