How British police and intelligence are a product of the Imperial Boomerang Effect

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This is the second article in a five-part series examining the ‘imperial boomerang effect’ and its operation in a range of contexts.

The ‘imperial boomerang effect’ is the process by which techniques, institutions and ideologies of social control are honed in colonial laboratories before being deployed against oppressed populations within the imperial motherland. It refers to the way in which imperialism is turned inwards, used against outcasts, rebels and minorities residing in the imperial metropolis itself.

Britain offers a perfect case study in the imperial boomerang effect. Some of this country’s most coercive institutions, those with a central role in quelling political dissent and maintaining the existing social order – including the Metropolitan Police and Security Service (MI5) – can be traced to the imperial needs of 19th and early 20th century imperial Britain. British imperialism was not just something done over there – it had enduring impacts within the British Isles itself, in ways relevant to the strategic calculations of any 21st century British Left.

The Metropolitan Police, Special Branch, and the British Empire

Popular perceptions of English policing’s origins begin with the humble bobby on the beat. At one end, cockney pick-pockets and cartoon villains receive their comeuppance from the firm but fair arm of the law – at the other, neighbourhood patrols give directions and help children cross the road.

Such sepia-drenched mythology could not be much further from the brutal truth about English policing’s emergence, which can be traced to an occupation force in colonial Ireland. In the late 18th century, a new professional force was created to keep the lid on unruly subjects and agricultural uprisings in Britain’s repressed colony. Developed as a uniquely successful method of colonial control, this new institution was used as a direct model during the establishment of the London Metropolitan Police (Met) in 1829.

The British ruling elite in the late 18th and early 19th century faced serious threats both at home and overseas. In its burgeoning overseas territories, the ‘age of revolution’ rocked the British Empire in North America, the Caribbean and Ireland. Domestically, dispossessed artisans and a nascent industrial working class threatened elite power with subversive ideas about democratic participation. New notions of the rights of man were rendering brute military crack-downs counter-productive and liable to generate more unrest than they quelled. A fresh institution was needed, one better able to cloak the forcible management of the colonised and proletarianised in a veneer of consent. What was needed was a police force.

Colonial Ireland presented itself as the ideal testing ground for this novel institution. Irish Secretary in the British cabinet, Robert Peel, established a professionalised, semi-armed police force in Dublin, focused on the enforcement of the colonial order and situated between the army and the civilian population. The new force embedded social control more intimately within the population, normalising the presence of state intelligence-gathering and enforcement agents throughout towns and villages across Ireland.

A decade later, now as Home Secretary and faced with a wave of domestic unrest, Peel used his work in colonial Ireland as a direct model for the state’s problems closer to home. Despite widespread liberal parliamentary and working-class opposition to the establishment of the new institution, Peel successfully founded the London Metropolitan Police in 1829. As Randall Williams notes, the police bills introduced in the British parliament were ‘nearly identical in every detail’ to those introduced earlier in Ireland. From the 1780s onwards Ireland functioned, in the words of Stanley Palmer, as a ‘testing ground for English ministers’ ideas on police’.

The imperial boomerang didn’t only birth the general institutional form of the police. Perhaps the Met’s most notorious section, the explicitly political Special Branch, was also a product of the exigencies of colonial rule in Ireland. Special Branch was established as an intelligence gathering wing aimed at potentially unruly Irish migrants in Britain. The Branch’s early activity focused on, in the words of one Met Commissioner, using ‘totally illegal’ methods to contain and disrupt the activities of Irish republicans on British soil. Edward Johnson, the head of intelligence operations in Ireland, was drafted into the Home Office to, as the Home Secretary put it, oversee intelligence gathering ‘in Glasgow and the Northern towns of England where large Irish populations congregate’. This surveillance helped constitute the downward racialisation of the Irish, who were not considered fully white at the time. Racialisation was a necessary appendage to colonial rule, one that was imported back into England along with the institutional practices of political policing. The colonial gaze was being turned inwards towards suspect migrant communities at home, a process which continues today with the intense surveillance and harassment of Muslim communities in Europe and the U.S.

In an oft-repeated pattern, this new imperial surveillance institution rapidly expanded its remit to encompass other dissidents within the imperial metropolis itself. Soon, Special Branch officers were snooping on anarchists, suffragettes, syndicalists and socialists. A force developed to combat anti-colonial resistance now presented Britain’s ruling class with a method for containing threats to the domestic status quo. In the 20th century, the Branch would help drive political surveillance through the heart of British society, sweeping up everyone from the Pankhursts to Eric Hobsbawm to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

In 2010, one-hundred and twenty years later, it was revealed that the Branch had been secretly infiltrating dozens of undercover police officers into over 1,000 political groups over a 50 year period. Notably, in a chillingly perfect example of the imperial boomerang flying back to hit us on the head once more, one of the primary targets of the undercover operations was Black justice campaigns, many of which were made up of first- and second-generation migrants from Britain’s former African and Caribbean colonies.

The Boomerang Births British Intelligence in the 20th century

England’s major police force is not the only part of the UK’s coercive apparatus that can be directly traced to the Empire: Britain’s intelligence agencies, some of the most powerful and technologically sophisticated in the world, possess a parallel imperial lineage.

MI5 is Britain’s premier domestic intelligence agency. Although now known as the UK’s domestic intelligence outfit, it was originally the intelligence gathering facility for the entire global Empire. Indeed, MI5 emerged from Secret Service Bureau, set up in 1909 by the Committee of Imperial Defence.

A vast imperial apparatus upon which ‘the sun never set’ required a comprehensive means for gathering and processing information, assessing threats from colonised populations and rival empires. As historian of British intelligence, Calder Walton notes, ‘it was a violent colonial “small war” in an outpost of the British empire, the Second Anglo-Boer War in southern Africa […] which first alerted the British government to the need for establishing a permanent intelligence service’. Growing anti-colonial resistance across the globe generated an imperative which resulted in the founding of MI5 – the agency, along with Special Branch, at the centre of political surveillance and disruption activities against the UK Left in the 20th century.

British police and intelligence services continued to catch the imperial boomerang throughout the 1900s. As historian Martin Thomas notes, ‘Britain’s increasing imperial security requirements before and after World War I were a catalyst to the expansion of centralized data collection by metropolitan security services’. Domestic police and intelligence officers, high and low, cut their teeth in the Empire before deploying their skills against subversive domestic subjects. David Petrie, head of MI5 from 1941-1946, for example, first honed his skills as head of the Delhi Intelligence Bureau in India, which monitored subversion against the British Raj, and some of British policing’s most successful techniques, including fingerprinting, were first developed in the Raj.

Ultimately, as Sinclair and Williams have noted, thousands of colonial officers returned from the collapsing British Empire in the 20th century and put their experience to use domestically. MI5 officers undertaking political vetting of industrial work-forces and BBC posts in the 1970s described themselves as ‘the Malayan Mafia’ or ‘the Sudan Souls’, harking back to their experiences as colonial officers in the outposts of empire. The well of British political life was well and truly infected with imperial particulates.

The Boomerang, ACPO and the Miners’ Strike

The trend continued later in the century. In 1981, the police’s national coordinating body – the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) – released a new riot control guide, the Public Order Manual. It turned sections of the English and Welsh police into a violent paramilitary force, replete with horse-charges and ‘snatch squads’.

The tactics – many still with us – were gleaned from two sources: the Northern Irish police, and the colonial police of Hong Kong, still then a British colony. The British Commissioner of Hong Kong’s police Roy Henry would regularly attend ACPO conferences, and British police officers began to be sent to the colony in 1983 in order to, in the words of Henry, ‘visit us and see what they could lift from Hong Kong which would be useful to them’.

One colonial method, the ‘tactical use of noise’ – banging on shields and chanting in union – was on display in the Battle of Orgreave during the 1984-5 miners’ strike. As Gerry Northam argues in Shooting in the Dark, ‘Orgreave represented the unveiling of colonial policing tactics in mainland Britain’. John Alderson, former Chief Constable of Devon and Cornwall, would later state that methods at Orgreave represented ‘a carbon copy of the Hong Kong riot squad’.

Once again, the legacy and continuation of colonialism offered the British ruling class a potent repertoire of tactics for its counter-subversion strategies at home. The British working class suffered a defeat in the miners’ strike from which it has failed to recover. The imperial boomerang had a key – and hidden – role in the decapitation.

This five-part series details three examples of the boomerang’s operation, in Britain, the US and France, and ends with a reflection on the boomerang’s strategic lessons for the 21st century Western Left. Read more here.

Connor Woodman is an independent researcher, writer and the author of the Spycops in context papers, available at: https://www.crimeandjustice.org.uk/publications/spycops-in-context'.

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