‘A touch of evil’ (1958)

Quinlan or Vargas?

As a judicial inquiry commences into the surveillance of activist groups, Paul Demarty explains why the workers’ movement must fight to replace the police with a popular militia

Some small amount of media attention has accrued lately to the ingrained police practice of infiltrating political groups.

There is, first of all, the commencement of the long-awaited public inquiry into the exploits of the Special Demonstration Service - a clandestine unit of the Metropolitan Police dedicated to infiltrating protest groups - and its national equivalent, the National Public Order Intelligence Unit. A slow pile-up of scandals forced Theresa May, back when she was home secretary, to set up the inquiry. It has taken this long to get going, and is not expected to report until 2023.

By that time, of course, the Covert Human Intelligence Services Bill (CHIS) is likely to be law, which will make a mockery of any recommendations the septuagenarian Garrick Club regular in charge of the inquiry, Sir John Mitting, might make. The CHIS bill provides a legal footing for undercover agents to commit crimes during the course of their work; and, given that the lack of such a footing was no great disincentive to such antics in the past, we can confidently expect any conceivable drafting of the bill to be taken as carte blanche by the police. Disgracefully, Labour is supporting this bill, though soft-left groupings like Momentum have objected strenuously.

The story of these undercover units goes back to 1968: the Special Demonstration Squad was formed in response to the Grosvenor Square protests against the Vietnam war; the police of the day were unprepared for the numbers of protestors converging on the US embassy and charged the demonstration with horses. Dozens were injured in the resulting fracas. The SDS, so the theory went, would give the police better intelligence and allow officers to be prepared for such eventualities.

In practice, the SDS was wholly unaccountable to anyone other than a small clique of Metropolitan Police chiefs. Its activities spilled out rapidly from its formal remit; SDS agents, who styled themselves ‘the Hairies’, as they bearded up for life with the hippies and peaceniks, rapidly infiltrated a panoply of left and other protest groups, from Trotskyist sects to environmentalists, to tiny women’s lib circles with no serious interest in direct action at all. From there, inevitably, SDS officers found provocations a little too tempting. Four years ago, for example, SDS old-timer Bob Lambert was accused of having conspired to plant a bomb in a London Debenhams store, while undercover with animal rights activists in the late 1980s (he denies it).

The NPOIU was formed later, in 1999. It had plenty to get its teeth into when September 11 2001 sparked both a revival of Islamist radicalism and an extensive movement against what was to become the USA’s forever war against ‘terrorism’. Its most notorious operative, however, was on the classic SDS beat of radical environmentalism. Mark Kennedy spent years embedded in an environmentalist direct-action group before his identity was exposed to a fellow activist - a woman with whom he had been romantically involved for years. Kennedy’s exposure caused the collapse of a trial of several people for conspiracy to shut down a power station, and in turn led journalists from The Guardian to discover that Kennedy’s mixing of business and pleasure was far from unique - several SDS and NPOIU agents had even fathered children with their marks over the years.

Speaking of the SDS, it was wound up in 2008, so embarrassing were its activities; but its corpse gave up one more scandal, when a whistleblower by the name of Peter Francis revealed it had extensively spied on the friends and relatives of the murdered teenager, Stephen Lawrence, in the 1990s. The outrage at that revelation forced May to open Mitting’s inquiry.

The latter, needless to say, is a bit of a joke. It is only very inexactly described as ‘public’: the British state is gleefully making use of the Covid-19 pandemic to restrict access to politically sensitive judicial processes (another recent case being the Julian Assange extradition kangaroo court). There is no public access to the courtroom due to social distancing; there is no public live stream; those who want to follow proceedings must go to a certain London hotel, where they will get to see some (not all) of the witness statements. The cops are challenging a lot of the subpoenas on the basis that it will compromise people’s identities, even in cases where the infiltration took place decades ago into organisations with no record of or plausible capability for retaliation. It is, in other words, even more of a bad-news burial than the usual run of judicial inquiries in this damnable country.

On the face of it, there is something peculiar about the tenacity with which the state holds onto these units. To put it mildly, their record of success is dubious, and the embarrassments all too legion. Can the SDS alumni point to a single meaningful arrest made with intelligence from these bright sparks who kept themselves so busy knocking up the women of the animal rights movement? Does entrapping a few dozy anarchists or anti-fur protestors really keep the world safe for the ruling class?

The left

What is clear from the story we have laid out is that the spy cops have wandered far from their original purpose, which was to spy on the left at a time when the cold war was at its height and, moreover, the west was embroiled in the greatest military disaster it had suffered in the whole duration of the conflict with the Soviet bloc, and when labour militancy was reaching its peak, with extensive Communist Party influence throughout the trade union movement. In those circumstances, the ramping up of surveillance of the left seemed prudent to the home secretaries of the day. It is worth noting here that MI5 has completely escaped mention during all of this, despite its very much more extensive and equally morally dubious record of infiltrations.

In the end, the left and the trade union movement was defeated - not primarily by spooks and cops, but by their own political failures. The result was not social harmony, however; and so, as society’s contradictions simmered, the spy cops began to perpetuate themselves.

In a sense this is a particular fractal iteration of the rise of standing police forces in the capitalist world over centuries. In Britain and America, such police forces replaced the traditional town militias that had existed for a long time; the purpose was to ensure a consistent legal regime, which would enforce the interests of property-owners. (In America, this process was longer, and in fact mediated by private organisations such as antebellum slave-catchers and the notorious Pinkerton mercenaries.)

In Orson Welles’ classic film Touch of evil, there is a scene where Charlton Heston’s noble Mexican official, Vargas, confronts the morally-beaten American cop, Quinlan, about the latter’s habit of bending the rules to secure conviction. “Who is to be in charge,” Vargas asks, “the law or the cop?” This is the characteristic liberal way of putting things, but it is basically a false opposition. The law cannot be in charge without the police (or the Pinkertons), but the reverse is not true at all; ‘rule of law’ liberalism immanently includes police authoritarianism.

The mechanisms of this result are complex. Most pertinently for our current purposes, police officers are positioned over against the policed, in sharp distinction to citizens’ militias. This positioning is not a one-off event, however, but an unfolding contradiction. Successive means are found to achieve it. One of the most powerful is ideological - the daily life of the uniformed cop brings him into contact with the mundane cruelty of lower-class life, rather than its solidarity. His contacts with civilians are not morally uplifting on the whole. The side characters in the story of his life are wife-beaters, pimps, drug dealers, and their respective trapped prey - the beaten wives, prostitutes and addicts. Through this distorting mirror, an essentially Tory view of fallen human nature takes shape; and the sometimes dangerous situations he confronts create a pack mentality, which breeds further contempt of civilians. Another is ‘nationalisation’; in situations where local loyalties are likely to reduce police discipline, governments will ship in riot cops from as far afield as possible (a strategy used to great effect by the Thatcher government in dealing with the miners, and with rather more dubious results with the deployment of the federal cops to deal with civil unrest in American cities this year).

Now, note a peculiar thing about the spy cops - both of these techniques are directly contradicted by the reality of long-term undercover work within activist groups. The people you are interacting with may be irritating leftie types, but they are plainly high-functioning and intelligent members of society. They are unlikely to glass you when you try to defuse a domestic. You are removed, for long periods of time, from the cop wolf-pack.

Those who formed relationships with their targets are, of course, guilty of morally reprehensible breaches of trust; but, human nature being the complicated thing that it is, that is not in contradiction with subjective affection for the duped lovers (never mind the children born of such relationships ... ). It seems for all the world that Kennedy, for example, was wracked with remorse after his cover was blown; and the Stephen Lawrence angle was, again, blown open by a whistleblower, who was deeply ashamed of his role.

It was the sad duty of this paper, a couple of years ago, to report the death of comrade Michael Bettaney, the former MI5 agent whose duties brought him necessarily into contact with the doctrines of the ‘communist enemy’ and ultimately led him to become a supporter of the communist cause, at great personal cost. It is the broken-backed, antagonistic structure of capitalist class society that demands the police, the spooks, etc; but, just as the police cannot suppress those fundamental contradictions, nor can they escape their effects, even if no more than a few individuals are strong enough to reject the evil demanded of them.


Ours is a peculiar moment in the history of the police. This year’s Black Lives Matter protests have hurled into the public arena demands for the abolition of the police that have hitherto been thought a little too risqué even for the r-r-revolutionary sects of the left, never mind the left-liberal milieu that surrounds BLM. Such demands are the subject of lively controversy in ‘mainstream’ politics, and are not currently possible to dismiss as a ‘fringe’ concern. On the other hand, state authoritarianism is very much on the march, and the recent setback to that process in the American presidential election is likely to be short-lived. Quinlan is in the ascendancy, not Vargas.

As encouraging as it is to see the more radical demands of BLM getting an airing, there is a certain irony about them: the same reason that police authoritarianism frays at the edges strictly limits what can be expected of the movement calling itself ‘abolitionist’, with wholly deliberate historical echoes. As we argued above, the invention and strengthening of the police are moments in the fundamental contradictions of capitalist society. Just as those contradictions are not resolved by the badge, the truncheon and the fall down the nick stairs, nor can they be resolved by simply campaigning for police abolition as a racial-justice single issue. Eventually the powerful will demand that order is restored to their benefit; and, being powerful, their wishes will be granted.

The most striking logical difficulty of the contemporary anti-police movement, in America at least, is that its personnel is almost a strict subset of those people who demand extensive gun control; to defund, let alone to abolish, the extensively militarised police forces of urban America is necessarily to disarm them. Who is to disarm them, then? The other police? The only democratic answer is surely something like the old militias of the pre-police era, except with truly universal participation and republican organisational norms; but arguing for that would mean not abandoning the second amendment to the right, but expropriating it. (This is all the more the case in this country, which has long abolished the right to bear arms.)

Doing so would demonstrate, in practice, that the means of legitimate coercion - which cannot be done away with this side of the higher stage of communism - could be thoroughly democratic in character; and, as a welcome consequence, we might be able to turn the trickle of whistleblowers and defectors we mentioned above into something like a real split in the state apparatus.