Policing Anti-Vietnam War Demonstrations in 1968

‘The Battle of Grosvenor Square’ and the birth of the Special Demonstration Squad

Jac St. John, 12 January 2016

Widely regarded as an historical moment of change, 1968 was also ‘a watershed year for the secret state’, as Peter Taylor noted. On 17 March, 25,000 people took part in a protest outside the US Embassy in Grosvenor Square, ending in running battles between police and protesters. The televised scenes of chaos shocked the British public. Moral guardians within parliament and the press furnished a growing paranoia, fearing that the global zeitgeist of Sixties political radicalism had finally spread to Britain.

Following the violence of the demonstration, senior figures in the Home Office and the Metropolitan Police Service demanded more information on the would-be revolutionaries. In response, Special Branch Chief Inspector Conrad Dixon proposed a radical solution. According to his obituary in the Times, Dixon suggested that, for ‘twenty men, half a million pounds and a free hand’ his superiors would be kept well informed. To ensure its secrecy, the Home Office agreed to fund the operation directly, and Dixon became head of the Special Operations Squad – later the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS). In their recent history of Special Branch Ray Wilson and Ian Adams tell that:

…a few days after the Home Office had decided on the course of action to be taken, twelve bemused SB officers of various ranks (constable to chief inspector) were paraded by their chief, Commander Fergie Smith, before the Assistant Commissioner for Crime, Peter Brodie. His message was simple: ‘Find out what these people are planning for 27th October’. Back in his office, Fergie was unable to elaborate, except to warn his officers against acting as agents provocateurs and to take care not to become elected to office in any of the organisations they succeeded in joining.

And so was born the SDS, a secret unit within Metropolitan Police Special Branch (hereafter Special Branch) that sent undercover agents on surveillance operations to infiltrate political protest groups. Though initially only a temporary solution to anti-war protests, the remit of the SDS was expanded in the 1970s to include various other political groups. Members of the SDS undertook long-term undercover operations, becoming intimately involved in the lives of those they were sent to spy on.

James Callaghan, Home Secretary in 1968, later admitted that the 17 March demonstration caught the police totally unprepared. In an interview for Peter Taylor’s BBC documentary ‘True Spies’, one Special Branch officer remembered: ‘We had no training at all for demonstrations. We were just bussed in in a coach, didn’t know what we were going to do; no preparation for it whatsoever’. Echoing this, another noted: ‘We underestimated how many were coming. We were ill-equipped at the time and couldn’t bring enough men in to control it consequently when the violence erupted.We were amateurs then’. A report by the National Council of Civil Liberties made a number of allegations of police brutality, claiming that ineffective crowd control had bottlenecked the demonstration and sparked the violence.

This, however, was not the view of self-appointed moral guardians within Parliament and the press. Adopting the familiar discourse of moral panic, establishment voices elevated ‘student radicals’ to the status of what Stanley Cohen termed ‘folk devils’. A number of Conservative MPs expressed outrage at the ‘hooligans who ran riot in Grosvenor Square that Sunday – that most un-British of days’. As if to explain this violent aberration in the peaceful tradition of British protest, MPs became increasingly concerned with the influence of ‘alien militant agitators’. The appropriately named Mr Iremonger MP tabled a motion to amend the Public Order Act (1936) to allow for the imprisonment and deportation of foreign protesters. Speaking on behalf of his ‘decent, quiet-living constituents’, Mr Iremonger stated that, ‘the British people are fed up of being trampled underfoot by foreign scum’. Such sentiments were also to be found in the press, as historian Nick Thomas has shown.

A Special Branch report in September 1968, and authored by Conrad Dixon, identified a shift in the climate of British political activism:

Mass demonstrations and direct action presented a difficult public order challenge, particularly for a police force that, as Robert Reiner has shown, had developed a powerful and accepted stereotype of ‘policing by consent’ and a distinctly ‘British’ style of protest policing. Furthermore, surveillance and reliable intelligence had become harder to obtain since political movements began to organise outside hierarchal and centralised structures. Such was the raison d’etre of the SDS.

‘A Demonstration of British Good Sense’: 27 October 1968

Special Branch intelligence failures had left the police unprepared for the 17 March demonstration. Now with undercover SDS agents in place, preparations for a demonstration planned for 27 October were not going to make the same mistakes twice.

Following the March demonstration, predictions of further violence became something of a motif in press reportage. Indicative of a growing hysteria, a front-page report in The Times warned of ‘militant extremists’ manufacturing Molotov cocktails and amassing a small arsenal of weapons, a ‘startling plot…uncovered by a special squad of detectives’. The Home Secretary, James Callaghan, however, denied such allegations, and a statement by Scotland Yard criticised press coverage as ‘speculative and likely to arouse public apprehension unnecessarily’. Though the Home Secretary appears to have, at least momentarily, considered deploying troops to police the demonstration, overt military tactics were quickly dismissed. In fact, such were Callaghan’s efforts to present a passive policing presence, barriers outside the US Embassy in Grosvenor Square were considered too confrontational.

This reflected a broader public narrative adopted by the Home Secretary and senior police officers that accepted mass public demonstrations as an important tradition of liberal democracy and thus resisted pressure to ban the march. In the run-up to the demonstration the police were in close contact with its organisers and following its peaceful conclusion, Callaghan praised the protesters and police for a characteristic ‘demonstration of British good sense’. Symbolic of the return to a ‘British style’ of protest policing following the aberration of the 17 March demonstration, police and protesters concluded the 27 October rally in Grosvenor Square with a chorus of ‘Auld Lang Syne’.

However, this public narrative of ‘protest policing by consent’ is made more complicated by a cache of internal Home Office documents and Special Branch reports released under the Freedom of Information Act. Behind the restrained tactics of crowd control by uniformed officers, the documents reveal the extensive use of covert policing tactics through intelligence and surveillance. This started immediately after the 17 March demonstration, as a Special Branch report on a demonstration organised by the Youth Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament clearly shows. The report notes that, embedded within the 3,000-4,000 demonstrators were undercover Special Branch officers recording detailed observations of the rally. In one passage, the officer turns their attention to a particular individual whose identity remains redacted:

In August 1968, SDS Chief Inspector Conrad Dixon sent the first of what would become weekly intelligence reports passed on to the Home Office. Though redacted in parts, the reports show something of the rich topography of the British far left in 1968. The primary concern for Special Branch was the threat each of these groups presented. Of particular concern was a Maoist faction who were reportedly encouraging the use of violence at the coming demonstration. This was followed up in a later report, where the internal politics of the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign (VSC) Liaison Committee account for much of the detail.

A report of 5 September 1968 noted that a police search of the offices of Black Dwarf had revealed a drawing of a Molotov cocktail and assembly instructions penned on the wall of the office, ‘a matter still being actively pursued by this branch’. The report also hints at more clandestine Special Branch activity to investigate firearms allegations:

A subsequent Special Branch report warned that a Maoist ‘front’ organisation planned to use fireworks and placard poles as weapons, amongst other disruptive protest tactics.

Special Branch officers were in liaison with the camp site wardens at various locations around London to provide intelligence on where the much maligned ‘foreign radicals’ would be staying. The report also confirms that a list of 35 ‘alien students’ with convictions for violence was passed on to the Home Office, where internal memos show the information provoked much discussion on the entry rights of visiting demonstrators.

Entering the month of the demonstration, Special Branch reports continued to emphasise the importance of intelligence and the likely radicalism of protesters. This ranged from the participation of radical demonstrators travelling from Glasgow and Liverpool, to plans by the pressure group the National Council of Civil Liberties to observe the demonstration.

As received intelligence suggested some demonstrators intended to provoke the police, a Special Branch report treated sardonically the suggestion that a withdrawn police presence would prevent violent outbreaks: ‘even the most politically-naïve student or starry-eyed intellectual finds this hard to swallow’. Intelligence that the VSC was in financial dire straits appears to have drawn the attention of the Home Office, the Home Secretary later discouraging reporters from offering financial incentives for interviews. In a meeting with ten leading newspaper proprietors, the Home Secretary also stressed that:

Another Special Branch report displays strong criticism of the bombastic press reportage, whose predictions of violence it describes as ‘a carefully-constructed pastiche of information … spiced with inspired guesswork’.

On 22 October 1968 Special Branch submitted their final report. Providing the last update before the October demonstration, the report represented a consolidation of regional intelligence, confirming the number of students travelling from university towns across the country. The report included the licence registration numbers of coaches used in the students’ transportation, intelligence that, as other files released at The National Archives show, was used by uniformed officers to affect the stop and search of suspected violent demonstrators before they reached the capital.

By the day of the rally, the police were well prepared. With plainclothes Special Branch officers dispersed amongst the crowd, the 27 October demonstration failed to live up to the predictions of violence in the press or the radical posturing of Walter Mitty revolutionaries.

The surveillance and intelligence provided by Special Branch was acknowledged as invaluable in keeping the Home Secretary ‘well informed’, as the first report of Operation Herne has since noted. This ensured the longevity of the SDS, whose undercover officers moved between political campaigns and remained active as intelligence gatherers. However, the legacy of the SDS has proved contentious – the abuse of power and alleged criminal activity of some officers now forms the basis of a public inquiry led by Lord Pitchford.

Also see:


  • Peter Taylor, True Spies: ‘Subversive My Arse’, BBC, (2002). [https://vimeo.com/159535823 Episode 1]; original BBC transcript, also available an edited and cleaned up version.
  • Ray Wilson and Ian Adam, Special Branch – A History: 1883-2006 (London: Biteback, 2015).
  • The Times. Conrad Dixon obituary (28 April 1999).
  • James Callaghan, Time and Chance (London, 1987).
  • Archives of the National Council of Civil Liberties, Hull History Centre.
  • Stanley Cohen, Folk Devils and Moral Panic. 2nd Ed. (London: Routledge, 2011).
  • Nick Thomas, ‘Protest Against the Vietnam War in 1960s Britain: The Relationship between Protesters and the Press’. Contemporary British History, Vol.22 No.3 (2008): 335-354.
  • Robert Reiner, Policing, Protest, and Disorder in Britain. In della Porta, Donatella and Reiter, Herbert, Policing Protest: The Control of Mass Demonstrations in Western Democracies (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998): 35-48.

Further reading on the Vietnam War Demonstration Files:

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