‘Deep’ State, Subversion and Legitimacy

by Rosa Gilbert

14 April 2015

The latest episode of Novara FM discussed, with reference to the furore over the Telegraph story regarding Nicola Sturgeon, the actions of the ‘deep’ state, security service (MI5) and what this tells us about techniques of state and legitimacy today.

It flagged up a number of historical events and theoretical considerations that deserve greater attention and I wanted to sketch out a few ideas that came from this. I will mainly use examples from Northern Ireland, since this is my particular field of study.

The state

Firstly, James’ point that when we talk about the ‘deep’ state, we are actually just talking about the state, is a useful starting point. The idea that the excesses of the security service (MI5) and indeed the secret intelligence service (MI6) are aberrations of a functioning liberal democracy is a fallacy. Even by its own standards within the framework of human rights, abuses of these are not aberrations but part of a coherent policy sanctioned at ministerial level – this is clear, to give one example, from the continuous use of torture by the British state.

The state, by its very nature, acts to preserve itself through the preservation of order. This goes to the very heart of what it means to be a state, looking to Quentin Skinner’s genealogical conceptualisation of order in Renaissance Italy, and to Weber, Schmitt and so on. The problematic of sovereignty in modernity is unresolved since it is now the state, not the sovereign, with whom authority rests (in Schmitt’s famous formulation, to decide on the exception), and yet as Aaron points out, in the archaic state of the United Kingdom, the military is expected to be loyal to the sovereign head of state rather than the government. We therefore get this strange idea of ‘duty’ to the sovereign and thus the state, and to its preservation at all costs. If you read material written by state functionaries, from civil servants’ correspondence in state files to police memoirs (J. C. Alderson’s ‘The Police We Deserve’ is a good example), you get this impression of a wholly immanent motivation to their sense of duty to serve.

Emergency legislation functions to restore absolute authority to the state in order to preserve order – this is explicit in the Northern Ireland Special Powers Act, whereby police were able to forego many formalities if the preservation of order was at risk. Again, to refute the idea that this was an aberration of liberal democratic norms, the Special Powers Act was introduced in 1922 following partition, and was renewed yearly, then five-yearly, until 1972 when the UK government introduced direct rule and immediately passed the Temporary Provisions Act, then the Emergency Provisions Act. Internment without trial, allowed within the remit of the Special Powers Act, had been used in every decade from the inception of the state until Operation Demetrius in 1971.

Without dwelling too much on theory, Giorgio Agamben’s work on ‘State of Exception’ and ‘Homo Sacer’ is instructive here. In reducing individuals to bare life through indefinite detention without trial and subjection to extra-juridical killing, it pushes them into a zone of indistinction that is within yet outside of political and social life. As Adam Kotsko has written:

“It can’t be a matter of refraining from reducing people to “bare life,” because that is just what Western legal structures do. The extreme, destructive conjunction of sovereign authority and bare life is not a catastrophe that we could have somehow avoided: for Agamben, it represents the deepest and truest structure of the law.”

It isn’t just the act of detaining, torturing, or killing – as the British army and Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) did in Northern Ireland – but the threat of this and its effects on the population at large (families, communities, etc.) that informs us about the aims of the permanent state of exception.

Social security state

Something that emerges from Agamben and also Foucault’s conception of biopolitics is how power over life and death is reconstituted in modern government through the management of populations. This has been understood (via the concept of governmentality) as a power that produces and governs life rather than adjudicating over death (not to say the latter is no longer a fundamental state power, as I will touch on later) and the British post-war consensus is indicative of this. The modern capitalist state relies to a large extent on the existence of a welfare state, to subsidise wages and keep the workforce healthy. The SPK (Sozialistisches Patientenkollektiv) book Turn Illness into a Weapon draws on Engels’s connection between capitalism and somatic illness in The Condition of the Working Class in Britain when they write that “illness is the veiled unemployment and in the form of social security contributions being imposed illness is crisis-buffer par excellence in neo-capitalism.” And yet, to be healthy “thus means to be expropriated and exploitable.”

Here, then, we have a connection between social security and state security. This is touched upon by Nikolas Rose in a section of his book Governing the Soul called ‘The Contented Worker’:

“The imperative of security addressed itself to securing, for society as well as for the individual, the conditions of orderly life for the labourer and his or her dependents outside the wage relationship. This initially took the form of voluntary, collective, or industrially based techniques but ultimately, at least until the 1980s, social insurance came to be the crucial mechanism […] to mitigate the antagonistic possibilities in the employment relation […] Social insurance would incorporate into society those sectors of the population not directly and immediately in receipt of a wage – the young, the old, the sick and the unemployed – through establishing a set of direct economic relations between each citizen and the state.”

Rose says that the language of insurance had the psychological effects of resonating with security, respectability and to “bind the citizen subjectively into the obligations of the social order.”

This critical analysis of the post-war welfare state settlement is useful for two reasons. Firstly, by making citizens employees of society through social security payments, the state is able to punish those deemed to be subversives. James touched on the punitive characteristic of the welfare state and this is something I have been looking at recently. One issue that ministers had real difficulties with when internment was introduced in Northern Ireland in August 1971 was whether or not those interned would lose benefits and national insurance contributions as well as earnings and liberty.

When social housing tenants participated in a rent and rates strike against internment, the government quickly introduced the Payments for Debt Act, allowing the Ministry of Finance to direct any social security benefit due to an individual or their spouse to be paid to any government department which was due debt relating to the non-payment of rent or rates. The Ministry of Health and Social Services set up a specific Benefits Allocation branch to re-allocate these benefits to governmental departments. The withdrawal of benefits was thus used as a punishment of behaviour seen to jeopardise order. Similar mechanisms were put in place during the rent strikes in Britain in the early 1970s against the Housing Finance Act, as councillors who refused to implement the rent increases found they would be personally liable for the debts incurred, transferring public debt onto individual public administrators in order to foster a sense of ‘duty’.

Secondly, the post-war consensus helped to create an amenable, pliable public which trusted what was seen as benign government, allowing the securitisation of the state throughout the 1970s and beyond. This is illustrated excellently in Stuart Hall’s Policing the Crisis which traces the development from consent to coercion in law and order. It is at this juncture (and Hall’s theorisation of this historical juncture is fundamental to the book) that the pathologisation of certain behaviours, allegiances and ideas as subversive becomes indispensable to state practices. Hall discusses the use of immigration legislation within this law-and-order framework and a slide towards counter-terrorism legislation on the British mainland.

The pernicious use of state power over borders against political opponents is a common theme today – one need only look to rendition for a horrendous example of this. During the 1960s in West Germany, the Foreigner Law was used against political dissidents, particularly Iranian students mobilising with left-wing student groups. Quinn Slobodian’s book Foreign Front describes the use of immigration legislation against political subversives in Germany, including the famous case of Bahman Nirumand who Ulrike Meinhof writes about in her famed column Everybody talks about the weather… we don’t. As with the use of rendition to supply political opponents to corrupt regimes, the unreserved respect of other state’s sovereignty (regardless of their human rights record) is conveniently coupled with the conditioning of behaviour within the nation state and establishing of norms relating to the limits of accepted political activity.

Colonial transfer

Actually, one example of the West German state’s treatment of subversives connects a few dots with relation to the United Kingdom. After an attempted assassination by a neo-Nazi in 1967, Rudi Dutschke tried to relocate to Britain to continue his studies at the University of Cambridge.

His immigration case was heard in secret, neither he nor his lawyer were allowed to attend. This was unprecedented and almost certainly due to MI5/MI6 evidence. Dutschke’s appeal was rejected. The Vice-Chair (or Deputy President) of the Immigration Appeal Tribunal was someone called Philip Dalton (Nicholas Purnell QC has him down here as Paul Dalton but I’m sure it’s the same person). Dalton had served as a High Court judge in colonial Kenya. He also sat on the Advisory Committee mandated by the Special Powers Act when internment without trial was introduced in 1971. This committee assessed whether internees should remain in detention or be released; bizarrely, if released, internees were made to give the following oath:

“I swear by Almighty God that, for the remainder of my life, I will not join nor assist any illegal organisation, nor engage in any violence, nor counsel nor encourage others so to do.”

Dalton was not the only colonial transfer from Kenya to Northern Ireland. In a famous case of the British civilising mission, 11 detainees were beaten to death by prison warders at Hola detention camp in Kenya on 4th March 1959, with junior officers blamed for ‘excessive behaviour’. A letter between civil servants in Northern Ireland on 24 November 1971, 3 months after the introduction of internment, voiced the need to obtain from the Foreign & Commonwealth Office the instructions given for the treatment of detainees in camps in former colonies, including the Hola camp. From what we now know, largely thanks to Ian Cobain’s book Cruel Britannia, about the transfer of the five techniques of torture throughout the British Empire and to Northern Ireland, British officials were clearly concerned with ensuring the cover-up of state-sanctioned torture.

Aaron spoke about colonial policing too. This is a good example of Foucault’s ‘colonial boomerang’; British policing was not just exported to the colonies, but techniques established in colonial states returned to Britain, and were again exported as Phil Miller’s latest publication on Sri Lanka confirms. Northern Ireland acted in some way as a middle ground between mainland Britain and its colonies, and the career trajectories of former RUC detectives exemplify this (and not just their casual racism on the way to football matches).

Aaron also mentioned Frank Kitson, whose biographical detail (Malaya, Kenya, Northern Ireland) confirms the colonial transfer. Kitson openly expressed his expectation that the army would be used for domestic counter-subversion on mainland Britain, for example in dealing with strike action. Kitson was open about Northern Ireland being a testing ground in this regard, and, indeed, a declassified file from 1975 contains a discussion between civil servants in the Northern Ireland Office (based in Whitehall) over whether or not the Emergency Powers Act could allow the army to perform ‘civil’ functions and ‘whether emergency regulations generally could be directed against strikers and pickets’. In Northern Ireland, Kitson’s advice in Low-Intensity Operations that the British army should ‘enter civil powers’ was taken up in Belfast, where urban areas were re-developed to include cul-de-sacs in order to facilitate military ‘hot pursuit’ of terrorist suspects.

The trace of Kitson is visible not just in the Emergency Powers Act but also the criminalisation of political prisoners and the use of Diplock (no jury) Courts. One of Kitson’s suggestions is to use law as “another weapon in the government’s arsenal […] a propaganda cover for the disposal of unwanted members of the public.” Of course, the law was used for this, though it wasn’t always necessary – the police and army were capable of removing unwanted members of the public through extra-juridical killing as a cursory glance at the details of the Stalker/Sampson affair and Operation Flavius indicate.


Who are these unwanted members of the public anyway? Coming back to what was discussed on the show and what it means to those coming up against these state practices, we must understand what it means for the state to consider someone ‘subversive’ –  this is not just about political ideology but about desirable and undesirable subjects.

One example I will give (again, Northern Ireland) is that of loyalist paramilitaries who were not viewed as subversive, were not viewed as creating difficulties, were not interned, because they were seen as loyal to the state. In the European Court case of 1976 (Republic of Ireland v UK) relating to the torture of detainees, the court considers why it was only Catholics who were interned and not Protestants. “IRA terrorism was regarded as the real menace to law and order. Protestant terrorist activity, which was in the main directed against the Catholic community and not the State or the security forces, was seen by the authorities as more sporadic…” (RoI v UK, p. 13).

The connection between immigration law and the 1974 Prevention of Terrorism Act that Hall points to is important in considering what or who is regarded is subversive. This counter-terrorist legislation was used as a tool against Irish citizens in Britain (described by Paddy Hillyard as a ‘Suspect Community’) and just weeks after its Royal Assent led to the great miscarriage of justice of the Guildford Four. The overlap – or continuity – between punitive immigration law and counter-terrorism legislation is crucial to understanding how the state changed its tactics in disposing with undesirable characters. In some ways they both have their origins in the 1914 Defence of the Realm Act, and in this regard the violence of immigration law cannot be overstated.

In the 1980s, when the subversive threat broadened to include black youths and industrial workers, we see Kitson’s threat become real with the paramilitarising of policing, the recourse to law as a political tool by Thatcher (particularly union-busting laws), the deployment of MI5 (very effectively in the case of the miners’ strike) and the old media tricks of black propaganda and disinformation. So we see, as Aaron described, the absolute continuity of security practices from counter-terrorism to industrial disputes.

At the top of this article is an image showing solidarity with the Brixton rioters from the front page of Outta Control, a publication of the Belfast Anarchist Collective dated April 1981, which also featured news on Bobby Sands’ election:

“The demands for withdrawal of the police echoes similar desires in Belfast. We would like to see the entire working class of London and Belfast seize control of the city and kick out all police and soldiers.”

Republished from The Great Refusal with the kind permission of the author.

We’re up against huge power and influence. Our supporters keep us entirely free to access. We don’t have any ad partnerships or sponsored content.

Donate one hour’s wage per month—or whatever you can afford—today.

We’re up against huge power and influence. Our supporters keep us entirely free to access. We don’t have any ad partnerships or sponsored content.

Donate one hour’s wage per month—or whatever you can afford—today.