SOLOMON HUGHES examines the last surviving copy of a file the Met now refuses to share
THE Metropolitan Police is trying to hide papers showing its intense surveillance of striking trade unionists by claiming they are covered by “anti-terrorism” and “national security” rules.
While the Met wants to hide the papers, which appear to show the force opening an intelligence file on Labour’s future shadow police minister Jack Dromey, we can publish details from them here.
The previously unseen file shows Met Police surveillance of activists in the historic Grunwick dispute of 1976-8.
Grunwick was a cause celebre on the left: a largely Asian workforce in a north London factory went on strike supporting a colleague sacked for “working too slowly.”
Grunwick processed photographs. In this time before the digital camera holiday snaps were processed in factories and returned by mail. The “strikers in saris” led by Jayaben Desai were supported by thousands of other trade unionists at mass rallies and pickets.
The then-Labour government commissioned an inquiry that recommended management recognise the union.
Grunwick boss George Ward, supported by influential right-wing group the National Association for Freedom and many Tory MPs, resisted the strikers. The dispute was a key part of the tumultuous social unrest of the 1970s. The final defeat of the strikers in 1978 helped usher in Thatcher’s victory.
An inch-thick file showing Special Branch surveillance of strikers and their supporters was released under the Freedom of Information Act back in 2006. Since then the Met have tried to bury the papers, refusing all other requests for the documents. They first said that they were “unable to locate the information” previously released.
They then tried to refuse requests by calling them “vexatious”. They claimed that even admitting the papers existed might “undermine national security” and help “terrorist activity.” The Met finally claimed releasing the papers could mean “more crime and terrorist incidents would be committed, placing individuals at risk.”
However, I have the one surviving copy of the original files. They will be published in full by the Special Branch Files Project, an online archive dedicated to uncovering political police surveillance in Britain — see specialbranchfiles.uk.
During Grunwick, Labour MP Robin Cook pressed the government hard on Special Branch’s role, accusing them in Parliament of using the “concept of subversion to stick their nose into any form of political or industrial activity.”
Ministers said Cook was wrong, claiming Special Branch officers were fighting “offences against the security of the State, with terrorist or subversive organisations.”
But the hundreds of pages of Special Branch files show that the undercover officers paid huge attention to ordinary trade unionists engaged in legal protests, with plain clothes police following strikers and their supporters from picket line to meeting.
Jack Dromey, now Labour’s shadow police minister, was then the secretary of Brent Trades Council, a local committee bringing trade unions across the London borough together. He was a central figure in the Grunwick dispute.
A Special Branch file of June 16 –1977 shows the police unit paid detailed attention to strike organisers. The names are redacted (blacked out). It says: “In connection with the current dispute a strike committee was formed consisting of
XXXX Grunwick Employee XXXX Area organiser of Apex [The strikers’ trade union] XXXX Secretary of Brent Trades Council [ie Dromey] XXXX Grunwick Employee.”
Next to these redacted names, in handwriting, are the words “Please Index” and a handwritten tick. To “index” means to check the name against and add it to the Special Branch filing system. The Special Branch index, its secret list of “subversives,” contained approximately 30,000 names. This document appears to show Special Branch opening a file on Dromey.
Dromey’s name, and the name of many other strike supporters, also appear openly, in unredacted form: “Jack DROMEY of Brent Trades Council curtailed his daily diatribe,” reads a typical Special Branch file from July 1977.
Dromey is “indexed” but the files show that dozens and dozens of much less prominent trade unionists, Labour Party members, campaigners and students whose names were carefully written down if they spoke out in solidarity with the Grunwick strikers.
The most striking thing about the files is the sheer scale of the surveillance. Every day there is a full report of every speaker at every rally along with a summation of their speech.
Mass picketing at Grunwick was accompanied by mass arrests. This threat to “public order” arguably gave police a legitimate interest in the strike, although Dromey said the arrests and disorder came from “utterly appalling” behaviour by officers. However, Special Branch surveillance went way beyond the picket line, and was concerned with the politics of the dispute, not the “disorder.”
For example, when the Grunwick strikers hold a rally at the London School of Economics in October 1977, a Special Branch detective sergeant and detective constable go to the event with “110 people of various ages and backgrounds.”
The studious Special Branch officers record every speaker — miners’ leader Arthur Scargill, Dromey and Desai - and briefly summarise their speeches. The officers also note that “the only other person positively identified at the meeting was XXXXX, who sat in the body of the audience.”
None of them — not Scargill, Dromey, Desai, or the mysterious XXXX in the audience — were breaking the law, but their names went down in the police files anyway. The officers spent over two-and-a-half hours attending the rally, plus extra time to write up their notes. The papers show that special branches up and down the country monitored local trade unionists for any sign of solidarity with the Grunwick strikers.
The documents also show Special Branch viewed the dispute as a political battle. On June 30 1977 Special Branch declared: “It is abundantly evident that the dispute has ceased to be a purely local disagreement between management and Apex and is now seen by the trade union movement as a further step in their struggle to impose compulsory union membership on private firms.”
Special Branch believed that the far left were in control of this battle with “communists” and ”Trotskyists” behind the trouble.
A Special Branch report dated June 28 1977 reads: “XXX of Brent Trades Council, who appears to be in fairly effective control of the strike committee and is known to be a communist sympathiser, and there is little doubt that he has probably been in daily contact with Communist Party headquarters in London to discuss tactics.”
Added to the communists, Special Branch also says “the violence” in the dispute has “been introduced by a Trotskyist group — the Socialist Workers Party.”
The file shows Britain’s “political police” spent huge amounts of time spying on ordinary trade unionists. They are now expending a great deal of effort trying to hide the evidence of this creepy spying behind spurious claims of “national security.”