Book Review: Undercover by Rob Evans and Paul Lewis

This book sheds light on the darkest corners of the history of British Police, namely the Special Branch unit.

In all honesty, this was the first book about the SDS that I have read, and my lack of knowledge on the matter is what motivated me to seek answers.

Because so little is known about the SDS compared to other organisations such as the MI5, it can be quite difficult to judge the accuracy of this book. Whilst a small amount of the material is based on allegations, the authors do seem to make it clear when they were not able to obtain a piece of information.

I learned a lot of history and politics from this book, and delved into what was the political atmosphere in the late 70s and the 80s. One thing that intrigued me was the fact that east London played a huge role in those times. I picked up on that East London always was a left-wing area, where protests and strikes took place, much like it is today. Some officers even kept their cover homes in Hackney, north-east London, which meant a lot of infiltration took place in east areas. In the early 90s when there was a rise in killings of black people in custody by the police, some of those affected had been residents of east London too, and it just goes to show how prominent these parts of London were in the making of British history as it stands today.

The most scandalous part for me was the way covert officers kept long term relationships with female campaigners, some even fathering children. I wondered how we had allowed this kind of police spying to happen in this country. This book tells you how.

The authors are very good at drawing out the similarities so that officers would routinely fake mental breakdowns or say they were on the run from the police before disappearing from these women’s lives (and of course any kids they had fathered). So similar were the officer’s methods of escaping from these relationships that it seems impossible to conclude that they were not instructed to do it in such a way.

Undercover makes for disturbing reading for most people, especially after exposing the police’s attempts to undermine the family of racist murder victim Stephen Lawrence. The sheer volume of effort and expense that’s gone into these operations is staggering – not only for the fact that much of the actions carried out by people like Environmental protesters, could have been policed under public order legislation (admitted by undercover cop Mark Kennedy) – but also the weird, grey moral area that these undercover officers more often than not decided to step into. Outright criminal acts, destroying the lives of women they became involved with (and the children they fathered with them). All makes for uncomfortable truths.

Overall, a very gripping, shocking and somewhat saddening book, but definitely one of the best I have read in my lifetime.