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TV Review: 'True Spies'

Watching the detectives

The three-part documentary True Spies which finished its run on BBC2 last month was an illuminating insight into one of the oldest–and most disreputable–professions. Looking at how the British intelligence services have since the 1960s systematically infiltrated those organisations considered to be "subversive" of the state, it united the spies and the spied-upon in a visual history of their secret combat.

The range of the organisations targeted for infiltration by the British "secret state" was a long one, encompassing some still surviving and many others that are long gone. On the left, it transpired that the Communist Party, the SWP (formerly IS), the WRP, Militant and the IMG were among those with paid agents of the British state in their ranks from the late 1960s onwards, many of whom were part of the so-called special branch "hairies" who specialised in entering the entryists so deeply that they assumed positions of power, influence and knowledge within the target organisation, as well as their habits and dress code. While most of their number will continue remain secret for obvious reasons, several spoke to camera of what they did and of how they did it. So too, did their handlers: bluff Northern policemen with anti-union agendas and cockney commie-bashers from Special Branch with a love of Queen and Country.

A small number of the "hairies" went native as their attempt to dialectically interpenetrate their opposites led to an unexpected outcome. But by the mid-1970s internecine rivalry between Special Branch (viewed as the grammar school boys) and MI5 (the public school-educated "sophisticates") led to a scaling-down of the operation and the use of occasional or periodic paid informants rather than long-term "sleepers".

Interestingly, their informants included over twenty top officials from trade unions who leaked information on potential industrial unrest and political militancy. These apparently included not just the usual right-wing hatchet-men but the former leader of the National Union of Mineworkers, Joe Gormley, and others of a similar ilk. When asked to comment on this, Arthur Scargill–the man who succeeded Gormley as NUM President–expressed his surprise that there weren't even more, and for once it is tempting to agree with him.

Many of the other political (or former political) activists interviewed went to great lengths to express their astonishment that they had a spy in their ranks and that they may have been betrayed by someone close to them. In this category came current Cabinet Minister Peter Hain, formerly a leading light of the Anti-Apartheid movement and the 1970 "Stop the Tour" campaign (about the visit of the South African cricket team). Also in this category was the actor and former member of the "Shrewsbury Two" Ricky Tomlinson, who had been jailed for his secondary picketing activity during the 1972 building workers strike. Whether his surprise was real is difficult to gauge, though if it was, the level of naiveté involved is breathtaking.

Did the likes of Hain and Tomlinson really think that the forces of the state machine wouldn't take an interest in their activities? It does seem unlikely, especially in the case of Tomlinson–someone who used to delight in calling himself a "Marxist".

I am not a number?
The security services didn't just–and don't just–target the far left or trade unions of course. Fascist and nazi organisations, Irish nationalists, animal rights protesters, anti-nuclear campaigners and anti-globalisation activists have all fallen under the MI5 spotlight, as the programme demonstrated quite ably. Current and former members of the intelligence services estimated during interviews that at the end of the Cold War there were files on about one and a half million people in Britain held by Special Branch and MI5. That was roughly one in every thirty adults.

Though many of these files have now allegedly been destroyed the surveillance continues, of course. Stella Rimmington, former head of MI5, took visible delight in putting the "end of history" argument in her piece to camera about surveillance of the far left, saying that they had been vanquished. But it was clear from some of the interviews conducted with current security service operatives that there are still paid agents attached to all manner of political organisations in the UK. While much of the resources at the disposal of MI5 in particular have been directed towards the 400 or so members of the IRA in the last decade, surveillance of other political "subversives" continues apace–even if not quite at the heady levels attained in the 1970s.

It is quite possible–indeed likely–that the Socialist Party itself has been a target for the repressive agencies of the state over the years. While not allying ourselves with any foreign power (which is what made the Communist Party such a threat) we nevertheless places ourself firmly within the revolutionary tradition in this country–unlike, we would argue, the fake revolutionaries of the far left who have always sought a change of bosses rather than a real change of social system.

But as the Socialist Party has no leaders and no led, and has no secret meetings or cabals, we would have presented a different proposition to the security services altogether. No Socialist Party meetings are ever closed to non-members and as the fullest possible democracy replaces the diktat of a leadership, any "hairy" infiltrating our organisation would have been on a cushy number indeed. If such a person (or persons) has existed, their interview on a programme such as this might have made fascinating viewing–and we would certainly have been interested in hearing of their experiences.

We have never been believers in the need for a tightly-knit gang of conspirators, who are ever mindful of agents and infiltrators. Instead we rely on the strength of our case against capitalism and in the power of a democratically organised working class movement–the movement of the majority expressing the interests of the majority. Whilst we do not underestimate the power and intent of those who seek to uphold the vested interests of the owners and controllers of UK PLC–or the disruption that they can sometimes cause–neither do we think that they could stop a democratically organised socialist mass movement. History demonstrates that the activities of tiny minorities can never hold back the tide of the overwhelming majority for long, so–"hairies" or no "hairies"–we don't think they have any more right to claim that history is on their side than their adversaries in vanguards like the SWP.