Police Fight to Contain Anarchy in Cambridge

02/12/2013 12:21 GMT | Updated 30/01/2014 10:59 GMT

These may be the last words I ever write as terror has descended upon the cobbled streets of Cambridge and anarchy is breaking out in the quaint pubs and college bars. Apparently the nation should be worried about dastardly goings-on that would make Lewis and Morse's brutal Oxford seem peaceful.

According to Graham Bright, Tory police and crime commissioner for Cambridgeshire, we could have an attack like that seen in Woolwich if 'his' police force are not allowed to spy on students.

Sir Graham made the comment while defending a bungled attempt by police to recruit a young man to infiltrate student groups at Cambridge University. Despite the police's enthusiasm, there is no evidence that students under police scrutiny are violent terrorists. They are simply law-abiding activists.

The unwilling spy was asked to inform on "student union type stuff" for money by a policeman who said the force is interested in groups like UK Uncut, Unite Against Fascism and Cambridge Defend Education. The attempt to recruit the informant came to light because it was covertly filmed.

The farcical attempt to spy on student activists and dismal failure to recruit an informant perhaps proves the police do need help - of some kind. Whether that help is to become better at spying or to develop a less prejudiced view of student activism depends on your point of view.

Students are meant to be exploring different ideas, that is why they are at university. Activism brings theory to life, which is exactly what students should be doing. As a taxpayer I do not believe that spying on student groups and antifascists is what the police should be doing. Cycle theft is a much bigger problem in Cambridge than student radicalism. Many Cambridge students don't find time to watch the news, let alone plot terrorist atrocities.

Sir Graham has, since mid-November, maintained his support for the police attempt to infiltrate student groups. However, students and academics have become increasingly concerned with the tone of his justifications.

He initially said he is satisfied that officers acted in accordance with anti-terror laws, his spokeswoman stating: "The commissioner has been reassured the constabulary was acting within the legal framework set out by the legislation."

However, after further criticism from students and academics, Sir Graham ramped-up the hyperbole to ludicrous levels. So much so that my own view is if he actually believes what he has said then his view of reality is so distorted that he should not be in the job. If he doesn't believe it - and is just using sensationalist rhetoric to justify the unjustifiable - he also should not be in his job.

On November 26, asked to justify the actions to the Home Affairs Select Committee, Bright said: "You and I know that there is always that sort of activity taking place. One dreads to think that something could happen in Cambridge like it did in Woolwich. And you know it has to go on. But the thing is to ensure it is done in the right way and sticks to the rules."

One of the supposedly 'dangerous' groups requiring infiltration is Cambridge Defend Education, which is concerned about barriers to education for the less well-off and the impact of cuts on universities. It is hardly Al-Qaeda.

In a statement about the attempt to infiltrate student politics, the group said: "Cambridge Defend Education is not surprised to find itself the subject of police surveillance. As we have seen, the police will go to any lengths to gain 'intelligence' on activist groups, including deceiving women into long-term intimate relationships."

The statement also said police spying "constitutes part of a wider attempt by the police, university management and the government to criminalise and suppress dissent within universities across the country."

It concludes: "As staff salaries are cut and tuition fees rise, Cambridge Defend Education stand against the marketisation of education, against the brutal austerity measures of the coalition government, and against the surveillance and criminalisation of activist groups who oppose them. We refuse to be intimidated by these coercive and underhand tactics, and will continue to resist - in our universities and on the streets."

A letter to Cambridge vice-chancellor Leszek Borysiewicz from Cambridge Defend Education, asking him to clarify the University's position in relation to police infiltration of student groups, was signed by 130 senior academics.

Graham Bright was an MP between 1983 and 1997. In that time he was most notable for pushing legislation to classify video films. On the surface it would seem that Bright was ahead of his time in relation to fears about the influence of 'video nasties' on children. However, closer inspection of exchanges at that time reveals that he was as worried about the impact of films on dogs as children.

Given that few dogs make it to the age of 18, it is probably good that laws to pause films if underage dogs should wander into the nation's lounges were not introduced. Think of the national productivity lost if it takes weeks to watch a two hour DVD, due to interloping puppies.

Having spent years surrounded by work-obsessed, highly competitive and generally conservative Cambridge students, it seems to me that Sir Graham's fears about violent radicalism breaking out are as unfounded as his fear of dogs being sent over the edge by gory films. What worries me more is how a police force can be driven by such ignorance.