William Hague, the foreign secretary of the Cameron cabinet until 2014, responded to the revelations of mass surveillance in the US and the UK with the words “If you are a law-abiding citizen of this country, going about your business and your personal life, you have nothing to fear.”
Try telling that to Stephen Lawrence’s family. Four police officers were deployed to spy on the family and friends of the black teenager murdered by white racists. The Lawrences and the people who supported their fight for justice were law-abiding citizens going about their business. Yet undercover police were used, one of the spies now tells us, to hunt for “disinformation” and “dirt”. Their purpose? “We were trying to stop the campaign in its tracks.”
The two unfolding spy stories resonate powerfully with each other. One, shows how police surveillance has been comprehensively perverted. Instead of defending citizens and the public realm, it has been used to protect the police from democratic scrutiny and stifle attempts to engage in politics.
The other, arising from the documents exposed by Edward Snowden, shows that the US and the UK have been involved in the mass interception of our phone calls and use of the internet. William Hague insists that we should “have confidence in the work of our intelligence agencies, and in their adherence to the law and democratic values” – now found by the highest courts to be illegal.
Here are a few of the things we have learned about undercover policing in Britain. A unit led by a policeman called Bob Lambert deployed officers to spy on peaceful activists. They adopted the identities of dead children and then infiltrated protest groups. Nine of the 11 known spies formed long-term relationships with women in the groups, in some cases (including Lambert’s) fathering children with them. Then they made excuses and vanished.
They left a trail of ruined lives, fatherless children. They also walked away from other kinds of mayhem. Lambert co-wrote the leaflet for which two penniless activists spent three years in the high court defending a libel action brought by McDonald’s. The police never saw fit to inform the court that one of their own had been one of the authors.
To support the activities of such policing former home office minister Nick Herbert stated in parliament that it was “acceptable for police officers to have sex with activists, for the sake of their ‘plausibility’.”
The same officer was accused of using a false identity during a criminal trial. And, using parliamentary privilege, the MP Caroline Lucas alleged that he planted an incendiary device in a branch of Debenhams while acting as an agent provocateur. The device exploded, causing £300,000 of damage. Lambert denies the allegation.
Police and prosecutors also failed to disclose, during two trials of climate-change activists, that an undercover cop had secretly taped their meetings, and that his recordings exonerated the protesters. Twenty people were falsely convicted. Those convictions were later overturned.
If the state is prepared to abuse its powers and instruments so widely and gravely in cases such as this, where there is a high risk of detection, and if it is prepared to intrude so far into people’s lives that its officers live with activists and father their children, where is the red line of what it is not prepared to do?
Already we know that electronic surveillance has been used in this country for purposes other than the perennial justifications of catching terrorists, foiling foreign spies and preventing military attacks. It was deployed, for example, to spy on countries attending the G20 meeting the UK hosted in 2009. If the government does this to other states, which might have the capacity to detect its spying and which certainly have the means to object to it, what is it doing to defenceless citizens?
Jamal Osman is an award winning journalist. After fleeing from Somalia he was given sanctuary and a passport in the UK. With his work as a Channel4 reporter covering Africa going through passport control is an ordeal. He says “I am followed on the street and hassled by security services. During the past five years I have been repeatedly approached by security services trying to “recruit” me. The incentives they offer range from a “handsome salary” or a “nice car” to a “big house”. I have even been told that they “could help me marry four wives”. I have declined all their offers. Their psychological tactics include telling me how easy it is for them to take away my British passport and destroy my career – and even my life. I have received regular phone calls from people I believe to be Special Branch, who invite me for a “chat over coffee”. “No thanks, I don’t drink coffee, I reply”.
In other incidents, two police officers who worked for a covert unit monitoring protesters were investigated for alleged misconduct during attempts to recruit campaigners to spy on other activists.
The investigation was launched after four campaigners alleged that they felt intimidated by police officers who were trying to turn them into informers. Repeated approaches by police caused the activists to give up their political campaigning and left them stressed and paranoid.
One campaigner wore a secret camera to capture police attempting to persuade him to spy on Cambridge University students, environmentalists, campaigners against government cuts and anti-racist activists. The footage was broadcast by the Guardian in 2013. Another, a 23-year-old single mother, has alleged that police threatened to prosecute her if she disclosed to anyone, including her mother, the attempt to recruit her as an informer.
Another environmentalist stated police made unannounced visits to his home, and followed him and his four-year-old daughter to a supermarket where they tried to thrust cash into his hands to spy on fellow left wing students.
Meanwhile, a senior UN official who published a critical report in 2013 about the British police’s surveillance of political groups has criticised an “established democracy such as Britain” for being “so afraid of its own citizens that it feels the need to spy on peaceful civic groups”.
He said he was “deeply concerned” about the UK’s use of undercover police officers in non-violent groups exercising their democratic rights to protest.
This pervasive deep state policing was captured by high profile activistsGreenpeace back in 2009 stating “Today reports have begun to circulate that police have carried out what “is thought to be the biggest pre-emptive raid on environmental campaigners in UK history, arresting 114 people believed to be planning a protest at a coal-fired power station”. The arrests don’t really come as a huge surprise to me. What we are witnessing today is a massive increase in police surveillance of environmental campaigners and an increasing number of environmental groups being infiltrated by informers”.
It is now illegal to protest in parliament square. By law you must tell the police in writing 6 days before any public march and provide the names of addresses of organisers. Today, a gathering of more than one person in a single location is an assembly. Protest assemblies are different from marches because the organisers do not have to notify the police. The police do still have the right to impose conditions on an assembly and you can be arrested without notice.
Some years ago the House of Lords held that the police’s actions breached protestors’ rights to free expression and were limiting the right to protest and held up to be an indiscriminate and disproportionate restriction on the right to protest.
In its various modes, be it New Labour, the Coalition or Conservative – Britain has been experiencing a more extreme form of government for decades since Thatcher. Undemocratic powers have developed, centralised and consolidated.
We now have a country that resembles an authoritarian state. Against public opinion, this new state has waged unprovoked wars on sovereign nations, threatened and deposed democratically elected leaders, imposed sanctions without due debate with its neighbours and generally acted as an international intimidator.
In the meantime, Britain’s so-called “special relationship” is merely a European outfit for American imperialism gone wrong. The US is now widely regarded by the international community as not much more than a rogue state with too many big guns as its main worldwide diplomacy effort.
Britain, like all authoritarian states gives the impression of a functioning democracy by the mere nature of providing a ludicrously antiquated voting system, which the government promised to reform – but didn’t. In reality, it fights political dissent at every opportunity, using taxpayer funds against activists and protest groups whose only crime is to moderate a rapacious, out-of-control corporatocracy that cares for nothing but profit, which it then offshores to prevent tax obligations.
Some parts of the police are now a deep-state syndicate of mobsters serving on behalf of vested interests.
The “Big Society” that Cameron abandoned left a disillusioned population with a growing sense of despair. “Today is the start of a deep, serious reform agenda to take power away from politicians and give it to people” he said just five years ago. “Greater transparency and accountability of Government” was simply the duping of a nation. They knew what the electorate wanted to hear, they just didn’t want to give it.
Tony Blair’s Third Way, which sought “to empower communities and citizens and ensure that power is more fairly distributed across the whole of our society” and Gordon Brown’s “Communities in Control: real people, real power” – all hollow lies as real, genuine democracy now lies in tatters and elimination awaits an already weakened resistance advances.