Donal O’Driscoll, Undercover Research Group, 25 August 2017
The impact of the protests of 1968 on reshaping left-wing politics is well-known. It also had another important effect, the development of political policing through the use of specialist undercovers to spy on protest movements. One of those early spies, the Undercover Policing Inquiry has now revealed was a ‘John Graham’. Examining what little is known of him has allowed a rare light to be shone on the much less studied events behind the scenes leading to the outpouring of protest that year.
Politics in 1968 was dominated by the United States involvement in the Vietnam War. In the UK, the opposition was lead by the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign, a broad coalition of hard-left groups, but in the main lead by Trotskyists. It was the VSC which organised the mass protest of March 1968, when thousands of protests occupied Grosvenor Square and fought with police to get access to the US Embassy there. This caused huge embarrassment to the Labour Government of its time. With a second big demonstration being organised that October, the pressure was on the police to gather intelligence to prevent a repetition – and it was this which directly lead to the setting up of the notorious spycop unit,the Special Demonstration Squad under Det. Ch. Insp. Conrad Dixon.
1968 was also important because it was the year radical student politics came into its own. At the heart of this was the Revolutionary Socialist Students Federation (RSSF). Again a broad church coalition many of its leading lights came from the same Trotskyist milieu as the VSC. The core of the activists was based in and around north west London – Camden, Hampstead, Kilburn and the like.
Studying ‘John Graham’ has been a fascinating exploration of the history of the time, allowing us to examine rarely seen archives which documented some of the internal workings of the VSC. For anyone looking at an understanding of the history of protest at the time, our profile is possibly worth a read for that reason alone.
Founding of the Special Demonstration Squad
With the October 1968 protest looming, Dixon’s proposal to create a Special Branch spycop unit was accepted in September that year – the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS), often nickednamed the ‘Hairies’ or the ‘Scruffies’. Within a month a number of men were placed in different groups. Initially consisting of only twelve officers, it appears that Dixon himself played his own role in infiltrating the RSSF.
Thanks to journalist Solomon Hughes, we are fortunate to have copies of Special Branch reports which give insight into intelligence gathering in the run up to the October demonstration. Most were authored by Dixon himself and one helpfully lists the main groups he considered important, indicating which others were probable targets for infiltration. ‘John Graham’ himself focused on infiltrating north London Trotskyists. It is likely the south London branches of the VSC also had an infiltrator (it is believed that the SDS had a policy of trying to place undercovers in similar groups both sides of the river Thames). Similarly the Maoist British-Vietnam Solidarity Front, the Anarchist Communist Federation and the Young Communist League, all of which were pinpointed by Dixon as being of concern.
Questions raised by ‘John Graham’s deployment
Putting what is known about ‘John Graham’ in better context raises some questions about the material released by the Metropolitan Police, in particular in the risk assessment they conducted for him. There is one glaring inaccuracy: the naming of an improbable meeting venue for the Kilburn group in the south of London. This could be interpreted as an error, accidentally pointing to another undercover present in the Lambeth branch of the VSC. The police talk of ‘John Graham’ targeting the little known Kilburn VSC branch, but he himself mentions Camden. A deeper look at that latter group reveals it was there that the heartland of the VSC in London was based. We explore this and other issues in fuller detail in our profile of ‘John Graham’.
We also learn other curious aspects about the Special Demonstration Squad. Details of N329 were released as part of a wider set of documents in relation to applications seeking restriction orders on revealing cover and real names of undercover officers. Reading the generic risk assessments one is left with a strong impression of a highly regulated and policy driven unit, where risk assessments were par for the course and the officers promised a lot of security and protection from the very start of the unit.
That is not the picture you get from N329’s own account of his time as ‘John Graham’. He was not given a choice, selected, sent in, and when he expressed discomfort about being asked to go to an otherwise unspecified meeting, unceremoniously removed and redeployed to other Special Branch duties. N329 is clearly among that very first group of SDS undercovers so some leeway has to be given. However, the police cannot make blanket statements about their policy when he so blatantly contradicts them.
N329 may not have stolen the identity of a dead child, nor – as far as is known – had a relationship with a target, but still he applied for anonymity in the Inquiry. When asked why he wants his name to be not made public, ‘Graham’ says he doesn’t want to be associated with the ‘idiot who started all of this’. That is nowhere near a justification, yet the new Chair of the Inquiry, John Mitting, has said he is minded to grant the former undercover his anonymity. Yet, if ‘John Graham’ really has done nothing wrong, he has nothing to fear, as the police are so fond of telling people.