[Black Power – 1. Overview][Black Power – 2.Groups] [Black Power – 3. Special Branch files in context][Black Power – 5. Files overview, and another FoI battle]

Eveline Lubbers, 17 September 2019

One way the British Black Power groups were monitored was through a dedicated Black Power Desk.[1]For other ways, see Black Power – Special Branch Files in context. To date it is unclear whether it was either a Special Branch unit or part of Britain’s intelligence service MI5, or both. This section looks at each of these options. If you have information on this issue, we are keen to hear from you.

The Black Power Desk: A Special Branch unit?

The first to discover the existence of a Black Power Desk were Robin Bunce and Paul Field during the research for their biography of Darcus Howe.[2]Robin Bunce and Paul Field, Renegade, The Life and Times of Darcus Howe, Bloomsbury, London, 2017 (Hardback 2015). Though not in the book, they mention it briefly in an article on the anniversary of the Mangrove Nine Trial in 2010.[3]Robin Bunce, ‘Mangrove Nine: the court challenge against police racism in Notting Hill’, The Guardian, 29 November 2010.

Much more detail emerged in 2017, when the miniseries Guerilla was broadcast. The six-part British drama was set in early 1970s London against the backdrop of the 1971 Immigration Act and focused on the British Black Power movement. Bunce and Field were historical consultants to the drama, and the Black Power Desk – central to the story line – was based on their findings.[4]Guerilla (Sky Atlantic and Showtime) was written and directed by John Ridley and stars Idris Elba, Freida Pinto and Babou Ceesay in leading roles. The show was inspired by the political activism of British Black Panther (BBP) members Farrukh Dhondy and Darcus Howe, members of the Race Today Collective, who also were consultants for the show. The series has been criticised for excluding the historical role played by black women who were part of the British Black Panthers (BBP) organisation.

In an interview with the BBC,[5]BBC HistoryExtra, ‘Guerrilla’ and the real history of British Black Power, 13 April 2017; also see Paul Field, The Real Guerillas, Jacobin Magazine in 2017. Bunce explained ‘the Black Power Desk’ and how they learned of its existence:

Our first inkling that there was an official campaign against black radicals came from Darcus Howe, who knew some of the officers who kept tabs on him. We did some fishing in government archives, and put in a freedom of information request for some promising classified files. After a lot of wrangling with the Home Office we got a huge number of documents from the Black Power Desk declassified.

BBC Archive on 4, 3 Aug 2019.

The Black Power Desk was established in 1967 by order of Roy Jenkins, then Home Secretary. Based in New Scotland Yard, it was staffed by as many as six officers. It was one of a number of such desks, alongside others keeping tabs on the IRA, Trotskyites or Marxists.

The desk had a lot of early success, playing a role in Egbuna’s 1968 conviction for incitement to murder police officers. After that success, senior figures in the Met mothballed the operation – probably cutting back to a skeleton staff of two, who were working mostly on other things. However, in 1970, as the desk started to see an upturn in black radical activity, their resources expanded and they went into overdrive ahead of the Mangrove trial. They shared information with the Joint Intelligence Committee and MI5, and reported directly to the Home Secretary.

The Black Power Desk remained active into the mid-1970s, keeping black activists under surveillance for many years.

Field added: The Desk appears to have eventually become a part of Special Demonstration Squad, which spied on, infiltrated and disrupted various social justice movements, including black civil rights groups, well into the 1990s.

In the BBC documentary the British Black Panthers, Bunce and Field were even more specific, saying that the Black Power Desk was housed on the top floor of Scotland Yard. Asked if the State was overreacting, Bunce says:

They were seriously overreacting, there was a strategy by the state to squash this movement before it really took off’. Explaining the Black Power Desk, he continues: In the early days – as far as we can tell – they were able to infiltrate the organisation. The kept a huge amount of detail on what was going on. They had particular files on each of the main players. They were doing a good job.[6]BBC Radio 4, The British Black Panthers, Archive on 4, fragment starting at 33.48min, 3 Aug 2019 – originally broadcast in 2016.

Additionally, Field states that the success of the Mangrove Nine campaign and the failure of the state to decapitate the Black Power movement meant the end for the Desk:

It was subsumed under more general surveillance Special Branch is undertaking. For that reason, documents show, the Black Power Desk is put under new management; my feeling is it was wound up.[7]BBC Radio 4, The British Black Panthers, Archive on 4, 3 Aug 2019.

The Black Power Desk: An MI5 unit?

The only actual mention of the Black Power Desk  discovered to date is found hidden in a large file called ‘Relationship between police and immigrants: ‘Black Power movement; demonstration and march in Notting Hill, London, August 1970’, openly available in the National Archives since 2004.[8]See HO 325 143, held at the National Archives. For more on how this file relates to the files that were released to Robin Bunce and Paul Field, see Black Power – 5. Files overview, and another FoI battle.

The Desk is mentioned as an aside in a letter addressed to a top civil servant at Whitehall. It is a cover letter for a memo titled ‘The Trial of the Mangrove Nine’, sent to D H J Hilary of the Home Office on 31 December 1971. At the end of the short message, the unknown (redacted) sender writes:

You may like to note that I have taken over the Black Power Desk from [redacted].

This letter is the first in a short exchange that lasted until the end of January 1972. Although the letterhead is redacted in each of the three messages to the Home Office, the same documents are listed in the handwritten index of the file as ‘Correspondence with Box 500’. (We also found a memo in another file with the full, unredacted, letterhead.)

Box 500 was the SW1 Post Office box for MI5, and is often used as a phrase to refer to that agency. Secret memos that went to senior Whitehall officials and Special Branch were also referred to as ‘Box 500 reports’ or ‘Box 500 situation reports’.[9]Christopher Andrew, The Defence of the Realm, The Authorized History of MI5, Penguin, London, 2009, pp659, 666. When Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher found out about these reports during the Miners Strike, she insisted they were sent to her as well, ibid. p677.

In the next two letters, the sender continues to use the Box 500 stationery. This indicates that this person did not move from MI5 to Special Branch. Most likely they took over the Black Power Desk task from an intelligence service colleague.

In two of the Box 500 letters, the Home Office is offered notes on the Mangrove Nine trial coming from secret and delicate sources, which points at the use of informants or undercover officers.[10]Note from MI5 [author redacted] to Mr Hilary at the Home Office, 31 December 1971. The second reference is in the third letter, dated 25 January 1972, giving information on the nine individuals, the first paragraph giving a brief resumé of the court case based on information from the press. ‘Security information is given in paragraph two, and as some of this comes from delicate sources requiring protection the notes are graded secret.’ See HO 325 143, held at the National Archives.

Curiously enough, the senior officer responsible for Special Branch at the Home Office, D McQueen, challenged this classification. In a scribble to his colleague Hilary, he wrote: ‘I am not sure why this should be classified SECRET as coming from Secret & delicate sources’, adding  ‘it has all appeared either in the press or in police reports’. The only the exceptions, are two short paragraphs, which he marked on his copy of the report.[11]Though this handwritten note is redacted, we know it is by McQueen because of a scribble dated 3 November 1970 in the same handwriting that is indeed signed. A note from Special Branch, NSY, London dated 4 November 1970 includes his role as Esquirer, Home Office, F.4 Branch. See HO 325 143, held at the National Archives.

The first paragraph singled out by McQueen quotes ‘a remarkable celebration’ at the end of the trial ‘with jurors buying the acquitted defendants drinks’. ‘The two black jurors are known to have been taken to the Black Panthers Headquarters for a celebration.’ The second one notes the setting up of the Mangrove Trial Defence Comittee ‘to which monies have been contributed by several left groups including the Spartacus League (Trotskyists’.)[12]See HO 325 143, held at the National Archives.

It apparears that McQueen thinks these pieces of intelligence could indeed come from informants or undercover officers – though it remains unclear whether they were working for MI5 or Special Branch. (For a detailed analysis of these specific pieces of intelligence, and how they ended up in an MI5 report, see  Black Power – 3.Special Branch Files in context)

Special Branch or MI5 – or both?

In summary, it is difficult to say whether the Black Power Desk was a Special Branch unit or part of Britain’s intelligence service MI5. Maybe it was both, either as a joint project or moving between the two at different periods in history.

To date, the letter quoted above is the only time the phrase ‘Black Power Desk’ has been found in any of the extant public sources.[13]Email from Robin Bunce, 13 March 2019; we have not found any other mention either.

Robin Bunce thinks that the Special Branch files on the Black Power Movement in the National Archives are the files of the Black Power desk, adding: ‘Sadly, they rarely refer to themselves in the documents.[14]Email from Robin Bunce, 13 March 2019.

It is clear that Special Branch kept an eye on the Black Power movement, starting in 1967 when Carmichael and other American activists came to London, the many detailed reports testify to. (See: Black Power – Special Branch Files in Context).

Bunce and Field think that the Black Power Desk was wound up or brought under different management after the Mangrove Trial ended in late 1970.

The exchange with the Home Office cited above happened around January 1972. Someone at MI5 taking over the Black Power Desk at that point in time indicates it would continue to exist there for a bit longer. Furthermore, the content of the reports Box 500 sent to the Home Office show that the Secret Service had already been keeping files on the Black Power movement for a while.

This could mean that somewhere in 1971, the responsibility for the Black Power Desk shifted from Special Branch to MI5.

There is not enough information to draw any far-reaching conclusions now. However, there are a number of possibilities which may be narrowed down as further information appears.

    1. There were two units running concurrently, within Special Branch and MI5, both funded by the Home Office, diverging as each parent organisation’s priorities changed.
    2. It may have been a more cooperative operation, jointly run by both organisations, moving back and forth between the two as each organisation pursuing their own goals. Officially at least, Special Branch would gather intelligence with an eye to public order and policing, while MI5 would concentrate on subversion and international aspects; in practice the work would overlap.
    3. Maybe the Black Power Desk was not a Desk per se, but rather a set of tasks given a formal title, all part of Special Branch’s C Squad dealing with ‘subversion’ on the extreme left. Sometimes six officers as mentioned by Bunce and Field (see above) would work on Black Power, sometimes they would do work for the Trotskyist Desk or the Marxist Desk.

Cooperation between Special Branch and MI5

A clear example of what must have been a joint project is the monitoring of the ‘Far Left’ in the mid-1970s – just when the monitoring of the Black Power movement became less intense.

In his 2009 book The Defence of the Realm, the Authorized History of MI5 Christopher Andrew writes about the secret service shifting their focus away from the communist danger. In a chapter devoted to the government’s fear of Trotskyist penetration of the Labour Party, he reveals the names of groups under observation in 1975:

The Security Service monitored three main overt Trotskyist groups – the Workers Revolutionary Party […], the International Socialists (from 1977 the Socialist Workers Party) and the International Marxist Group – and the more clandestine Militant Tendency, the name usually given in public to the Revolutionary Socialist League, which sought to infiltrate the Labour Party.[15]Christopher Andrew, p660.

The Guardian, list of groups spied on

 

 

 

Curiously, what we have learned since, is that all of these groups mentioned here were also targeted by Special Branch’s Special Demonstration Squad (SDS). The official Undercover Policing Inquiry has confirmed that no less than 26 undercover officers were active in the International Socialists/Socialist Workers Party. They were spied on  almost continuously between 1970 and 2007, often with more than one undercover officer embedded within the party for about four or five years each.[16]Rob Evans, Police spies infiltrated UK leftwing groups for decades, The Guardian, 15 October 2018; also see: Eveline Lubbers, Spycops Targets: a Who’s Who, Undercover Research Group, 15 October 2018 and for the latest count: Campaign Against Police Surveillance, How many spycops have there been? blogpost, 1 September 2016, regularly updated.

The International Marxist Group – on the radar of both MI5 and the SDS – engaged with Black Power groups, jointly organising demonstrations, and setting up  a support group the Black Defence Committee to engage radical groups on the left and collect funds for people on trial.[17]See Black Power – Special Branch Files in context.

Further detail on such overlapping of operations between MI5 and Special Branch was revealed by Peter Francis, the former undercover officer who became a whistleblower. In 1995, he infiltrated several front groups set up by the International Socialists. After he had found out someone in a group he targeted and who ‘stuck out like a sore thumb’, was indeed an MI5 agent, the Secret Service remained in contact with Francis. In the early 1990s, MI5 began to downgrade their work spying on revolutionary left-wing groups. According to a secret memo seen by Rob Evans and Paul Lewis, quoted in their book Undercover, Bob Lambert and others in command of the SDS spotted an opportunity. As MI5 retreated, the SDS could occupy the ground the security services were vacating:[18]Paul Lewis and Rob Evans, Undercover: The True Story of Britain’s Secret Police, Faber and Faber, London, 2013, Chapter 2. FIND PAGE NO

The SDS offered to channel intelligence about Militant to MI5, and in 1995, [Peter Francis] began a dual role, working partly under the command of the SDS but also as an official informant for MI5, with his own code number: M2672. 

Not much else is known about the details of such joint operations between Special Branch and MI5.

Shrouded in secrecy

After the first so-called spycop was exposed (Mark Kennedy in early 2011), multiple official reviews into the scandal were ordered, which eventually led to the then Home Secretary Theresa May call an independent Undercover Policing Inquiry. In two of those reviews, cooperation between Special Branch’ SDS and MI5 is briefly mentioned.

The 2015 report by Stephen Taylor for the Home Secretary, Investigation into links between the Special Demonstration Squad and Home Office, allocates only three short paragraphs to the relationship with MI5. Taylor received an eyes-only report of the available documents that the Service had been able to retrieve from their archives, and states that nowhere in the correspondence between MI5 and the Home Office, the SDS was discussed. Nevertheless, Taylor writes:

‘The files confirm that the Security Service was aware of the SDS from 1974 and was involved in regular liaison.’ [19]Stephen Taylor, Investigation into links between the Special Demonstration Squad and Home Office, report for the Home Secretary, 2015. Par. 3.5.2, p13.

Taylor says the relationship was largely based on SDS providing intelligence arising from its operations, ‘where that intelligence was relevant to the functions of the Security Service’.[20]Stephen Taylor, Investigation into links between the Special Demonstration Squad and Home Office, report for the Home Secretary, 2015. par. 3.5.2, p13. 

However, Operation Herne, the Met’s own investigation into the allegations of Peter Francis, is slightly more specific and indicates the liaison was more of a two-way street:[21]Mick Creedon, Operation Herne, Report 2, Allegations of Peter Francis, Metropolitian Police, March 2014. p22.

Only very few people at Whitehall were aware of the existence of the SDS – or SOS, as it was called in the early days: ‘At the very clear and then documented insistence of the Home Office, the SOS was maintained with the strictest secrecy as not to compromise the Government.'[22]Mick Creedon, p17.

While the SDS was shrouded in secrecy, their relationship with MI5 was even more so. Where as little as possible was written down and even less survived in the archives, official reviews barely touch the surface.

The discovery of the Black Power Desk in both Special Branch and MI5 leads to questions about cooperation between the two. This new aspect of spying on the left is in urgent need of further investigation.

Also read: Black Power – 3. Special Branch Files in context


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References   [ + ]

1. For other ways, see Black Power – Special Branch Files in context.
2. Robin Bunce and Paul Field, Renegade, The Life and Times of Darcus Howe, Bloomsbury, London, 2017 (Hardback 2015).
3. Robin Bunce, ‘Mangrove Nine: the court challenge against police racism in Notting Hill’, The Guardian, 29 November 2010.
4. Guerilla (Sky Atlantic and Showtime) was written and directed by John Ridley and stars Idris Elba, Freida Pinto and Babou Ceesay in leading roles. The show was inspired by the political activism of British Black Panther (BBP) members Farrukh Dhondy and Darcus Howe, members of the Race Today Collective, who also were consultants for the show. The series has been criticised for excluding the historical role played by black women who were part of the British Black Panthers (BBP) organisation.
5. BBC HistoryExtra, ‘Guerrilla’ and the real history of British Black Power, 13 April 2017; also see Paul Field, The Real Guerillas, Jacobin Magazine in 2017.
6. BBC Radio 4, The British Black Panthers, Archive on 4, fragment starting at 33.48min, 3 Aug 2019 – originally broadcast in 2016.
7. BBC Radio 4, The British Black Panthers, Archive on 4, 3 Aug 2019.
8. See HO 325 143, held at the National Archives. For more on how this file relates to the files that were released to Robin Bunce and Paul Field, see Black Power – 5. Files overview, and another FoI battle.
9. Christopher Andrew, The Defence of the Realm, The Authorized History of MI5, Penguin, London, 2009, pp659, 666. When Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher found out about these reports during the Miners Strike, she insisted they were sent to her as well, ibid. p677.
10. Note from MI5 [author redacted] to Mr Hilary at the Home Office, 31 December 1971. The second reference is in the third letter, dated 25 January 1972, giving information on the nine individuals, the first paragraph giving a brief resumé of the court case based on information from the press. ‘Security information is given in paragraph two, and as some of this comes from delicate sources requiring protection the notes are graded secret.’ See HO 325 143, held at the National Archives.
11. Though this handwritten note is redacted, we know it is by McQueen because of a scribble dated 3 November 1970 in the same handwriting that is indeed signed. A note from Special Branch, NSY, London dated 4 November 1970 includes his role as Esquirer, Home Office, F.4 Branch. See HO 325 143, held at the National Archives.
12. See HO 325 143, held at the National Archives.
13. Email from Robin Bunce, 13 March 2019; we have not found any other mention either.
14. Email from Robin Bunce, 13 March 2019.
15. Christopher Andrew, p660.
16. Rob Evans, Police spies infiltrated UK leftwing groups for decades, The Guardian, 15 October 2018; also see: Eveline Lubbers, Spycops Targets: a Who’s Who, Undercover Research Group, 15 October 2018 and for the latest count: Campaign Against Police Surveillance, How many spycops have there been? blogpost, 1 September 2016, regularly updated.
17. See Black Power – Special Branch Files in context.
18. Paul Lewis and Rob Evans, Undercover: The True Story of Britain’s Secret Police, Faber and Faber, London, 2013, Chapter 2. FIND PAGE NO
19. Stephen Taylor, Investigation into links between the Special Demonstration Squad and Home Office, report for the Home Secretary, 2015. Par. 3.5.2, p13.
20. Stephen Taylor, Investigation into links between the Special Demonstration Squad and Home Office, report for the Home Secretary, 2015. par. 3.5.2, p13.
21. Mick Creedon, Operation Herne, Report 2, Allegations of Peter Francis, Metropolitian Police, March 2014. p22.
22. Mick Creedon, p17.