Readers of The Social Review may be asking why they should care about the secret state at all. At the risk of stereotyping, one would assume that those reading this are mostly members of the Labour Party and when it comes to MI5 targeting extreme fringe political groupings; reactions can range from apathy to outright support for the security services. However, one thing that Smear! Wilson and the Secret State adequately demonstrated is: anyone, no matter how anodyne their politics, can be the subject of state attention. Even Tories were spied on at some point; one can’t simply wish away the problem through extolling patriotism.
According to MI5, they no longer participate in counter subversion work and haven’t considered it a priority since 1985. There are several obvious retorts to this. Particularly, in light of the Spycops scandal this seems like semantics. If MI5 doesn’t participate in counter subversion work simply because the police have completely taken it over, that is simply an administrative change.
What we do know about the spycops scandal is concerning. It’s notable that in The Guardian’s list of known groups spied on, far right organisations barely feature compared to the far left – with more officers being deployed to the Animal Liberation Front than the BNP and Combat 18 put together.
In a historical sense, MI5’s admitted involvement in the expulsion of Militant from the Labour Party is of interest, regardless of whether one feels that proscription was justified. George Kassimeris and Oliver Price stated in their review of new archival material last year:
Militant was considered to pose such a threat because a significant number of its members had managed to infiltrate the Labour Party; they aimed to transform it, from within, into a ‘revolutionary party.’ This became possible after the left-wing National Executive Committee of the Labour Party decided, in 1973, to abolish its List of Proscribed Organisations which had long been crucial in preventing elements of the far left gaining influence within the Party. MI5 subsequently began an extensive investigation of Militant’s activity, and in 1976 reported that Trotskyists had influence in over 70 Constituency Labour Parties; in nine they posed a threat to the sitting Labour MP. This information was passed on to the Labour Home Secretary, Merlyn Rees, who, according to MI5’s Director General Michael Hanley, ‘fully seized the importance of subversive penetration of the Labour Party’
Even more interesting in conjunction with Wilson’s accusations is this:
It is unclear how extensively Militant members in Liverpool were monitored. Although no files have been released, a former Special Branch officer admitted in 2002 that a file was held on Hatton. There is little more known about the monitoring of the Militant MPs. Merseyside Police in 2008 confirmed ‘they had collected some material’ on [Terry] Fields ‘for the purpose of investigations’, whilst a former Special Branch officer admitted to the BBC that MI5 had asked the West Midlands branch to find an agent to infiltrate the Coventry Labour Party to monitor Nellist whilst he was a sitting MP. The agent was instructed to ‘cultivate’ [Dave] Nellist, and developed a close relationship with him, ‘helping him with a lot of things’ and ‘going around with him to a lot of meetings.’ The unnamed former Special Branch officer justified the surveillance by arguing that MI5 were not monitoring any specific individuals and instead monitoring Militant. Reports were produced on Nellist, the officer stated, because ‘he was at a [Militant] meeting.’
The argument that MI5 weren’t monitoring Wilson, just his contacts seems very similar to this “We were monitoring organisations, not individuals” argument here. It’s also interesting to note that, in this case, MI5 seemed to have outsourced the monitoring of Militant to Special Branch. Would this allow MI5 to claim that they weren’t technically involved in spying on Militant themselves?
There is some evidence that MI5 was not entirely transparent about its current involvement counter subversion operations. The GANDALF (Green Anarchist and Animal Liberation Front) trial took place in 1997. In it, five defendants were charged with conspiracy to incite criminal damage. Of six defendants, three were convicted and sentenced to three years imprisonment. Notably, all three were released pending an appeal after three and a half months and their convictions were later overturned. Index on Censorship seemed to think MI5 involvement was a matter of fact saying:
But it is not the opinions of GA or its contributors, however violently expressed, that are the issue. What is at stake is the liberty of the press, large or small, to report freely on any subject they choose. Index frequently reports on the restraints that affect British journalism, most recently in our current issue (Index on Censorship 6/97, p36). However, with this investigation and trial the situation has worsened to a shocking degree – is it acceptable for sixty police officers to target one small newsletter? Why was MI5’s role in this affair shielded in court by the use of Public Interest Immunity certificates, last used in the cover up of the Matrix Churchill scandal? Can it honestly be right to imprison people simply for what they have written?
Overall, the official line seems untenable on close examination. There is evidence that secret state involvement in counter subversion was still active in the 90s. As well as evidence that the claim that the only groups of interest were the official communists and Militant is simply not true. If MI5 were still involved in these types of operations in the 90s, it is worth asking what changed to make its current involvement implausible.
One does not have to be a hardcore Corbynite to recognise the possibility of MI5 watching the previous Labour leader closely. This is no more of a “get out of jail free” card for Corbyn than it was for Wilson, nor is it conspiratorial: it is simply a matter of acknowledging how far intelligence services are willing to go. Indeed, it was “revealed” by The Telegraph that MI5 kept a file on Corbyn in the lead up to the 2017 election.
The significance of this given how wide a net MI5 cast their surveillance operation on the fringes of the British left was rarely brought up. Yet maybe it should’ve been: in one of the few articles approaching the subject, Dan Lomas detailed the figures of Labour’s past who also had MI5 open files on. These included Peter Hain, Stafford Cripps, Jack Straw, and Peter Mandelson; once again, the softer elements of the wider British left should not assume they are soft enough to avoid the issue.
Yet few activists, in the Labour Party or outside of it, seem to be interested in this subject. Some of the likes of Labour First realistically are likely to consider the secret state’s activities a jolly good thing. Even among those who would (rightly) have us re-evaluate Harold Wilson’s premiership, the subject is seen as a curiosity at most. Despite the occasional posturing, much of the hard left is no better. Tony Benn did take this issue seriously, but unfortunately much of the hard left’s approach can be summed up by the time John McDonnell posed with a list of demands including the abolishment of the security services and then said he hadn’t read it.
The reasons to take this seriously are multiple. It is a dereliction of duty to leave the abuses of intelligence services to the Ickeites, the Freemen of the Land types, and other such cranks. The lives ruined by the behaviour of the spies in question are not theoretical or relegated to history. If Wilson’s experience outlined in Smear! shows anything it’s that being aware of possible secret state activity is a simple case of self defence. We cannot build a new and better society without a critique of power. We cannot formulate a solid critique of power if we only focus on its visible elements, nor can we do so if we ignore serious issues for the sake of political expediency.