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Black Dwarf investigated for incitement by Special Branch

The “Softly Softly” article from the Black Dwarf, investigated by Special Branch.

A second set of Special Branch documents relates to an investigation against an issue of Black Dwarf published on 15 October 1968. An article in it, titled Softly, Softly warned people of police stop and searches and other disruptive tactics ahead of the 27 October demonstration and encouraged people to plan accordingly. It noted that if items such as razor for shaving, marbles or fireworks were found on the coaches, then this would be used as a reason to stop the coaches reaching the protest.

The article came to the attention of a right-wing MP, Patrick Wall. He, was a member of the Monday Club and worked with the pro-South Vietnamese group ‘Friends of Vietnam’ in opposition to the Vietnam Solidarity Group. He was also a speaker at the 3 December 1968 public meeting at Kensington Town Hall disrupted by the Camden Vietnam Solidarity Committee (VSC) and others.

Wall complained to the Home Office about the article who in turn passed it onto Special Branch to investigate states: ‘Mr. Wall took the view that the publication had overstepped the mark and should be considered by the Law Officers of the Crown’.[1] The Special Branch report into the Softly, Softly article was received by the Director of Public Prosecutions on 29 November 1968, with a cover letter from Special Branch head Commander Ferguson Smith stating: ‘Mr. Wall took the view that the publication had overstepped the mark and should be considered by the Law Officers of the Crown’..

An investigation was conducted leading to a formal report by Special Branch’s Det. Ch. Insp. Elwyn Jones – who had led the September 1968 raid on the Black Dwarf offices. The report is available through SpecialBranchFiles.uk.[2]Ch. Insp. Elwyn Jones, Report into Black Dwarf, Metropolitan Police Special Branch, November 1968, accessed at SpecialBranchFiles.uk : Black Dwarf – files overview.

The report draws attention to the 27 October protest itself going off peacefully, with only 19 arrests – of which 8 were for possession of offensive weapons. It does acknowledge that none of these were fireworks, razors or marbles.

Of interest to the issues addressed in this article is the process by which Special Branch went about compiling the evidence. On 15 October, Detective Constable Richard P.D. Cook of Special Branch went to purchase several copies of the new issue from Collett’s bookshop in Charing Cross (connected to the Communist Party of Great Britain), and again on 14 November – this time from the Black Dwarf offices itself. A further copy was purchased by a second Special Branch officer, DC. Ray Wilson[3]This is thought to be the same Ray Wilson who co-authored the history of Special Branch and whom may have played a role in the Special Demonstration Squad. on 20 October, during a meeting of the Movement for Colonial Justice[4]The Movement for Colonial Freedom was a longstanding and influential body campaigning against end of British colonial rule. It was founded by Labour politician Fenner Brockway and Tony Benn, and was influential in the founding of other campaigns including the Anti-Apartheid Movement in the UK. See: A brief history of the Movement for Colonial Freedom & Liberation, SOAS Archives and Special Collections, 1 May 2014 (accessed 21 March 2018). being held at Trafalgar Square. In his statement Wilson says he was on duty in Trafalgar Square for the purposes of the Movement for Colonial Justice event, though not in what context, and had purchased the copies of Black Dwarf from someone who was known to him.

As with Dixon’s reports discussed in earlier parts of this series, the report  on Black Dwarf profiles the newspaper and its leading people, going into detail, of which much may have been drawn from the paper itself which listed its editorial board, etc.[5] See for example, Black Dwarf, Issue 16, 16 October 1968 (accessed via Marxists.org), which variously includes details of the newspaper’s printers, distributors and names of its ‘editorial and production group’. However, it is apparent that Special Branch were keeping files on those involved, as the report provided addresses, employment and personal details as well as activist histories for them. A number are noted as being otherwise unknown and ‘cannot be identified in the records of Special Branch.’

At the instruction of Jones’ Chief Superintendent, a copy of the report was sent to the Crown Prosecution Service. They replied in a lengthy letter of 11 December 1968, stating there were insufficient grounds to proceed as the matter had been raised to late with them – though they took the view the article had amounted to ‘an incitement to carry offensive weapons’ on the 27 October. (This response is available through Special Branch Files.[6]B. Q. MacDermott, re: T. A. Khan & Ors, Department of the Director of Public Prosecutions, 11 December 1968, accessed at SpecialBranchFiles.uk : Black Dwarf – files overview.)

Policing of some protests in 1969

FOIA releases of Special Branch documents include several documents relating to demonstrations in 1969. The first of these is a report of 3 March 1969, discussing the plans and meeting of the ‘March 9th Committee for Solidarity with Vietnam’. This was a project of the British Vietnam Solidarity Front, and planned a meeting in Trafalgar Square, followed by a march to the US Embassy in Grosvenor Square as well as the Soviet Embassy. The report is authored by a Chief Inspector and an Inspector, the signature of the former seemingly redacted. The detail is considerable, and at least one line indicates Special Branch had someone in or very close to the planning committee, whether an informer or an undercover officer:[7]March 9th Committee for Solidarity with Vietnam, Metropolitan Police Special Branch, 3 March 1969 (accessed via SpecialBranchFiles.uk).

At the last planning meeting [redacted] told his closest associates that co-operation from other groups had been very poor but organisations in had promised to send coaches to London to carry members wishing to take part in the demonstration.

 

with the end of the report offering:

A follow up report of 6 March 1969 is worth presenting in its entirety:[8]Insp. R. Wilson, March 9th Committee for Solidarity with Vietnam (on ‘delicate source’, Metropolitan Police Special Branch, 6 March 1969 (accessed via SpecialBranchFiles.uk).

It is not clear if the person who authored it, Insp. R. Wilson, is the same person as DC Ray Wilson,[9]If it is the same person, it would require him to be promoted twice in a matter of a couple of months as in November 1968 he is just a Detective Constable (see under the Black Dwarf prosecution papers. however, the presence of Conrad Dixon on the report indicates a strong SDS connection.

The next available report is also of 6 March, but focuses on the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign protest of 16 March 1969.[10]Vietnam Solidarity Campaign demonstration of 16.3.69, Metropolitan Police Special Branch, 6 March 1969 (accessed via SpecialBranchFiles.uk. It goes into less detail than those produced ahead of the 27 October 1968 demonstration, somewhat matching the reduction in public hysteria around the anti-war protests. Nevertheless, it continues to include details from well placed sources, such as the intention of one speaker (name redacted) to call for a march on the Home Office around 5pm.

A report of 9 March gives a prosaic account of the Maoist’s demonstration.[11]March 9th Committee for Solidarity with Vietnam (report), 9 March 1968 (accessed via SpecialBranchFiles.uk). and notes a counter-protest by the pro-Soviet Young Communist League. In August 1968, the Warsaw Pact had suppressed the Prague Spring, and it is clear from reports of the march that differences between the Maoists and the pro-Soviet communists were now openly on display. The protest of 9th March were overshadowed by the one organised the following week by the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign, subject to a lengthy report of the day focusing on public order issues, but with little detail relating to intelligence matters (in unredacted sections certainly).[12] A/Ch. Supt. (J. Lawrenson?), V.S.C. Demonstration (report), Metropolitan Police Special Branch, 16 March 1969 (accessed via SpecialBranchFiles.uk).[13] Commander ‘A’ (Operations), Vietnam Solidarity Campaign – Demonstration on 16th March, 1969, Metropolitan Police (‘A’ Department / A.8), 17 March 1969 (accessed via SpecialBranchFiles.uk).

This report notes that the Ad Hoc Committee for the day (the ‘March 16th Vietnam Mobilisation Committee’), was based at the IMG / VSC offices at 8 Toynbee Street and gained the support of the Communist Party, Young Communist League, International Marxist Group and the Young Liberals. Political differences also appear to have overshadowed the day.

Conclusion

As we noted in the introduction, we are only learning now the nature of the Special Branch response to the protests of 1968, which in turn allows us to better understand the beginning of undercover policing as it targeted political movements. More material will emerge which shall allow us to develop this understanding and we will update this article to incorporate that material as it appears. Limited as it has been, nevertheless, it has been possible to start building up the picture of how Special Branch started targeting the groups involved using undercovers.

However, we are keenly aware that our understanding is limited to the extent it relies on formal reports and accounts. We are also still looking at the other groups who were active in 1968 and beyond, such as the anarchists, the Maoists and the communists. To help us fill out our understanding, we are keen to talk to people who were active at the time about the internal nature of the political groups, their branches and their activities – please do get in contact.

[4. Infiltration by the Special Demonstration Squad] [Return to Intro]

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References   [ + ]

1. The Special Branch report into the Softly, Softly article was received by the Director of Public Prosecutions on 29 November 1968, with a cover letter from Special Branch head Commander Ferguson Smith stating: ‘Mr. Wall took the view that the publication had overstepped the mark and should be considered by the Law Officers of the Crown’..
2. Ch. Insp. Elwyn Jones, Report into Black Dwarf, Metropolitan Police Special Branch, November 1968, accessed at SpecialBranchFiles.uk : Black Dwarf – files overview.
3. This is thought to be the same Ray Wilson who co-authored the history of Special Branch and whom may have played a role in the Special Demonstration Squad.
4. The Movement for Colonial Freedom was a longstanding and influential body campaigning against end of British colonial rule. It was founded by Labour politician Fenner Brockway and Tony Benn, and was influential in the founding of other campaigns including the Anti-Apartheid Movement in the UK. See: A brief history of the Movement for Colonial Freedom & Liberation, SOAS Archives and Special Collections, 1 May 2014 (accessed 21 March 2018).
5. See for example, Black Dwarf, Issue 16, 16 October 1968 (accessed via Marxists.org), which variously includes details of the newspaper’s printers, distributors and names of its ‘editorial and production group’.
6. B. Q. MacDermott, re: T. A. Khan & Ors, Department of the Director of Public Prosecutions, 11 December 1968, accessed at SpecialBranchFiles.uk : Black Dwarf – files overview.
7. March 9th Committee for Solidarity with Vietnam, Metropolitan Police Special Branch, 3 March 1969 (accessed via SpecialBranchFiles.uk).
8. Insp. R. Wilson, March 9th Committee for Solidarity with Vietnam (on ‘delicate source’, Metropolitan Police Special Branch, 6 March 1969 (accessed via SpecialBranchFiles.uk).
9. If it is the same person, it would require him to be promoted twice in a matter of a couple of months as in November 1968 he is just a Detective Constable (see under the Black Dwarf prosecution papers.
10. Vietnam Solidarity Campaign demonstration of 16.3.69, Metropolitan Police Special Branch, 6 March 1969 (accessed via SpecialBranchFiles.uk.
11. March 9th Committee for Solidarity with Vietnam (report), 9 March 1968 (accessed via SpecialBranchFiles.uk).
12. A/Ch. Supt. (J. Lawrenson?), V.S.C. Demonstration (report), Metropolitan Police Special Branch, 16 March 1969 (accessed via SpecialBranchFiles.uk).
13. Commander ‘A’ (Operations), Vietnam Solidarity Campaign – Demonstration on 16th March, 1969, Metropolitan Police (‘A’ Department / A.8), 17 March 1969 (accessed via SpecialBranchFiles.uk).