‘Honest, Guv – we ain’t no subversives’
Sadly, that’s the truth.
Last night [written 28 October 2002] on BBC2, True Spies, the first in a series on the extent of the infiltration by state agencies of organised labour and the Left from the late 1960s. We were told that the State realised in 1968 that its intelligence was inadequate as a result of the ferocity of the demos outside the American embassy against the Vietnam War. One response was to establish a special unit whose members went into deep cover for years on end, with new IDs – they were known as the ‘hairies’ because they would grow their hair long in order to ‘go native’. The programme consisted of contemporary news footage and interviews with activists, ex-infiltrators and an ex-Special Branch senior officer.
Tariq Ali – then leader of the International Marxist Group, a leading force in the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign – was told that someone who must have been a close friend had copied his keys to burgle the offices of the IMG. His comment was:
‘A form of fundamentalism – you are prepared to use all your energy to further your political aims .. This is amazing, I just felt betrayed.’
This struck me as a stunningly naïve remark, as at that time Ali was a proponent of Lenin’s theory of the revolutionary party, whose cadres would behave in precisely that way. A common term for an infiltrator is ‘mole’ – the name of the IMG’s paper was The Red Mole. I wonder how the name-change from earlier The Black Dwarf came about, I wonder if the infiltrator had a sense of humour.
We were told that Ford motor company had agreed to establish a new factory in Liverpool because of a deal with MI5 and the Special Branch to vet all applicants for employment in order to exclude militants. It was put to the ex- Brancher that this was ‘blacklisting’. He replied:
‘No other word for it. But done for what, to my way of thinking, was for the right reasons.’
‘Why did you blacklist Tom [a Liverpool worker, who was also being interviewed] ?’
‘He had a record of disruption. I’m sorry for him, but in any sort of war there are going to be casualties.’
Tom’s comment was :
‘You were blacklisted for fighting for your rights. Yes I was a member of the Communist Party, but your political views should have nothing to do with this [i.e. employability]’
George Matthews, then Chief Press Officer for the Communist Party of Great Britain commented on the discovery of bugging devices in the Covent Garden HQ of the CPGB:
‘If the State wants to fight us, let it fight us on the legal field, not by interfering with our legal democratic rights.’ This reminded of a discussion in the Guardian letters page some years ago on state surveillance of the CPGB. Its industrial organiser wrote that this was ‘unfair’. Matthew’s wife, Betty, whinged that the CPGB was actually not at all a revolutionary organisation, but a ginger group to the left of the Labour Party (which, in fact was true, but the state never quite grasped this)
This theme was continued by Jack Dromey, a leader of the support for the Grunwick strikers in 1976. He referred to the surveillance of the picket leaders as:
‘This anti-democratic activity .. The idea that you blacklist people because of their politics is crazy… Anyone would have thought I was an IRA member or a Soviet spy, rather than standing up for workers’ rights’
This was put to the ex-Brancher.
‘What right has the Special Branch to vet?’
‘In the real world this has to be so’
What astonished me about this was the naivety of these militants re the role of the bourgeois state. Their complaints only make sense if one holds a pluralist view of the state as in essence a neutral mediator between competing interests. From that position it makes sense to see the State consistently being on the side of the business-class as a perversion of its true role. But for the avowed politics of many of these people it makes no sense at all, it is precisely what is expected from a marxist view of the State. Indeed no-one took the opportunity to cite this history as evidence for that theory of the State.
None of this history was hugely surprising. What was surprising was the revelation that the SB’s Industrial Section had cultivated friendships with top trade unionists who informed on their mates. One of these was Joe Gormley, President of the National Union of Mineworkers during the strikes of ’72 and ’74. As to why he did this, the ex-Brancher replied:
‘Because he loved his country, he was a patriot’.
It was claimed that 22 or 23 top union leaders had also been snitching to the SB. When Arthur Scargill was asked if he was surprised his reply was that his only surprise was that the figure was not much higher.
What was remarkable was that when the SB passed onto MI5 the information about the likelihood of a miners’ strike in 1972 it was discounted and the Conservative Government was told that such a strike was unlikely. The explanation given for this was status rivalry between the two security services: MI5 being public school (i.e. where the parents pay) and the SB ‘grammar school or lower’(grammar schools being the then top rung of the state system). There was no discussion of another explanation, namely that elements in MI5 wanted a miners’ strike in order to provoke class confrontation sooner rather than later and prepare the ground for a military coup.
All in all, it was very depressing in terms of the competency of the State and the naivity and stupidity of those who were the leaders of industrial and protest militancy.
Currently there is the possibility of a firefighters’ strike. Much is being made about the likelihood of deaths as a result of this. Imagine the fuss if one of the strikers quoted the words of the ex-Brancher above that: ‘in any sort of war there are going to be casualties’.