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Outing the second oldest profession

JOHN GREEN names some names in the ongoing history of the ruling elite’s surveillance of the left

SINCE power and hierarchical structures first developed in society, the small ruling elite has always feared the wrath of the underlings who they see as threatening their wealth and privilege. 

That’s why they’ve always used spies, infiltrators and agents provocateurs to ascertain what the masses are thinking and if they are conspiring so that any incipient threat or revolt could be nipped in the bud. It hardly surprising, then, that the ruling class still makes full use of such methods but today with a whole array of the most modern technology to monitor all our electronic communications in a way that even George Orwell was unable to envisage.

In today’s relatively open and democratic society such methodology is more subject to scrutiny and exposure but it was not always so. Under the notorious Official Secrets Act — introduced in 1889 but modified continually since — much of this work was, and still is, covert and could not be talked about.

The justification for government security agencies spying on the people has always been that it is to “protect the state” and “our freedoms.” Certainly in times of confrontation and war that justification is sometimes true. But most of the time it is a shabby fig leaf to hide the elite’s determination to protect its power and privilege at all cost.

With the demise of the eastern European communist bloc and the shrinking of the Communist Party and its influence, the secret services have widened their spying activities but they are still aimed almost exclusively at the left.

It was recently revealed that Green Party peer Jenny Jones was on a police database devoted to tracking “domestic extremists,” as were a whole number of other peace, environmental and animal rights activists. 

These individuals and the organisations to which they belong are overwhelmingly peaceable, open and democratic in their behaviour and activity, and could hardly be considered threats to the nation’s security or freedom. 

They do, though, represent a potential threat to dearly held right-wing policies, powerful corporate interests and the military-industrial complex.

Scotland Yard’s domestic extremist unit has been monitoring thousands of political activists in order, it says, to identify the hardcore minority who have broken, or are about to break, the law during protests. Why are the police — a supposedly politically impartial force — still monitoring left-wing and progressive organisations?

They, alongside the more secretive units such as Special Branch, MI5 and MI6, have always been unduly interested in left-wing individuals and organisations while those on the right have been ignored, tolerated or even encouraged by these same forces. They also appear to have been unusually tolerant towards known paedophiles who belonged to the political establishment. They were not deemed a threat to the children of our country.

If you look only at the experience of the Communist Party during the 20th century, the role of the secret services becomes abundantly clear and Graham Stevenson has written an excellent essay on just this subject. From the first day of its birth in 1920 the party endured constant surveillance and harassment by the forces of “law and order.” 

In 1925 Special Branch raided the Communist Party’s national and London district offices, the Young Communist League and the National Minorities Movement offices as well as the rooms used by the Workers’ Weekly, the party’s paper at the time. All documents were confiscated and eight leading communists —  almost the entire Political Bureau — were arrested.

The infamous “Zinoviev” letter, supposedly sent by Grigori Zinoviev in 1924, calling on communists to prepare for civil war, was a forgery by the secret services with the express aim of blackening the reputation of the CP and, perhaps, ensuring the Labour Party was defeated at the polls.

Soon after the Invergordon Mutiny in 1931, in which communists played no role, the Daily Worker’s offices were again raided without a search warrant and were ransacked, police officers removing piles of documents. The owner of the paper’s printing press was given a nine-month jail sentence and two members of the paper’s staff two years’ hard labour.

In his book A Matter Of Trust, author Nigel West — the pen name of Rupert Allason, unofficial historian of the secret services, writes that F branch of MI5 had “moles in most leftist organisations.” The accuracy of this assertion has been demonstrated in a number of cases.

In the ’30s MI5 planted the spy Olga Gray in CP headquarters in London and bugs were placed in the building. They planted another, Betty Gordon, in the house of Betty Reid, who was responsible for the party’s membership and became the party’s international secretary. 

Over the years, a number of party members have told me independently how their post has been opened — they knew because letters sometimes arrived in the wrong envelopes. Some had their telephones tapped as well. Former MI5 staffer Annie Machon revealed in 1997 how all post that went to the CP HQ was routinely copied and files kept on the letter-writers, including on a schoolboy who wanted information for an essay he was writing.

The secret services planted Harry Newton in CND headquarters, where he worked for a number of years. And we have heard recently about undercover officers planted in environmental and animal rights campaigning groups.

During the ’60s and ’70s MI5 kept close tabs on anti-apartheid activists in Britain including the respected cleric Michael Scott.

In the ’30s and ’40s people like the writer JB Priestley, the actor Michael Redgrave and even composer Benjamin Britten and his partner Peter Pears were all kept under surveillance as potential subversives, having worked at some stage or other with communists.

The ruling elite was particularly paranoid about left-wing infiltration into the BBC. MI5 even had its own office in Broadcasting House to ensure all applicants for posts were politically vetted. A great deal of work hours were spent spying on the singer Ewan MacColl and his then partner, the theatre director Joan Littlewood, and measures undertaken to minimise their influence on the BBC — particularly on Children’s Hour!

In 1985 former MI5 officer Cathy Massiter revealed how the organisation had spied on CND, the National Council for Civil Liberties and other progressive organisations. They even had a file on the Jesuit peace campaigner Bruce Kent.

And then there are the many organisations set up by big employer groups, the government itself or the secret services specifically to target the left and undermine its capacity to work effectively. Organisations such as the Economic League, set up by big-business interests, together with the Building Employers Federation worked closely, if not hand in glove, with MI5. Together they drew up comprehensive blacklists.

The Industrial Research and Information Services (IRIS) was set up by former attorney general Lord Shawcross, together with Common Cause, to wage a covert campaign against left-leaning trade union candidates in elections. Several of the latter, like the late Joe Gormley (NUM), Brian Nicholson (TGWU), Ray Buckton (Aslef) and many others, passed on information to MI5 on a regular basis.

There is an extensive list of such organisations and individuals that have worked over the years to infiltrate and blacken reputations and undermine the effectiveness of progressive organisations, along with numerous cases of spying, blacklisting and ruined careers. 

One wonders how much more will be revealed someday about the use of electronic surveillance in this field. It is long overdue for the winding up of these secret services and for proper public accountability of all the forces of law and order.

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