SPYING ON THE CND – A ‘GREY AREA’ OF POLITICAL POLICING?

The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) was a pressure group at the height of its popularity in the 1980s, when fears of a nuclear war were running high. Labour Party policy at the time favoured unilateral nuclear disarmament, a key demand of CND. The nuclear question and issues of defence were central during the 1983 election, making the subject a contentious political battleground. These documents raise questions about political policing and surveillance.

The Special Branch files reporting on the CND come from two separate releases by the Metropolitan Police and the Home Office, both to the journalist Solomon Hughes under the FOI Act in 2006. They contain Special Branch threat assessments, reports, memos, notes, telephone messages and wider correspondence with the Home Office and Downing Street.

The documents relate to a few CND events in 1983 and 1984, primarily a ‘Human Chain’ demonstration linking together the US and Soviet embassies in London on 16 July 1983; the CND’s national demonstration on 22 October 1983, now hailed as the largest demonstration in the history of the organisation with over 200,000 attending; and a CND demo coinciding with the Economic Summit and President Reagan’s visit in June 1984.

CND demonstrators posed no real threat to public order

These Special Branch reports of the CND demonstrations repeatedly emphasise the low risk of public disorder. The assessments express some concerns about ‘punk anarchists’, the Socialist Workers Party and the preference of some activists for unlawful non-violent direct action. However, all the assessments are unified in their view that the vast bulk of demonstrators were peaceful and law-abiding. The report of the July 1983 demonstration provides amusing evidence of this. There was only one arrest at the 7,000-strong protest and that was for ‘insulting behaviour’ by a streaker, who may even have been unconnected to the demonstration.

A large report of the October 1983 demonstration says, ‘the vast majority of the 200,000 or so persons attending this event were pacifists with no overt leanings to extremist, subversive or political groups’. Furthermore, the large attendance showed that ‘considerable support’ still exists for the organisation ‘particularly among the ranks of ordinary people’. Explicitly, ‘there was a relatively low turn-out of extremists and although vociferous they had little or no effect on the day’s proceedings.’

A Special Branch Threat Assessment for the CND demonstration in June 1984 says, ‘The main CND march will, as ever, be a massive but peaceful event’ and predicts ‘it is highly unlikely that the main march will allow itself to be subverted from its peaceful and dignified purpose.’

National Surveillance and Detailed Reports

Despite the low threat to public order, the demonstrations are covered in great detail, demonstrating the intelligence-gathering role of Special Branch.

In advance of the July 1983 Human Chain demonstration, Special Branches across the country were reporting estimates of how many people would be attending from their area. One message predicted approximately 100 people would be coming from Hertfordshire. Another said one coach would come from Oxford and two from Devon. One went as far as to report the make, index mark and company of a bus carrying 31 people to the demonstration, while another even reported the name of the individual who had booked a coach.

The 14 page report on the national CND demonstration of October 1983 includes attentive accounts of each speaker and summarises their key arguments and reception by the crowd. A nervous speaker from Schools Against the Bomb was said to be ‘clearly overcome’ by the occasion and ‘received a sympathetic cheer’.

More sinister is their reporting of the low number of ‘non-white faces’ spotted at the demonstration. No reason is given for the relevance of this fact.

The report is followed by a 33 page appendix which records placards and slogans noted at the demonstration and painstakingly lists organisations spotted participating. The list includes hundreds of regional CND groups as well as trade unions, Labour groups, and all sorts of special interest groups ranging from Marxist Leninists to the Royal Court Theatre, West Oxford Woodcraft Folk, and Whores Against Wars: English Collective of Prostitutes, to name but a few.

Strangely, despite monitoring CND so closely, Special Branch grossly underestimated the numbers that would attend the October 1983 demo. Special Branch predicted attendance would be around 50,000 – 70,000, despite CND expecting up to 200,000 people. In the event, attendance exceeded even the CND’s expectations making it the biggest demonstration in their history. This failure of intelligence was humiliating for the police.

Why spy on the CND? The Political Context 

Why were Special Branch reporting in such detail on peaceful protesters exercising their democratic rights?

There was a UK general election in June 1983 and defence was one of the key issues. Michael Heseltine became Defence Secretary in January of that year and within a few months he established Defence Secretariat 19 (DS19) to combat CND propaganda.

The former MI5 officer turned whistleblower, Cathy Massiter, was investigating left-wing subversive influence within CND in this period, from 1981 until the end of 1983. She initially felt such a limited investigation was legitimate but increasing political pressure led to her investigating the organisation as a whole. In the 1960s, CND was classified as a subversive organisation. By 1981, CND was no longer on the subversive list so surveillance should have been limited to studying the influence of the Trotskyists and the Communists within it. Yet the surveillance became more intense.

Massiter told Channel 4’s 20/20 Vision programme MI5’s Official Secrets: ‘We were violating our own rules. It seemed to be getting out of control. This was happening, not because CND as such justified this kind of treatment but simply because of political pressure; the heat was there for information about CND and we had to have it.’

Massiter continued, ’You couldn’t just concentrate on the subversive elements in CND, you had to be able to answer questions on the non-subversive elements, and the whole thing began to flow out into a very grey area’.

Massiter said that DS19 approached her boss at MI5 to request information about the subversive political affiliations of leading members of CND. Massiter was instructed by her superiors to go through files and pick out relevant information about extreme affiliations of leaders and pass this on to DS19. Massiter did so but was uncomfortable with the task, believing it to be party-political and an illegitimate use of the security service.

Indeed, Heseltine wrote to prospective Tory candidates in every marginal constituency providing detailed backgrounds on the political affiliations of the CND leadership. He also gave a speech in April 1983 saying that the CND was an ‘organisation led and dominated by left-wing activists ranging through the Labour Party to the Communist Party… Behind the carefully turned phrases about peace lies the calculating, political professionalism of full-time socialists and communists’.

CND rose from occupying roughly half of Massiter’s workload in her first year or two, to dominating all her time by the end. She explained, ‘The reason was CND was a politically sensitive issue. But in that time one could not say that CND had become a greater subversive issue and therefore the difference is a political one.’  Whilst studying the CND she became very concerned with the lack of definition about what qualified as ‘subversive’.

Special Branch shared intelligence with MI5. The journalist Nick Davies told 20/20 that ‘Special Branch are the arms and legs of MI5. Special Branch are the servants and MI5 the master’.

Another case highlighted by the media around this time was that of a woman called Madeleine Haigh. She was a CND supporter who wrote to her local newspaper in 1981 protesting about the cancellation of an anti-nuclear event in Worcester. Shortly afterwards she was visited by two policemen who claimed to be investigating a mail order fraud. When she phoned the local police station they denied all knowledge of the men and the fraud investigation. After pursuing the matter for 18 months, the West Midlands Chief Constable Philip Knights finally admitted that Special Branch had been involved.

Knights later defended this on the BBC documentary True Spies. He said, ‘It was perceived that CND had links to the Communist Party, and it was automatically, I think, assumed that there would be people in there who had subversion as their main aim, and we wanted to try and find out who they were.’ He believed that Haigh ‘might develop into a Communist Party member. If she’s fringe interested in extreme politics then she was certainly within the remit of the Special Branch to be investigated.’

The reporter Peter Taylor pressed for clarification, ‘So if I had gone on a CND demonstration in the early 80s I was therefore a legitimate person for investigation?’ Knights agreed, elaborating, ‘Unless you inquire, you don’t find out. You can’t just pick it out of thin air whether somebody is a subversive or not. You have to inquire.’

Haigh later reflected on what happened to her, ‘It was like going through a looking glass into another universe, and I’d naïvely thought that in a democracy you could challenge government policy and what I found was if you look like being too effective at that then the machinery of the state would turn on you. And it was a denial of what this country was supposed to be being kept safe for.’

Thatcher wanted to ban a CND demo

In June 1984 President Reagan was attending the Economic Summit in London and the CND were planning a demonstration to coincide with his visit. The protest was inconvenient politically, bound to distract media attention from the Summit itself, and the government evidently wished it wasn’t occurring. An assessment from F4 Division, the counter-terrorism section of the Home Office, conveys that the police believed the march had to go ahead because there was no legal basis to prevent it.

A three-page assessment from F4 Division discussed the idea of banning the march. It stated that the police believed numbers on the march could exceed 100,000 people and ‘this is a body of a size which cannot be physically prevented from moving, if it wished to do so.’ It also stated that whilst some of the marchers might attempt to break away and head for Lancaster House or the American Embassy, the police believed such attempts would be ‘small enough to be contained and prevented’ and that ‘the overwhelming majority of the participants would be reasonable people who would cooperate with the police on the day if given a reasonable outlet for their feelings.’

The assessment makes clear that the police have no legal grounds to ban the march because it doesn’t seriously threaten public order and the CND were being cooperative in their advanced negotiations with the police. The notion of a ban was further undermined by the fact that the Secretary of State for the Environment had already given permission to the CND to hold their rally in Trafalgar Square: ‘Unfortunately, the Home Office were not consulted before this decision was taken’ because ‘the relevance of the date was, presumably, missed on this occasion.’

The assessment concludes:

Downing Street conceded, ‘Ms Thatcher agrees that we have to accept the judgement of the police’.


Also see: CND 1980s – all files

This story is based on:

– Solomon Hughes, Thatcher tried to ban 1984 CND anti Reagan demo, Morning Star, 30 June 2006,  (re-published on Hughes’ blog People’s Plain Dealer)
– Solomon Hughes, Special Branch Spying on CND, Morning Star, 15 August 2008, (re-published on Hughes’ blog People’s Plain Dealer)
– Channel 4 20/20 Vision programme ‘MI5’s Official Secrets’, first broadcast March 1985.
– BBC 2, True Spies Episode Three: It Could Happen To You, first broadcast November 2002. (BBC Transcript here, cleaned up and proofed version here ).
– Gillian Reeve and Joan Smith, Offence of the Realm: How Peace Campaigners Get Bugged, CND Publications, 1986.
– Kate Hudson, CND – Now More Than Ever: The Story of a Peace Movement, published 2005


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