Police Spies Told a Minister Where Left-Wing Trade Unionists Go on Holiday

Politicians and campaigners say that the remarks confirm the long-held suspicion that police spying was sanctioned by the top levels of government.
Simon Childs
London, GB
March 19, 2021, 5:40pm
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British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Conservative Party Chairman Norman Tebbit, campaigning on the eve of the UK general election, 10th June 1987. Tebbit had previously employment minister in a previous Thatcher government (Photo by Georges De Keerle/Getty Images)

A minister in Margaret Thatcher's government in the 1980s has revealed that UK intelligence services used to brief him on where trade unionists would go on holiday.

The remarks are being seen as confirmation of a long-held suspicion that undercover police spying on trade unionists was sanctioned by the government.

Lord Norman Tebbit was employment minister under former British Conservative Prime Minister Thatcher from 1981 to 1983. Tebbit is fiercely anti-trade union, once describing striking workers as “red fascists”, and warned of the “threat from the Marxist collectivist totalitarians”.

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Tebbit, 89, left a UK parliamentary Zoom meeting about human rights abuses by undercover police officers on Tuesday “stunned” after he said that when he was minister, he received reports from senior Special Branch officers about union activists, including details about where union members went on holiday.

Tebbit also said that he held private meetings with a former General Secretary of the EETPU (the Electrical, Electronic, Telecommunications and Plumbing Union) to discuss how to tackle left-wing union members.

Questioned about the remarks by VICE World News, Tebbit said via email: “What I told the meeting was that certain leading trades unionists who said that they had taken holidays in Germany had in fact gone on from there to enjoy holidays in the Soviet Union.”

The activities of undercover police officers who spied on and infiltrated left-wing movements in the UK is the subject of an ongoing enquiry. Undercover police officers started relationships and even had children with left-wing activists, in order to gather information on them. Police also spied on trade union activists and supplied information to the Consulting Association, which kept a blacklist of alleged left-wing “troublemakers”, who found themselves unable to get work.

Labour MP Richard Burgon, who hosted the meeting, said: “I’m not surprised that that was the reality. I was surprised that Norman Tebbit turned up and let the cat out of the bag. Because what he revealed is that while he was at the very heart of the Thatcher government, he was receiving regular intelligence reports on trade unionists from Special Branch. He also revealed that he secretly worked with trade union leaders from the right-wing of the trade union movement, on gathering information on left trade unionists.

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“To Norman Tebbit this wasn’t a confession but a boast, really. As a key Thatcherite and top Tory he thought this was actually a good thing. I couldn’t disagree more with that.

“I’m certainly glad that this information has come out. Tebbit has openly confirmed what many of us have been alleging for many years.”

Chris Stephens MP, the Scottish National Party’s Westminster spokesperson on employment, was in attendance and said: “I think people were stunned. People were stunned he was there in the first place. It was a quite stunning admission but it just goes to show that evidence gathering did go to the highest levels of government.”

“I think this shows now that the inquiry needs to be extended, including whether government ministers sanctioned this kind of undercover policing, and obviously I want to see the inquiry extended to cover activity that took place in Scotland.”

Burgon and Stephens are among a group of MPs who are sponsoring a motion calling for the Undercover Policing Inquiry to be made open to the public and extended to Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Tebbit’s comments follow a week of heated debate about the extent of police powers in the UK. Proposed legislation would increase police powers, enabling them to ban protests that have an “impact”. The legislation would also create sentences of up to ten years for being “annoying”. Last weekend the Metropolitan police came in for severe criticism for arresting women at a vigil for murder victim Sarah Everard, a woman who went missing while walking in Clapham, south London, on the 3rd of March.

The government is also in the process of passing the covert human intelligence sources (criminal conduct) bill, which would give state agents freedom to commit serious crimes as part of their undercover activity.

Apsana Begum MP who was also in attendance at the Zoom meeting this week said that Tebbit’s remarks were made as a defence of undercover policing. “He was concerned from the other end that, ‘why should there be such a push back [against undercover policing]?’,” she said. “He was making a case of defence in my view. He was confirming it in a way with disregard.”

Begum said that the police’s behaviour was, “a real betrayal I think, but it doesn’t surprise me.”

“I do think it’s important as part of the inquiry that some former heads of security services and even some former senior politicians answer to some of the goings on behind closed doors. Of course [security services] work on political direction in terms of what’s on the government’s agenda but this was going much beyond that. It’s treacherous. It completely undermines some of the fundamental pillars of what should be in a democratic society.”