Spying on the movement – Undercover

Undercover: the true story of Britain’s secret police, by Rob Evans and Paul Lewis, reviewed by Hannah Fair

January 6, 2014
2 min read

undercoverHow many spies does it take to infiltrate a social movement? It might sound like the start of a bad joke, but Rob Evans and Paul Lewis’s exposé of the past 40 years of undercover policing reveals the shocking and absurd lengths to which state surveillance has been taken.

Undercover is deeply discomforting and paranoia-inducing throughout. Following the tales of individual officers’ deployments into the environmental, anti-racist and animal rights movements, it showcases the destruction caused by covert operatives deliberately engaging in long-term intimate relationships. The accounts of women deceived for years are painful and sobering to read. The book is lightened by portrayals of farcical espionage as spies start spying on spies, and by the detailed exposition of the audacious plans to occupy the Ratcliffe-on-Soar power station, which could leave readers itching to shut down power plants.

The authors side firmly with the activists, yet refuse an ‘all cops are bastards’ standpoint. They try to offer a critique of the institutions, not just the individuals, involved in undercover policing and to recognise the psychological damage suffered by the infiltrators as well. The authors are particularly generous towards whistleblowing former operative Pete Black, while the most publicised former spy, Mark Kennedy, is treated with more derision. The authors reserve their greatest contempt for Bob Lambert, former infiltrator and spymaster turned academic, encapsulating their disdain in the book’s closing cry of ‘Shame on you’!

Evans and Lewis openly acknowledge that Undercover is only the start, with up to 140 state-sponsored infiltrators still to be unmasked. The book’s descriptions of particular operatives and undercover practices have already been used to expose another former spy, Jason Bishop. Undercover policing is not just a dark shadow over activist histories, but the centre of a live struggle by groups such as Police Spies Out of Lives.

Ultimately Undercover poses an important question for environmental and social justice groups: how do you continue having open and inclusive movements in the face of such obscene abuses of state power? It’s a question that the book doesn’t consider but one that activists will have to answer.