Guardian columnist Paul Mason has picked up on former MI5 boss Stella Rimington’s admission that security services have spied on people who are now advisors to Jeremy Corbyn, the person likely to be the next prime minister.
Mason lists a catalogue of counter-democratic outrages by the Met’s Special Branch in the 1980s and 90s; undermining union disputes, spying on families of victims of racist murders, deceiving women into long-term relationships.
Then he boldly asserts
‘that world is gone. Corbyn, who himself was targeted by MI5 and Special Branch, could soon be prime minister. With the Human Rights Act, the creation of a Supreme Court and the operational policing changes in the aftermath of the Macpherson report, the legal framework around policing and intelligence has tightened.’
Where does he get this idea from? The Human Rights Act was passed in 1998 and the Macpherson report was published in 1999. Far from ending the era of political policing, they came just as it began a period of expansion.
The second major political policing unit, the National Public Order Intelligence Unit, was founded in 1999 to deploy the likes of Mark Kennedy and extend the worst of the spycops’ abuses. More spycops units were established in the 2000s.
Political policing has not ended. In 2013 HM Inspectorate of Constabulary explained that the old spycops units have been subsumed into the Met’s Counter-Terrorism Command (known as SO15), and that
‘All deployments of undercover officers which target the activity of domestic extremists are coordinated either by the SO15 Special Project Team (SPT), or by one of the regional SPTs’
There is no reason to think that the known abuses by political policing units have stopped.
In mentioning undercover officers deceiving women into intimate relationships, Mason links to a report on the recent letter from a group of them to the public inquiry. These women include those who were in relationships with officers as recently as 2009, far beyond his cutoff of 1999.
A LAW UNTO THEMSELVES
‘From top to bottom, the UK’s armed forces, security services and police are acutely aware of constraints on their activities by the rule of law.’
They have always been aware of these constraints, and duly ignored them. In 1969, a year after the Special Demonstration Squad was formed, the Home Office issued unequivocal instructions:
‘The police must never commit themselves to a course which, whether to protect an informant or otherwise, will constrain them to mislead a court in subsequent proceedings.’
Dozens of SDS officers were arrested whilst undercover, many of them multiple times. They infiltrated defendants’ meetings, gave false testimony to courts, and some were even prosecuted under their false identity. These actions fit most people’s definition of perjury and perverting the course of justice.
With only a small fraction of the officers exposed, we have already had 50 wrongful convictions quashed, many from the late 2000s. The true total could be in the thousands.
Many of these officers committed crimes, organised illegal activity and made a personality trait of mocking activists who weren’t prepared to participate in their plans. Compliance with the law was irrelevant to them.
Without supporting evidence, Mason instructs us to make a startling assumption.
‘The law enforcement culture that allowed undercover cops to perpetrate abuses is, we must assume, gone. Likewise, by implication, the culture that allowed MI5 to “destabilise and sabotage” an entirely legal trade union must be assumed to have gone.’
Undermining unions isn’t limited to MI5 and the specialist deep-cover units of the Met. The Independent Police Complaints Commission concede that every constabulary’s Special Branch illegally supplied information about political activists to the Consulting Association, a company who ran an illegal blacklist of construction workers.
Those on the blacklist were mostly targeted for their union organising, though others were on it for asking for proper personal protective equipment at work, or being spotted by police on environmental or anti-racist demonstrations.
The Consulting Association was active until it was raided in 2009 by the Information Commissioners Office. Although most major construction firms illegally used the list, none has faced any charges or even any censure beyond a letter asking them not to do it again. No police have been held to account. Why would they have stopped?
As workers – not only in construction but healthcare and numerous other sectors – can testify, blacklisting is clearly still going on. We know that the Met’s spycops unit still uses other blacklists of trade unionists and political activists. There is no reason to assume that the long-term, routine police collusion has suddenly ended.
TRUTH ISN’T PARANOIA
Mason cites undercover officers’ spying on Stephen Lawrence’s family, and the power of the Macpherson Inquiry report into the murder. He ignores the fact that the police deliberately withheld any mention of the spying from Macpherson. It was this very revelation in 2013 that led to the setting up of the public inquiry into undercover policing.
The secret state does not play by the rules. Those abused by it deserve answers. Yet Mason, echoing President Trump’s condemnation of Charlottesville ‘violence on many sides’, says
‘Amid the social warfare of the 80s, there are people from both sides who could say, as Rutger Hauer does in Blade Runner: “I’ve done questionable things.” Unless we’re going to have a South African-style truth and reconciliation process, the challenge is to bury the paranoia and move on.’
It’s not paranoia when the spying and methods are documented, established facts.
More than 1,000 political groups have been targeted by spycops in the last 50 years. Put simply, there aren’t that many who’ve done questionable things, and even the Met agree none of them deserved to be treated like like the dozens, perhaps hundreds, of women subjected to psychological and sexual abuse. This is a victim and perpetrator situation.
A glance at those targeted, even among the 200 significantly affected people designated core participants at the public inquiry, shows the breadth of this counter-democratic policing. Everyone targeted by spycops should should be told what was done to them and given access to their files. Only the police, and seemingly Paul Mason, want to bury the facts.
CHANGE AT THE TOP
Mason’s belief that a Labour government will do away with spycops’ activity is contradicted by the historical evidence. The secret state is run by people who are not hired by the government of the day. Governments come and go, but they endure.
Mason points to MI5’s plotting against Harold Wilson’s government in the 1960s, but there is more to it than that. As lawyer David Allen Green wryly noted,
‘ “Former Labour Home Secretary” is one the most illiberal phrases in British politics.’
All the major spycops units – the Special Demonstration Squad, National Public Order Intelligence Unit, National Extremism Tactical Co-ordination Unit, National Domestic Extremism Team – were set up under Labour governments.
This mirrors the fact that the worst eras of detention without trial and our most repressive anti-terrorism laws are also Labour creations. Just this this week we learned of a political activist being victimised thanks to police powers granted by the Terrorism Act 2000, a law so draconian that you can get six months in jail for wearing the wrong T-shirt. It was created by Labour’s Jack Straw.
The current Labour party is very different to its predecessors, and it’s reasonable to hope that having a Prime Minister and Home Secretary who were themselves targeted by spycops would lead them to equally different approaches to political policing.
Whether the secret state complies is another matter. The spycops don’t even obey their own superior officers.
DON’T DO WHAT YOU’RE TOLD
The political secret police started spying on the Green Party’s Jenny Jones after she was democratically elected. They continued for over a decade, whilst she was a member of the Metropolitan Police Authority, the Met’s scrutiny body.
After they said they had destroyed her files, she asked them to check. This was in 2014, after senior police had ordered the preservation of files for the pending public inquiry, in line with the demands of the Inquiries Act.
At this point, a whistleblower reports, officers hurriedly shredded the bulk of Jones’ records so a sanitised version could be presented.
Whilst the campaigns Mason mentions were over in the 1990s, the spying and repression they were subjected to has continued with other targets. If it is to be ended, there must be disclosure and accountability.
We know Britain’s political secret police have been active long after Mason’s imagined cut-off date and that his wishful naivety has no basis in fact. There is no indication that it has abated.
Those of us subjected to political policing, including Paul Mason, and the wider public all deserve truth and justice.