Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 1 November 2002
Like quite a few other former far leftists, I turned on the telly last Sunday to watch the first part of True Spies, the BBC’s much-hyped expose of the state’s snooping on the left in the 1970s and 1980s, fully expecting to be overcome by a sense of righteous indignation at the way the spooks interfered with our civil liberties.
Instead, to my surprise, I found myself more amused than outraged. Of course, there were some nasty tales related – of legitimate campaigns infiltrated and undermined, of workers blacklisted and denied work for their political opinions, of union bosses who grassed up their members. But overall the effect of True Spies was to point up the ridiculousness of both the spies and the Leninists who were their main targets.
The programme kicked off with Ricky Tomlinson – now the father in The Royle Family, in 1970s real life a militant building worker and a member of the Trotskyist Workers’ Revolutionary Party.
Now, if there was ever a leftist group that saw the tentacles of the secret state everywhere, it was the WRP. Led by the notoriously thuggish Gerry Healy and bankrolled at different times by Saddam Hussein and Muammar al Gaddafi, its defining feature was its paranoia. You didn’t have to be mad to join, but it helped. No one who was a member could have failed to pick up the message that the WRP was, as the vanguard of the British revolution, a target of the spooks – and that constant vigilance was necessary to avert the threat they posed.
Yet here was Tomlinson playing Britain’s favourite cuddly slob, feigning surprise that he could ever have been considered a threat to state security. “Subversive? My arse!” he quipped to camera.
Not his greatest performance, I’m afraid – though it was not as unconvincing as Tariq Ali’s. Older readers will remember that he came to prominence as a revolutionary student firebrand in 1968 and for several years after that was a leader of the International Marxist Group, a Trotskyist outfit that was less paranoid than the WRP but shared its absurd pretension of being about to lead the British proletariat into the inevitable forthcoming revolution.
The IMG, like the WRP, considered that it was a target of the secret state: indeed, it would have been offended if it had not been, because that would have meant it wasn’t taken seriously.Yet here was old Tariq blathering on about how let-down he felt that someone he trusted had been a Special Branch man and how sad it was that these rotten spoilsports had interfered with the basic democratic right to work for the violent overthrow of democracy.
Er, sorry, maybe I’ve missed something here, but if you spend your time boasting about how you and your comrades are going to smash the bourgeois state – or if, like the Communist Party of Great Britain, you’re bankrolled by and propagandise for a hostile superpower – can you really be too shocked when the bourgeois state decides to open your mail and sends along a couple of coppers in disguise to keep an eye on you? Only if you’re a complete fool.
And another thing. If you’re a really serious revolutionary, is your way of trying to determine whether someone is a police stooge to go to en masse to the pub and drink 10 pints of beer with the suspect while quizzing him? Almost incredibly, this was what the IMG did with one Special Branch “hairy” who appeared on True Spies. He said that soon after this incident he decided he needed a new job. He didn’t say whether the reason was the dreadful hangover or the realisation that he was wasting his life snooping on a bunch of clowns.
Not that many of the Special Branch and MI5 types interviewed on the programme seem to have recognised that most of the subversives they were trailing would have had trouble organising anything more dangerous than a 10-pint piss-up. Almost without exception, they attested to the crucial importance of their work in saving British democracy from the red extremists – an estimation of the Leninist sects’ potency strangely close to their own delusions of their world-historical role.
In truth, Britain’s 57 varieties of Leninist never posed a threat to the security of the British state. The CP had a certain political cachet in the 1930s and 1940s but never became a mass party – and although it had significant influence in the trade unions in the 1960s and 1970s, it neither initiated nor controlled the wave of wage militancy that swept Britain’s workplaces in that era. The Trots made a lot of noise and ran a few reformist campaigns but were even more marginal except when they took over a few Labour parties (and town halls) in the 1980s.
But at least the Leninists kept Special Branch and MI5 occupied. Without the CP, the WRP, the IMG and all the rest, the spooks would have had to invent them. Who knows? Perhaps they did.