Spycops in context: Beneath the undercover policing scandal

Connor Woodman
Tuesday, 4 December 2018

Since at least the turn of the nineteenth century, the British state has utilised coercive methods to monitor, constrain and undermine political dissent. 

Surveillance, databases, infiltration: these are some of the tools of the state in the power struggle against movements of resistance. 

From 1968 to 2008, the Metropolitan Police ran a secret unit – the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS) – dedicated to full-time, long-term undercover infiltration of a wide array of radical political organisations. From 1999-2011, the Association of Chief Police Officers joined in with its own nation-wide squad, the National Public Order Intelligence Unit (NPOIU). 

Officers within these two units had intimate relations whilst undercover, stood in court using false names, engaged in high-level direct actions, and stole the identities of dead children. The outrage these revelations generated led to an ongoing public inquiry.

The political policing system

Undercover policing, however, is just one weapon in an entire armoury of political policing. The undercover policing scandal, which the Spycops in context papers are a response to, cannot be adequately understood without a wider historical view of the British state’s counter-subversion apparatus.

Isolating the undercover units from the rest of the political policing system – Special Branch, MI5, specialist cabinet committees, the Information Research Department and more – allows the SDS and NPOIU to be viewed as rogue aberrations, not indicative of anything fundamental about Britain’s social order. 

A broader historical view of the coercive branches of the state paints the SDS and NPOIU in a different light. This view reveals the units to be part of a long-running system of political policing, the function of which is to contain and undermine deep dissent against the status quo. 

Enforcing hierarchical social relations

What is the character of the groups targeted by the police and intelligence agencies? Overwhelmingly, the organisations and movements targeted have been of the progressive variety. Fascist groups have come in for only cursory attention. Historically, the secret state has even colluded with the far-Right.

The Legitimation League, which campaigned in the late nineteenth century to remove stigma from children born out of wedlock, was infiltrated and destroyed by Special Branch in 1898. Anti-colonial Indians, suffragettes, striking workers and unemployed Hunger Marchers were some of the top state targets of the 1920s and 1930s. Anti-Vietnam War campaigners, Black Power and the National Union of Miners found themselves subject to ferocious state attack in second half of the twentieth century. At the turn of the millennium, activists seeking to halt the destruction of the living world and the mass killing of animals found themselves in the cross-hairs. 

Broadly, what unites the groups and individuals targeted for surveillance is the fact that they pose(d) a threat to a range of dominant hierarchical social relations. Racism, class, heterosexuality and patriarchy are, in part, state-enforced cleavages, systems of social control. Conditions favourable to capitalism’s maintenance are coercively maintained by the state. Political policing plays a key role here, both through containing and undermining resistance to those social relations, and by imbuing racist, misogynist and classed behaviour itself. 

Political policing and social progress

This perspective adds ever-more urgency to calls for the abolition of undercover policing and political surveillance. If these state tactics undermine movements for justice, equality and dignity – from the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament to the Grunwick Strike to the Anti-Apartheid Movement – then the social progress lost as a result of this state apparatus is potentially incalculable. 

How much more just and fulfilling might our society be had the British state not actively undermined popular campaigns, from the early nineteenth century movement for parliamentary reform to the modern climate justice movement? This historical counter-factual cannot be answered. But the fact that social progress has, in some form, been inhibited by the secret state should cause us to carefully consider whether we want to leave this apparatus functioning today, ready to spring into action when the embers of discontent are inevitably stoked in the coming decades. 

The two reports on this topic are:

Spycops in context: A brief history of political policing in Britain, surveys the history of the secret state’s concern with political dissent. 

Spycops in context: Counter-subversion, deep dissent and the logic of political policing, analyses how the secret state serves to uphold hierarchical social relations against movements of dissent.

Both papers can be accessed and downloaded here

Connor Woodman is the 2017/2018 Barry Amiel & Norman Melburn Trust Research Fellow, hosted by the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies.