It’s no surprise to see a police agent go green
The bizarre tale of PC Mark Kennedy reveals some unflattering home truths about both the British state and the eco-protest movement.
The news is full of what we are assured are ‘shocking’ revelations about a British policeman infiltrating an environmentalist group, which have come to light because the undercover cop has reportedly gone native and offered to give evidence on the activists’ behalf, causing their trial to collapse.
Which aspect are we supposed to be most shocked by? The fact that the police are so paranoid they have spent a fortune infiltrating a conservative little group of eco-activists whose idea of radical protest was normally to climb some trees, cranes and chimneys? Or that a group of allegedly ‘hardcore’ eco-activists could be so easily taken in by a cop poseur who apparently held no strong political views, but did just happen to have a van and plenty of money he was keen to devote to protests? Or that the state is now so lacking in institutional coherence and loyalty that it cannot stop its top trained agents deserting the Crown for a ramshackle green outfit?
And, we might ask, what is really so shocking anyway about a policeman siding with ‘radical’ environmentalists whose views on climate change are sympathised with by many members of the establishment, including the government-advising Lord Stern whose report is their bible, and even the judge who reluctantly sentenced some of them on the evidence of the police agent?
The strange case of the eco-protestor ‘Mark Stone’, now exposed as Metropolitan Police constable Mark Kennedy, reveals some unflattering home truths about both the British state and the green protest movement. In 2003, PC Kennedy reportedly turned up alone at an environmentalist gathering in Yorkshire, claiming to be a ‘freelance climber’ and offering his van and cash for the cause. Over the next seven years he participated in and helped to organise all manner of eco-protests and publicity stunts.
Kennedy was eventually exposed last year, only after he apparently tipped off his commanders that activists planned to occupy the coal-fired Ratcliffe-on-Soar power station near Nottingham. Police raided a school building and arrested 114 activists, 18 of whom were eventually convicted and handed lenient sentences last week by a judge who declared them ‘decent’ people with the ‘highest possible motives’. Meanwhile, finally confronted by suspicious green ‘friends’, PC Kennedy reportedly broke down, admitted the truth about who he was, and then offered to help with their defence. As a consequence of these revelations and the media publicity, the trial of six more activists charged with conspiracy, which was due to start this week, has been abandoned in embarrassment.
This is the latest episode to show the farcical mindset of insecurity and fear now gripping the upper echelons of the British state. Attempted police infiltration of opposition and radical groups is of course nothing new, as some of us with a background on the left know of old (we also knew that most of them were useless at it). But where once the agents of the state fought a battle of intelligence with mortal enemies such as the pro-Soviet Communist Party, the revolutionary left, militant mass trade unions and even the secret army of the IRA, now it seems they are reduced to infiltrating little green groupings whose PR-oriented protests tend to demand nothing more radical than fewer cheap flights and more expensive wind turbines. It is surely a sign of how paranoid the insecure authorities have become about their capacity to cope with any protests that Kennedy was sent on his bizarre mission by the newly formed National Public Order Intelligence Unit, whose brief is supposedly to combat ‘domestic extremists’.
Having sent one of their top men to do a boy’s job, it seems the authorities were then unable to prevent him eventually going native and offering to switch sides to help defend the green activists against prosecution. Such is the lack of any sense of common purpose and unity in the disoriented ranks of the British state today that even a ragtag eco-outfit can apparently provide a more compelling sense of mission.
But then again, this is hardly a stunning case of betrayal such as the 1930s defection of British agents to spy for Stalin’s Soviet Union. Why should PC Kennedy have seen siding with the greens as a betrayal at all, given that so much of respectable and mainstream opinion in the UK sympathises with the aims of the eco-activists today, if not always with their tactics? Little wonder perhaps, as other activists have noted, that he seemed so enthusiastic about the protests and later so upset at having helped get them arrested.
Despite their self-image as radical harbingers of change, these environmentalist protestors espouse essentially conservative and conformist views about the need to curtail economic growth and impose austerity in the name of combating climate change. This approach has won them a lot of mainstream sympathy and support. In 2008, a group of Greenpeace protesters was cleared of criminal damage after scaling a chimney at the coal-fired Kingsnorth power station in Kent. Witnesses for the defence included gorgeous Zac Goldsmith, the multi-millionaire eco-adviser to David Cameron who is now a Tory MP, and James Hansen, head of NASA’s space studies department who is science adviser to former US vice president and global climate change crusader Al Gore. The protesters’ supporters claimed that they were simply putting into action the message of Lord Stern’s official review on the need to avoid the costs of manmade climate change. As Brendan O’Neill observed at the time, this was ‘state-sanctioned radicalism’. So why shouldn’t a state agent sign up to it?
The recent trial of the Ratcliffe-on-Soar activists produced more evidence of establishment sympathy for the cause. Although 18 of the 20 accused were found guilty of conspiracy to commit aggravated trespass – a serious offence – Judge Jonathan Teare declared that he would impose ‘lenient’ punishments, sentencing them to a mixture of community service orders and conditional discharges and refusing prosecution requests to make them pay the costs of the case. The judge praised the defendants for their commitment to the cause, and noted that the ‘glowing references’ they had received from professionals repeatedly referred to them as ‘honest, sincere, conscientious, intelligent, committed, dedicated, caring’. M’lud concluded, sounding as if he was handing out the prizes at a posh school speech day rather than sentences at a criminal conspiracy trial, that ‘you are all decent men and women with a genuine concern for others, and in particular for the survival of planet Earth in something resembling its present form’. And what decent policeman could want to oppose such worthy aims?
It seems remarkably naive for supposed hardcore activists to be so readily taken in by a copper with a far-fetched cover story, few obvious political convictions and an apparently endless supply of cash to fund protests. That too points to how shallow is their opposition to and mistrust of their supposed enemies in the state machine. If this affair has highlighted the basic conservatism of the radical green groups’ politics, it has also pointed to the problems created by the incoherence and elitism of their organisation. The notion of loose, politically open alliances and groupings, which the environmental and other modern movements have always held up as superior to the formal political parties of the old left, brings with it a greater ease of infiltration. And those now complaining that PC Kennedy effectively acted as an agent provocateur in upping the stakes for the proposed power station occupation might note that it is far easier to hijack private publicity stunts staged by little groups of self-appointed elitists acting ‘on behalf of’ the planet/poor/unborn than it is to do so with public demonstrations.
So, as an aside, how should protest movements try to counter the threat of infiltration? One lesson of history is to be always on your guard, but never to be as paranoid as the authorities are. Proper organisation, and coordination between clandestine actions and public political work, can limit the damage that any agent provocateur might do. This case reminded me of the point that Lenin, leader of the Russian Revolution, made in relation to the police agent Roman Malinovsky, who in 1912 had managed to infiltrate the Bolshevik Party central committee and caused many activists to be not merely arrested but imprisoned or even executed by the Tsarist state. Yet in order to achieve that nefarious aim, Malinovsky had to prove himself as a revolutionary and help the Bolsheviks to set up a legal daily newspaper. Thus, ‘While with one hand Malinovsky sent scores and scores of the best Bolsheviks to penal servitude, and to death, with the other he was compelled to assist in the education of scores and scores of thousands of new Bolsheviks through the medium of the legal press’. It also seems fair to assume that if radical movements of other times discovered a police agent in their midst, their first act of retribution might not have been to tell the BBC and the Guardian how upset they were.
The story of PC Kennedy the militant green brought to mind another contrast from rather more recent political history. The aim of the action that he helped to organise and then ratted out was reportedly to occupy the Nottingham power station for a week, in order to stop the production of CO2 emissions and protest against industry – an ambition that, as noted above, attracted considerable sympathy in high offices of state. Some 26 years ago, some of us were involved in a rather different attempt to close down power stations in Yorkshire – organising pickets to try to persuade power station workers to walk out in solidarity with the miners, who were striking to defend their jobs and communities by keeping the coal industry open, pickets that took place under the close attention of riot police who were at the cutting edge of the state’s war against the miners and the working-class movement. There is no point in being nostalgic for the grim struggles of the past – after all, the miners lost and the left that tail-ended the miners’ movement was destroyed. But there is surely a lesson there about knowing who your potential allies are, who your enemy is, and what sort of political aims make it worth taking on the authorities.
Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.
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