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True Spies
BBC 2 Oct/Nov 2002

A late reflection on a very strange series

This was a surprising series, here from the horses mouth, admissions of state surveillance of industrial militants, spying, infiltration and dirty tricks. The close scrutiny, bugging, trailing, of environmentalists, animal defenders and anti nuclear campaigners.

Out they came with their hands up, the agents, the informers, the guys who put the finger on the working class hero's and set them up for the blacklist and worse. Revelations of what they did, to whom. All of this presented with on-site actual footage of the militants as they were then, and scenes from working class struggle, to the accompaniment of rock, and punk music and scenes of confrontation and riot . The programme became even more poignant when disclosing to the people actually being targeted the extent of state surveillance upon them, some had not the slightest idea they were in the spot light, or what was being planned for them. A CND 'subversive', after all sounds like a joke, when we heard the state spy say, his victim was a Quaker who could develop toward being a Communist, its too serious to laugh at.

Like the assassination of JFK , we all knew 'they' had shot their own bloke, but when it came out on the big screen it give you goose bumps, it confirmed, the bastards really do , do what we've said , about them. Its a relief in way, it shows we aren't as paranoid as we thought. Here we seen leaders of the states secret army owing up to the most preposterous of actions. That most on the far left knew what the state was capable of, will still have found the admissions breathtaking. For your average punter in the street, this must have seemed like a revelation. How would your average middle class academic schooled in the knowledge that the police are independent of class issues and are 'non political' cope with the admission that the Ford Motor Co. had both Special Branch and MI5 working for them, especially on their Merseyside plants. Pilkington Glass works and British Leyland to name two others. Smith, Lukozade and Beechams had millions in tax payers money directed into their defence, and exposure of ordinary folk who oppose their cruel and corporate practices.

Tony Robinson of the special branch, star of the show, who one would cheerful thump in the face until until your hand fell off, justified the blacklist, the enforced poverty and loss of opportunity of the blacked workers, by reason that the left "promote violence". To Stella Rimington head of the MI5 with profiles on the Provos and the miners, her brief is to defend the country from 'subversion'. Some of the bugged and blacked victims expressed complete surprise that they were under scrutiny and that they were on file. Ricky Thomlinson, a family name today as an actor, was a well know building workers militant with links with WRP. He was "gob smacked" he was regarded as "a thug" and a violent subversive. His file was said to be one of "hundreds of thousands" perhaps millions.

We see the admission that up to 23 top union leaders regularly coordinated with special branch and MI5 to warn governments and employers and the state about working class militancy and specifically to inform on militants within their own Unions. Joe Gormley late of the NUM and then the OBE, gets the Oscar for this show.
Many of the left and trade unionists expressed naïve surprise at the revelations, the very cheek that the state could do such things to me ! Whilst Arthur Scargill asked if he was surprised at the 23 scab Union leaders, said yes he was, he thought there would have been many more.

In many respects the State spies act like a British version of the Macarthy , un-American Activities League, except this one was in permanent session. Control over the BBC for example extends to vetting ,and that means blacking and isolating writers, actors, & journalists to keep them from influencing public opinion. Monitoring and vetting workplaces ,key industrial complexes public and private, and keeping the class activists out or down. As Ricky Thomlinson might have said "Democracy ? My Arse" who ever elected that lot ? This is a private army under no public control or accountability as far as we can see. Of course these same forces also infiltrated the far right, the section on that infiltration exposes the stark differences in the respective camps. With the far right we have paramilitary training, guns and tactical preparation, The NF preparation and implementation of firebombing, assault and assassination targets, one of whom was revealed as Claire Short ( a race mixer ) with the far left, however, all stand in total denial that they are subversive or trying to bring down the state. Certainly few of them were shown to operate far beyond normal party political activities, it was the society they were advocating which was the obvious threat to the state rather than the building of some secret well oiled machine to bring it about. Only the animal rights activists were shown to be prepared to engage in any means necessary, including military activity, they too were not at all surprised to be infiltrated and spied on. They could after all, hardly say "its not fair, I only want to democratically blow up your animal experiment laboratory, and knobble your scientists". Those who engage in armed struggle expect, state covert counter-terrorism. It was the folk exercising what they perceived to be their normal democratic rights to organise resistance, opposition and fight for change, who were most shocked, that such activity, if likely to upset the states values and objectives is also classed as subversive, 'terrorist' even, and subject to counter terrorist activity, almost without distinction. The programme did tend to expose the secret state, and men and women who implement rules and laws nobody has passed, democracy was demonstrated as largely a hoax, it only works if you don't test it, if you test what you think are your rights, you come up against the secret forces that will slap you down.

What we have in these programmes also offer a small exposure of the states offensive against the industrial working class, the mass of working class activists on the street. Militant trade union struggle, political struggle around community and social issues, all are branded subversive. Changing the system, challenging the ruling class, that is not compatible with 'British values'. One can see how the short step further, envisaged by Brigadier Kitson to launch a coup with Lord Mountbatton at the head of a military government, to obstruct the far left drift in society and government as he seen it, was certainly following the same agenda and conclusions as our exposed spies.

Chief in this combat with the class was the clash with the miners. We are told a conflict of a 'Civil War Scenario' had been prepared for, and those of us who went through that epoch fight, know that, not to be an exaggeration. The admission that our mass picketing operation was sweeping all before it and had us on the road to victory, is interesting. It was the reason-de-etar for long term sleepers 'at the shoulder' of Arthur Scargill, who raveled all our covert plans and picketing actions to the police. In retrospect it proves we were right when we started the strike not to centralise our picketing actions under a national direction and to keep them mass ,but locally and covertly controlled. One wonders how far, the efforts of some sections of the Yorkshire leadership to wrest control of the pickets from local centres, was itself a special branch objective. I think the special branch belief that their infiltration and constant leaking of our tactics and plans defeated the strike, is not totally accurate, but it certainly was a major weakener of our efforts, not least because it led to an army of the most militant miners and many of their families being locked up and taken off the street and out of action.

But there is something definitely odd by this sudden volunteering of state honesty, this turning out of their pockets and up front confessions.

On previous occasions state secrets have been got out under the most intense resistance, we do not know how many have paid the ultimate price of keeping things quiet. Spy Catcher was a true revelation, look at the stubborn resistance mounted by British Intelligence to silence that old bugger, they turned heaven and earth to stop publication of the book, to prosecute him, to silence him, he was lucky to survive. That information, startling though it was, was dated. some of this stuff is reasonably contemporary, and frankly unknown in its detail .

What was the device that opened this flood gate, and how come so many all at the same time, sitting there nice as nine pence telling us in a cozy fireside fashion who they'd bugged, who'd they informed on, whose lives they had ruined ? We aren't told this, and that is most disturbing. It is a tradition among labour historians, and one which has passed on to archaeologists and researchers of all kinds, to leave the working out's in the margins. What was your research plan, what did you hope to find, what did you not find, what were your sources, how did you discover them, what were the obstacles and triumphs, what was not discovered ? Kids doing maths examines are often required to leave the working out in margins or on scrap paper with their work, because getting the right answer isn't always the test, how you came to the right answer is more important. With this programme we are given non of the mechanics of the job, we know not, how any of this stuff was revealed, by who, to who and why. That throws a dampening bucket of water over the whole thing. Not that we doubt any of it, on the contrary, this is the stuff they have allowed to be revealed, and we wonder if some trade off has been agreed behind the scenes ? The programme was made by a Peter Taylor, whose credentials I confess to knowing nothing about, he confesses that he received " extraordinary" cooperation from the Special Branch. He tells us nobody vetted his script or the contents of his programmes, which suggests of course they vetted the material before it was given to him . It is inconceivable that the top secret witnesses chatting away on camera would be doing so without every line was cleared with their masters behind the camera.

Was this a sort of inoculation to prepare us for far more state intervention against our assumed rights and liberties ? Was the mixing up of fluffy green welly middle class politicos, with the good the bad and ugly on the far right and left, a kind of justification that the innocent will inevitably get mixed up with the guilty but its all for the common good ? There is a clear design here to take no sides between left and right, good and bad. The actions themselves of the 'subversives' and not their cause is seen as the problem. No such classless, and Amoral stance can of course be taken. The state is not impartial to particular sides and activities. Why for example home in on The CPGB, with its British Road To Socialism and belief in a coalition with Labour; it abandoned revolution decades ago. Why should its activities and members be any more subversive than the Social democrats, if you were following a truly impartial democratic mandate. Of course they don't, and even the pinko Communists of the CPGB pose an agenda of change the state will not permit.

The portrayal of the nail bomber and the carnage wrought by the BNP activist in London on a Gay bar, was inserted as an illustration of the kind of thing the State spies and infiltrators were trying to prevent. If a few tree huggers and pickets get followed and bugged as well, that's the price we must pay for being defended by the state who has our interests at heart. Maybe, this programme was a trade off, Mr Taylor had found out something far more damning and damaging about the state spies, and was persuaded to trade that knowledge for an up front documentary on this less controversial work. We do not yet know. This was a good documentary, which came and went almost without a ripple of outrage, maybe that tells us why it could safety made and shown.