‘Spycops’ Are a Quintessentially British Institution – As the Empire Well Knows

by Eleanor Penny

23 October 2020

On a February evening in 1989, Pat Finucane was having dinner with his family when loyalist paramilitaries took a sledgehammer to his front door, stormed his kitchen and shot him 14 times in front of his wife and three children.

“The thing I remember most vividly is the noise,” Finucane’s son would later recall, “the reports of each bullet reverberating in the kitchen, how my grip on my younger brother and sister tightened with every shot”. He watched his father die at the dinner table.

Finucane’s supposed crime was representing IRA members in court. Ten years after his murder, a former MI5 Special Branch agent with the Royal Ulster Constabulary and member of the Ulster Defence Association (UDA), was charged with the murder. He confessed to supplying the guns but denied the killing itself; he walked free from court.

In 2012, United Nations war crimes prosecutor Sir Desmond de Silva concluded that state agents were involved in the killing – including passing information to paramilitary gangs and obstructing the investigation. Last year, the Supreme Court ruled that previous inquiries into the assassination did not meet human rights standards. Pat’s widow Geraldine is still seeking justice.

Two weeks ago, the Covert Human Intelligence Sources Bill sailed through the Commons, spurred on by a hard-right Johnsonite government in the latest and perhaps most brazen attempt to defend an economy of chronic plunder from the many inconveniences of democracy. It was sold as an attempt to shield the honest British bobby from the soft-hearted indulgences of human rights and the rule of law; to strengthen the arm of the state in a time of chaos. In practice, it allows state agents to act with impunity. 



Under the proposed legislation, targeted organisations are conflated with ‘terrorist’ and ‘extremist’ groups – an easy PR win for those wanting to handwave away worries about further empowering police and army personnel already infamously immunised against the consequences of their own extra-legal activities. Meanwhile, recent revelations about the undercover activities of ‘spycops’ act as a shorthand for the government’s priorities as to who counts as an extremist of primary concern; state agents were revealed to have been embedded for years in environmental groups, animal rights groups, anti-cuts activism and racial justice campaigns, and trade unions.

In this capacity, such agents have been revealed to rape, murder, torture and kidnap. Some fathered children with alleged victims. The families of Ian Tomlinson and Stephen Lawrence were directly monitored for the crime of attempting to scrimmage some scant justice for their dead relatives. Thanks to the bill, those at the sharp end of the British military and police will have no recourse to such justice – their perpetrators will be innocent by default. Unions are rightly worried; strikes easily tread on purposefully loose definitions of criminal activity. The bill passed with barely a whisper of complaint from the shadow benches.



Amongst the bill’s critics, there is a tendency towards the politesse of liberal patriotism; that the assault on rights to protest and assembly is an affront to our nation’s proud history as a forerunner of democracy and leading light of the free world. Yet the grinning shadows of proto-fascism that loom large in the bill would not surprise thinkers such as Aimee Cesaire and CLR James. They point to how the apparatus of historic fascism was practised and refined in the Congo, in South Africa, in Kenya. Their unthinkable horrors were new to the shores of Europe, but not to its governments. When hyper-authoritarian governments wanted to roll out death-cult regimes secured by terror rather than consent, they did not have to ask how.

As British as a cup of tea.

Throughout Britannia’s long and dirty dominion over nearly half the globe, its administrators seized on every possible policing tactic to quash dissent from colonised people whose messy, inconvenient requests to not be murdered, enslaved or thrown off their land were all threats to the basic business of plunder. All dissent and revolt by querulous natives was treated as a threat to the bottom line of speculators and robber-barons lining their pockets with the wealth of foreign territories, extracted through often coerced labour. It was no small job; as Priyamvada Gopal details in her book Insurgent Empire, everywhere the port-sodden, well-armed scions of imperialism set foot, they were met with dedicated, self-organised resistance.

The British state we know today – its institutions, its territories, its wealth – was formed through a process of colonisation which stamped out rebellion by any means necessary. The blades of state power now trained on domestic dissent were first sharpened in the empire. Secret police are as British as a cup of tea – its leaves extracted from China in the Opium Wars, its sugar sweated from the cane by enslaved people in the Caribbean, shared daily in silence in every archipelago home. 

The basic lexicon of surveillance – including fingerprinting, map-making and ‘criminal’ profiling – was polished and perfected in colonial settings to intimidate native populations and keep tabs on troublemakers. Information was king; acres of resources were spent gathering intelligence through espionage, infiltration and censuses. State agents acted in concert with private corporations, puppet governments and mercenary gangs. Education was closely supervised, native languages suppressed.

The technology and institutions of British colonial policing nimbly evolved in response to resistance; the Indian Sepoy Uprising of 1857 saw a rapid escalation of surveillance and military tactics. In 1933, the Raj cracked down on striking railway workers in Meerut, fearful of the influence of socialist organisers on the whole region. Administrators across the empire were casually infamous for their use of torture and martial law.

The puppet government installed in Bahrain was propped up with the liberal use of torture by British state and para-state actors. Colonial Kenya was riddled with government-backed ‘countergangs’ acting as quasi-state operators. There are many reports of kangaroo courts which drummed up guilt-by-association with proscribed revolutionary groups. Hundreds of Kenyans were expected for crimes such as “consorting with terrorists”. In Jamaica’s Morant Bay in 1865, protests were met with martial law; hundreds were summarily murdered, hundreds more flogged and imprisoned. Under martial law conjured up in response to this ‘security threat’ – this was all perfectly legal.



The imperial boomerang.

Empire always comes home. As colonial unrest in further-flung countries was matched in Ireland, the government began repatriating its newly-forged tactics of repression. The counter-gangs, brutal policing and summary courts of Kenya were rolled out to Northern Ireland, where loyalist paramilitaries could often rely on the British for information, support and weapons. Indeed, Metropolitan Police founder Robert Peel, got his start in Ireland, rolling out military presence to enforce colonial order. The new force embedded social control more intimately within the population, normalising the presence of state intelligence-gathering and enforcement agents throughout towns and villages across Ireland. Those institutional forms were then transported to England’s industrial heartlands to break up resistance to the miseries of factory toil. Special Branch – now at the heart of anti-union surveillance – was first established as a colonial force, evolving out of the Secret Service Bureau, set up in 1909 by the Committee of Imperial Defence.

This is the so-called imperial boomerang, the infernal return of peripheral technologies of extraction to the metropolitan centre – or, in the words of Laleh Kahili, the “horizontal circuits through which colonial policing or ‘security’ practices have been transmitted across time or from one location to another.” The cruelties dreamed up and perfected in the far-flung laboratories of empire on people more readily discarded and deserving of brutality. As Stanley Palmer put it, colonies functioned as a “testing ground for English ministers’ ideas on police”.

Often, this boomerang was quite literal: as the colonies fragmented after the Second World War, many of the same personnel brought their expertise to bear in the motherland. Special Branch, first established to surveil unruly imperial subjects, turned its focus more determinately inwards – ultimately, to the families of Stephen Lawrence and Ian Tomlinson. It is by no coincidence that these home-bound anti-democracies are visited first and worst on racialised and migrant populations; the state of police impunity enshrined by the Covert Human Intelligences Bill has long been visited on over-policed BAME communities. Where ‘dangerous’ populations needed disciplining, governments reached for the toolkits of empire. 

A lesson from the imperial boomerang: where a hyper-extractive economic model could not hope to survive the demands of democratic participation, democracy must be made impossible. The creeping ambitions of today’s domestic authoritarians cannot compete in scale and scope with the horrors of empire. But where they reach for imperial tools of dissent-repression, we should take it as it is intended: an expression of intent.

The potential for resistance. 

The government has used the chaos of the pandemic to bed down strategies of state-backed hyper-extraction by megacorporations while living conditions plummet and vast swathes of the population are abandoned to the miseries of chronic economic exclusion. It has no model to offer mass buy-in to the economy and cannot tolerate how the demands of democracy might clip the wings of vulture capitalism. It is anticipating dissent.

History offers us more than doomsaying, however. Gopal charts how, as technologies of suppression seeped back to the imperial metropolis, so did the “glorious contagion” of resistance tactics. “The votaries of imperial tutelage in nationalism,” she writes, “‘also became the beneficiaries of an education in anticolonial resistance”.

With colonial subjects and British workers able to recognise that they were themselves (unevenly) bound together in the same system that forged sweatshops in Manchester and cotton fields in the Americas, they made swipes at a genuinely internationalist vision of a world, governed by the people by the people who make it. A democracy, perhaps, worth the name. Colonial policemen trembled.

Eleanor Penny is a writer and a regular contributor to Novara Media. 

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