Secret police files detail spying on political activists 5

Secret police files detail spying on political activists

Top secret police files detailing covert spying on Scots political activists have been condemned by trade unionists and campaigners.

The publication of declassified files compiled by Special Branch reveal the scale of surveillance and the level of detail recorded by undercover officers.

Special Branch is the secretive police body that covertly monitors political organisations deemed a threat to the state.

The confidential police files were obtained by the Special Branch Files Project following freedom of information requests.

The documents reveal police surveillance of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the anti-Apartheid Movement, Vietnam War protestors and unions involved in the Wapping industrial dispute during the 1980s.

Special Branch infiltrated meetings and recorded how many people attended demos, where they came from, what was said, and even the colour of buses used to transport campaigners.

Leading Scots figures on file included the late Jim Knapp, former leader of the National Union of Railwaymen, and Brian Filling, chair of the Scottish Anti-Apartheid Movement.

The publication of the Special Branch files preceded talks between the Scottish Government and the Home Office to extend an inquiry into the activities of undercover police officers.

The Pitchford Inquiry launched into miscarriages of justice linked to the work of undercover police officers was only intended to cover England and Wales.

But Home Secretary Theresa May has agreed to discuss the extension of the public inquiry with Justice Secretary Michael Matheson.

It follows growing concerns around the work of English-based undercover officers while investigating campaigners and activists in Scotland.

Launched last week, the Special Branch Files Project is a live archive of declassified files focussing on the surveillance of political activists and campaigners and revealing political policing of protests since 1968.

Documents include a Special Branch report on the 2nd May 1986 describing a May Day march by unions in solidarity with print workers at Wapping, London, involved in a dispute with Rupert Murdoch’s News International.

The report lists the rally’s speakers including MP John Prescott and the NUR’s Knapp and summarises what each said.

An appendix to the report checks the names of speakers against a column marked ‘SB(R)’ which refers to the Special Branch Registry where people’s files were kept.

Knapp and Ken Cameron of the Fire Brigades Union have redactions where their references would be suggesting Special Branch held files on them.

But not all the information recorded by police was accurate and unions have described some files as “nonsense”.

One report said protestors from Glasgow in London during the Wapping dispute in 1986 were intent on arson.

The file said: “A large contingent from Glasgow will be marching from the embankment to Wapping at 19:00. Informant states that the object of the march is to take over the plant and set it on fire.”

Another note from that day says the leader of the engineers union remarked: “There is going to be 15,000 at Wapping tonight. They are going specially to do up the Special Patrol Group.”

Bob Gillespie from Glasgow – whose son Bobby is lead singer with Primal Scream – was secretary of a union called West of Scotland SOGAT in 1986 and spoke several times at Wapping demos.

He said: “None of SOGAT members would have contemplated doing either of that. That’s just nonsense. I was in London and spoke at several mass protests outside Wapping and those police claims are not accurate.”

In October 1983 police compiled a 47-page report on a demonstration organized by CND in London.

They noted every single CND group from Scotland in attendance including Blairgowrie CND and Aberdeen University CND.

Police also reported all slogans written on marchers’ placards including “welfare not warfare” and “ban the bomb”.

Racist language was used by police in the same report when an officer wrote: “Very few non-white faces were seen…of those coloured faces seen, most were present as supporters of political (extremist) or trade union groups.”

Isobel Lindsay, a member of Scottish CND since 1960 and the group’s vice-chair, said she has been an activist since 1960 and attended protests in London in the 1980s.

“I spoke at one of them – I think 1982. We always assumed that Special Branch would infiltrate and certainly keep files on activists and activities.”

“The only thing that is a little surprising is the absurdity of the quantity of detail that they gathered at public expense while real criminals went undetected.”

“We were always non-violent and could only be a threat to the government if we gained public support.”

The police were acting for political interests not for public safety . In the last decade the people who really posed a massive threat to our society – the casino bankers – were presumably not pursued by the SB.”

Arthur West, current chair of Scottish CND, said most activists were aware that Special Branch was watching them.

He added: “I recall the first ever demo I attended was in Paisley in 1972, a trade union protest, and an older activist saying to me, ‘they’re (SB) probably on the roof of Woolworths taking photos’.”

“It’s the same today to be honest and young activists talk to me about it. Someone joked at recent CND meeting, ‘this is probably bugged.’”

Another file reveals that in 1993 police monitored protestors in London at an anti-apartheid rally and reported that people representing the London Timex Support Group were selling badges and memorabilia.

Workers at a Timex factory in Dundee were involved in an industrial dispute at that time.

The Special Branch Files Project also mentions how Scotland has a long history of the illegal blacklisting of trade union workers, linked to Special Branch activity.

The website says: “It was hearings before the Scottish Affairs Committee that helped expose a particularly insidious scheme within the construction industry, known as the Consultancy Association.”

“Those campaigning on the issue note that some of this activity has occurred in Scotland and against Scottish citizens.”

“Some of the information on the Consultancy Association files came from Special Branch units, so there is an open question as to the extent that Scottish Special Branch units colluded in the spying on of trade union and other political activists, and facilitated the blacklisting of individuals.”

In response, Ian Tasker, assistant secretary at the Scottish Trades Union Congress, said his organisation is resolutely opposed to state intervention and “unnecessary surveillance in the everyday lives of citizens, whether they are trade union officials, members or involved in other campaign groups”.

He added that the extent of the blacklisting scandal, as uncovered by the Scottish Affairs Committee, heard evidence that information could only have come through police sources.

Tasker added: “Minutes also appear to have shown a direct connection between the Consulting Association and the then National Extremist Tactical Coordination Unit and the Information Commissioners Office, and it is totally unacceptable that the police colluded in the biggest industrial scandal in recent times, when thousand of highly skilled workers were denied work as a result of collusion between big business, police and the Consulting Association that grew out of the Economic League following its demise in 1993.”

“The involvement of police in supporting organisation seeking to exercise their democratic freedoms not only question their integrity but their independence.”

“Whether their involvement is covert, as in the case of blacklisting or overt in the way the police were used to crush miners and their families in 1985, they should not be used as an agent for the state or corporation seeking to deny workers a livelihood and a family life.”

“Construction companies including Robert McAlpines have ruined lives and families and the police appeared to have been part of this and we believe there should be a public inquiry into blacklisting including police involvement.

The release of the files follows calls for Scotland to be included in the Pitchford Inquiry which is investigating undercover policing and the activities of officers who infiltrated protest groups.

The Undercover Research Group has written to both First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon and Home Secretary Theresa May to ask for the terms of reference to be changed, or for Scotland to have its own inquiry.

Pete Salmon, of URC, said: “If the Pitchford Inquiry is to get to the heart of the scandals and abuses that surrounds undercover policing against political campaigners and other protestors, it must be able to see the full picture of the activities of the officers involved.”

“So when the Terms of Reference for the inquiry were released in July 2015 it was met with incredulity among those affected that it was restricted to the activities of English and Welsh officer’s activities only in England and Wales.”

“Those familiar with the evidence were fully aware that there was considerable activity in Scotland with six of the twelve exposed officers having been there.”

“This goes back many years, from simple holidays by people deceived into relationships they would never have consented to, to a slew of undercovers converging on the counter-summit protests for the 2005 G8 Summit at Gleneagles.”

There have also been calls by MSPs for the new Police Scotland chief constable to make a statement on his knowledge of a disgraced undercover spying unit south of the border.

MSPs spoke out after Phil Gormley refused to shed light on whether he had any responsibility for the notorious Special Demonstration Squad when was at the Metropolitan Police.

The SDS, which existed between 1968 and 2008, embedded officers in protest groups across the UK and was part of Special Branch.

Cover image: courtesy of Undercover Research Group

A version of this story was published by the Sunday Mail on 17th January 2016.

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