Using surveillance records as a historical source

The Undercover Policing Inquiry was established in 2015 to examine the actions of undercover police in Britain between the 1960s and the 1990s, particularly the surveillance and infiltration of activist organisations by the Special Demonstrations Squad and the National Public Order Intelligence Unit. As part of this inquiry, a large number of documents have been partially declassified as evidence, including many reports on the inner workings of activist organisations under surveillance. As a historian of the British left, I have been writing about what these documents reveal about activist groups, particularly semi-clandestine ones who were wary of infiltration by the state. The following is a part of something that I have been working on for the last few months on this topic. As it is a work in progress, any feedback is greatly appreciated.

One issue that arises from using the UCPI records is how should historians use documents and files created by the repressive institutions of the state, such as the police and the security services, in particular records relating to the surveillance and monitoring of individuals, organisations and movements. From this, the question could be posed: how can historians use police and surveillance records to write the history of those under surveillance?

Focusing on records generated by surveillance by the police or the security services, it is recognised that these records are a manifestation of intelligence: ‘a secret addendum to a body of knowledge that the state – not at all secretly – collects’.[1] The purpose of this form of intelligence, as operated by agencies like the Metropolitan Police or MI5, is to gain a knowledge of sections of the domestic population who are considered a ‘threat’ or ‘risk’ to national security or the political/economic structures in place, although this is often broadly defined and capable of bureaucratic expansion. As Eva Horn has written, ‘Intelligence is like a classified encyclopedia of the world, knowledge about everything, but not for everyone’.[2] Intelligence records are made for the purposes of the state, not the public, but through several means, such as freedom of information requests, routine government declassification or public inquiry, the public (including historians) may gain access to these records.

As intelligence records are constructed for the purposes of policing, historians using them have been confronted by their simultaneous nature of gathering material in an almost exponential (if unfocused) manner and suffering from large gaps. Writing about the files of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police on the Women’s Liberation Movement in the 1970s, Christabelle Sethna and Steve Hewitt, described the former aspect in the following way: ‘Because the police were never sure what they were looking for, or what ultimately might prove to be significant, no detail was too small to be ignored.’[3] But while the collection of material by these state agencies is expansive and often out of step with the remit of these agencies, there can also be significant gaps in their monitoring. For example, historians of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) have noted the discrepancy between the all-encompassing surveillance of certain movements (such as the Irish republican movement in Australia), while having little record of other significant events happening simultaneously within the same movement (a split in one of the major Irish republican organisations, the Connolly Association).[4]

Extensive surveillance files are not constructed to serve a narrative function, but do reveal a narrative of the interests and desires of the state through what is collected in an individual file. As Margaret Henderson and Alexandra Winter write in relation to the files of the Queensland Special Branch from the 1970s-80s, surveillance files create a form of biography of those monitored, but also reflect the ‘political paranoia’ of the surveilling state; the narrative events of the surveilled person’s biography reflect actions deemed worthy of note by the authorities.[5]

Historians using the files of the police and security services have often followed the ethos of the Subaltern Studies school of reading archival documents ‘against the grain’ (a phrase taken from Walter Benjamin).[6] Although he did not use the term himself, Ranajit Guha’s work on peasant rebellion and insurgency in colonial India epitomises this approach. Guha argues that much of the archival record of colonial India used by historians is ‘elitist in origin’, such as ‘police reports, army despatches, administrative accounts, minutes and resolutions of governmental departments’ as well as ‘newspapers or the private correspondence between persons in authority’, reflecting the viewpoint of the imperial power.[7] Despite the elitism of these records, Guha suggests that these records also contain a representation of the insurgency against the British, even if the hostility of the colonial government is registered in the documents.[8] By reading against the narrative outlined by the British, Guha claims ‘[i]t should be possible therefore to read the presence of a rebel consciousness as a necessary and pervasive element within that body of evidence.’[9] As James Scott writes in his foreword to Guha’s book:

By reading the official accounts, the court records, the interrogations of insurgency in the light of the juxtaposition of two mutually antagonistic cognitions, Guha can artfully read subordinate intentions through the veil of official rhetoric.[10]

This is a useful starting point for historians and there is much value in attempting to find the story of the group or movement under surveillance via the records of the police and the security services. But apart from the bias of the state reflected in these records, the historian should also be aware of the possibility of the records to be inaccurate. As Meredith Burgmann wrote about reading the files of ASIO, ‘[o]ften the agents got things very wrong’.[11] Closer to home to the UCPI records, John Callaghan and Kevin Morgan warned historians about writing the narratives of activists and movements based on the files of MI5, declaring that such evidence ‘is by no means reliable’. Discussing the surveillance of the Communist Party of Great Britain in the inter-war period and what the files could tell historians about the CPGB itself (rather than the operations of the security services), they elaborated:

It is already clear from analysis of the swathe of recently released MI5 files on individual communists that the spooks were often wrong about the detail or the significance of developments within the CPGB and the Comintern, even when they were aware that something of import was happening.[12]

Looking at these critiques of the archival record, it is evident that while the records of the security services and the police can be useful to historians, we must recognise their limit in what they can tell us about the subject being surveilled and possibly offer a more substantial body of evidence for understanding how the repressive apparatuses of the state function. But even with these limitations, there is some insight to be gained from surveillance files and intelligence reports into those monitored by the state and analysis of these records, in conjunction with the material produced by those under surveillance, can provide a fuller picture to historians of the operation of semi-clandestine groups.

[1]Eva Horn (trans. Sara Ogger), ‘Knowing the Enemy: The Epistemology of Secret Intelligence’, The Grey Room, 11 (Spring 2003) p. 65.

[2]Ibid., p. 66.

[3] Christabelle Sethna & Steve Hewitt, Just Watch Us: RCMP Surveillance of the Women’s Liberation Movement in Cold War Canada (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press: 2018) p. 12.

[4]Evan Smith & Anastasia Dukova, ‘ASIO and the Monitoring of Irish Republicans in Australia During the “Troubles”’, Australian Journal of Politics and History, 66/2 (2020) pp. 258-259.

[5]Margaret Henderson & Alexandra Winter, ‘Memoirs of Our Nervous Illness: The Queensland Special Branch Files of Carole Ferrier as Political Auto/Biography’, Life Writing, 6/3 (2009) p. 350.

[6]Walter Benjamin, ‘On the Concept of History’, 1940, Marxist Internet Archive, 21 January, 2022).

[7]Ranajit Guha, Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India(Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1999) p. 14.

[8]Ibid., p. 15.


[10]James Scott, ‘Foreword’, in Guha, Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India, pp. xii-xiii.

[11]Meredith Burgmann, ‘Introduction’, in Meredith Burghann (ed.) Dirty Secrets: Our ASIO Files (Sydney: NewSouth, 2014) p. 18.

[12]John Callaghan & Kevin Morgan, ‘The Open Conspiracy of the Communist Party and the Case of W.N. Ewer, Communist and Anti-Communist’, Historical Journal, 19/2 (2006) pp. 559-560.

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