When I arrived at university, one of the first stories I read in a student publication was about police spies. It said that for the entire summer vacation, two policemen, disguised as hippies, had been instructed to punt up and down the rivers watching out for students or other layabouts smoking pot. They may have enjoyed their summer but they never managed to catch anyone. A cartoon accompanying the story showed two policeman, dressed as stereotypical hippies but wearing policemen's helmets.
I don't know whether the story was true. I do know that, in the three years of my first degree, I was never offered cannabis or any other illegal drug.
At the time, the story just made me laugh. It fitted with the comforting view that the police were so incompetent at going undercover that, if they tried, they'd fail amusingly.
A little later I became aware of a more disturbing story circulating about the activities of some police forces - and I heard this so often and from so many different sources that it seemed quite evident that it was true. This was all back in the 1970s when homosexual acts in private between consenting adults aged 21 or over had only recently ceased to be a crime. I suppose this affected the arrest totals of many police forces. However it remained illegal for a man to solicit sex with another man, raising an interesting question as to how gay men were ever to form sexual relationships. Several police forces went beyond looking out for gay men meeting one another. They sent policemen in plain clothes (known as "pretty policemen") to places where gay men met so that, if a man mentioned the possibility of sex, they could whip out the handcuffs and arrest the man. There were stories of pretty policemen who did their best to ensure gay men would make advances to them. It all seemed fairly disgraceful to the policemen and forces involved and I'm glad to say that the practice seems to have died out. I don't think today's police would countenance such activities. I don't think the government would allow it.
But I have been disturbed by what I've learned in the last year or so about the activities of undercover policemen. There are plenty of cases of companies going under cover to spy on their opponents. The McLibel case in the 1990s revealed that seven spies working for McDonald's had infiltrated the small London Greenpeace group so that at some meetings the infiltrators were in a majority. The campaigning organisation Campaign Against Arms Trade was infiltrated by a man who worked with them first as a paid volunteer and then as their paid Campaigns Co-ordinator. He was also being paid through a company working for arms muanufacturers British Aerospace. According to the Sunday Times story which uncovered this espionage, he was one of half a dozen paid infiltrators. Although it's a national organisation, CAAT is pretty small.
At least when McDonalds or BAe engage in infiltration and spying they merely lower my already low opinion of them. I had occasionally visited McDonalds with my children when the McLibel trial began but after I heard about the infiltration and spying, I initiated a family boycott. Some people may find James Bond glamorous but I reckon there's something rather sickening about spies.
For a long time I've heard stories about state infiltrators in political groups. I didn't think too much about who organised them. I'd probably have thought it was the secret services, whoever they are. I wanted them to be something shady because I didn't want to put a face to them. I've been involved in some left-wing, mainly pacifist campaigning. I don't want to discover that my friends aren't my friends at all - that they're pretending to like me and share my ideals so that they can spy on me, for money. And I don't want to look at the people who really are my friends with suspicion, because if I began to do that, how could any friendship survive?
But in the past year or so it's become evident that that the state infiltrators might be quite close to home. Mark Kennedy worked as a serving police officer by infiltrating protest groups, some of them near where I live. I don't know if he went on the same anti-war marches but it's possible. He looks vaguely familiar but that's all. At least I wasn't one of the women campaigners with whom he had affairs, while concealing the existence of a wife and family elsewhere. As the story of his spying became public, other spies were unmasked. Some of them had affairs with activists too. Some of them fathered children.
The police response to this was to say that the spies were "grossly unprofessional," "morally wrong" and "rogue." My assumption was that at least, after this, the behaviour of police spies would be reined in.
I was wrong. The Home Office minister Nick Herbert has stated that police acting as undercover spies should be allowed - in certain circumstances - to have sex with activists. I don't know what that makes the government. Paying someone to have sex with people as part of a job isn't quite the same as being a pimp, although morally it seems roughly equivalent. In a few countries encouraging the deception might count as inciting rape - but this wouldn't be the case in English law. I expect the women who have been deceived feel pretty damaged by it - especially if they have had a long-term relationship and a child with the spy. But it's not something I want my government to permit, organise or encourage. I think it's wrong.
I'm relying a lot on instinctive reactions here. So I thought I'd better consider other circumstances. What if the police spy was infiltrating an extreme right-wing group? Would I think this worthwhile?
I dislike extreme right-wing groups, particularly those which incite racism and carry out racist attacks. I want them to stop doing this. It's possible an effective infiltrator would find a way of stopping them. But I'm still not happy about the spying.
Anyone who infiltrates a group has to take part in its activities. Police spies risk arrest when they break the law - Mark Kennedy was arrested on more than one occasion. If they reach a position of power - which must be their aim - they need to suggest activities and encourage them. So the police spy infiltrating a racist group might need to establish his or her credibility by abusing people on the grounds of their race, by spraying racist graffiti on walls, by suggesting groups to be targeted on a demonstration - even by initiating or taking part in racist violence. This comes close to acting as an agent provocateur by encouraging people to break the law. I don't want any police officer to do this, however noble the initial aims. Nor do I want any police spy to be expected to have sex with a racist as part of his or her job.
Doubtless some people - including members of the government - will say I'm being naive. But I think members of the police who go undercover as spies cease to act as upholders of the law and move into a shadowy area of questionable morality. When Nick Herbert endorses undercover policing and says that police spies may have sex with activists to reinforce their cover, he may speak for the government, but he doesn't speak for me. I wonder whether the majority of voters - or the majority of police officers - would agree with him.