Political leaders worldwide are obsessively insecure – even in stable western democracies such as our own – and haunted by the threat of losing their power base and an honourable place in history. Within the United Kingdom their crisis may be within parliament or without. If within, there is not much the democratically committed Metropolitan Police commissioner or his Special Branch can, nor should, do about it. But if a revolutionary tendency deploys unconstitutional violence, and appears to spearhead a breakdown of established order, the civil police could then be obliged to pre-empt or proscribe it by the use of intelligence or counter violence. The departure of elected leaders, even legally, is potentially destabilising. When Harold Wilson resigned as prime minister in 1976, that ever-watchful extrapolation into the future, the Stock Exchange Index, sagged by nearly 10 per cent against the unlikely chance that a breakdown of organised government would follow. The risks would be greater still if change at the top was accompanied by violence. The full-time task of improving the odds by protecting certain cabinet ministers (and, for broader reasons, foreign heads of state) traditionally fell upon Special Branch.
During the interwar years, intelligence communities worked out gloomy worst-case scenarios, forecasting the possibility of disorder following an orchestrated, perhaps Bolshevik-inspired, revolution. With the Soviet uprising in 1917 as one example, the British Establishment was not exempt from these concerns. Indeed, the United Kingdom itself was sometimes on the brink during the 1920s and 30s. In the event, little happened in the United Kingdom to disturb the status quo until the 1970s, but it was hardly a secret that government-funded counter vigilance was maintained both overtly and in various guises, to check upon extreme, politically motivated groups suspected of aiming at the overthrow of a lawfully elected government. It was here, again, that Special Branch - at least until its disbandment in the new millennium – worked proactively in conjunction with the government secret services: MI5 and MI6.
With the exception of members of the royal family, the prime minister was most vulnerable to assassination or abduction. Having the benefit of both a national intelligence-gathering role and some small arms and close-quarters-combat training for its teams of bodyguards, Special Branch was, on paper at least, well equipped to provide protection.
Other politicians regarded as potential targets were the Foreign and Home Secretaries and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. For some reason never made clear, the Chancellor - who was certainly not universally adored – was not on the target list drawn up by risk assessors. Members of the royal family, not to be sullied by association with a politically oriented unit of the police service, were the exclusive preserve of Uniform Branch, although their appointed officers worked in plain clothes. Although the traditional political right regarded the police service as an arm of the Conservative Party, and the far-out left of the Labour Party to view it with little better than sneering hostility, it is clear from history that not only were the appointed Special Branch protection officers able to forestall or prevent any major incidents against their various charges, but that they did so, in the main, with commendable impartiality. The fact is that where public officials were known to have close protection, terrorists preferred to look for softer targets.
It was not all good news for me, however. The problem was that our team was crucially underfunded, undertrained and under-resourced for weaponry and communications. Once I had been promoted to take charge, the fault lines showed just how disadvantaged we were against the escalating threat from terrorists, by overheated and over strident students and politically or racially motivated extremists. Above all, the rules of engagement in the United Kingdom were rapidly being rewritten by the Provisional IRA. It all signalled a necessary end to protection by portly men in homburg hats and displays of bulging waistlines. As long as danger to a prime minister was confined to the occasional isolated hysteric with a grudge against the government of the day, our protection teams, if alert enough, could hitherto usually sort it on the spot. Both the Home Office and Scotland Yard were happy with low-profile cover – uncontroversial and inexpensive as it was.
Even before the days when Islamic extremism was activated worldwide, it was clear to those of us in the firing line that Special Branch was not always ahead of new threats. Our experience with protection teams abroad confirmed their intense concerns, and to deal with them they developed impressive countermeasures. In General Orders for the Metropolitan Police, many hundreds of pages were devoted to the methodology of dealing with every imaginable contingency. Under the title ‘Runaway Horses’, for example, officers were still instructed to ‘run in the same direction as the horse’. Just half a page dealt with close protection. It was clear enough that the academic, desk-bound authority which created General Orders, any breach of which was a disciplinary offence, had deliberately avoided committing themselves in the controversial and unpredictable field of armed protection. If it went wrong they were not going to be responsible.
So, if still alive, it was down to the protection officer. It may be argued that while this gave the officer unlimited scope to make up the rules as he went along, he had no cover when something went wrong and bodies were bleeding in the gutter. This gave the job a special glow of insecurity. Everything depended upon minimal threat. As terrorism escalated, this was clearly not good enough.
I was never to win the battle with the British authorities and for a while we remained the western security world’s poor relations. But soon after James Callaghan replaced Harold Wilson as PM – and thanks to timely opportunism by my No. 2, Detective (then) Chief Inspector Colin Colson – higher level official interest became focused on the problem too. The outcome supported our concerns; results were immediate and impressive. Communications, transport, electronic defensive facilities, bullet and bomb proofing and administrative support quietly came our way. Plans were drawn up for new, more suitable limousines. The existing batch of Rovers were all well past their sell-by dates; rust was visible and interiors pockmarked with cigar and pipe ash. The elderly limos, whose underpaid drivers had only the most cursory evasive training and were not subject to our authority, were conscientiously maintained by Government Car Service, but increasingly fallible. Home Office boffins had installed non-portable, overweight radio sets with which we could, if given time to find and dial the appropriate code for the district we were in, make contact with any police HQ in the UK. In theory at least, as long as we had a fully equipped limousine, or were in a train with a compatible radio set installed, the prime minister could be contacted in an emergency through this network. As far as I could see it was the only way for him to activate the four minutes technically allowed to set the nuclear deterrent into action. Perhaps there was no better than a fifty-fifty chance it would work harmoniously at critical times.
It was against this background that I entered into the Downing Street machine. For nearly six years I was able to assess many of its merits and demerits, and to be a small part of a fascinating institution – a small cog in a smooth wheel. My determination to remain politically impartial was respected. Smart footwork was often useful in an institution so intimate and personal that idiosyncrasies were impossible to hide, but it was never necessary to compromise standards, and only rarely to solicit favours. An understanding of operational imperatives was accepted by men and women whose careers would be entirely office bound. Support from the prime minister was always important, but, lest it might be forgotten, even more critical was full back up from resident civil servants, unencumbered as they were by the demands of a public image.
In return, I loyally kept most of this great experience to myself for more than thirty years. I was rarely, if ever, the victim of personal animosity or malice during my term as an outsider inside Downing Street. Three politically bruised, but physically unscathed, prime ministers survived during critical days and that was, it seems fair to claim, the bottom line!
By John Warwicker