The new British TV police drama Undercover – which I’m recording, and will catch up with when I get back to the UK – was criticized in the Guardian today by a genuine victim: http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/apr/25/woman-who-lived-with-police-spy-criticises-bbc-drama-undercover. I wrote a piece on this for the Guardian a couple of years ago, reviewing Rob Evans and Paul Lewis, Undercover. The True Story of Britain’s Secret Police (Faber & Faber, 2013), which the series must be loosely based on. I thought it might be worth recycling here.
I can understand the attraction of being a spy. There’s the mystery, the play-acting, the adrenaline-rush of covert operations, the delicious fear of being found out. You are privy to information others don’t have, which gives you power over them. In some ways it is ‘like being God’, in the words of one of the London Metropolitan police spies featured in this book; especially, perhaps, if you are someone who feels that his or her life is rather pathetic otherwise. Of course you can also do it for principled and ideological reasons: because you genuinely believe you can do good this way. Wartime or even Cold War spies are likely to come into this category. That however doesn’t seem to have been the case in any of the examples chronicled here, of men (and one woman) who infiltrated radical movements in Britain in the 1990s and 2000s, with new names (often taken from dead children, in case anyone checked at the Registry of Births), long hair and beards (they called themselves ‘The Hairies’), and lots of sleeping around, to preserve credibility. They simply liked the thrill. (And the sex, one imagines.)
This however is one of the problems. For most decent people this sort of work is anathema. Espionage involves deception and betrayal, usually of people you have pretended to befriend, and in at least one of these cases women you have fathered babies with. It’s a sordid business, and doesn’t attract the most virtuous of people. So how can you trust the information they bring to you? How do you know they’re not provoking crimes, just to get the kudos for revealing them? (There are examples of this here.) How can you trust the authorities, with all this secretive power in their hands, not to use it for their own purposes – for example, to spy on and try to discredit their own enemies? (This also happened here: agents were charged with digging up dirt on critics of the Police, and even on the family of Stephen Laurence, whose case was notoriously mishandled by the Metropolitan force. You’ll have read about it recently in the press.) Lastly, how can you trust them to stay loyal; not to go ‘rogue’ – to blab to the newspapers, for example, which could undermine the whole exercise? That’s how the Guardian journalists Lewis and Evans got hold of this story: from a couple of ex-undercover agents who decided to spill the beans, apparently because they came to feel guilty about what they had been doing, which I suppose is to their credit. Another, Mark Kennedy, sold his story for money to the Mail on Sunday. It is interesting to read, by the way, how different the penitents’ versions were from Kennedy’s. The former had come to the realisation that the men and women they had been spying on were reasonable folk: kindly, harmless idealists in the main; and had seen them brutally beaten up by the police. They had obviously bonded with them. (That’s another danger: ‘going native’.) Not so the Mail’s source, which painted an entirely different picture of filthy, scavenging, wild-eyed terrorists whom Kennedy was now in hiding from, fearing for his and his children’s lives. That made him the victim, of course. (And will have confirmed Mail-readers’ prejudices.) One of them must be lying. But that’s the nature of the beast.
It always has been. None of this is new. That is not to say it has always gone on. For much of the nineteenth century it didn’t, partly because the British authorities were fully aware of the dangers; and partly because any hint of ‘domestic espionage’ at almost any level was regarded as unethical. Worse: it was seen as French. ‘Spylessless’ was one of the things that marked Britain off from the more tyrannical Continent: was a fundamental feature of her ‘national identity’, in other words. (Those who wish to use history to establish the nature of ‘Britishness’ might ponder that.) Even if it worked it wasn’t justified. ‘I would rather half a dozen people’s throats should be cut in Ratcliffe Highway every three or four years’, said one MP (a Lord) in 1811, ‘than be subject to domiciliary visits, spies, and all the rest of Fouché’s contrivances’. (Ratcliffe Highway was a notorious London crime spot; Fouché the chief of the Parisian secret police.) Political spies, especially, were some of the most excoriated villains of popular culture in the early nineteenth century. Governments couldn’t risk their use for many years after that.
That was one of the reasons. A more philosophical one was that domestic espionage undermined popular confidence in the authorities, so making the exercise of authority more difficult. If they don’t trust us, why should we trust them? These restraints gradually dissolved during the twentieth century, however, partly under the cover of the World Wars (looking for enemy agents), and then in the fever of paranoia that took hold of the classes that had anything to lose from socialism after the Russian Revolution. That came to a head in the late 1960s and 1970s – remember the farcical ‘Wilson Plot’ (against him, because they thought he was a Soviet mole)? – which was exactly the time, as it happens, that the ‘Special Demonstration Squad’ (SDS) which employed these particular people – motto ‘By Any Means Necessary’ – was secretly set up. The year 1968, of course – whatever it promised to be, and may have turned out to be elsewhere – can be seen in retrospect to mark the beginning of Britain’s Great Reaction, which has gone on (and on) since then. In Britain – this is obviously not true of everywhere – it is the Right which has generally been most willing to use underhand methods against its perceived enemies, and even to defend them openly: ‘if you have done nothing wrong you have nothing to fear’. (Goebbels originally, I think, but echoed by Conservative ministers today.) It is also the Right, incidentally, who are the ones to cry ‘conspiracy theorist’ at anyone who suspects this kind of thing. In this case, in the view of Evans and Lewis, the conspiracy theorists have been ‘not nearly paranoid enough’.
The question remains whether these methods can be in any way justified by their results. The circumstances of today are different from those of the nineteenth century. It is arguable that there are more ‘subversive’ dangers now: though there were plenty of things going on then that the Victorians could have painted as ‘subversive’ if they had been so inclined. Maybe the switch from being the most proudly ‘spyless’ of nations to the (probably) most spied upon – surveillance cameras, GCHQ, Prism, industrial ‘blacklists’, hacking, and the like – had to come. But it is difficult to see the SDS fitting into this rationale. IRA and Islamist terrorists are one thing. (Bankers might have been another, if only we had realized where the real danger lay.) But tree-huggers, veggies, anti-imperialists and animal rights campaigners – the SDS’s main targets? Come on!
With all this kind of thing going on, it may not be surprising that popular trust in government is breaking down. It is what the Victorians would have expected. We’re no longer surprised by revelations like this, which is sad. The real sea-change, however, will have come about if we are no longer shocked by them. Then we really will have transformed as a nation. Hopefully the grotesqueries revealed in this compelling book will fire some of the old ‘free’ (and radical) British spirit again. But don’t wait up.