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The British state is rapidly alienating a whole new generation

police-state-dangerSeven days ago, the Guardian revealed that Cambridgeshire Constabulary had attempted to infiltrate activist and student groups through the recruitment of informers. The news prompted outcry from students, academics and campaigners alike. If you haven’t yet seen the videos secretly recorded by the Guardian’s mole, they provide a fascinating insight into the inner workings of our surveillance state. At both its most transgressive, and its most amateur.

In a blog for the London Review of Books on Tuesday, I objected to the position adopted by management at the University of Cambridge, who have refused to comment, saying it is a “matter for the police”. “You might expect an educational institution to be concerned by solid evidence that the police are gathering information on its law-abiding students,” I wrote. “But the university has form when it comes to collaborating in the crackdown on student dissent.” The fact that Cambridge’s vice-chancellor remains silent, after over 130 academics called on him to speak out, alerts us to the wider significance of this story: that Britain’s youth are becoming increasingly alienated from the institutions they once thought were there to protect their interests.

Alongside anti-cuts activist group Cambridge Defend Education, “Student-union type stuff” is identified by the video’s spymaster as one target of undercover surveillance. When I came to Cambridge to begin my degree two years ago, I threw myself into “student-union type stuff” and all sorts of campaigns. We had been told to sign up to as many things as possible at the freshers’ fair, held in a sweaty sportshall pumped with behoodied society reps and mediocre pop music. Most university rankings take into account some measure of “student experience”. Whether it’s Amnesty or AmDram, banking or baking, thousands of students flood the ranks of the extra-curricular every year – and many will do so in a state of inexperience, having never been to a committee meeting in their lives.

Thus, the necessity for university management to condemn police action is bigger than their duty to protect academic freedom. It is management’s job, as they themselves profess, to not only provide knowledge and teachers, but to make the university a safe environment in which one can live a decent life.

Yet this environment is severely threatened by police officers playing power games and offering money in exchange for information on one’s friends and neighbours. An investigation into how far this practice has spread and a condemnatory status would be the natural course – and a caring university should agree. Unite, Britain’s largest trade union, has already declaimed that the infiltration attempts bear the hallmarks of a “police state” – and rightly too, for many of their members are active in target groups such as Unite Against Fascism.

Yet as I identified at the LRB, the university has form not only in neglecting the wellbeing of its students, but indeed in actively participating in a crackdown on dissent:

A group of us protested against a visit from the universities and science minister David Willetts. One of our number was hauled before the authorities and ‘rusticated’ (suspended from his degree) for seven terms. After much outcry and an official appeal, this was reduced to one term.

Last month, I stood on a picket line alongside striking lecturers. A private security guard muscled into us, throwing a student to the ground. We still don’t know who hired him; the university won’t comment.

My parents’ generation had good reason for their long-held suspicion of the police and authority: the “institutional racism” exposed in the Macpherson report, the violent attacks on striking miners (including members of my family), and the infiltration of trade unions by the security services, catalogued by Seumas Milne in The Enemy Within. I used to feel that I had grown up in a different era: the post-Macpherson era. An era of New Labour, “community policing” and school visits, without injustice and violent tactics. I remember a friend saying that his mum was convinced she was the subject of a hefty police file, and I’d dismissed her as paranoid.

Perhaps things just weren’t visible to a child living a relatively-sheltered existence: we now learn that throughout this period police officers were adopting the identities of dead children and sleeping with women in order to infiltrate activist groups. And as Hugh Muir identified in a witty and shrewd analysis at the Guardian, the police’s use of unjustified surveillance is not news. “There is a now familiar narrative of how the secret snoopy state seeks to monitor the legitimate activity of those who might ask questions of it,” he writes – and it’s uncalled for, and totally unaccountable.

Those generations that did not experience the antagonism of the Thatcher era are now rapidly realising that those who we trust to have our best interests at heart, be they politicians, police officers, or university managers, rarely do. Whether it’s the vice-chancellor of the University of Oxford calling for still higher tuition fees, or the police attempting to enter and undermine left-wing campaigns, public institutions are  answering for themselves the age-old question: “Which side are you on?” Some students will understandably be scared by the police’s unjustified tactics. But many of us will go forward knowing the scale of what we’re up against – and with a renewed assault on universities to fight, we’ll fight harder than ever.


  1. Dave Roberts says:


    Are you still working for Lutfur Rahman or is getting a Labour nomination somewhere more important than his money?

    1. Dave – I have never worked for (nor met) Lutfur Rahman, and I have no intention of seeking any sort of Labour nomination anywhere.

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