Scottish anti-nuclear groups were spied upon by the British state in the 1970s and 1980s, according to documents released by police to the spycops inquiry.
Previously secret papers reveal that undercover police officers, known as spycops, claimed to have “penetrated” the Scottish Campaign to Resist the Atomic Menace (SCRAM), Friends of the Earth and the Torness Alliance during protests against the building of a nuclear power station at Torness in East Lothian.
Activists involved with the protests told The Ferret that spycop units had been a “threat to democracy”. One said anti-nuclear campaigners had been wrongly branded by police as a terror threat “second only to the IRA”, while Friends of the Earth said it was “shocking” that spies inflitrated peaceful groups.
The Metropolitan Police insisted that undercover policing was “vital” to fight terrorism and “serious crime” in order to keep the public safe.
Two documents were released towards the end of May by the Metropolitan Police’s Special Branch to the Undercover Policing Inquiry. The inquiry was set up by the UK Government in 2015 after details of spycops activities became public.
Undercover officers infiltrated campaign groups using dead children’s identities. Some had sexual relations with women they were spying on and at least three officers fathered children.
They included one officer called Bob Lambert, who operated undercover in Scotland. Lambert’s alter ego was that of a long-haired anarchist named Bob Robinson.
The spycops inquiry is focused on two disbanded undercover Metropolitan Police units – the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS), which was set up in 1968 by Special Branch, and the National Public Order Intelligence Unit. The inquiry, chaired by former High Court judge Sir John Mitting, has run for almost six years and is continuing.
There were calls for the inquiry to be extended north of the border after it emerged spycops units operated in Scotland, as reported by The Ferret. But the calls were rejected.
The Scottish Government refused to have a public inquiry. Instead ministers agreed a review by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Policing in Scotland, which spycops victims boycotted.
SCRAM was formed in the early 1970s and brought together activists who campaigned against plans by the then South of Scotland Electricity Board (SSEB) to build a nuclear power station at Torness on the East Lothian coast south of Dunbar. SCRAM lobbied against the project and helped organise mass protests in 1978 and 1979.
The 1978 protest gave birth to the Torness Alliance, a nationwide network of activists dedicated to trying to prevent the building of a nuclear station. Campaigners agreed a statement called the Torness Declaration.
It said: “Our stand is in defence of the health and safety of ourselves, our future generations and of all living things on this planet. We announce that we are prepared to take all non-violent steps necessary to prevent the construction of a nuclear power station at Torness.”
The Torness Alliance’s first action was to occupy Half Moon Cottage on the Torness site in September 1978. On November 14 the SSEB ordered contractors to bulldoze the cottage into the sea, and protestors’ belongings were burnt.
A few days later more than 400 people converged on the site to try and prevent work taking place. During a confrontation with bulldozers and diggers, 38 people were arrested.
The Torness Alliance then organised a mass gathering in May 1979, when over ten thousand people camped in a field close to Torness. They decided to occupy the construction site, which was protected by a six-foot barbed wire fence.
Early in the morning of Sunday 6 May 1979 protestors filed over the fence using bales of hay as steps. The occupation – captured in a documentary film at the time – was one of the largest acts of civil disobedience in the UK, and foreshadowed protests against US nuclear missiles at Greenham Common in the 1980s.
Despite this, and further protests in 1980, Torness nuclear power station was constructed. It was opened in 1989 by then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, and is still operating.
The Special Branch documents released to the spycops inquiry disclose that anti-nuclear activists at Torness were being watched. One includes a letter from David Powis, acting assistant commissioner for crime for the Metropolitan Police, to the Home Office on 23 March 1981.
It said: “As predicted, 1980 saw considerable activity by the anti-nuclear movement around the siting of power stations, the transportation of waste and cruise missile bases in the United Kingdom. SDS information proved of considerable value in this area, particularly in the prevention of serious disorder and damage to property in East Lothian.”
Released along with the letter is the Special Demonstration Squad’s annual report for 1980. It listed organisations which it said had been “penetrated by SDS officers directly or to a sufficient extent to enable monitoring of their more important activities.”
The list included the Scottish Campaign to Resist the Atomic Menace, and the Torness Alliance, as well as Friends of the Earth, the Anti-Nuclear Campaign and London Region Anti-Nuclear Alliance. A further 17 groups branded “Trotskyist”, “Marxist-Leninist”, “Pro-Irish”, “Anarchist” and “Anti-Fascist” were also listed.
According to the report, there were 17 active SDS officers, of which 12 were “operational field officers”. There were concerns about their welfare, with regular staff meetings allowing officers “to relax in the company of others whom they trust.”
The report explained: “Throughout their operational tour of duty they live a lie, and can only act naturally in the presence of their family and colleagues.”
It added: “Operational officers have to devote a considerable amount of time to their cover backgrounds, as the groups to which they belong become increasingly security conscious. Careful attention too is paid to the subsequent employment of ex-SDS officers, as clearly any later identification of an officer by his erstwhile ‘comrades’ could have serious ramifications.”
The report also warned that undercover officers had to take “personal responsibility” for the police flats they used. “It is vital that everything about the premises, which are often visited by the ‘comrades’, should be capable of withstanding the closest scrutiny,” it said.
The SDS annual report added that protests against Torness continued in East Lothian in 1980. “Demonstrations were held in May, and on a smaller scale in August,” it reported.
“SDS officers were present on both occasions and the information passed to the Lothian and Borders Police was useful in preventing serious disorder and damage to property.”
Another document released by the police is a 15-page report on the growth of the anti-nuclear movement in the UK, dated 12 April 1980. Information is said to have come from “a reliable source”.
It outlined the various protests at Torness, with an analysis of the underlying politics that many of those involved at the time would dispute. The names of most of those identified as key activists have been redacted to protect their “privacy”.
Sue Cowgill is a former campaigner with the Torness Alliance who is now an associate lecturer with the Open University. She remembered seeing undercover police officers at protests.
“They were quite obvious on site during the occupation, usually camped at a slight distance from everyone else,” she said. “Their expensive equipment and clothing – especially footwear – meant they stuck out like a sore thumb. We were all as poor as church mice.”
The alliance was committed to non-violence and keen on transparency, with many assuming that they were being monitored. “Having nothing to hide was a key part of our protest,” Cowgill added.
“We were seen at the time as second only to the IRA in our threat to the state. I remember chats with police while under arrest about this. Their line was terrorists could be hiding amongst us.
“There was a prevailing myth that we had all received training from Gaddafi in Libya. I used to wind police up pretending this was fact just to watch their reaction.”
Pete Roche, who worked at Friends of the Earth (Edinburgh) and SCRAM in the 1970s and 1980s, described the activities of the spycops as a “threat to democracy”.
He said: “We always suspected that SCRAM had been infiltrated by the security services, but would have expected them to be a bit more organised and less London-centric than is demonstrated here.
“We were always totally open and transparent about what we were planning, so they could have picked up most of this information by attending a couple of our meetings. We can only hope that the kinds of protests we were organising are now seen more as a normal part of the democratic process.”
Dr Richard Dixon, director of Friends of the Earth Scotland, argued that it was “shocking” to learn that the Special Branch probably had spies in the organisation in the past.
“Britain has an admirable history of public protest and feelings have always run high when it comes to nuclear power and its links to nuclear weapons. It is outrageous that the state was spying on Friends of the Earth and other perfectly legal organisations opposed to Thatcher’s nuclear dream.”
He added: “The Special Branch needs to reveal more about these activities so people can understand what went on and what impact it may have had on their lives.”
Dr Ewan Gibbs, from the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Glasgow, has been conducting interviews on the Torness protests for research. The campaign was the “first significant civil disobedience against a civilian nuclear energy development in Britain,” he told The Ferret.
“It grew in tandem with objections to nuclear waste dumping during the second half of the 1970s. Both postwar Labour and Conservative governments were heavily invested in nuclear power as a strategic energy goal and a means to international prestige, but the nuclear programme was also connected to nuclear weapons and the growth of the secret state during the Cold War.”
Gibbs continued: “Given what we now know about the extent of surveillance trade unionists and left-wing activists experienced during the 1970s, it’s not surprising this extended to anti-nuclear campaigners too.”
Undercover police officers have spied on more than 1,000 political groups since 1968 including trade unions, the anti-apartheid movement, the Anti-Nazi League and campaigns against the poll tax.
The Metropolitan Police defended the deployment of spycops. “Undercover policing remains a vital tactic in the fight against serious crime and terrorism, and it plays a critical role in gathering evidence and intelligence to protect people from harm,” said a Met spokesperson.
“Sometimes it is absolutely the only way to keep people safe. SDS officers were deployed into and reported on a wide range of activist groups, including those involved in social, environmental, justice and political campaigning.
“The Metropolitan Police will support the Undercover Policing Inquiry as it explores whether specific undercover operations and deployments were justified, and properly authorised and managed.”
The Nuclear Industry Association has been asked to comment.
The two documents released by the police to the Undercover Policing Inquiry can be downloaded here and here. This story was published in tandem with the Sunday National.