“Subversion” old and new

Abu_Qatada_CartoonBy Annie MachonAnnie Machon

An interesting article in yesterday’s Telegraph by political commentator Peter Oborne about Abu Qatada.  This case has caused much sound and fury amongst the British political and media classes over the last couple of days.  Oborne’s article strips out the bombast and takes us back to basic principles – as did this other recent article in the Independent a day or two ago by Christina Patterson.

However, what really grabbed my attention in Oborne’s article was his reference to David Maxwell Fyfe, the British politician and lawyer who was tasked by Sir Winston Churchill to lay the foundations of the European system of human rights after the atrocities of World War Two – a period when the need for basic rights was seared into people’s minds.

Maxwell_FyfeWhile Maxwell Fyfe laid some good foundations for European law, his name also has resonance to all who worked for the UK domestic Security Service, MI5, during or in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War.  It was Maxwell Fyfe’s directive, issued in 1952, that was instrumental in allowing MI5 to spy on British political activists subversives.  This directive remained in place until 1989, when MI5 was placed on a legal footing for the first time in its then 80 year history, with the Security Service Act 1989.  Here is a segment about the Maxwell Fyfe directive from my old book, “Spies, Lies and Whistleblowers“:

Background to subversion

At this time MI5 was still using the same criteria for recording individual subversives and their sympathisers as was set out by Home Secretary David Maxwell-Fyfe in 1952.  He called on the services to identify any individual engaged in undermining Parliamentary democracy, national security and/or the economic well-being of the UK by violent, industrial or political means.  In fact, many would argue that groups who used only political means to get their point across were merely exercising their democratic rights.  In fact, MI5 used photos of demonstrations, copies of election lists and even lists of subscribers to radical left-wing book clubs as indicators of subversive sympathy and membership.  Of course, the world was a very different place when I joined the section, almost 40 years after Maxwell-Fyfe’s declaration, not least because of the disintegration of the Soviet Union and its Eastern bloc allies.  

TrotskyFrom Maxwell-Fyfe’s statement to Parliament, which was never made law, MI5 and subsequent governments used to argue that all members of certain parties –such as the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) or later the bewildering array of Trotskyists, with names like the International Marxist Group (IMG), Workers’ Revolutionary Party (WRP) Major and Minor, Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) and Revolutionary Communist Group (RCG), anarchists and the extreme right — were threats to the security of the state or our democratic system.  This in itself is a contentious proposition.  None of these Trotskyist groups was cultivating Eastern bloc finance or building bombs in smoky back rooms, but were instead using legitimate democratic methods to make their case, such as standing in elections, organising demonstrations and educating ‘the workers’.  They certainly had no allegiance to a foreign power, the primary raison d’etre for the investigation of subversion, because, unlike the Communist Party, they abhorred the Eastern bloc.

Greenham-commonSince MI5 was effectively investigating individuals for holding opinions the government did not like — a very un-British position — it was always at pains to point out that it took its responsibilities with regard to human rights very seriously, although not seriously enough to ensure that these activities were regulated by a legal framework.  All the service’s phone taps prior to the passing of the Interception of Communications Act (IOCA) in 1985 were unlawful because there was no legislation governing the interception of communications.”

The directive was not a legally binding document, but it was the basis for the work of F Branch, MI5’s massive section tasked with hunting “subversives” during those decades.  It allowed intelligence officers great latitude in interpreting what was deemed subversive activity and who were “legitimate’ targets.  And yet there were many, many instances of the abuse of this system by paranoid, senior intelligence officers over the years.  More information can be found in this chapter on subversion from the book.

So my point is, yes, Britain ostensibly led the way in developing a system to protect human rights in the aftermath of the Second World War.  But the very architect of that system then produced the directive that gave British spies carte blanche to investigate political dissidents within their own country, which they abused for decades.

Mark_KennedyAnd now we have commentators rightly saying that we should uphold basic human rights’ values in cases such as Abu Qatada.  But what about all the UK activists who were illegally investigated by MI5 from 1952 to the 1990s? And, more pertinently today, what about all the activists and protesters who have been aggressively spied upon by the unaccountable, undercover police of the NPOIU since the 1990s, under the illegal category of “domestic extremists“?

I was heartened to see 87 year old artist and peace activist John Catt is suing the NPOIU for intrusive surveillance over the last 6 years.  Perhaps he should quote Maxwell Fyfe on human rights during his case?

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