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The policing of radicals in the United Kingdom before and into the Cold War was once compared favorably with the witch-hunt hysteria of the United States. The British, imbued with the notion of “fair play,” were supposedly more tolerant and less repressive than the Americans. Historian Jennifer Luff complicates this simplistic reading by comparing and contrasting the Communist-hunting regimes in the UK and the US.

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Luff argues that the UK has a better reputation in this area because British authorities did their work covertly. She writes that “secrecy permitted a dramatically more comprehensive British regime” that escaped notice—then and since. Bound within the extreme legal sanction of Official Secrets Acts and like-minded Civil Servants motivated by a notion of “honorable secrecy,” the firings, arrests, and deportations of, and spying on, Communists or alleged Communists, wasn’t at all public like in the US. Absent the publicity, there was little protest.

British secrecy, writes Luff, “also empowered its agents to exercise more discretion, sometimes to the advantage of radicals and Communists.” In the US, by contrast, the overtness of it all “produced a civil liberties movement that curtailed the authority of the American regime, but also [led to] popular pressure to harass Communists and ultimately to enact severe statutory limits on their rights.”

During the interwar years, the British built up a substantial political policing operation on the back of their World War I efforts. This “dwarfed the American regime” in the 1920s and 1930s. The US ramped up political repression after World War II as part of the Cold War’s anti-democratic domestic front, markedly increasing the power of the FBI and other domestic agencies and fostering McCarthyism’s witch-hunting. “British domestic political policing,” meanwhile, “continued a steady path of increasing authority and capacity from the early twentieth century through the early Cold War.”

While the US relied on decentralized local police forces and private detective agencies like the Pinkertons to police radicalism before the First World War, the British networked local police beginning in the 1840s and set up a Special Branch to counter Irish republican terrorism in 1883. Colonial policing influenced domestic British actions and vice versa; the first head of MI5, the agency set up in 1909 for counterespionage, was a veteran of the Boxer Rebellion of 1899–1901.

The end of WWI saw the US dismantle much of its wartime policing apparatus in the face of widespread backlash. The British kept its sizable policing apparatus in place and the Emergency Powers Act and Official Secrets Act of 1920 “provided the peacetime justification for suppressing dissent.”

Communists were the main target. They were banned from the civil service and were arrested and jailed simply for being Communists—while domestic Fascists were largely left alone until the late 1930s. There was long-term surveillance of thousands. George Orwell, for instance, had a file from 1929 on. Working-class activists bore the brunt of the repression and were fired from dockyards, ordnance factories, and scientific establishments. Two thousand sailors were discharged after protests over a pay cut in 1931. (Ironically, the “honorable secrecy” of the British civil service ended up protecting the actual spies amongst them: the Cambridge Five, for example, were named after their elite University of Cambridge connections.)

During WWI, British agents in the US had been unimpressed by American work against both German and Indian nationalists and had attempted to stay on until ordered out of the country in 1920. Cooperation on the anti-radical and anti-spy front between the two countries was minimal until 1940, when the British brought their methods to the FBI. “Very rapidly, under the tutelage of British intelligence, the US built and staffed a large domestic political policing force,” writes Luff. The US’s counterintelligence system was built on British bones.

Surveillance occurs in all states, but the uses of such surveillance differs. Luff notes that the authority for arrests and deportations in the US and the UK both came from democratically elected legislatures, not executive authority. “Neither country’s liberal tradition has proved very durable under duress,” she concludes.


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The American Historical Review, Vol. 122, No. 3 (June 2017), pp. 727–757
Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Historical Association