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Issue #1800      October 25, 2017

Britain’s “subversives” were proved right by history

Solomon Hughes fears MI5 and Special Branch can’t and won’t put an end to their ineffectual, irritating and life-destroying tactics.

Would-be prime minister Jeremy Corbyn.

Are Britain’s security services going to play daft games when Jeremy Corbyn becomes prime minister? The signs suggest they will.

Former MI5 boss Stella Rimington gave the Daily Mail, the Times and the Telegraph a thrill last week, telling the Cheltenham Literary Festival that members of “various subversive organisations” she monitored in the 1980s are “familiar names” who “are now grown up and advising our would-be prime minister Mr Corbyn as to how to prepare himself for power.”

The right-wing press had a little reds-under-the-beds frisson. But to do so it had to pretend to forget the “subversive organisations” Rimington and the security forces “monitored” back then weren’t “subversive” at all. They were democratic campaigns which rightly challenged the Establishment.

Rimington’s spy targets from the ’80s included the Anti-Apartheid Movement, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and any number of trade unions.

A member of the Cheltenham audience questioned Rimington’s assertion that she only spied on “subversives.” But our national newspapers are less critical than the average punter at a literary festival.

Rimington’s admission reflects badly on MI5, not Corbyn.

The security services have an embarrassing record of spying in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s.

MI5 – which does the posh bits of spying – and the police Special Branch – which did the bulk of monitoring – wasted time that should have been dedicated to chasing terrorists or criminals by spying on legitimate protest movements.

In the 1970s MI5 even spent time spying on that well-known subversive John Lennon. Much of the time the “radicals” who were spied on by the security services were proved right in the longer term.

The campaigners who wanted to fight apartheid or show that the Birmingham Six were innocent or cut nuclear weapons were all on the right side of history. The telephone tappers, mail openers, bugging enthusiasts and infiltrators were in the wrong.

Most of what MI5 and Special Branch did was ineffectual. They built up files on “subversives.” Some of it was, and is, irritating: they used their files to spread nasty rumours and fake stories through friends in the press.

Some of it really hurt individuals. Both MI5 and Special Branch worked with the Economic League to draw up “blacklists” of trade unionists that kept good people out of work. These blacklists often picked out good safety reps, so they made some workplaces more dangerous.

In the dirtiest trick, Special Branch’s “special demonstration squad” sent undercover officers into many political campaigns, and encouraged officers to form long-term sexual relationships with activists as their cover. They even fathered children in their false alter-egos.

This was disgraceful and damaging for the women. But the campaigns they targeted, like those fighting against the many miscarriages of justice, were often vital grassroots groups.

At the same time, both MI5 and Special Branch helped to cover up sexual abuse of children by Cyril Smith MP, so their record from these years is pretty grim.

In the run-up to the last election, we had a few leaks from ex-MI5 or ex-Special Branch officers about how they monitored people around the Labour leader – or even Corbyn and shadow chancellor John McDonnell themselves.

Each time The Telegraph or The Times or the Daily Mail went through contortions to avoid saying this was part of wider scandalous behaviour by the security services in the ’80s and ’90s. I expect more of these stories will float up.

The bigger question is will the security services also actively spy on and leak against a newly elected Labour government? I think it is likely they will.

Scotland’s Sunday Herald reports that Eleanor Jones, a British artist based in Berlin, was arrested and questioned by police before she could board a flight from Edinburgh back to Germany.

Jones had taken part in the G20 protests in Hamburg in July. However, Police Scotland detained her at Edinburgh Airport under Section Seven of the Terrorism Act.

Jones is clearly no terrorist. But the police used the Act to interrogate her about her political views and get access to her laptop and phone before releasing her without charge. Eleanor Jones is twin sister of Labour-supporting UK Guardian columnist Owen Jones.

To me, this looks like opportunism on the part of the “political police,” a fishing expedition aimed at those connected to Labour’s leadership. It suggests to me that the security services are going to pick and poke at Labour now, as well as reviving old tales of the ’80s and ’90s.

This isn’t going to stop Labour getting into power. But a new set of leaks and rumours and small disruptive acts by the security services will be an irritation.

The inquiry into the really dirty tricks of the undercover “spy cops” may well be unearthing old tales of security service misbehaviour just when the security services misbehave again.

Ultimately, this discredits the security services themselves. But I fear they just can’t stop themselves.

Meanwhile in related developments, will Philip Hammond launch a “big, bold Budget” with a major Tories offer to the young? Or will it feature continued cuts, with a half-arsed attempt to cover them with a small squeak of giveaways and gimmicks?

The pressure is on, because the Conservatives are having a collective nervous breakdown about their continuing loss of popularity to Corbyn.

My guess is Hammond will fail to turn the Tories around. Not least because they’ve got the wrong analysis.

They think that “the young” – by which they mean young professionals – are losing faith with capitalism because they don’t have the chance to get the houses and security of their parents. So they will try and juggle resources between the young and old.

But what is really happening is that, as the 2008 financial crisis showed, capitalism has become more exploitative and less productive.

By bailing out the banks without reforming the financial system, we’ve allowed a deeply extractive capitalism to limp on. It’s chasing us all and biting who it can.

This means it catches the weakest members of the herd first, including the young.

But the lack of social housing, rent rises, the bedroom tax, wage stagnation, job casualisation, welfare cuts are painful for everyone who is not cushioned by owning property or other capital.

Capitalism hasn’t just turned on the young, it has turned on all the vulnerable groups, including the low-paid, middle-aged, the poorer pensioner, etc.

A “big, bold Budget” would transfer wealth and power from the rich to the rest, not the old to the young. But it isn’t something Phil Hammond can see on his spreadsheet.

Morning Star

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