23 May 2019
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Lessons from the past: the long history of political policing in the UK
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As the Undercover Policing Inquiry drags on, it is worth considering the lengthy history of police infilitration of political movements in the UK. The Inquiry is to "inquire into and report on undercover police operations conducted by English and Welsh police forces in England and Wales since 1968," but the use of 'spycops' has been going on since the passing of the 1829 Police Act, which brought London's Metropolitan Police into existence.
The case of the police spy William Popay is instructive, as highlighted in the book The History and Practice of the Political Police in Britain (1977) by Tony Bunyan, Statewatch Director. Following the passing of the 1829 Police Act, as the book puts it:
To enforce public order the police, rather than the army, were used increasingly to break up political meetings in London and to spy on working-class movements. One such movement was the National Political Union of the Working Classes. In May 1833 they held a demonstration at Cold Bath Fields, which the police broke up with baton charges. One person was killed, a policeman, and the coroner's jury returned a verdict of justifiable homicide. The government appealed to a higher court and succeeded in getting the decision annulled (the culprit was never caught).
In the same year a Select Committee of the House of Commons was set up to investigate the infiltration of a police spy into the meetings of one of the NPU's branches. For over a year a policeman in plain-clothes, William Popay, had taken part in discussion meetings in Camberwell and Walworth and had been to several demonstrations. He was discovered only when one of the men saw him in a police station. The NPU members were indignant that they were 'compelled to pay for the maintenance of spies, under the pretence of their being persons employed for the preservation of the peace, and the protection of their property and their lives.
Popay, it transpired, had been working under the direct instructions of his superior, Superintendent McLean, who in turn was working on the unwritten orders of the two Commissioners of Police at Scotland Yard- Colonel Rowan and Richard Mayne. Popay's reports had been forwarded to Rowan and Mayne and most had been passed on directly to the Home Secretary. Much of the Select Committee's indignation was directed at the notes taken at a meeting of a speech by David Hume MP, that were passed to the Home Secretary (Lord Melbourne). The sole outcome of the inquiry was the vilification of Popay and not of his bosses, whose instructions he had been obeying.
It is to be hoped that the outcome of the current Inquiry does not have the same result. Groups such as Police Spies Out of Lives and COPS, along with many other organisations and individuals are still fighting for justice. For those interested in the history of political policing, the Statewatch Library & Archive holds material that will likely be of interest.
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