The secret state and us

Photo: Kirsty Hall (CC BY 2.0)

Richard Chessum on being a victim of government spy cops

How seriously should we view the secret state? What impact does it have on our daily lives as political activists? How concerned should we be that it may be directly influencing the direction of our politics more widely?

Several years ago I was approached by an undercover research team and asked if I would be prepared to be a core participant in the Mitting Inquiry set up by Theresa May when she was home secretary to investigate aspects of undercover policing. The concerns arose out of the practices over several decades of the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS), created after the big demonstrations against the Vietnam war in 1967/8. It has never been in doubt that the state in so-called capitalist democracies spies on activists, mostly on those of us on the left of the political spectrum. That has been well documented. Every state has its spies, but just how numerous are they and how intensive is their intrusion into our private lives and not just our politics?

I was befriended by one such ‘spy cop’ in the 1970’s and thought he was a friend and colleague for nearly two years. That experience was in the distant past and had not been uppermost in my consciousness for decades until recently. However, my involvement in the Mitting Inquiry and the evidence uncovered by my legal team has persuaded me to re-assess the whole experience and its significance.

The scandal surrounding the SDS revolves around the methods it employed, taking the identities of dead children of bereaved families without their consent, and sexually targeting and exploiting leading women in the organisations it infiltrated. The most notorious of these activities included having a child with one of these women and being present at the birth. There was also the extraordinary revelation that another of the spy cops had actually re-emerged as an assistant police commissioner responsible for monitoring police behaviour! In both of these examples, as with so many others, the women concerned thought they were in a substantive relationship and had no idea of the real identity of the men involved, leading to justified claims that they had been “raped by the state”.

So much was common knowledge before my involvement with the inquiry. What has emerged since? And what extra does it tell us that we had no evidence for before?

The man who befriended me became a political colleague in the Troops Out Movement (TOM), campaigning for a united Ireland and the withdrawal of British troops from the north. It is clear that he did so because he thought his closeness to me would give him political credibility with other campaigners as he had no track record of his own. He adopted the name of a deceased child called Rick Gibson, but his real name was Richard Clark, and he was a police spy in the SDS who eventually became a detective inspector.

Mitting himself at first thought his deployment was “unremarkable” (his own word), but came to believe through the evidence I gave that he had been wrong. My own legal team did their own investigations and came to believe that his deployment could well have been a game changer.

What we now know is that, far from being a rogue officer, Rick Gibson was actually boasting about his sexual relationships in the presence of other SDS men. We also now know that one of the earliest instructions to officers deployed was that they should not take on roles of responsibility in the movements they infiltrated, yet Rick Gibson quickly became secretary of our local TOM branch, then rose to become London organiser and finally national secretary, in a pivotal role in the whole organisation. This was also known to his superiors who allowed it to happen and may even have helped him facilitate it.

Gibson’s deployment acted as a template adopted by the SDS, not only targeting key women for relationships to give themselves a cover, but also moving up hierarchies to influence the direction of movements and, in extremis, almost certainly attempting to sabotage and derail them.

How high did all this go? The deployment of the SDS was sanctioned at the highest level up to and including the prime minister of the time, and its more sordid activities were clearly known about and not prevented by senior police officers. So were the tactics and strategy decided from the start, or did Rick Gibson’s ‘successes’ change the name of the game? One thing is clear: his deployment was most definitely not ‘unremarkable’.

What has also emerged in the course of this inquiry is that others that I thought at the time were political colleagues were also SDS spy cops, including a very helpful and sympathetic vice-president of a local students union supporting our local TOM. Professional infiltrators were not uncommon, indeed quite numerous. Two a penny, you might say. And the reports – sent on a regular basis to MI5 – about me and some of my relatives and friends give very detailed descriptions not only of our political activities but also about our private lives and even our general appearance. So I ask myself, how many times have I been targeted since, especially, as I strongly suspect, when I was a Labour parliamentary candidate.

More generally, should we assume that today such detailed monitoring continues? That we are all being watched and monitored goes without saying. It has always happened. But how intrusive and all-encompassing is the secret state in our own time? And who are the people in high places who are authorising it? Is there any reason to believe that those who govern us in 2021 are more trustworthy than those who have gone before? One only has to ask the question…

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