By Simon Basketter
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2360

Special Branch: spying on activists since 1883

This article is over 10 years, 10 months old
Britain’s secret police have a long history of trying to undermine ‘subversives’, writes Simon Basketter
Issue 2360

The Daily Mail wrote that Special Branch’s job “is to see that the people of Great Britain can sleep safely in their beds and not wake to hear of some outrage  at the hands of some foreign agent, some political fanatic or some home grown lunatic.” 

The Mail asserted this in 1955 but spy cops have been keeping us safe in our beds for much longer than that. 

Since people first stood up to their rulers, spies have been hired to listen in and disrupt opposition. But as capitalism developed, and with it the uppity working class, the state had to shift its methods of control.

Subtler methods of co-option and infiltration were added to naked violence. The police provide all of these and the first police force was set up in London in 1829.

The first significant working class resistance, by the Luddites, was constantly at risk from state agents.

But they were so effective at organising away from the eyes and ears of the state that there are still gaps in what we know about how they organised revolt and insurrection.

As the working class grew its tactics shifted, to methods that were even harder for the state to cope with. 

Between 1838 and 1848 the Chartist movement organised mass working class opposition–including the world’s first general strike. The state responded with repression, but it also looked to infiltration.

The Home Office used a range of sources in its attempt to suppress the Chartists. Local bosses and landowners sent information, as did the army. The recently formed police forces sent plainclothes officers to spy on meetings.

The added spark of anti-imperialism saw the state attempt more systematic tactics.

Irish revolutionaries called the Fenians were carrying out a campaign of bombings in England against the British occupation of Ireland.

In 1883 they planted bombs around London, notably in the offices of the Times newspaper and on the Underground. The Special Irish Branch was formed to spy on and infiltrate Irish radicals.


In 1884 Fenians blew up the Special Irish Branch headquarters. Most of the files on the Fenians were destroyed.

The Branch continued to spy on Irish activists. But it soon broadened its remit and dropped the Irish part of its name as it moved to tackle what is now called “domestic extremism”.

Undercover cops dressed up as dockers in 1911

Undercover cops dressed up as dockers in 1911 (Pic: Metropolitan Police)

A German man called Brall was charged with explosives offences on Special Branch evidence in 1893.

He had a number of anarchist and socialist papers, and a pamphlet on scientific warfare in his house.

According to an officer Sweeney, “the mere possession of it unexplained should be made as serious an offence as the possession of explosive materials.” 

One key piece of the Branch’s evidence was a hole in the garden. It argued this was clearly for burying bombs. A jury thought it was merely a hole and acquitted Brall.

The officer missed out on the cash bonus that was standard for getting a conviction.

The Branch’s own history records that it “gathered intelligence on Lenin and Trotsky’s activities while they were in London at the beginning of the century.

Herbert Fitch, who was fluent in French, German and Russian, hid in a cupboard and also disguised himself as a waiter to listen.”

The strike wave before the First World War known as the Great Unrest was also beyond it. The Branch spent its time looking for or concocting plots to kill the great and the good—usually by spying on foreigners. 

But towards the end of the war police spies were redeployed to again try and prevent industrial unrest and to infiltrate pacifist groups.

The cabinet refused to believe Special Branch evidence that pacifist groups weren’t being funded by Germany, so sent agents back to try and get the “right” information. 

Special Branch was proud to foil an assassination plot against prime minister Lloyd George towards the end of the war—though it later became clear that there was probably never a plot, let alone an attempt.

After the war its job was described as saving “England from Red machination”.

During a wave of militancy in 1919 following the Russian Revolution, it produced fake copies of the Bolshevik newspaper to try and stop support growing here.

The cops infiltrated the unemployed movement of the 1930s at various levels. This didn’t stop the movement but it did often let them know details of marches and protests.

And as fascism became a threat during the 1930s the Branch’s own account states, “The impression was allowed to grow that the authorities were more concerned with far left than far right activities.”

Through the 1950s it compiled lists of Communist trade unionists. Based on the agents’ reports, workers were vetted by employers and then blacklisted (see below). 

Spies infiltrated the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and searched in Notting Hill for rumours of plots among the newly arrived African Caribbean people.  

Subversive ideas scrutinised

Subversive ideas scrutinised (Pic: Socialist Worker)

One officer who joined in 1964 said he was astonished when a senior officer warned that it was “quite likely that in ten years Britain could become a Communist state”. 

Thirty years later police spied on murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence’s family as they tried to dig “dirt” to “smear” them, an ex-undercover cop has claimed.

They tried to frame Stephen’s friend Duwayne Brooks.

They formed sexual relationships with activists from various campaigns to get information.

The branch had had difficulty infiltrating the Suffragettes because it had no women. At the beginning of the 21st century, it found it had few Muslim cops at the start of the “war on terror”.

But that didn’t stop it because the majority of its work involves intimidating people to inform. Or going on fishing expeditions—raiding a house purely to collect address books and the like. 

The state has GCHQ to spy on phone conversations. Yet Special Branch getting someone arrested to access to their phone is far more common than most people would imagine.

Today a national police unit that uses undercover officers to spy on political groups is monitoring almost 9,000 people it has deemed “domestic extremists”.

The state is not neutral. It is wedded to the interests of the powerful and the rich, immune in critical areas to any democratic control.

It resorts to all these measures because of a basic strength on our side. It’s not spies who turn up in large numbers to support other workers on picket lines. 

It is fellow trade unionists and socialists and their solidarity that is key to beating the bosses and their state.

‘Hairies’ set up to deal with new left

 When battles broke out outside the US embassy against the Vietnam War in 1968, the cops panicked and decided to reassess their strategy. 

The “special demonstration squad” was set up—internally known as the “hairies” because of the way its officers looked. Their motto was “by any means necessary”.

One officer, “What the SAS did for the army, the hairies did for Special Branch.” In the case of Northern Ireland this was literally true as Special Branch smuggled guns and killed people for Loyalist death squads.

It also bugged, burgled and bribed its way into the unions during the 1970s and 1980s. 

Former Special Branch officers say 23 senior union officials—including general secretaries—were “talking” to them in the 1970s—not counting those working directly for MI5.

The latest revelations from Rob Evans and Paul Lewis in the book Undercover show how the spy cops infiltrated the left and environmental movement in the 1990s.

Cops collaborate with big business

Throughout their history the spy cops have worked with the bosses against workers. 

When the Special Branch was fighting Communists after the First World War they were joined by the Economic League, a club of bosses who ran a blacklist.

Special Branch went on working with the League and the Consulting Association that replaced it in the 1990s. 

Those spying for the Murdoch empire were frequently ex spy cops, and plenty of brown envelopes changed hands with serving officers to get information.

Senior Met officers allowed corrupt private detectives to access its witness protection programme.

When spy cops retire or are exposed they move one to be consultants and private investigators.

One such group is Global Open. It boasts that it “was founded in the United Kingdom and is run by former New Scotland Yard Special Branch officers.” 

It offers a range of services to corporations including monitoring activists and groups.

Further reading: Undercover by Paul Lewis & Rob Evans
Available at Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to

Topics ,

Sign up for our daily email update ‘Breakfast in Red’

Latest News

Make a donation to Socialist Worker

Help fund the resistance