The latest in our History of British Intelligence series State Surveillance, Political Policing and Counter-Terrorism in Britain explores how the state worked to identify, track and counter a varied array of threats at the end of the nineteenth century and in the years leading to the First World War. Here Vlad Solomon discusses his work and draws an intriguing modern parallel.
As the groundbreaking Undercover Policing Inquiry set up in 2015 to look into undercover policing practices across England and Wales since 1968 and provide recommendations to lawmakers continues to sporadically make headlines, I am struck by the sheer volume of statements, declassified reports and hearing transcripts that have been made public thus far. With its straightforward categories and advanced search functions, the Inquiry’s official website (https://www.ucpi.org.uk/) is already an undisputed archival treasure trove for students of political policing in contemporary Britain, notwithstanding the imperfect transparency that inevitably comes with publishing highly sensitive and previously classified information.
Contrast that with the motley assembly of brief and infrequent police reports, incomplete press accounts and evasive, hurriedly scrawled official memoranda and bureaucratic jottings that inform a good deal of my research on the Victorian origins of political policing in Britain and it’s enough to drive one mad with envy! And yet I would not trade the vast jumble of fragile, yellowed pages preserved at the National Archives at Kew for any twenty-first century repository of clearly labeled and searchable pdf documents. The story of the murky origins of Britain’s very British system for covertly monitoring and neutralizing real and perceived ‘internal enemies’ is a uniquely engrossing one.
As there is not enough space here to trace the book’s narrative threads or discuss the historiographical challenges and orthodoxies it grapples with, I will instead briefly highlight two aspects which I think shine new and important light on Britain’s earliest forms of institutional secret policing. The first is the British public’s perception of the national political police – popularly embodied in Scotland Yard’s Special Branch – during the three decades which preceded the First World War. As readers familiar with classic British detective drama series will remember, the ‘Branch man’ has long been a minor yet undisputedly popular stock villain who occasionally crops up in order to derail the honorable investigative efforts of dutiful Chief Inspectors with corrupt tactics, paranoid overreaction and sheer aggression.
There is some historical truth to this enduring stereotype and many of the events described in my book appear to confirm the notion that the abuses and excesses highlighted by the Undercover Policing Inquiry have been a feature of Britain’s political police apparatus from its inception. However, what my research also shows is that by and large Scotland Yard’s ‘political department’ (in the language of the late nineteenth century) was remarkably successful – especially when measured against the dreaded secret police forces of continental European states – in securing the informal cooperation and even admiration of many ordinary Britons. How it managed to do this brings me to the second key aspect I wish to bring up, namely the dualistic, almost Jekyll-and-Hyde nature of this early political police model.
Stopping almost at nothing in trying to break up the real or suspected conspiracies of militant groups (from Irish republicans to anarchists, trade unionists and suffragettes), Scotland Yard’s ‘political department’ succeeded all the same in cultivating a public image of unobtrusiveness, inoffensiveness and respectability. This it did thanks to the shrewd efforts of successive high-ranking bureaucrats, Home Secretaries (including a young Winston Churchill) and sections of the press. As an 1897 Times correspondent observed when describing the haunts of anarchist revolutionaries in London, ‘the very significance of… police espionage [in Britain] is that it is not assertive – [that it] is, in fact, subterranean in its character’. Fast-forward 123 years and the same newspaper is now reporting on ‘the widespread infiltration [by undercover police] over four decades of social and environmental groups’ in ways that conspicuously suggest a ‘political police’ organization (Times, 3 November 2020). A striking change in tone that becomes less striking if we remember that there is far more of politics in ‘political policing’ than either politicians or law enforcement agencies have ever been willing to acknowledge.
This guest post was written by Vlad Solomon, an independent scholar and civil servant based in Montreal, Canada. His current book project is a biographical study that looks at the intricate connections between journalism, mass society, radical politics and theatrical performance in nineteenth-century France.