In​ 2015 Theresa May, who was then home secretary, announced that there would be an inquiry into undercover policing and the operation of the Metropolitan Police’s Special Demonstration Squad (SDS). This secret unit, whose purpose was to infiltrate subversive groups, was set up in 1968 as part of Special Branch in response to protests against the Vietnam War. Only a handful of politicians, civil servants and senior police officers knew that the SDS existed; for 43 years, Parliament was told nothing. In 2010 an SDS officer, who under the alias Mark Stone had infiltrated the climate change movement, was exposed, then identified in the media, when his girlfriend found a passport in his real name, Mark Kennedy. By the end of 2011, eight women had begun legal proceedings against the Metropolitan Police concerning the sexual relationships they had been deceived into by undercover officers. Many more would follow.

In 2013, one former SDS officer, Peter Francis, spoke publicly about the unit’s role in spying on the family of Stephen Lawrence, the black teenager murdered by a gang of white youths in 1993, a fact that had not been disclosed to the Macpherson Inquiry into the police failure to properly investigate Lawrence’s murder. Francis claimed that he had been asked to find ‘dirt’ on the Lawrence family to ‘discredit’ its campaign. There was such an outcry that Theresa May asked Mark Ellison QC to conduct an independent review. It was when Ellison found that he was ‘unable to reject’ Francis’s claims that May announced the public inquiry.

Eight years on, the Undercover Policing Inquiry has only just completed its first ‘tranche’, examining the activities of the SDS between 1968 and 1982. So far the inquiry has cost £64 million. For most of that time, nothing much seemed to be happening, but then in January the lead counsel to the inquiry, David Barr KC, who has been plodding through the evidence since 2015, made a submission about the role of SDS’s senior management. He focused on a simple question: what was the justification, as understood at the outset, for the infiltration by undercover police of these groups?

The answer rested on the definition of ‘subversive’. In 1975 Lord Harris, a Labour Home Office minister, provided a definition to Parliament that had been used internally by the Security Service since 1972: ‘Subversive activities are generally regarded as those which threaten the safety or well-being of the state, and which are intended to undermine or overthrow parliamentary democracy by political, industrial or violent means.’

Harris’s definition indicated a test that ‘comprised two limbs’, Barr said, ‘both of which had to be satisfied: intention and threat’. His researches had shown that there was a ‘strong and consistent theme’ in documents emanating from ACPO (the Association of Chief Police Officers), the Security Service, Home Office and Special Branch. The emphasis of the documents was on subversive intent. ‘There is no equivalent focus on the phrase “activities … which threaten the safety or well-being of the state”.’ No one, Barr concluded,

appears to have considered whether the level of intrusion occasioned by SDS long-term undercover police deployments was justified. No one appears to have addressed their mind specifically to the legality of the SDS’s operations. No one appears to have considered whether (after its introduction) both limbs of the Harris definition were met. Had they done so, there is a strong case for concluding that they should have decided to disband the SDS.

As he added in February in his closing statement on Tranche 1 of the inquiry, ‘these groups did not threaten the “safety or well-being of the state” … None was anywhere close to toppling multi-party democracy.’

Most of the practices revealed when Mark Kennedy was unmasked were well established. SDS agents stole their identities from dead children (Barr said the inquiry hadn’t been able to ascertain ‘who initially decided on or authorised the SDS’s use of the practice’), and had sexual relationships with members of the groups they infiltrated, with the knowledge of their superiors. The evidence shows that between 1968 and 1982 at least five undercover police officers had relationships with women they met through their undercover activities. One of them, known only as HN300, married and had a child with an activist (‘He is described,’ Barr said, ‘as having an alcohol problem, being a philanderer who chased after women and as a man who fell in love all over the place’).

I am the legal representative of some of the core participants in the inquiry; I also have a personal connection with it since my parents were among those considered ‘subversive’. Viewing the material in Tranche 1 has meant revisiting my childhood. My dad, Paul Foot, was a Trotskyist who joined the International Socialists in 1963 and remained a member of its successor, the Socialist Workers Party, until his death in 2004. As a journalist, he had columns in the Daily Mirror and the Guardian, and wrote many pieces for the LRB. As an SWP member and a powerful orator, he spoke at public meetings pretty much every week of his adult life. My mother, Monica, had been an anarchist and was a close friend of Albert Meltzer, a leading figure in British anarchism who had smuggled arms to the National Confederation of Labour during the Spanish Civil War. She was also active in the women’s movement, and took part in the protest against the Miss World contest at the Albert Hall in 1970.

The inquiry has shown that the SDS focused on ‘extreme left-wing’ groups, Trotskyists in particular: ‘the International Socialists, who became the SWP in 1977; the International Marxist Group; and the Workers Revolutionary Party. Maoist groups were also targeted, as were anarchists, anti-apartheid groups, groups campaigning about Ireland and groups campaigning for race or sex equality.’ These were the groups my parents were associated with. Police officers take an oath to serve with impartiality, ‘according equal respect to all people’, but these police spies and their bosses seem to have had an obsession with the left.

My father’s work as a journalist was readily available, but the police continued to spy on him anyway. Barr was ‘nonplussed to read’ a Security Service report from 1971 that claimed the threat from the activities of individual Trotskyists ‘cannot be regarded as substantial’, yet went on:

The magazine Private Eye is a satirical journal which specialises in deriding institutions and the personalities of what it considers to be the establishment. It has developed an outlook which is largely destructive and which is often aimed at reducing public confidence in national institutions. It is distinguished from the so-called Underground Press by having in general competent and experienced journalists on its staff with reasonably well informed sources. Paul FOOT, a regular contributor, is a close associate of Trotskyists.

My mother was a journalist and TV researcher. She always believed she couldn’t get permanent work in television, particularly with the BBC, because it was rumoured she had a Christmas tree next to her name – the sign used for blacklisting. The Undercover Inquiry hasn’t yet looked into the extent of this practice.

As children of the spied-on, my brother John and I knew that the telephones in both our parents’ houses were tapped (they divorced when we were young). My dad had been a surveillance target since the formation of SDS, and probably before. It was obvious, sometimes, talking to a schoolfriend on the phone, that we were actually having a three-way call with the police. You heard a continual clicking. During the miners’ strike of 1984-85, the interference on the line was ceaseless; sometimes you could hear a noise that sounded like the rewinding of a recording.

The Anti Nazi League was founded in 1977 in our front room and fought a successful campaign against the frightening rise of the National Front, which came close to pushing the Liberals into fourth place in the 1977 council elections in London. Dad had to put a large metal cage on the front door to catch the post, in case any firebombs were put through the letterbox. One of the most extraordinary revelations of the inquiry is that SDS also spied on supposedly subversive children. School Kids against the Nazis (SKAN) was set up to make it more difficult for fascists to get a foothold in schools. My friends and I joined SKAN and went on protests with our ANL lollipop placards. Paul Gray, an undercover officer during this period, told Barr’s inquiry that he gave ‘no consideration … to the appropriateness of reporting on children. They were active members of the SWP taking part in demonstrations.’

Blair Peach, a teacher and SWP member, died after being struck by a police officer at an ANL protest against a National Front meeting in Southall during the 1979 general election campaign. ‘At the time of his death,’ you can read on the Metropolitan Police website today, ‘there was a thorough investigation which stated that fourteen witnesses said they saw a police officer hit Blair Peach and that there is no evidence which shows he received the injury in any other way.’ It goes on to say that ‘this of course is and has always been a grave concern to the Met.’ The SDS displayed no such ‘grave concern’. The inquiry has revealed that it attended Blair Peach’s funeral and filmed it, presumably as a record of who was there. The surveillance didn’t stop with the funeral. The police continued to spy on Blair Peach’s partner, Celia Stubbs, and the Friends of Blair Peach campaign. In 1999, the twentieth anniversary of his death, one undercover officer, ‘Mark Cassidy’, who according to Stubbs ‘infiltrated our group and was there for five years and had a relationship with a woman there which caused her terrible distress’, wrote that the ‘potential for disorder’ at a rally to commemorate the event was ‘significant’. As Stubbs said in her evidence, ‘There had never been any disorder … I think it’s pretty unpleasant.’

The Right to Work Campaign was another target, despite there being nothing illegal about its aims. It was intended, in the SDS’s words, ‘to fight for the rights of trade unions, individuals and groups of workers against the oppression of management and government, in particular at this time of high unemployment and anti-union legislation’. The SDS decided the campaign was important enough that one of the twelve-strong unit should infiltrate it – the officer ended up becoming its treasurer. The campaign organised a march from Manchester to London in 1976. I remember meeting its charismatic leader, John Deason, when the march arrived in London and he and my dad addressed a packed Albert Hall. Why were public funds being spent on infiltrating a campaign against unemployment?

Between 1976 and 1978 the SDS infiltrated support groups for the dispute over union recognition at Grunwick, a film processing factory in North-West London. My dad described the dispute in a letter he wrote to me on his typewriter on 6 July 1977, when I was ten:

I’ve been a couple of times to the picket line at Grunwicks. I don’t know if you hear the news or see a paper, but it’s all getting very exciting. On Monday next, almost ten thousand people are all going to collect in front of the factory, and they’ll probably call up every policeman in London to let the workers through. The workers who go inside the factory are breaking the strike of those outside, who were sacked by the boss because they wanted to join a union. So trade unionists from hundreds of different places are going to come and support the people on strike. It could be one of the biggest things to have happened for a long time.

The dispute involved mainly Asian women, led by the tiny, fearless Jayaben Desai. Ten years after my father sent that letter, I interviewed her for my undergraduate dissertation on the dispute. She was one of the most impressive and kind people I have ever met. The focus of the SDS and Special Branch on this dispute shows how far removed their work was from countering real threats to democracy. The police themselves had become the subversives.

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Vol. 45 No. 19 · 5 October 2023

Matt Foot, writing about undercover policing, mentions the surveillance on his father, Paul Foot (LRB, 29 June). I once drove Paul to a speaking engagement in Madison, Wisconsin. He told me that the police had spied on him throughout his career. The spies tapping his phone must have had such a boring time, he speculated, with something close to sympathy. He wondered if they ever tired of hearing him make the case for socialism. Perhaps some of them were persuaded, I said.

Bill Roberts

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