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50 years ago today, Scientology was banned in the UK — Here’s why it was a bad move

[Guardian’s Office execs Jane Kember and David Gaiman talk to the BBC in 1968]

We’re thrilled to have another well-researched piece by historian Chris Owen, who today is marking a major milestone in Scientology history on its anniversary…

Fifty years ago today on 25 July 1968, the United Kingdom became the first country in the world to introduce nationwide restrictions on Scientology. Foreign Scientologists were banned from entering the country, and Scientology’s founder L. Ron Hubbard was classified as an “undesirable alien”. The British Health Minister, Kenneth Robinson, addressed the House of Commons to issue one of the strongest condemnations of Scientology ever made by a member of a government.

“The Government is satisfied,” he said, “having reviewed all the available evidence, that Scientology is socially harmful. It alienates members of families from each other and attributes squalid and disgraceful motives to all who oppose it. Its authoritarian principles and practices are a potential menace to the personality and well-being of those so deluded as to become its followers; above all, its methods can be a serious danger to the health of those who submit to them.” Robinson declared that Scientology was “so objectionable that it would be right to take all step … to curb its growth.”

The ban lasted twelve years before it was repealed. Fifty years on, it’s worth looking again at this episode to see how it came about, whether the British government did manage to curb Scientology’s growth and what lessons can be drawn from the affair.


After struggling in its early years in the UK, Scientology became a moderately successful fringe group but largely kept out of the limelight until Hubbard’s unexpected purchase of Saint Hill Manor at East Grinstead in West Sussex in 1959. Scientology’s activities attracted increasing attention from the British authorities and media, particularly after the devastating Anderson Report was published in the Australian state of Victoria in 1965. Scientology attracted press criticism after a number of members were reported to have experienced mental breakdowns. The Scientologists’ conduct also alienated many people in East Grinstead and resulted in the area’s two Members of Parliament becoming strong critics.

The Ministry of Health and the police received a growing number of complaints about Scientology from members of the public, though there was nothing that could be done about it from a criminal law perspective. Nor was it practicable to introduce legislation banning Scientology outright or trying to constrain it through more general restrictions, as the Australian state of Victoria had attempted. Instead, the government decided that it would seek to disrupt Scientology’s operations through administrative action. It hoped that Scientology would wither away or give up on the UK.

Campaigners against Scientology pushed for a public inquiry, similar to the Anderson Inquiry in Victoria, but Robinson was reluctant as he felt that it would take too long and would not produce any information that was not already publicly known. Instead, he sought to summarise what the government knew about Scientology in the form of a White Paper which would be published as an explanation for planned restrictions. This was actually drafted in full but was never published due to a veto by a more senior minister, Richard Crossman, who was due to take over Robinson’s ministerial responsibilities in November. Robinson and the Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins, went ahead with the imposition of the ban on 25 July 1968, but did not release the evidence contained in the White Paper.

Crossman was sceptical of the ban’s justification from the start. The abandoned White Paper presented many cases of alleged harm that had not been made public, but while these accounts were at times harrowing, they were limited in numbers and scope. It listed 26 complaints, most of them relating to single individuals, almost all within a two-year period and principally relating to a single location, Saint Hill Manor. They indicated that problems certainly existed, but the number of complaints was not large in comparison to the 2,000 Scientology students who were passing through Saint Hill annually. The Ministry of Health seems to have believed that there were many more unreported cases but was unable to substantiate this.

Although the ban had an immediate impact in disrupting Scientology’s UK operations and forced it to move some of its activities abroad, it had many practical and political problems. Foreign Scientologists could only be excluded if the authorities knew about them in advance. There was no requirement for them to declare themselves at the border, and they were still allowed to enter if they were ostensibly visiting as tourists. Not surprisingly, this meant that evading the ban was easy. It was also only weakly enforced, and only at the borders. None of the four governments (under Prime Ministers Wilson, Heath, Callaghan and Thatcher) which policed the ban seem to have considered raiding Saint Hill Manor to look for those working or studying there illegally. Only about 200 people were said to have been excluded from the UK during the twelve years that the ban was in force.

The political issues were equally problematic. The ban attracted strong criticism from civil liberties groups, the media and some MPs for being enacted without any publicly released evidence to justify it. By November 1968, according to Crossman, all of his Cabinet colleagues had come to regard the ban as a mistake. “We all agreed we ought to get out of it but the others thought the best way was to play it down quietly and that a public inquiry would be a mistake,” Crossman wrote in his diary. However, he persuaded his colleagues to support an inquiry and established one under Sir John Foster in January 1969.

The outcome of the Foster Inquiry satisfied neither the government nor the Scientologists. Its eponymous report, published in December 1971, declared the ban to be unjustified on the basis of the evidence provided and called for it to be relaxed (though not lifted entirely). Foster also called for a new system of regulation for psychotherapy that prompted years of discussions but proved unworkable. Although Scientology welcomed Foster’s criticism of the ban, it was less pleased with the way that he subtly condemned its practices and called for tighter policing of its financial affairs. Foster himself became a target of Scientology’s notorious Guardian’s Office, which carried out a covert operation against him in New York the following year in an apparent effort to discredit him.

Scientology carried out a lengthy campaign against the ban using all the weapons at its disposal. It sued dozens of newspapers and magazines for reporting on Robinson’s statement; handed out hundreds of thousands of copies of its newly-established newspaper Freedom attacking Robinson and British psychiatrists; sent a claimed million letters to people around the UK asking for their input on how Scientology could be reformed; ostensibly abolished the practices of disconnection, Fair Game and keeping preclear files; and tried to take over the National Association of Mental Health, which it believed was the “hidden hand” behind the ban.

The ban also prompted a lengthy series of legal battles between the Scientologists and the government. A bid to have the ban overturned in the British courts failed, but the UK’s accession to the European Economic Community in 1973 opened new avenues to attack it. When Scientology obtained confidential letters and papers written by government officials, acquired by means which seem never to have been disclosed, it sued the government for libel in 1974. This backfired on Scientology, as it blocked any moves towards resolving the ban: the government did not want to lift it while the libel actions were pending, as that would have weakened its legal position. The Guardian’s Office also envisaged suing the British government for genocide as part of Hubbard’s notorious Snow White Program but does not seem to have put this plan into action.

Legal and political skirmishing over the ban continued through much of the 1970s until two things changed at the end of the decade. First, Scientology made a major push to obtain political backing for its case against the ban. The Guardian’s Office established extremely close relations with one London MP in particular, Norman Lewis of Newham North West, and obtained the support of many more for a repeal of the ban. Over 100 MPs signed a Commons motion calling for “Justice for Scientologists”.

The second big change was the rise to power of Margaret Thatcher. She had been involved with Scientology-related issues as far back as 1968, in her capacity as a constituency MP. The Guardian’s Office likely flagged her as potentially sympathetic to its cause, as it lobbied her through Scientologists who lived in her constituency in Finchley in North London. Although she acknowledged that she knew little about Scientology or its beliefs, she shared the concern of many MPs that the ban was unjustified. Her ideology also predisposed her towards taking a critical view of the ban. She was much more strongly libertarian and anti-statist than many of her predecessors, and was far less inclined to support state interventions.

Even before Thatcher came to power in 1979, the ban was clearly regarded by the Callaghan government as a failure. It had inconvenienced Scientology but had not stopped it. It was too easy to evade, and too little enforced. It was causing ongoing political and legal problems, and the chances of defending it in the European courts seemed doubtful. Other fringe groups such as the Moonies, the Rajneeshis and the Hare Krishnas had established a presence in the UK without any restrictions. Singling out Scientology thus seemed unfair and inexplicable, given the lack of public evidence to support the government’s position. Scientology’s growth had stalled, despite the organisation’s claims to the contrary, and the social problems feared by the government had not materialised.

Scientology let it be known that it would drop its legal actions against the government if the ban was lifted. However, the government rejected this as an unacceptable bargain due to the precedents it might set. (In the end the Scientologists dropped the litigation, which had dragged on for years without coming to trial, as a ‘goodwill gesture’.) When Thatcher became Prime Minister, she instructed her first Home Secretary, Willie Whitelaw, to review the ban and if possible to lift it.

The arrests and convictions of Mary Sue Hubbard and other leading Scientologists between in 1978-79 nearly derailed this, as there was clear evidence from files seized by the FBI that their crimes had been masterminded from Scientology’s headquarters at Saint Hill Manor; two of those convicted were extradited from the UK to stand trial in Washington. Despite the evidence, however, the Chief Constable of the Sussex police force declined to open an investigation. The government also decided to terminate its ongoing investigation of suspected money smuggling by the Scientologists. With no evidence of wrongdoing in hand, the last arguments for the ban fell away and it was duly lifted on 16 July 1980. Other than a brief flurry of press coverage, the demise of the ban attracted little public comment.

Hubbard’s own status remained unresolved, although his ban had formally been lifted. Perhaps to test it, he applied for permission to visit the UK in 1982. The government clearly did not want him in the country and managed to deter him by requiring him to present himself at a British consulate for an interview – something that the reclusive and deeply paranoid Hubbard evidently refused to do.

It’s not difficult to see why the ban failed, but what lessons can be learned from its failure? There are a few:

— Transparency. The ban was undermined from the start by the government’s inability to release the evidence to support it. This raised entirely legitimate concerns about the ban’s justification.

— Fairness. The Scientologists were able to make the case, justifiably, that they were being treated differently from everyone else. There was no attempt by the government to explain why this was the case.

— Lack of enforcement. The ban was scantily enforced, making it largely ineffective. There was little point in introducing it if it was not going to be enforced.

— Lack of political support. The government seems to have made no real effort to obtain political support for the ban, although in this regard it was greatly hindered by legal restrictions which prevented it from commenting publicly on Scientology for much of the 1970s.

— Lack of public support. Very few people, as a percentage of the population, were affected in any way by Scientology. Opposition to Scientology was largely confined to the small number of people (principally relatives) who were affected, plus elite figures – newspapers and medical professionals. There was no large-scale public pressure for action against Scientology; people seem to have regarded it as a bad thing but were not particularly concerned about doing something about it.

— Misunderstanding of Scientology’s intentions and capabilities. The government believed that it could make Scientology give up simply by inconveniencing it. It seems to have had no awareness of Scientology’s determination – expressly directed by Hubbard – to hold onto every scrap of territory and fight every adversary for as long it it needed to, at whatever cost it incurred, until it eventually wore them down. Nor did it appreciate that Hubbard had specifically designed Scientology’s organisational structure to deflect and defeat pressure from the state.

All of these factors still apply today to any state authority that might seek to take action against Scientology for any reason, whether over taxes, treatment of its members, legal violations or anything else. Very few state interventions against Scientology anywhere in the world have succeeded in having a substantial or long-term effect. The Wilson government’s immigration ban was poorly thought-out and badly implemented, but even if it had been better designed it might well have failed anyway because of Scientology’s sheer determination to persist and overturn it. It remains to be seen whether more recent interventions – such as the Hungarian government’s action to tackle data protection violations by Scientology – will fare any better.

— Chris Owen




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Scientology disconnection, a reminder

Bernie Headley has not seen his daughter Stephanie in 5,186 days.
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Claire Headley has not seen her mother Gen in 2,585 days.
Ramana Dienes-Browning has not seen her mother Jancis in 941 days.
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Lois Reisdorf has not seen her son Craig in 1,206 days.
Phil and Willie Jones have not seen their son Mike and daughter Emily in 1,711 days.
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Kate Bornstein has not seen her daughter Jessica in 13,064 days.


3D-UnbreakablePosted by Tony Ortega on July 25, 2018 at 07:00

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Our book, The Unbreakable Miss Lovely: How the Church of Scientology tried to destroy Paulette Cooper, is on sale at Amazon in paperback, Kindle, and audiobook versions. We’ve posted photographs of Paulette and scenes from her life at a separate location. Reader Sookie put together a complete index. More information can also be found at the book’s dedicated page.

The Best of the Underground Bunker, 1995-2017 Just starting out here? We’ve picked out the most important stories we’ve covered here at the Undergound Bunker (2012-2017), The Village Voice (2008-2012), New Times Los Angeles (1999-2002) and the Phoenix New Times (1995-1999)

Learn about Scientology with our numerous series with experts…

BLOGGING DIANETICS: We read Scientology’s founding text cover to cover with the help of L.A. attorney and former church member Vance Woodward
UP THE BRIDGE: Claire Headley and Bruce Hines train us as Scientologists
GETTING OUR ETHICS IN: Jefferson Hawkins explains Scientology’s system of justice
SCIENTOLOGY MYTHBUSTING: Historian Jon Atack discusses key Scientology concepts

Other links: Shelly Miscavige, ten years gone | The Lisa McPherson story told in real time | The Cathriona White stories | The Leah Remini ‘Knowledge Reports’ | Hear audio of a Scientology excommunication | Scientology’s little day care of horrors | Whatever happened to Steve Fishman? | Felony charges for Scientology’s drug rehab scam | Why Scientology digs bomb-proof vaults in the desert | PZ Myers reads L. Ron Hubbard’s “A History of Man” | Scientology’s Master Spies | The mystery of the richest Scientologist and his wayward sons | Scientology’s shocking mistreatment of the mentally ill | The Underground Bunker’s Official Theme Song | The Underground Bunker FAQ

Our non-Scientology stories: Robert Burnham Jr., the man who inscribed the universe | Notorious alt-right inspiration Kevin MacDonald and his theories about Jewish DNA | The selling of the “Phoenix Lights” | Astronomer Harlow Shapley‘s FBI file | Sex, spies, and local TV news


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