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How the spy cops were set up to infiltrate the left

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Simon Basketter looks at documents from the undercover cops inquiry that show how the spies mobilised against the anti-Vietnam War movement
Issue 2730
Anti-war protest in London in 1968
Anti-war protest in London in 1968 (Pic: Wikimedia/ David Wilson)

Up to 25,000 people took part in a protest outside the US Embassy in London’s Grosvenor Square on 17 March 1968.

Parliament and the press fumed with growing paranoia as the revolts of the year entered Britain.

The Guardian reported, “The demonstrators seemed determined to stay until they provoked a violent response.”

The Home Office and the Metropolitan Police Service demanded more information on the coming revolution.

One cop claimed, “We underestimated how many were coming. We were ill-equipped at the time and couldn’t bring enough men in to control it consequently when the violence erupted. We were amateurs then.”

In reality, as a report by the National Council of Civil Liberties made clear, the cops bottlenecked the demo then started attacking people.

Numerous Conservative MPs expressed outrage at the “hooligans who ran riot in Grosvenor Square that Sunday—that most un-British of days”.

MPs were particularly concerned with the influence of “alien militant agitators”.

Spy cops inquiry will not give their victims justice
Spy cops inquiry will not give their victims justice
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Special Branch had gone to a degree of effort to find out the scale and nature of the March 1968 demo.

One Special Branch document describes attending a Vietnam Solidarity Campaign meeting but being recognised and asked to leave.

Another attempt to attend a private meeting was aborted due to cops not knowing anyone and dressing like cops. The March demo was seen as a failure by the cops, but it was also an opportunity. Special Branch Chief Inspector Conrad Dixon proposed a radical solution, saying for “twenty men, half a million pounds and a free hand” he could sort it out.

Dixon became head of the Special Operations Squad—later the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS).

In Dixon’s report from April 1968, he said no intelligence had shown anyone planning violence at the demo. And yet it happened.

The idea was that if the cops couldn’t see something it didn’t mean it wasn’t there. They just had to look harder. There’s very little documentation on the actual formation of the SDS, but it was probably created on 30 or 31 July 1968.

Early SDS documents stated its intention as being solely to gather intelligence ahead of the 27 October 1968 Vietnam demo, using publications, informants, technical devices, and undercover police officers.

It rapidly moved to using ­undercover police to take on a large group of somewhat ill-defined subversives.

The anti-war movement gains undercover members

A front page report in The Times warned of “militant extremists” manufacturing Molotov cocktails and amassing a small arsenal of weapons.

This helpful information had come from a “startling plot uncovered by a special squad of detectives”.

The spy cops descended on the anti-war movement.

Various groups that made up the movement were infiltrated.

Whether it was a large meeting or a small group didn’t matter.

Officers who pretended to be a couple infiltrated the Havering branch of the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign (VSC). Their report covers a meeting in a pub with details of all nine attendants.

Not all interventions were that successful. There is a forlorn report of an officer hanging around Earl’s Court waiting for a meeting that never took place.

Dixon prepared weekly reports on the build-up to the demo for the Home Office.

Though redacted, the reports show something of the diversity of the British far left in 1968.

The internal politics of the VSC account for much of the detail.

Spy cops inquiry gives glimpse of scale of state infiltration
Spy cops inquiry gives glimpse of scale of state infiltration
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Officers spent a lot of time collecting information and worrying about people running campsites in and near London, as they searched for the “foreign radicals”.

A list of 35 “alien students” with convictions for violence was passed on to the Home Office.

The cabinet discussed using troops for the upcoming demo.

And the press was briefed that the government would prefer photographs to be demonstrators hitting police officers—not the other way round.

The cops received information on demonstrators travelling from Glasgow and Liverpool.

And the last update before the October demonstration confirmed the number of students travelling from across the country.

It included the registration numbers of coaches. This was used by uniformed officers to stop coaches and search people before they got to London.

It was suggested that uniformed cops keeping a low profile would help a peaceful demonstration.

But a report said, “even the most politically-naïve student or starry-eyed intellectual finds this hard to swallow”.

Police claimed victory

By the time the October 1968 Vietnam demo came round, Dixon predicted less trouble than had been seen in March.

The VSC was led by the orthodox Trotskyists of the International Marxist Group.

It also encompassed the International Socialists and some members of the Young Communist League.

They wanted the march to be peaceful and finish at a rally in Hyde Park. Maoists wanted a more direct confrontation in Grosvenor Square.

In the end the VSC march went off peacefully.


Denis Holmes who oversaw the Daily Mail coverage of the protest wrote, “Our planning went off so successfully we know now if there is a revolution we can cope.”

While violence on one demonstration was used to justify the spy cops, the absence of violence on another justified their continuation.

This became the pretext for making the SDS a permanent arrangement, but with a much wider scope.

It allowed for state surveillance of almost all protest groups.

Within a fortnight of the October demo, spy cops boss Dixon had proposed long term infiltration of organisations.

Within a year they were compiling lists of left wingers in trade unions

The SDS was directly funded by the Home Office until the late 1980s to help keep it secret. Oddly, there are no documents of any kind about the SDS in any of the Home Office archives.

Read Dixon’s plan for the spy cops here:

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