Undercover: The True Story of Britain’s Secret Police

Katrina Forrester writes:

The Grosvenor Square demonstration against the Vietnam War in March 1968 caught the Metropolitan Police by surprise. After a rally in Trafalgar Square and a march to the US Embassy, the protest turned into a street battle; stones, smoke bombs and firecrackers were thrown, and mounted police charged the crowd. More than two hundred protesters were arrested. In the months that followed, alarm seemed to grip the police, who felt they were on the back foot. Special Branch – the covert unit of the Met which gathered intelligence on perceived state-subversives – began sending weekly reports to the Home Office predicting what protesters would do next. In one report, a Special Branch chief inspector, Conrad Hepworth Dixon, claimed that the city faced the threat of demonstrators carrying ‘ball-bearings, fireworks, hat pins and banner poles for use as weapons’. Ministers considered deploying the army. Senior police officers assured the government they were in control, but it was clear that a radical change in tactics was needed. Dixon proposed the formation of a new covert unit called the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS), which would operate differently from previous undercover police, who infiltrated criminal gangs with the aim of making targeted arrests within a few weeks. Instead, a squad of ten SDS officers, drawn from the ranks of Special Branch and borrowing strategies from MI5, would go deep undercover over a period of years, with the sole aim of gathering intelligence on the activities of political groups. The idea was to prevent outbreaks of disorder like the one in Grosvenor Square, and to catch anyone intent on ‘engineering a breakdown of our present system of government’. Harold Wilson’s government approved Dixon’s plan and agreed to fund the SDS directly from the Treasury.

(LRB 7 November 2013)

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