Spycops: When the public is the enemy

The start of the Undercover Policing Inquiry provides startling details of how the Metropolitan Police and MI5 spied for decades on political parties and peace organisations.

23 May 2023

Protesters demanding British troops leave Northern Ireland in 1975. (Photo: Mirrorpix via Getty)

  • Between 1968 and 2008 the Metropolitan Police monitored over 1,000 groups
  • Undercover officers infiltrated organisations for 4-5 years, using the names of dead children to establish a cover
  • Police managers knew their undercover officer spying on the Troops Out Movement had sexual relationships with up to four activists
  • For 40 years after 1968, the police ran 35 different officers in the Socialist Workers Party
  • The spycops’ activities, funded by the Home Office, were authorised at the highest levels, initially by Harold Wilson’s Labour government

The Undercover Policing Inquiry has just completed its first tranche of hearings covering the years 1968 to 1982.

The disclosures provide a glimpse into how socialist and left-wing campaigns were targeted by the Metropolitan Police, and how information was shared with the security services and government.

The establishment has remained silent for over 40 years about political policing which was for decades sanctioned at the highest levels of government.

The security services colluded to keep hidden from scrutiny the unlawful, and ultimately anti-democratic, system of state-sponsored surveillance that was being carried out by British police officers.

The fact this has come to light is due to the fearless women who were deceived into sexual relationships with undercover officers. Through their tenacious campaigning they forced then home secretary Theresa May to announce a public inquiry in 2014. 

Additional pressure came from the Stephen Lawrence Family Campaign who discovered that an undercover officer had also been assigned to spy on their campaign for justice.

The disclosures provided alongside the live evidence given by non-state core participants and police managers have begun to unveil a scandal of epic proportions.


Britain’s secret political police


Special Demonstration Squad

The Special Demonstration Squad (SDS) of the Metropolitan Police was established in July 1968 initially as a response to the growing movement in Britain against the war in Vietnam.

During that year the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign (VSC) organised two major demonstrations, in March and October. The first demonstration caused alarm amongst police managers given its scale, the public disorder and the political impact of the anti-war protests.

Documents released by the inquiry show that undercover police officers attended VSC meetings, sat at the back, took notes and fed them through to SDS managers. Further monitoring of the VSC took place as it prepared for the next major anti-war demonstration in October 1968.

A document dated 2 August 1968 shows that political policing organised by the SDS through the Metropolitan Police was of interest to MI5. Meetings took place to discuss “arrangements to cover the demonstration in Grosvenor Square on 27th October.”

“Between 1968 and 2008 the SDS would monitor over 1,000 groups

The tasking by MI5 of the SDS was to increase from 1968 and through the 1970s. Frequent meetings took place between police managers and MI5, which allowed the latter to direct where undercover officers should be sent, and which organisations they should be sent into.

From its modest start the SDS grew its influence and secured funding from the Home Office under Harold Wilson’s Labour government.

By the early 1970s the SDS’ strategy was to go deep undercover and “hoover up everything”. Undercover officers were assigned to infiltrate organisations for four to five years, using the names of dead children to establish a legend, a history and cover.

The SDS’ annual reports, which can be viewed on the inquiry’s website, illustrate the costings for accommodation and cars, and that this was being approved annually by the government. 

Between 1968 and 2008 the SDS would infiltrate and monitor over 1,000 groups including political parties, anti-racist groups and peace organisations.

Troops Out Movement

The Troops Out Movement (TOM) was one such organisation targeted for political policing. However, this didn’t just involve undercover police officers attending a few meetings and taking notes.

In the early 1970s, the new SDS strategy was infiltration, taking positions in the group and de-railing that group. Infiltration of the TOM provides a case study in how political policing would operate going forward.

In 1969 British troops were sent into Northern Ireland, the UK government fearing a loyalist pogrom against working class Catholic communities. In deploying the army it was argued that the British state sought a short term, temporary measure to an ingrained problem. It turned out differently.

The deployment became the longest continuous campaign in British military history. Initially welcomed by Catholic communities, the British army became an occupying force.

On 30 January 1972, soldiers from the Parachute Regiment unleashed a brutal armed assault on the largely Catholic-nationalist Bogside area in the city of Derry. It left 13 unarmed civilians dead (a fourteenth died later).

It took until 2010 for the Saville Inquiry report to conclude that the killings were “unjustified” and “unjustifiable.”

The TOM was formed in October 1973 and was an alliance of socialists, trade unionists and pro-Irish independence activists. Its aim set out in its constitution, was to campaign for the withdrawal of British troops from Ireland, and for self-determination of the Irish people.

The TOM concentrated on branch building, public meetings, demonstrations, lobbying MPs, drafting legislation and occasional pickets. All of these activities were reported on by the police and those reports sent to ‘Box 500’ – the address for MI5.


Red List: MI5’s Culture War


Political policing

The TOM became a focus for political policing from its inception and was targeted by multiple undercover officers.

The first police officer to infiltrate the TOM was HN298 – ‘Mike Scott’. However, he concluded, “It had no subversive objectives and as far as I am aware did not employ or approve the use of violence to achieve its objectives.”

Yet despite there not being a public order justification the targeting of the TOM did not end. Indeed, at the behest of senior officers, civil servants and the Home Office, the infiltration continued but changed – as the next undercover officer would not just report on the TOM, but would seek to lead the movement.

In February 1975 a new officer infiltrated the group. Assigned by his SDS managers, and no doubt at the behest of MI5, ‘Rick Gibson’ (real name Richard Clark) applied to join, and then establish a new branch of the TOM.

By July 1975 Clark was the public face of the group’s new South East London branch and chaired its first public meeting. Clark then took a lead role in encouraging public demonstrations, for example organising the picketing of the Woolwich barracks and the home of MPs.

Not only did Clark create a new TOM branch, he also created targets to spy on. No-one in the branch had Special Branch files in their names until they came into contact with Clark.

But the personal lives of people such as ‘Mary’ and Richard Chessum – members of the TOM who were targeted by Clark – together with his partner were reported in detail from body size to health issues from holiday plans to hairstyles.

SDS playbook

By March 1975 Clark was elected as the Secretary – the top position – in the South East London branch of TOM. He grew in confidence and was able to severely criticise other members, and also meet with Gerry Lawless, the movement’s leader.

By September 1975, through a series of manoeuvres, Clark was elected to the Organising Committee of the TOM, a national position. and then onto the National Secretariat. Clark had obviously successfully conned Lawless that he was a trusted confidant.

A police officer was now on the national organising and decision making body of the seven person TOM national committee.

“Clark used his new position of authority to divide and derail the movement”

Clark used his new position of authority to divide and derail the movement. He pushed for the TOM press officer to be kicked off the secretariat, and then took a position on the Press Committee, presumably to control media coverage.

By March 1976 Clark reached the pinnacle of the TOM. Lawless stood down temporarily to take paternity leave, leaving Clark as the TOM’s Convenor and head of the movement.

For several months Clark led TOM as sectarian violence swept Northern Ireland and the British army played an increasingly draconian role. The TOM should have been campaigning and looking outwards but paralysis set in as Clark set about derailing the group.

A trade union delegation, which was arranged to take delegates to see the situation in Northern Ireland, was postponed at the behest of Clark. He then also used his position to criticise others in the TOM. 

By the time Lawless had returned, members of the leading body had resigned, some citing a “noticeable lack of conviction” from the TOM’s leadership.


What is MI5 hiding in its secret 60 year-old files?


Outed as a police officer

On Lawless’ return Clark shifted loyalties, beginning to manoeuvre against Lawless and to court the support of a small socialist group, Big Flame. He held a meeting with them at his sparse London flat in July 1976, designed to ingratiate himself with the group, in the hope of infiltrating them, and to use them presumably to cause chaos in the TOM.

But Clark overreached himself and this was to be his downfall. Big Flame members were suspicious and it was clear to them he had no political background, and they eventually outed him as a police officer.

They presented him with birth and death certificates of his assumed name ‘Rick Gibson’ – who was a child that had died, whose identity Clark had stolen to create his false identity. Police managers knew Clark was having sexual relationships with up to four activists.

“They were directed to enter the SWP by MI5”

Clark’s deployment was a strategy changer in that, now, officers were sent in to take positions in campaigning organisations. For 40 years after 1968, the SDS ran 35 different officers in the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), predominantly in London.

Given each officer stayed for up to four years, it is likely that at any one time there were upwards of a half dozen officers in the SWP.

Undercover officers ‘Phil Cooper’ and ‘Colin Clark’ were close to the SWP’s Central Committee, had a designated desk at the headquarters of the organisation and both occupied the role, at different times, of the national treasurer for the SWP’s Right to Work Campaign.

They were directed to enter the party by MI5 which said “the ideal would be a permanent well-placed employee in… headquarters, not necessarily too high up in the organisation.”

Other officers took positions in the party such as ‘Roger Harris’ – a recruitment organiser – ‘Bill Biggs’ – a branch treasurer for South East London.

900,000 slips

The SDS’s extensive reporting on trade unionists, socialists, anti-apartheid activists, communists, anti-racists and those who wanted troops out of Ireland, is all outlined in its own tradecraft manual.

Officers such as Rick Clark were happy to use people as stepping stones, invading their lives and using sex as a tactic to build their credibility. They abused friendships and undermined activists who were genuinely committed to the cause.

Clark was not a rogue officer. His activities were understood and directed from the highest levels. All of his reports were sent to MI5. In a statement provided to the Inquiry by ‘Witness Z,’ MI5 confirmed that “the pressure to investigate these organisations often came from the prime minister and Whitehall”.

In 1976, government authorisation was given for the continued existence of the SDS. This was signed off by Robert Armstrong, later Baron Armstrong of Ilminster, who was the cabinet secretary and head of the Home Civil Service. Between 1970 and 1975 he had been the principal private secretary to two prime ministers, Edward Heath and Harold Wilson.

Clark’s role was part of an establishment strategy that opened 900,000 slips on its citizens, many of which were turned into files.

The strategy was funded and directed by a cabal of state institutions from MI5 to Special Branches – the national and regional police squads responsible for national security – from the Home Office to the Foreign Office. 

The Foreign Office funded the Information Research Department (IRD) which was an anti-communist propaganda and monitoring unit involved in black operations. Through the IRD the Foreign Office funded a front organisation – the Industrial Research and Information Services (IRIS) – which involved itself in attempting to influence trade unions elections.

The Undercover Policing Inquiry completed its first tranche of hearings in February and hopes to complete its work by 2026. Its chair, Sir John Mitting, has promised to deliver an interim report from this first tranche by 29 June this year.

The start of the inquiry illustrates that while the British establishment claimed to be defending democracy, it was rather undermining democracy in defence of the establishment.

Paul Heron is the senior solicitor at the Public Interest Law Centre.