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Spycops Inquiry: Closing statements roundup

“The police, Mi5 and the government, above all, served their own interests. If there was any threat to parliamentary democracy, post 1968, it was never from the left.”

~ Rajiv Menon KC

Yesterday saw closing statements in the Undercover Policing Inquiry (UCPI), a sprawling investigation into the use of spycops covering four decades of operations, focusing in this tranche on the 1968-1982 period. 

Four legal briefs, Rajiv Menon (speaking for Tariq Ali, Piers Corbyn & Ernie Tate), James Scobie (for Lindsey German, ‘Mary’ & Richard Chessum), Owen Greenhall (for Peter Hain, Ernest Rodker, & Jonathan Rosenhead) and Kirsten Heaven (for other Non-Police, Non-State Core Participants including the Friends of Freedom Press and ASS) took the opportunity to deliver damning indictments of every aspect of secret policing during this period.

[Menon and Scobie video statements] [Greenhall and Heaven video statements]

Menon was particularly sharp in breaking down the early years of the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS) in his submission, noting the force’s complete lack of interest in deploying its undercover officers to tackle the far right in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s despite its clearly dangerous trajectory. He asked:

“Why is it that throughout 1968-83 the SDS did not deploy a single undercover into any far-right organisations, other than the deployment of an officer into the Workers Revolutionary Party who was deployed by them to infiltrate the National Front?”

“The answer is to be found in the very nature of institutions like the police, Special Branch, Mi5 and the Armed Forces and the civil service. The Inconvenient truth is that there was a natural crossover between far right organisations and key institutions of the British State.

Menon highlighted what he argued was a very different attitude towards perfectly normal, legal and non-violent left-wing activism compared to the activities of what was a very aggressive and violent far-right, including chummy relationships with leaders of the National Front – at the time an organisation openly calling for the violent repression and expulsion of black citizens from Britain.

Noting that “The police themselves were institutionally racist and right wing. One might even say they were a recruiting ground for far-right organisations,” he argued that “One of the inevitable and tragic consequences was that the number of racist attacks would continue to increase dramatically throughout the 1970s-90s.”

The KC was scathing about State counterarguments revolving around a lack of need to send SDS into far-right organisations as other sources were available, pointing out that the same was true of the left: “Roy Cremer and others admitted that they rarely offered information that senior officers didn’t already know from other sources, including local police, who reported telling Special Branch about protests that had been publicly announced, then a few days later getting reports marked ‘secret’ with the same information.”

He argued instead that: “The true role of the SDS, we say, was spying on behalf of Mi5. Mi5 had seen the value of this new unit from the outset, and no doubt could not believe their luck.” Most of their focus was on the Communist party of Great Britain, and they had very little intel on anarchists, not considering them a serious threat. But once Mi5 saw how the SDS worked in operation … they realised they could hoover up large amounts of intelligence on a range of groups. Mi5 already had a card index of files from 1968 kept on between 600,000 and 1 million people in the UK. SDS hardly ever refused a request from Mi5, which gained plausible deniability. Thousands of SDS reports went straight to them. 

“The significance of this vast operation was that thousands of ordinary citizens who had done nothing more than go to a meeting or demonstration, or join a lawful left-wing organisation were reported and on occasion denied employment, even a career. Lives were damaged, even destroyed, and the police and Mi5 simply didn’t care, because their targets were, as Margaret Thatcher later declared, ‘the enemy within’.” 

Freedom, the ASS and Ernest Rodker

Menon’s statement was mirrored by the other legal reps who urged the inquiry, headed by John Mitting, to “fully and fearlessly” expose the extent of the Met’s abuse of its powers when an interim report is published later this year.

2023 marks the ninth year of what was originally supposed to be a much faster process looking into spycop malpractice, which has been dogged by police delaying tactics. Originally  sparked by shocking revelations that undercovers had deceived women into sexual relationships in the 1990s-2010s, it has since expanded to cover up to 1,000 officers, many of whom have never been formally named. 

Both Freedom Press and the Advisory Service for Squatters, as well as numerous individuals within the anarchist movement such as longtime Friend of Freedom Press Ernest Rodker, were targeted through the 1968-82 period, including by former Met spychief Roger Pearce.

Rodker’s own 1972 conviction for a public order offence related to his anti-Apartheid work was overturned last month, following revelations about infiltration by SDS officer “Michael Scott.” Scott had been arrested alongside Rodker and two others at a demonstration against the racist South African regime, and had appeared in court under his fake name, allowing him to sit in on discussions between the activists and their lawyers.

During the UCPI hearings it was revealed that Rodker, who had been a very active member of the Committee of 100 and faced several arrests, was viewed as “a thorn in the flesh” by Met officers, which his lawyer Owen Greenhall argued underpinned the force’s decision to target and infiltrate his life. 

Suggesting there was no proper justification for targeting them, Mr Greenhall said: “It is important to correct the record. Former undercover officers have claimed that these groups were involved in violence and disorder and that this was the justification. This is false. From the outset these were non-violent organisations.” He pointed out that beyond statements to this effect from the inquiry participants themselves, this was backed up by contemporary documentation with one spycop noting: “There was nothing clandestine or revolutionary about the anti-Apartheid movement. They were a group of people who did not think the situation in South Africa was fair. They wanted to make apartheid a high-profile issue. It was not subversive, as far as I was aware.”

Rounding off the day was Kirsten Heaven for Other Non-Police, Non-State Core Participants, who called on the Inquiry and the Met to “formally admit, and take responsibility for, the abuses of fundamental human and democratic rights that occurred as a result of the establishment of the SDS.” She noted in particular the importance of taking a robust critical approach given the emergence of a parallel case in Spain as “the world is watching.”

Following the interim report, due later this year, hearings will resume in 2024 with the aim being to complete the inquiry in 2025.

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