Undercover: The True Story of Britain's Secret Police, page 3
Dixon was given a free hand to develop the tradecraft of the undercover unit. The squad was buried so deep within Special Branch that it was immune to many of the grudging reforms undergone by the rest of the force. The branch operated on the traditional principle of ‘need-to-know’ – only those officers involved in an operation would be briefed on its details. Intelligence provided by SDS spies would be shared with other departments in the Met without anyone disclosing how it was obtained.
The SDS turned out to be a surprisingly easy secret to keep. Its spies were out of the office and out of sight, meeting only in safe houses across the capital. It is perhaps a cliché to call the SDS an elite squad, but to an extent it was. It prided itself on recruiting only the very best officers within Special Branch, which considered itself a cut above the rest of the Met. The covert squad did not operate like the rest of the police. There were very few rules and the spies did not feel bound by their rank when they discussed operations. The operatives were expected to approach problems in a creative way, eschewing the obedient, plodding mindset of a bobby.
The spying game was initially considered a man’s world. It appears that SDS operatives were all men until the early 1980s, when women police officers were needed to infiltrate the women-only peace camp set up outside the American nuclear weapon base at Greenham Common in Berkshire. Two female police officers were selected and duly dispatched to join the women protesters. Even after that, women were rarely recruited to the SDS. Insiders describe the unit as macho and competitive, a team in which it was frowned upon to discuss emotional issues despite the very obvious psychological strain being placed on operatives.
The unit was not just the brainchild of Dixon, but very much a product of Special Branch, which already had a controversial reputation for conducting a covert war against enemies of the state. The branch was founded in 1883 to capture Irish republicans who were planting bombs in London. Since then, its primary job had been to gather intelligence to protect the nation’s security. Some of its work was relatively uncontroversial. It included protecting public figures considered to be at risk, monitoring ports and airports for unwanted visitors, carrying out surveillance on embassies and helping to vet foreigners applying to become British citizens. But Special Branch, with its close links to MI5, was considered by many to be Britain’s political police. Its officers were characterised as foot soldiers for the security services, acting as their ‘eyes and ears’ on the ground.
Over the years, Special Branch had spied on suffragettes, pacifists, unemployed workers, striking trade unionists, antinuclear activists, anti-war campaigners, fascists, anarchists and communists. The job of Special Branch, as the then home secretary Merlyn Rees put it – perhaps too honestly – in 1978, was to ‘collect information on those who I think cause problems for the state’. In more formal terms, Special Branch spied on those deemed to be ‘subversives’. But the definition of subversion was a contentious one and there was always the concern police would target people they should not.
In 1963, five years before Dixon founded the SDS, subversives were officially defined as people who ‘would contemplate the overthrow of government by unlawful means’. By the late 1970s, the net had been cast wider and the definition amended to include all those who ‘threaten the safety or well-being of the state, and are intended to undermine or overthrow parliamentary democracy by political, industrial or violent means’. By 1985, concerned MPs on the home affairs select committee noted that the branch was acquiring ‘a sinister reputation of a force which persecutes harmless citizens for political reasons, acts in nefarious ways to assist the security services, is accountable to no one, and represents a threat to civil liberties’.
When Dixon was putting together his squad, Special Branch was expanding to cope with the perceived growth in the subversive threat. Indeed it seemed that the branch was constantly growing. The 225 officers attached to the Special Branch in the early 1960s had expanded to 300 by the end of the decade. By 1978, there were 1,600 Special Branch officers. Originally based only in London, branch officers spread out across the country into provincial forces. Much of the increase was a consequence of the urgent need to deal with the Irish terrorist threat following the outbreak of the Troubles in the late 1960s.
But the expansion was also attributed to the growing surveillance of political campaigners, thousands of whom ended up in confidential Special Branch files. Much of the intelligence in these files was generated from publicly available information. For example, desk officers scoured press clippings, noting down names of activists quoted in articles or recording the names of people who had signed petitions.
When the homes of activists were raided, branch officers would comb through the contents of address books, letters and cheque-stubs to work out whom they were in contact with. Moving up the scale, phones were tapped and mail was opened. This was the routine, systematic work of the branch.
SDS officers had the more glamorous role. They left office duties behind them to inveigle themselves into key positions in protest groups. Becoming the treasurer was an established method of quickly gaining access to financial records. So too was becoming secretary, or minute-taker. The spies were told to avoid rising so far up the hierarchy of a group that they became its leader. ‘As a rule of thumb, you could allow yourself to run with the organisation, but you had to stop short of organising or directing it,’ recalls an SDS spy who infiltrated the Socialist Workers Party at the time of the Falklands War. The best position was that of a trusted confidant, a deputy who lingered in the background.
Although Dixon brought the SDS into existence, he did not hang around for long. In 1973, just five years after constructing the apparatus for long-term infiltration of protest movements, the chief inspector quit policing altogether. He did not want to be desk-bound, grinding his way up the police hierarchy for the rest of his career. The former police officer went to Exeter University to study economic history and then completed a doctorate in the working conditions of merchant seamen. Bizarrely, in 1975 Dixon was a contestant on the popular television quiz show University Challenge. A black-and-white photograph shows the Exeter team seated in the familiar line-up of the show, waiting to answer questions, or as the programme’s famous catch-phrase would have it, their ‘starter for 10’.
Dixon’s young team-mates reflect the look of the era: long hair, moustaches, polo necks and big collars. The 48-year-old student stands out with his thinning black hair and bushy beard. His small eyes stare directly at the camera with the imposing air of someone who was not to be messed with. Dixon later lectured at maritime history conferences about the practices of foreign seamen and wrote a slew of books about yachting, one of which explained the intricacies of an electronic navigation system for boats. Each year, he spent a few months out on the open sea, sailing his boat off the coasts of Europe. He died in 1999, leaving behind a wife and four children. He was rewarded with a discreet obituary in The Times, the newspaper of record favoured by the establishment.
Prior to his death, Dixon did not disappear altogether from the SDS. He had chosen a new life but kept in touch with his old colleagues. Every five years, the spies, past and present, gathered to remember old times. In 1993, Dixon attended an SDS reunion to mark the 25th anniversary of the squad. Around 50 ex-spies and their managers came together at London’s Victory Club, near Marble Arch, and heard a speech from their founder. One attendee recalls Dixon looked like ‘a shanty old seaman’.
Over dinner, feeling secure that they were within a trusted circle, the spies traded tales of derring-do from their covert days. Revered among their number was of course Dixon, the founder of the squad. But there was another man who had gained the special respect of his colleagues – Bob Lambert. Suave and manipulative, Lambert’s own tour of duty as a spy a few years earlier was considered one of the most impressive deployments in the history of the SDS.
The Slippery Fox
The seasons were on the turn; Londone
Up to the podium stepped Dr Robert Lambert, a tall, composed man in his late 50s, wearing a well-tailored dark suit and tie. Lambert delivered his hour-long lecture, about progressive alternatives to combating the threat from al-Qaida terrorists, with the confidence of a practised public speaker. He spliced his thoughtful presentation with a few jokes, sending ripples of appreciative laughter through the audience, and waved his hand in the air as he expounded the arguments in his newly published book. This was a carefully written manuscript that charted selected parts of his 26-year career in Special Branch ‘countering threats of terrorism and political violence in Britain’, but made no mention of the darker periods of his past. There was nothing to puncture his image as a progressive academic, the recipient of an MBE for ‘services to policing’. When Lambert stepped off the podium, he contentedly absorbed the applause from the audience, just one of many that had been convened from Singapore to Aberystwyth as part of his book tour.
He might have felt he was reaching the pinnacle of his career. In fact, the opposite was true. Over the next few months Lambert’s reputation would be left in tatters.
Lambert began his career in the police in 1977, aged 25. He joined the Metropolitan police, following in the footsteps of his grandfather, Inspector Ernest Lambert, who spent a quarter of a century in the force. Within three years, Lambert was in the Special Branch and soon after recruited into the SDS, joining the ranks of Conrad Dixon’s secret unit. Time and again Lambert would prove himself a master in the art of deception, a risk-taker with flair.
His undercover persona was Mark ‘Bob’ Robinson, a disarming, intelligent radical with a taste for danger. In 1983 – the first year of his deployment – Lambert met Charlotte, a vulnerable 22-year-old woman at an animal rights demonstration outside Hackney town hall in east London. Around 100 campaigners were outside the 1930s Art Deco building to put pressure on the council to sign up to a charter pledging an end to animal cruelty.
Lambert wandered over and asked Charlotte why she was wearing a stewardess-style colourful uniform, scarf and hat. She replied that she had come straight from work. The second time they met was more memorable: a demonstration against foxhunting in the Essex countryside. Charlotte started to fall for the older man. Lambert began picking her up before protests and dropping her back at her flat in east London, where she lived alone. ‘He told me that he worked as a gardener in north London,’ she says. ‘He got involved in animal rights and made himself a useful member of the group by ferrying us around in his van.’
Looking back, Charlotte feels she was targeted by the man she knew as Bob Robinson. ‘He was always around,’ she says. ‘Wherever I turned he was there trying to make himself useful, trying to get my attention. I think he was about 12 years older than me. It now seems that he worked to build a relationship with me, which developed into an intimate friendship and which became sexual. I believed at the time that he shared my beliefs and principles.’ Lambert was Charlotte’s first serious boyfriend and before long she was besotted.
Lambert always gave the impression of being a committed political activist. He chided his girlfriend for not doing more to stop the abuse of animals and encouraged her to take a more radical stance. He said that lobbying MPs and town councils would never bring radical change, arguing that only revolution would end the oppression of animals and humans in a capitalist society. ‘He would tease me for not being committed enough,’ she said. ‘I was a vegetarian but he encouraged me to become a vegan and he got me to become more involved in “direct action”.’
The police spy liked to flirt with the radical end of protest – and gave the impression he would break the law to further his cause. At weekends he visited London markets to stop traders selling and slaughtering chickens on the street, or stood outside butchers harassing customers. A friend of Charlotte says Lambert’s persona was seductive: ‘It was really an aphrodisiac that you had someone who wanted to do everything with you, who kind of took the risks that he took, and so it was a real rollercoaster in her life.’ After a few months, Lambert and Charlotte appeared inseparable at demonstrations; friends commented they had an air of Bonnie and Clyde. Lambert was often protective of his younger partner too. He once rushed to help her when some foxhunters threw her into a lake.
Within a few months, the pair were an established couple among radical protesters in London. Rather than sitting in the back of the van, Charlotte was now in the front seat, beside the charismatic driver. ‘Although Bob had a bedsit, he would stay with me. We set up home together. He would sometimes go off for a short while saying he had to visit his dad with dementia in Cumbria and sometimes he went off saying that he had a gardening job. Most the time while we were together he lived with me.’ It was of course a double life. Lambert’s father did not have dementia and did not live in Cumbria. His periods away from Charlotte were instead spent living a more conventional life with his wife and children in suburban Herefordshire. For at least five days a week, however, Lambert was with Charlotte.
Many SDS officers struggled to maintain their double lives. Not Lambert. He appeared to relish his duplicity, switching effortlessly between two worlds that were poles apart. Lambert was an ambitious man. He knew that a successful deployment – one in which he accessed the furtive underground networks of animal rights campaigners – could propel him up the ladder at Special Branch, and Charlotte was a key part of his equation. One of the hardest challenges for covert officers is turning up out of the blue without friends or family to vouch for them. They arrive in their late 20s or early 30s with sometimes feeble excuses for their sudden interest in politics.
Acquiring a girlfriend was an easy way to fill the gap, making an undercover police officer seem like a real person. Having Charlotte by his side helped Lambert to douse any questions about who he really was. Although she was not the most radical campaigner, she was a recognisable face, and had been interested in animal rights issues for around two years. Lambert exploited the credibility his girlfriend had already earned. ‘One day, Bob wasn’t there,’ recalls a friend of the couple. ‘And then Bob was there. He was everywhere.’ There seemed no protest Lambert was not interested in. Unlike some of his more highly strung comrades, he had a relaxed charm about him.
‘Bob was not extreme in his language,’ says Martyn Lowe, a radical librarian. ‘He was calm, reasonable, smiling. In politics you get nutters who sort of rant and rave – he was the complete opposite to that.’ Paul Gravett, another activist, recalls Lambert as ‘an affable, nice, fun guy who knew a lot about things. He was not a cardboard activist, he had real depth to him.’ He remembers Lambert as ‘very convincing as a sort of alternative person’ who rejected the greedy individualism associated with Thatcherism, claiming instead to embrace a non-materialist lifestyle. He claimed to be into music – attending Glastonbury Festival and sharing Van Morrison albums with friends – and showed a keen interest in the left-wing literature stocked at Housmans, the radical bookshop near King’s Cross station.
Lambert was well versed in political theory, and, according to one of his friends from the time, was ‘pretty well organised intellectually’, able to debate the finer points of anarchist philosophy. The spy quickly developed the right patter. Adopting the doctrines of the animal rights movement, he condemned speciesism – the idea that humans have more moral rights than animals – and claimed he did not believe in keeping pets because he rejecte
Soon Lambert was throwing himself into several different strands of political activity, becoming involved in squatting, free festivals and anti-nuclear weapon camps. The mid-1980s were a tumultuous time in British politics as Margaret Thatcher sought to impose her will on the British people. Lambert and Charlotte were among those who resisted. ‘They were like warriors trying to fight against it all,’ recalls a friend of the couple. ‘It was a really unjust time, a really divisive time. You either made loads of money or you were living in real poverty.’ One of the big clashes took place in Wapping, east London, where the newspaper magnate Rupert Murdoch took on the print unions by sacking 6,000 workers. There were regular confrontations between police and supporters of the strike – more than 1,200 people were arrested. Lambert and Charlotte were often at the heart of the protests. The group Lambert seemed most interested in was a small, environmental group called London Greenpeace, which bore no relation to the larger campaign with the same name. London Greenpeace was a radical anti-capitalist group and Lambert quickly found his niche, speaking eloquently at meetings and writing the group’s propaganda.
Although he made a convincing activist, Lambert was never dour. His friends considered him a great drinking companion who liked to socialise at pubs like the Rising Sun in Euston Road. In the summer of 1986 he hosted a party at his flat on Talbot Road in Highgate when he moved out. He claimed to be earning a cash-in-hand income as a gardener in well-heeled properties in nearby Hampstead and elsewhere. A photograph from the era shows a lean, topless Lambert in white jeans and dirty trainers mowing a lawn. One day, to bolster his cover story, he hired two fellow activists to help him clear a garden in Surrey. He also told friends he had a side job driving mini-cabs, touting illegally for customers. True to his non-conformist lifestyle, he claimed he didn’t have a bank account and preferred working in the black economy to stay off the government’s radar and avoid paying tax.