Subversion” old and new

Abu_Qatada_CartoonAn inter­est­ing art­icle in yesterday’s Tele­graph by polit­ic­al com­ment­at­or Peter Oborne about Abu Qatada.  This case has caused much sound and fury amongst the Brit­ish polit­ic­al and media classes over the last couple of days.  Oborne’s art­icle strips out the bom­bast and takes us back to basic prin­ciples — as did this oth­er recent art­icle in the Inde­pend­ent a day or two ago by Christina Pat­ter­son.

How­ever, what really grabbed my atten­tion in Oborne’s art­icle was his ref­er­ence to Dav­id Max­well Fyfe, the Brit­ish politi­cian and law­yer who was tasked by Sir Win­ston Churchill to lay the found­a­tions of the European sys­tem of human rights after the atro­cit­ies of World War Two — a peri­od when the need for basic rights was seared into people’s minds.

Maxwell_FyfeWhile Max­well Fyfe laid some good found­a­tions for European law, his name also has res­on­ance to all who worked for the UK domest­ic Secur­ity Ser­vice, MI5, dur­ing or in the imme­di­ate after­math of the Cold War.  It was Max­well Fyfe’s dir­ect­ive, issued in 1952, that was instru­ment­al in allow­ing MI5 to spy on Brit­ish polit­ic­al act­iv­ists sub­vers­ives.  This dir­ect­ive remained in place until 1989, when MI5 was placed on a leg­al foot­ing for the first time in its then 80 year his­tory, with the Secur­ity Ser­vice Act 1989. Here is a seg­ment about the Max­well Fyfe dir­ect­ive from my old book, “Spies, Lies and Whis­tleblowers”:

Back­ground to sub­ver­sion

At this time MI5 was still using the same cri­ter­ia for record­ing indi­vidu­al sub­vers­ives and their sym­path­isers as was set out by Home Sec­ret­ary Dav­id Max­well-Fyfe in 1952.  He called on the ser­vices to identi­fy any indi­vidu­al engaged in under­min­ing Par­lia­ment­ary demo­cracy, nation­al secur­ity and/or the eco­nom­ic well-being of the UK by viol­ent, indus­tri­al or polit­ic­al means.  In fact, many would argue that groups who used only polit­ic­al means to get their point across were merely exer­cising their demo­crat­ic rights.  In fact, MI5 used pho­tos of demon­stra­tions, cop­ies of elec­tion lists and even lists of sub­scribers to rad­ic­al left-wing book clubs as indic­at­ors of sub­vers­ive sym­pathy and mem­ber­ship.  Of course, the world was a very dif­fer­ent place when I joined the sec­tion, almost 40 years after Maxwell-Fyfe’s declar­a­tion, not least because of the dis­in­teg­ra­tion of the Soviet Uni­on and its East­ern bloc allies.  

TrotskyFrom Maxwell-Fyfe’s state­ment to Par­lia­ment, which was nev­er made law, MI5 and sub­sequent gov­ern­ments used to argue that all mem­bers of cer­tain parties –such as the Com­mun­ist Party of Great Bri­tain (CPGB) or later the bewil­der­ing array of Trot­sky­ists, with names like the Inter­na­tion­al Marx­ist Group (IMG), Work­ers’ Revolu­tion­ary Party (WRP) Major and Minor, Revolu­tion­ary Com­mun­ist Party (RCP) and Revolu­tion­ary Com­mun­ist Group (RCG), anarch­ists and the extreme right — were threats to the secur­ity of the state or our demo­crat­ic sys­tem.  This in itself is a con­ten­tious pro­pos­i­tion.  None of these Trot­sky­ist groups was cul­tiv­at­ing East­ern bloc fin­ance or build­ing bombs in smoky back rooms, but were instead using legit­im­ate demo­crat­ic meth­ods to make their case, such as stand­ing in elec­tions, organ­ising demon­stra­tions and edu­cat­ing ‘the work­ers’.  They cer­tainly had no alle­gi­ance to a for­eign power, the primary rais­on d’etre for the invest­ig­a­tion of sub­ver­sion, because, unlike the Com­mun­ist Party, they abhorred the East­ern bloc.

Greenham-commonSince MI5 was effect­ively invest­ig­at­ing indi­vidu­als for hold­ing opin­ions the gov­ern­ment did not like — a very un-Brit­ish pos­i­tion — it was always at pains to point out that it took its respons­ib­il­it­ies with regard to human rights very ser­i­ously, although not ser­i­ously enough to ensure that these activ­it­ies were reg­u­lated by a leg­al frame­work.  All the service’s phone taps pri­or to the passing of the Inter­cep­tion of Com­mu­nic­a­tions Act (IOCA) in 1985 were unlaw­ful because there was no legis­la­tion gov­ern­ing the inter­cep­tion of com­mu­nic­a­tions.”

The dir­ect­ive was not a leg­ally bind­ing doc­u­ment, but it was the basis for the work of F Branch, MI5’s massive sec­tion tasked with hunt­ing “sub­vers­ives” dur­ing those dec­ades.  It allowed intel­li­gence officers great lat­it­ude in inter­pret­ing what was deemed sub­vers­ive activ­ity and who were “legit­im­ate’ tar­gets.  And yet there were many, many instances of the abuse of this sys­tem by para­noid, seni­or intel­li­gence officers over the years.  More inform­a­tion can be found in this chapter on sub­ver­sion from the book.

So my point is, yes, Bri­tain ostens­ibly led the way in devel­op­ing a sys­tem to pro­tect human rights in the after­math of the Second World War.  But the very archi­tect of that sys­tem then pro­duced the dir­ect­ive that gave Brit­ish spies carte blanche to invest­ig­ate polit­ic­al dis­sid­ents with­in their own coun­try, which they abused for dec­ades.

Mark_KennedyAnd now we have com­ment­at­ors rightly say­ing that we should uphold basic human rights’ val­ues in cases such as Abu Qatada.  But what about all the UK act­iv­ists who were illeg­ally invest­ig­ated by MI5 from 1952 to the 1990s? And, more per­tin­ently today, what about all the act­iv­ists and pro­test­ers who have been aggress­ively spied upon by the unac­count­able, under­cov­er police of the NPOIU since the 1990s, under the illeg­al cat­egory of “domest­ic extrem­ists”?

I was heartened to see 87 year old artist and peace act­iv­ist John Catt is suing the NPOIU for intrus­ive sur­veil­lance over the last 6 years.  Per­haps he should quote Max­well Fyfe on human rights dur­ing his case?

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