Lies, spies and dirty tricks: the truth about Britain’s undercover police

It has been more than a decade since this newspaper broke the story of Britain’s politicised secret police. In March 2010, a former officer from the undercover policing unit, the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS), did a lengthy interview with the Observer’s Tony Thompson, in which he detailed for the first time many of the practices that have since become public knowledge: the infiltration by undercover police officers of peaceful political organisations, including environmental, socialist and anti-racist groups, dating back to the 1960s; the fact that officers based their undercover identities on the birth certificates of dead children; that many of them (the “deep swimmers”) had been embedded in these groups for years; and that it had been common practice for officers to form sexual relationships with activists.

The story took on new prominence when activists unmasked one of the officers, Mark Kennedy, also in 2010. Five years later, in response to the public outcry, the prime minister at the time, Theresa May, announced an inquiry into undercover policing. And there, in a spectacularly un-spectacular British way, things got stuck. There has been no big public reckoning, no truth or justice. To date, the undercover policing inquiry has racked up costs in excess of £50m, but there is still no date set for even its interim report, with hearings set to continue into 2024 and beyond. The inquiry has performed to perfection its dual function of creating the illusion of a political response, while firmly kicking the issue into the long grass. As a crime author friend observed wryly to me: “The best form of cover-up is a public inquiry.”

The BBC’s Sherwood has served as a timely reminder that drama and fiction have an essential role to play in keeping this issue alive in the public consciousness. This was also my motivation for writing Skylark, a novel that looks at the impact of undercover policing on anti-capitalism and environmental groups during the 1990s, through the lens of a relationship between an activist and an undercover cop. I wrote the book because I felt that as a culture, we hadn’t begun to absorb the extent to which our lives and our society have been shaped by political policing. Many people will be aware of the facts, but somehow won’t identify with them. We still think this is the kind of thing that happened in East Germany and the Soviet Union, not here at home.

Drama and fiction – acts of empathy and imagination – have a unique capacity to communicate the truth in a way that engages our emotions and makes us care. Fictional narratives can reveal those invisible bonds between past and present, and show us the ways in which our history is always with us. How many of us would know much at all about the Biafran war, without Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun? What would we care about Thomas Cromwell, were it not for Hilary Mantel? From 12 Years a Slave to Schindler’s List, Dunkirk to The Hurt Locker, it is often through fictional narratives that we collectively process our past and start to heal our trauma.

By telling stories about undercover policing, dramatists and novelists perform an important public service. These practices have done so much more than traumatise the activists and officers involved; they have corroded our democracy, undermining the grassroots movements for social and climate justice. As “officer A” chillingly remarked to Tony Thompson in 2010: “If the SDS had been around at the time of the suffragettes, their campaigns would never have got off the ground, and they would have been quickly forgotten.”

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