“As far as I was concerned, I’d met someone, and they were going to be my partner for life. I was going to marry them and have children with them.”
In her new memoir Small Town Girl: Love, Lies, and the Undercover Police, activist Donna McLean writes of her boyfriend, known to her then as Carlo Neri, proposing at their shared Maida Vale apartment on New Year’s Eve in 2002. It was three months after they had met, introduced by mutual friends while protesting against the direction of the British government to go to war against Iraq. Carlo had already won the love of her family and had become a comfortable member of her tight-knit circle of friends.
Donna said yes. Carlo wrapped his arms around her and lifted her off her feet; those who had gathered at the couple’s home to celebrate the new year cheered. The atmosphere was euphoric.
It was another thirteen years before Donna found out that Carlo Neri — the locksmith, anti-fascist, and trade union militant — had never existed. Neri was a character played by a different Carlo, a Metropolitan Police officer, and their relationship was part of an undercover operation orchestrated to spy on her activist friends. Every minute they spent together was being paid for by the state. The photographs of his son that he had brought into her flat were real — but what he hadn’t told her was that his son’s mother, to whom he was still married, was living in a house less than ten miles away.
Since 1968, more than one thousand political groups — the vast majority left-wing — have been infiltrated by units of the Met including the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS) and the National Public Order Intelligence Unit (NPOIU). Among others, the Met has spied on environmentalist groups, socialist and anarchist organizations, and justice campaigners like the family of murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence.
The first story to break was in 2010, when, looking for sunglasses in the glove compartment of her boyfriend’s car, an activist known as Lisa found a passport with an unfamiliar name and emails addressed to “Dad” on an equally unfamiliar cell phone. More digging revealed that her boyfriend of six years, Mark Stone, was in fact Mark Kennedy — an officer in the NPOIU sent to spy on Lisa and her environmentalist friends.
When the revelations about Kennedy were made public, a much bigger thread began to unravel.
“The fact that there are officially known to be at least thirty women who had relationships with undercover police means that there could be three times that amount, because of all the people who are anonymous,” Donna, now forty-nine, tells Tribune. Known as Andrea until she waived her anonymity in 2019, Donna has spent most of her life working in mental health services and moved out of London years ago to resettle in Kent with her two daughters. “Most of the officers in the NPOIU have anonymity; unless you know the name, you’d never know. But pretty much every officer that’s been uncovered had relationships, so you could just multiply that number.”
Four years after Kennedy was outed, and under particular pressure to respond to the placement of a spy in the Stephen Lawrence family campaign, then home secretary Theresa May announced the Undercover Policing Inquiry with the intention of looking at “historical failings” and making recommendations to “ensure those unacceptable practices are not repeated in the future.” Since its inception, though, the Undercover Policing Inquiry has been beset by problems and delays, meaning that while Donna maintains the importance of the inquiry in “getting the evidence out there,” it has so far obscured as much as it’s revealed.
Asking Donna whether she has learned anything about Carlo’s police handler, for example — who she knows must have been in close proximity to them throughout their relationship — she sounds frustrated. “Asking those questions and trying to get answers is very difficult, because we’ve not actually had our files at all. We keep being referred back to the public inquiry: ‘You’ll find this out when the public inquiry happens; these questions will be answered when the public inquiry happens.’ But it keeps getting pushed back.” After initially being told she’d give evidence last year, Donna is now due to be heard in 2025.
“One of the big issues,” she continues, “is that it’s not very public. A lot of it is being done in secret, and promises made are not being kept, like publicly naming officers who were engaged in wrongful behavior.” Donna is not allowed to use Carlo’s real last name within the inquiry, even though it’s been published elsewhere, “because the inquiry didn’t tell us. We found out ourselves.”
All this is evidence of a clear imbalance Donna describes in the state’s care for officers — “It’s always about their dignity and their right to family life and their right to privacy” — versus its care for those they have manipulated and emotionally tortured. In 2014, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) decided against prosecuting undercover officers, for example for rape or assault, on the basis of insufficient evidence. State representatives have also tried to claim that the relationships that some “rogue officers” pursued were based on “genuine feelings.”
Donna refutes that outright. “We know the relationships were completely systematic. The sheer scale of it . . . there’s no way it could have been anything other than deliberate. It was a strategic thing that happened over forty years. We’ve been looking back at the ’60s and ’70s, and the relationships had started even then.”
The last known relationship between an undercover police officer and a female activist ended in 2015 — a mere seven years ago. Donna tells me of policing files that include details of breast size, historical abortions, and promiscuity. The most affecting moments of Small Town Girl document not only how this institutional misogyny manifested but how it was utilized for maximum convenience.
The method officers used to end relationships once their operation was done, for example, involved faking emotional deterioration to the point of suicide ideation before removing themselves entirely and leaving their partners distraught. For Carlo, planting the seeds for that escape after living with Donna for almost two years meant pretending to share her experience of childhood domestic violence, then lying about the discovery of new, worse events — horrific events — to justify his exit.
After the relationship ends and the truth is discovered, fresh violations emerge in the investigative process. “When you have these psychological assessments for the purpose of a civil case against the police, you are spending three hours basically having to trawl through all the worst bits of your life,” Donna explains. “It’s not just about the relationship. It’s about every single thing that’s happened to you that’s traumatic, and that’s all in one room, and then you’re just left with it afterward.”
The first eight women who brought a civil case against the police were subjected to just one psychological assessment each. Donna had five. “After the first apology, when they accept that they’ve done something dreadful, when they admit it, I don’t think they really need to put you through that entire trauma all over again,” she says. “I think it’s designed to put people off holding them to account.”
Other methods were used to this end, too. Late one night, soon after first speaking publicly about her relationship with Carlo, Donna had the sense that she was being followed. “Being followed isn’t being spied on, because if you’re being spied on, they don’t want you to see them,” she explains. “If they make themselves seen, as happened with me, they’re trying to freak you out. You start to wonder: How much am I being watched? Did it ever stop? Between the relationship ending and me finding out, was I just left alone until then — or was there some quiet surveillance going on for years that I was completely unaware of?” After that night, Donna went to change her Facebook password and discovered that she was logged into seven devices in Bury St Edmunds, where she had never been.
The misogyny at the core of the Met has been under increased scrutiny since spring 2021, when serving officer Wayne Couzens used his powers to arrest, rape, and murder thirty-three-year-old Sarah Everard, and a vigil held in her memory was violently broken up by his Met Police colleagues. “The unit Wayne Couzens came from, and another officer who was just charged with rape,” Donna says, is the Parliamentary and Diplomatic Protection Command, “where Carlo went after being undercover.”
David Carrick, the other officer she refers to, was charged in January 2022 with a total of twenty-nine offenses against eight women, including thirteen counts of rape. As Donna points out, some officers in the Command carry guns.
Many have cited the Clapham Common vigil as the moment this government’s authoritarian turn pierced the public consciousness, with organizations like Sisters Uncut directing the simmering anger toward the Police, Crime, Sentencing, and Courts Bill. But less talked about was the accompanying Covert Human Intelligence Sources (CHIS) Act passed in March last year, which gave undercover police officers like Carlo carte blanche to commit both crimes and civil infractions — even while attempts to ensure “historical failings” are never repeated are ongoing.
For Donna, the CHIS Act has direct implications. “The civil cases were the only thing we had because the CPS wouldn’t prosecute, and if the CHIS bill had been law when these relationships began, there would’ve been no civil cases,” she explains. “You’ve got the human rights cases, like the Investigatory Powers Tribunal, but they’re very specific, very long, and very difficult. And they only apply to relationships that happened after the year 2000, when the new human rights legislation came in.” That means that anyone affected before 2000 would have had no recourse whatsoever.
Legal injustice is only one part of the threat. In an interview with Tribune last year, human rights barrister Shami Chakrabarti outlined her fears that the CHIS Act will increase the use of state agents provocateurs to undermine progressive movements. This is a fear brought to life in the pages of Donna’s memoir, which recalls that after their New Year’s Eve engagement, Carlo suggested he and a couple of fellow activists petrol-bomb a thrift shop that he said was a front for Italian fascists.
Donna calls that incident “the most bizarre thing,” but she goes on to say that the role of agent provocateur is a classic one. Another undercover officer, Bob Lambert, was accused of planting a firebomb in the Harrow Debenhams in 1987. “It’s designed to cause miscarriages of justice. And there’s no accountability whatsoever for it.”
Decades of violence and cover-ups by the Met demand to be understood in macro terms. Portraying instances of state abuse like Carlo’s relationship with Donna as anomalies rather than parts of a historical pattern reproduces a misdirected analysis: one that blames individuals — whether “rogue officers” or corrupt prime ministers — for sullying what are otherwise good and honest institutions.
This is a point Donna is keen to hammer home: it’s not just about what happened to her. “It’s about the sheer number of deaths in police custody, the way that particularly black men are targeted, the fact they’re not investigated, the fact that things are covered up.” Even after the Stephen Lawrence case made headlines, “there were victims like Ricky Reel. There are racist murderers getting away with their crimes because the police colluded with them. And then there’s the collusion between the police and the big construction firms, and blacklisting. The more you dig, the more muck there is.”
But a political scandal where the state lies its way into hearts and beds is an unavoidably personal one — and one its victims carry in a way incomprehensible to others, heartfelt as expressions of solidarity may be. Donna speaks of her guilt, of how learning that Carlo’s breakdown was a lie made her feel like a fraud. Her own well-being deteriorated after the discovery, and there were moments when the pursuit of justice against a vicious and intransigent force was so demoralizing that she admits she’d had enough. “But there’s nowhere else to go,” she says. “You have to keep going. You can’t go back.”
While Donna accepts that it “isn’t how these stories are normally told,” Small Town Girl places the intimacy of the abuse its author suffered, and its aftermath, at its core. In doing so, the book allows us greater depth in understanding the cruelty that’s long lain at the heart of the British state.
“For me, it’s about context — why I ended up in that situation, how the bond was formed so quickly. The interviews, my childhood. It had to involve the personal. If it didn’t, it would be half a book, I think.”