I wrote the article below almost exactly 12 months ago - 0n 22 June 2013. It is re-published here as it is was since lost from The Backbencher site where it originally appeared, and I never got round to pubishing it in full on this blog. Hopefully it has stood the test of time over the past twelve months.
A Strange Kind of Glory: Life Undercover
Monday 24 June sees a Dispatches documentary on Channel 4 at 8pm. From its scheduling, the programme will examine the use of undercover police officers by the Met, and some of the resultant sexual scandals that are now coming to light.
Over the past few years, The Guardian and Observer have run a series of revelations about Special Demonstration Squad operations infiltrating far-left, anti-racist, anti-fascist, environmental and green organisations, mostly via the pen of Paul Lewis. What is noticeable about the police investigations, all of which appear to have run for several years, is the comparatively small beer that resulted in terms of prosecutions for criminal offences and/or prevention of serious crime. In the case of Peter Black, known as Officer A, who infiltrated an organisation protesting against deaths in police custody, one is left with the rather unpleasant impression that the police were not investigating criminal activity, or developing advance indications of public disorder, but instead were looking to find out what dirt protestors had developed on the Metropolitan Police.
Perhaps the most prominent of the undercover officers to be exposed is Bob Lambert, who was known as ‘Bob Robinson’ when he infiltrated a series of peace, ecological and animal rights organisations in the 1980s. Since retiring from the Metropolitan Police he had forged himself a successful career as an academic, where his research focused on Islamophobia and British counter terrorism initiatives. It was this high profile that was to be Dr Lambert’s undoing – some of those he had spied upon realised that Bob Lambert and Bob Robinson were one and the same, and exposed him when he attended an anti-racist conference in October 2011.
The details of his time undercover include entering into a long term relationship and fathering a child with a woman who had no idea as to his real identity. Both were abandoned. On 13 June 2012 the Green MP Caroline Lucas used parliamentary privilege to allege that whilst an activist in the Animal Liberation Front, ‘Bob Robinson’ had carried out the firebombing of a London department store in 1987.
Having met Bob Lambert in the course of my own academic research, I can say he is one of the most personable and considerate individuals I have known. His slightly bumbling, Sergeant Wilson out of Dad’s Army act belies a sharp mind. The problem of course is it is precisely those qualities that undoubtedly made him such a successful operator when spying upon his fellow citizens, many of whom will have given him their friendship, camaraderie and indeed love in return. Bob’s career in the Special Branch brought him the Queen’s Police Medal and an MBE. But when placed in the context of the ambiguities and indeed personal betrayals he engaged in along the way, those baubles arguably represent a strange kind of glory.
Similar sentiments may be expressed when considering the life of the late Duncan Robertson. On Thursday 20 June along with the writer Larry O’Hara I attended his inquest, at St Pancras Coroner’s Court. Mr Robertson was a long term activist in the British fascist movement, and his death in March this year was marked by a flowing tribute published on the British National Party’s website on 29 April. Croydon BNP Branch Organiser John Clarke was quoted as saying “Nationalism has lost a real friend with the passing of Duncan. Rest in peace mate”.
On 19 May the parapolitical magazine Notes from the Borderland broke the news that far from being a ‘friend’ of ‘nationalism’ Robertson had been working undercover for the anti-fascist magazine Searchlight for nine years.
Subsequently Searchlight dedicated much of the May issue of their magazine to his work, rather grandly referring to him as a ‘Searchlight intelligence officer’. There was no explanation of how a man aged only 48 had died, although reference was made to his struggle with ill health. The frightening physical decline in the pictures of Duncan Robertson over the years certainly indicated a man with considerable issues.
The inquest confirmed that Duncan Robertson had passed away on 19 March 2013, having taken 140 paracetemol tablets the day before, whilst staying on his own at a central London hotel. Prior to his death, at one stage he was drinking 150 units of alcohol per week, whilst wrestling with severe pain resultant from a surviving a train accident many years previously. In evidence to the court, Searchlight Editor Gerry Gable described Robertson as a ‘Research Journalist’ saying nothing about the undercover life he had led in the BNP (and other fascist currents) on Searchlight’s behalf. As such, the Court did not consider the pressures forming close relationships with the fascists he was informing on may have had on his mental state.
On 20 June the Coroner recorded a verdict of suicide whilst suffering from depression. The court had been unable to trace any of Duncan Robertson’s family, and he appears to have had few close friends. The current edition of Searchlight salutes him as a comrade, but as with Bob Lambert, one is left with the strong impression that a life undercover is a very strange kind of glory.
Paul Stott is an academic in the field of Terrorism Studies, based at the University of East Anglia. He tweets @MrPaulStott