If one man ever held a key to the complex interconnections between the Radical Right and the Secret State it was John Baker White, the veteran anti-communist and anti-socialist activist who died on December 10th 19881 . From leaving Malvern College in 1920 (when he was eighteen) to his death, his career encompassed a range of organisations which have played important roles in the development of the secret state. Freelance courier for Special Branch, adviser to MI5, MI10, the Political Intelligence Department of the Foreign Office, the Political Warfare Executive, Director of the Economic League for nineteen years and Publicity adviser for another twenty five, Conservative MP (Canterbury 1945-53) and chair of a Freedom Association branch in Kent.
In addition to the occasional publication of propagandist tracts, White also published four important autobiographical books - "It's gone for good", "The Big Lie", "Sabotage is suspected" and "True Blue". They are at times frustratingly imprecise books, and at times straightforwardly misleading. Perhaps this is only to be expected from a professional propagandist, writing about politically sensitive issues. However unless they completely fabricate, rather than merely distort the truth, then they reveal the existence of two important and related, secret and private intelligence organisations that have so far more or less slipped through the parapolitical historian's net.
"SIR GEORGE McGILL" AND THE GROUP WITH NO NAME
White left Malvern School with no clear idea of what he would do with his life and turned his hand to a number of short lived and out of the ordinary jobs. The first of these was for Special Branch. His step father, Gerald Hartley Atkinson had worked at Scotland Yard as unpaid personal assistant to Sir Edward Henry, Metropolitan Police Commissioner in the early years of the century. During the First World War Atkinson returned to Scotland Yard where he acted as (secretary) to Sir Henry Curtis-Bennett during the time when he was creating Special Branch. Shortly after leaving school, Atkinson offered White the opportunity to go to Dublin as a courier for him. This he did, handing over a sealed envelope to a "Mr Jacobs" in the Shelbourne hotel. Two years later his stepfather told him that Jacobs had been in "the I. R. A. intelligence" and the envelope had contained a letter from Lloyd George to I. R. A. leader Michael Collins "putting forward conditions for a truce"2 .
Although Atkinson gave White instant access to the fringes of the intelligence community, it was his mother Katherine (nee Blythe) who introduced him to militant anti-socialism. Katherine was a close friend of, and collaborator with, Nesta Webster. It was their influence that persuaded him to "devote my life to fighting communism" with what he himself recognised was a religious zeal3 . He consistently claims to have begun his undercover investigations of "subversion" as an independent amateur, though it must be at least presumed that he fed the information into Webster's sophisticated propaganda machine4 . He began this surveillance in London and Cambridge, attending meetings of the recently formed Communist Party of Great Britain.
In Cambridge he was fairly quickly confronted by a local activist - "H" - who having established that White's interest in the Communist Party was malevolent revealed that he too was a committed anti-communist working undercover. "H" immediately obtained for White an introduction to the man who ran the organisation for which he himself was working, later named as "Sir George McGill". After a gruelling interview with "McGill" White was taken on, and told that "H" would be his contact with the organisation, and that he should therefore not establish too obvious a friendship with him.
In none of White's accounts is this organisation, or "H" named. Even worse for the researcher is that despite some tantalising descriptions of his activities and connections there was at the time nobody called "Sir George McGill", never mind one answering the description given by White. White provides little personal detail about Sir George "McGill", but fortunately enough to identify him. According to White he died suddenly in 1926 - "just as he was bringing to fruition his plans to establish a voluntary organisation, O.M.S. - the Organisation for Maintaining Services (sic)", was a member of the Caledonian Club, and "was a close personal friend of Sir Vernon Kell, the founder and first head of MI5". "McGill", he says, "created at his own expense, a private counter subversive intelligence service that had one unique feature. Every man and woman working in it could be trusted". He contrasts it with official intelligence services which "all over the world have to use men and women who are selling their own side for money, but he would have nothing to do with them. He put people into the revolutionary movement at the bottom and let them work their way up".
"McGill's" organisation concentrated on "investigating not only all forms of subversion, including communism, but also the international traffic in drugs and the traffic in women and children". But, he says, "McGill" "also devoted a considerable amount of time to unmasking the cult of evil of which Aleister Crowley, alias "The Beast", was the centre". Drawing together White's autobiographical accounts it also possible to piece together a rough sketch of how "McGill"'s organisation worked. Whether or not its members were as trustworthy as White claimed "McGill" operated a cell structure, that is "in watertight compartments". Thus White himself was only aware of that part of the organisation of which he was a member and leader, and of which before "McGill"'s death he was already using the name "Section D".
White's own recruitment was therefore probably typical of the way in which members were recruited. He says that he could not "pretend to know what [McGill's] contacts with official departments were" but in addition to mentioning "McGill"'s friendship with Vernon Kell, he says "I discovered some years later that he could always see the Permanent Secretary to the Cabinet when ever he wished and at short notice". Elsewhere White makes it clear that Churchill was also aware of and impressed by "McGill"'s work. If this was the case then "Sir George McGill" was in close contact with three of the most powerful figures in the Intelligence Community during the early twenties, and in fact throughout the inter-war years: Kell, Churchill, and Sir Maurice Hankey. Its connection with these three figures alone must seriously challenge White's own suggestion that "McGill"'s group was a purely private affair.
PROBLEMS WITH WHITE'S ACCOUNT OF THE GROUP WITH NO NAME
There are two immediate problems with White's story - firstly O.M.S. is misnamed, and secondly and perhaps more serious, "Sir George McGill" did not exist. The reference to the Organisation for Maintaining Services, seems inescapably to point to the Organisation for the Maintenance of Supplies. If White is telling us that the O. M. S. was in fact McGill's brainchild then there are still serious problems since accounts of the formation of the OMS, omit to mention "McGill" Nor is it clear to what degree OMS was ever intended to continue after the General Strike, and the general understanding is that it passed its prime by the time McGill had died, not "about to come to fruition".
It is possible to say with a considerable confidence that there was no "Sir George McGill" in the early 1920's. None of the standard and comprehensive directories list one, Who's Who or Whitaker's for example. So why, when he finally relinquishes code letters for the mastermind of this secret intelligence set up, does he use a none existent title? Is the group a complete fabrication or have we simply reached the end of the line as far as tracking the group down? Is it another slip, a misspelling for example, and if so how has he contrived to make it and does it cast a shadow over the reliability of his account?
THE REAL "SIR GEORGE McGILL" - SIR GEORGE MAKGILL
Happily we there is convincing evidence of someone who not only fits White's description of "McGill" but was also moving in precisely the right the political circles. That man was not Sir George "McGill" but Sir George Makgill. I stumbled across him while researching the early history of the Economic League and was already interested in "McGill", but unclear about his significance in relation to the League or even where to begin to track him down5 . I was also interested in a number of other groups that played key roles in the formation and early days of the Economic League and had asked some one to check them out for me in a contemporary London directory.
When a "Sir George Makgill"'s name cropped up in relation to two of them it seemed too good to be true. Yet in fact further investigations showed that Makgill could hardly be anyone other than John Baker White's "McGill". Born in 1868, Makgill died in October 1926 at the age of 57. He was the eldest son of Sir John Makgill, tenth baronet, and Margaret Isabella Haldane, half sister to Lord Haldane. On the death of his father Makgill registered his claim to the lapsed family Scottish title of Viscount Oxfuird. Though he never gained the title, his heirs have. He married a New Zealander, Frances Elizabeth Grant and they had two sons and two daughters. According to his Times obituary, published on the 20th October, 1926:
"He was educated privately, and became known as a writer of novels, articles, and stories, chiefly of colonial life. In what is, perhaps, the best of his novels "Blacklaw", which appeared early in 1914, he gives a vivid picture of a Scottish peer converted to an almost fanatical methodism, handing over his property to a missionary society, and carrying off his five young children to New Zealand, there to lead a simple, Christian, patriarchal life. "6
But his obituary also makes reference to his "association" with the Anti German Union during the Great War:
"In June 1915, he raised the question whether Sir George Cassel and Sir Edgar Speyer, having been born out of the British Dominions and not of English parents were capable of being members of the Privy Council. In the following December the Court of King's Bench (the Lord Chief Justice and justices Avory and Lush) delivered judgment, directing the orders nisi obtained by Sir George Makgill to be discharged, on the grounds that the respondents, having been naturalised under the Act of 1870, were capable of being Privy Councillors when they were respectively appointed. "
The Anti German Union, in which Makgill was obviously such a central figure, has been suggested by Gerry Webber as a forerunner of the British Commonwealth Union, which in turn gave rise to National Propaganda and itself became the British Empire Union. Unfortunately Webber's simple evolutionary tree is in this case almost certainly mistaken. The British Commonwealth Union had evolved from the group of industrialists which came together in 1915 calling themselves first the London Imperialists and then the Industrial and Agricultural Legislative Union, before becoming the British Commonwealth Union at the end of 1917.
The British Commonwealth Union and British Empire Union in fact co-existed for a number of years, and the link between the two organisations cannot be merely described in evolutionary terms. As we have seen, what seems to have happened is that soon after the 1918 election, in which the BCU had pursued its ambitions to be a clandestine "Industrial Party" by funding twenty six of its own candidates standing for established political parties, it then decided to restricted itself to being a Parliamentary pressure group, or rather super group. It established National Propaganda, which by the early 1920's was acting as a coordinating committee for a number of other Diehard pressure groups including the British Empire Union, which itself had absorbed a number of smaller groups.
That Sir George Makgill was active within this complex network of inter-related organisations is however beyond doubt. In the London telephone directory for 1917 he is listed as the Honourary Secretary of the British Empire Union based at 346 Strand Walk (the office of the Diehard newspaper "The Morning Post"). In 1918 the "business secretary" of the British Empire Union was listed as Reginald Wilson, who was later associated with National Propaganda, and its successor the Economic League. Makgill was also, in the same years, the General Secretary of the British Empire Producers' Organisation, which had certainly been courted by the BCU as a potential sponsor, as early as 1917. A further link with this Diehard, anti-socialist network around National Propaganda, is suggested by an entry in The Times on December 17th 1920, in which it was announced the Makgill was standing as a candidate for Horatio Bottomley's People's League in a Parliamentary election in East Leyton. Bottomley was a jingoistic, right wing populist closely associated with the diehards. His group was one of the more successful "patriotic labour" movements which sprang up after the extension of the franchise to attract and encourage anti-socialist working class votes.
In The Times announcement, Makgill is described as the vice chairman of the People's League.
White implies that when "McGill" died in 1926 his organisation died with him. White himself didn't have any contact with any other sections of it, and no one contacted him with a view to perpetuating it. To support the idea that there was more to the organisation than his particular section/cell he recalls his discovery during the Second World War of two colleagues in Military Intelligence, presumably MI10, who had also worked for "McGill". After McGill's death "Section D", that is the cell run by White since "H"'s death, chose to continue operating as "an independent self-financing organisation of dedicated men and women".
According to his account it continued to use the name "Section D" and operated until the outbreak of the Second World War. Ignoring D Branch of MI5, there would seem to have been three different British intelligence organisations called "Section D". The first emerged in the early years of "Special Branch", White's was the second and the last was a covert intelligence operation established in the mid thirties and subsequently absorbed into the Special Operations Executive. Whether there was a tangible link between these three organisations must be regarded as an open question. There is at the moment only the flimsiest of circumstantial evidence to justify this idea. The Section D associated with White really consisted of two groups: that which worked for Makgill, and the later independent organisation which will be examined later.
SECTION D UNDER MAKGILL
White's explanation of the origins of Section D is not as clear as it could be. In "The Big Lie" he says that he formed it together with a an un-named "tough middle aged man" with whom he fallen into conversation after a CPGB meeting they had both attended at the "Grove" pub in Hammersmith, London, in 1923. White's companion had heckled at the meeting and over a drink they hatched the idea of the group which became Section D, and they agreed to meet the following day to set the ball rolling. "By 1926" he says "we had built up a group of men and women dedicated to fighting communism from the inside". In this account, White describes Section D as "a mixed lot. Engine Driver, retired policeman, skilled engineer, a university student and a farmer, both of whom were killed in mysterious circumstances, shipping agent, society girl, economist, soldier and others".
However "The Big Lie" story of the origins of Section D, if not blatantly contradicting it, does not easily fit with the story he offers later in "True Blue". According to this it was only after "H"'s death that he was given greater responsibility in the organisation,"and was now running my own group, known as Section D". Nevertheless White also clearly states that "H" was a member of this group. But whether John Baker White created or inherited Section D he clearly claims to have been running it after "H"'s death, some time between 1923 and the late summer of 1926.
PERSONNEL and OPERATIONS
From White's fragmentary accounts of Section D it is possible to build up some sort of battle order and identify some of its operations and targets. These suggest, for the time, a sophisticated organisation with a significant role within the developing secret state.
One early and key member of Section D was "H", never named. In fact if White is to be believed it was "H" who recruited him when he confronted White about his true purpose in attending CPGB meetings in Cambridge. The confrontation happened after a CPGB meeting addressed by C. P. Dutt, on the "Struggle of the Indian Masses". White owned up to his real purpose in attending the meeting, only to discover that "H" too was an infiltrator. "H" then introduced White to Makgill.
When White went to work in Makgill's organisation, he was told that "H" would be his contact with Makgill - "but don't see too much of him". Makgill "also devoted a considerable amount of time to unmasking the cult of evil of which Aleister Crowley, alias "the Beast", was the centre". But White claimed to have only discovered this after "H"'s untimely death:
"What I did not know until later when, at his father's and McGill's request, I had been through his papers was that he had uncovered a blackmail plot, involving two well known politicians, connected with Crowley's activities in the island of Cefalu".
White was convinced that an international gang of blackmailers were responsible for "H"'s death. On the night "H" died the two men had dinner together in London, and it was on his return to Cambridge that night that "H" met his death. At the "Trocadero Grill" that night, White says that "H" had been "full of plans for a visit to Paris to meet some of the leading French Communists".
However in addition to this undercover anti-communist activity White subsequently found out "how deep H. had been, not in communism but in the traffic in women and drugs".
"H" according to White was "In Name, Manner and dress . . . . the complete younger son of a peer", which he was. He was a "glib-tongued young man with the pale, rather stupid face crowned with untidy fair hair. . . . . ".
After dinner at the "Trocadero" "H" returned by motorcycle to Cambridge, where he lived in a flat "almost opposite the University Arms". The following morning "workmen cycling to work in the half light" found his body lying by the roadside, on the Bishop Stortford to Newport Road with his motorbike "a twisted mass of metal lying in the ditch". White recalls that the inquest found that "he had taken the corner too fast in the dark, crashed and broken his neck". White was not convinced by the inquest. He had "ridden hundreds of miles on the back of his motor cycle and knew him to be a magnificent and very careful driver, not the sort of man who takes corners too fast on a road he knew like the back of his hand".
Ashby Pritt is referred to in all of White's autobiographical books, but named in only one. He was clearly a powerful influence on White. Pritt worked in the IRA during the troubles 1919-20, at one time acting as a courier for Michael Collins. He died, rather like "H", in a motor cycle accident in Yorkshire, on the York to Stockton Road in September 1929. Three weeks earlier he had been shot at. As in the case of "H", White did not believe that the inquest was correct in deciding that his death was accidental. Pritt was, according to White, " a good-looking young Irishman who was also interested in Political intelligence", whom he had met around 1923. From white's account it is possible to glean some quite remarkable claims for him:
"After the truce was signed in Ireland and the Free State government set up he worked for that Government's intelligence service inside the I. R. A. , and the information he collected played an important part in rounding up the rebels".
One of Pritt's main contributions to this intelligence work was in taking photographs of "many of the important leaders". He was able to do this by providing them with snaps of themselves posing with revolvers or rifles to give to their girlfriends and wives. Afterwards Pritt returned to England where "Ashby spent most of his time in the North, as he had a job in York". He continued collecting information on the IRA exiles in Britain but concentrated on gathering information on the "traffic in women and drugs, which at that time was quite considerable in Hull and Sunderland".
Although Pritt was "one man working on his own", he met White periodically in London, "generally on his way to or from Paris, Dunkirk, Marseilles or Paris". Most of the information he collected "went to the League of Nations' Special Commission in Geneva and contributed to the breaking up of several gangs".
Eventually Ashby decided to settle down. He married, "taking a farm outside York". Soon afterwards his wife wrote to White of Ashby's death, as a result of a motor cycle accident. Like "H" he had been found dead on the side of a road "on which he travelled nearly every day" with "the twisted remains of his motor cycle in the ditch".
Rose was, according to White, "an elderly lady of independent means with an inside knowledge of the then flourishing Communist Sunday School Movement". She died naturally before the Second World War. But what is perhaps interesting about specialism in Sunday schools is the degree to which the Economic League (or rather its fore-runner National Propaganda) and the British Fascists were also interested in the activities of these Sunday schools. The description of Rose, and what is known about the leading woman member of the British Fascists, Rotha Linton-Orman, are so close it would seem likely that White has deliberately used "Rose" as a cover-name for Linton-Orman. This is especially true as elsewhere he admits to have come into contact with her in 1923, and makes no secret of his admiration for her.
Ted was "a retired mining engineer who had made enough money in Australia and Canada to live in modest comfort. He was in close touch with Percy Gladding and other top communists working inside the Engineers' Union. . . ". Like Rose he died a timely and natural death before the Second World War.
Bill, "a loco man who drove expresses out of Kings Cross", was still alive in 1970.
"The English Max", "a naturalist who later entered government service". According to White, Max died, "much too young", in 1968 It is impossible not to draw the conclusion that this Max was Maxwell Knight, later "uncle Max" one of the first children's broadcasters, who joined MI5 in 1925 and was to be one of its key agent runners.7
Valerie "after months of patient plodding got a job in ARCOS, the soviet trading organisation later raided by the police". She eventually ". . . worn out and suffering from consumption, died during the Second World War".
Hops was a retired CSM in Royal Signals, "specialised in red propaganda in the forces" and died after the Second World War.
White's frustratingly fragmentary and, perhaps deliberately inaccurate, accounts of his own activities and "McGill"'s organisation suggest much closer links between many of the organisation which have attracted the attention of historians of the radical right during the 1920's. Even a cautious analysis of what White wrote about it and its members over the course of thirty years must suggest that Section D provided a functional link between MI5, the Economic League, British Empire Union, the Organisation for the Maintenance of Supplies and also (through both White and Maxwell Knight) with the British Fascists and (through White) with the organised anti-semitism and anti-socialism of Nesta Webster.
SECTION D and MI5
White, without stating it openly, is clearly trying to underline the links between Makgill's, and then his, organisation and MI5. The inclusion of references to ARCOS and Gladding, which were the focus of two major operations between the wars, and the barely disguised reference to Maxwell Knight as a member of the group can not be coincidental.
The Arcos Raid
The All Russian Co-operative Society (ARCOS) was the Soviet Trade Delegation, and thus the focus for a considerable amount of attention by militant anti-communists and anti-socialists. After the General Strike, Sir William Joyston-Hix (the Diehard Home Secretary) targeted it as part of his own obsessive desire to show that the Strike had been a Soviet plot. On 11th June 1926 he claimed that ARCOS had made large payments to the British Cooperative Wholesale Society and that this had been immediately passed on to trades unions. Four days later he was forced to withdraw the allegation8 . It was in May 1928, however, that Joyston-Hicks ordered the raid on ARCOS, in intriguing circumstances. It was a controversial move intended as a trawl for evidence to justify breaking off diplomatic relations with the Soviets. But as such it was a failure and a cabinet committee decided that it had not produced evidence of ARCOS's or the Soviet Legation's involvement in espionage.
The circumstances that led to the raid would seem to lend credence to White's heavy handed hint that Section D were involved. In March 1927 a somewhat bohemian Lloyds underwriter named George Monkland had been approached by a former intelligence officer called Wilfred Macartney who had become a Communist some two years earlier. He asked Monkland to supply him with information, from Lloyds, on shipments of armaments to the USSR's neighbours. This at first he seemed to do to Macartney's satisfaction and, as a result, he was promised £50 a month for his services.
On 11th March however Monkland went to see Blinker Hall, who immediately contacted Kell. Monkland was run as a double agent until November when Macartney and his Soviet Control, Georg Hansen were arrested. Even so, the evidence Joyston-Hicks had so far obtained by this operation was not, according to the cabinet sufficient to initiate a breach with the Soviets. His chance came when he received information from an ARCOS employee that the trade delegation had obtained a copy of the Army's signals training manual. According to Christopher Andrew this information had "possibly" come "via Monkland", though he offers no justification for the assumption.
The raid lasted three days and it took the Special Branch officers a further three days to sort the papers they had seized. They found nothing of any significance. Nevertheless with the help of some earlier intercepted Soviet telegrams, Joyston-Hicks and the government pressed on and broke of diplomatic relations at the end of May after an uproarious commons debate. According to Andrew it was a disaster for British Intelligence. The Arcos raid had produced insufficient evidence to justify either the raid or the severing of diplomatic relations.
To justify both of these results the government had had to compromise its interception and cryptanalysis of Soviet telegrams, thus prompting the Soviets to tighten up their security and effectively end this source of information until the Second World War. It could well be possible the information which prompted the disastrous raid came not from, or rather "via", Monkland as Andrew suggests, but from section D's insider - Valerie. In this case it might have come via any number of connections - either Blinker Hall, White's own direct connections with the Intelligence community, other links between the Economic League and Joyston-Hicks, or perhaps most likely via Maxwell Knight, who was after all MI5's agent runner, as well as a member, or former recent member, of Section D.
A NAME FOR MAKGILL'S SECRET SERVICE?
Of course the extraordinarily remote possibility remains that "McGill", his organisation and its "Section D" was a fiction created and maintained by White. However there was a group which seems to have shared the same interests as Makgill's group - the National Vigilance Association and the International Bureau for the Suppression of the White Slave Traffic. This had found itself in conflict with Aleister Crowley when he sent them a mischievous letter complaining about prostitution in a remote rural area of Scotland9 . The group also gave evidence to the League of Nations inquiry, which in its report thanked the group's secretary, William Alexander Coote, for his assistance. In 1919 National Vigilance was based in 76 Victoria Street where the Merchant Seamen's League, run by J Havelock Wilson who had close links with the British Commonwealth Union and the British Empire Union and Makgill's Anti German Union, also had offices.
THE INTERNATIONAL ENTENTE AGAINST THE THIRD INTERNATIONAL
It becomes harder and harder to make sense of the interconnections of these various groups - National Propaganda, British Commonwealth Union, British Empire Union and Makgill's intelligence service - if one persists in treating them as independent of each other. For example Baker White is generally regarded as only having joined the Economic League after the General Strike, and that is certainly the impression he seems to have tried to give in his writing. However in 1924 the Economic League became the British delegate to an international organisation called "The International Entente Against the Third International". The representative at its meeting was, according to his own testimony, John Baker White - two years before he became Director of the League, before he had joined Philip Gee's section of the Mining Association, and in fact while his only acknowledged involvement was as an agent for Sir George Makgill. According to Baker White:
"This organisation was founded by a Swiss avocat, Theodore Aubert, after his successful defence of Poluline, who killed Varovsky, the Soviet envoy to Switzerland, and it was the first attempt to co-ordinate on a world scale the activities of anti-Communist organisations in the different countries. It achieved much and could have achieved more had not the Germans, Italians and Japanese attempted to use it as a medium for totalitarian propaganda. "10
Although the Entente, which survived until the end of the Second World War has seemingly been relegated to the historical dustbin, from the point of view of the development of the Economic League the Entente was significant. It provided continental links and an entry into the international industrial world for its young director, John Baker White. From the late twenties onwards he was a regular visitor to France and Germany, where by means of the Entente he seems to have had some high level links with the German armament manufacturers Krupps:
"My work took me to Germany quite often in the years before and after the Nazi accession to power. . . . I met Udet in the bar of the Cologne airport when he was a stunt pilot . . . The next time I saw him was years later in the uniform of a colonel in the Luftwaffe. . . . In the Kaisserhof at Essen . . . a young Ruhr coalmaster told me that the Nazis were "a pack of silly schoolboys. " Like a lot of the industrialists he was cute enough later on to see the way the wind was blowing. He bought his way into the Party, and today is a Gruppenfuhrer in the SS. . . . . I caught glimpses of German rearmament. On successive visits to Krupps I found that the number of shops into which I was not taken steadily increased, until it was put to me very politely but quite plainly by Dr Jennes that they would be delighted to lunch and wine me at the Essenerdorf and take me for a walk round Essen's beautiful gardens, or anywhere except inside the gates of Krupps. "11
THE LOST HISTORY OF THE SECRET STATE
There are major chapters of British twentieth century history missing. Private papers have been destroyed, public papers also destroyed or locked away perhaps indefinitely. Politicians and officials have always lied, and have always been infatuated by their own and others' significance. Without access to significant documents it is simply impossible to establish an accurate picture of how life in Britain came to be as it is now. And of course the very reason we are still denied access to some historical documents is precisely because that information would influence our views of history.
The "high politics" of Hansard and the carefully weeded personal and public files represent only one, albeit rich, stratum of significant events. Especially in a limited and imperfect democracy like Britain the decision making process is fantastically complicated, and the power to influence decisions frequently rests with those who influence the political agenda and control the flow of information, rather than with those who superficially have the authority to make a final decision. Without access to all the relevant information it is inevitable that myths will be created or maintained.
The emergence of a secret state after the First World War is probably one of the most important incomplete chapters of British history. There is much solid academic historical research that needs to be done, a thoroughly researched history of Diehardism and a competent biography of Blinker Hall spring to mind immediately, although the Admiralty controls access to the latter's papers. But this sort of research alone cannot tackle the complexity and the elusiveness of the sources. The historian of the secret state is less a historian and more an odd sort of archaeologist, piecing together fragments in the hope of forming some sort of comprehensible and credible picture.
In examining the early history of the Economic League I have had to rely on extraordinarily unreliable primary sources and, generally partisan secondary sources. Too often these reach a dead end just as they begin to get interesting. John Baker White, for example, was an accomplished propagandist who laid a trail of tantalising clues peppered with errors. Whether these errors were deliberate or otherwise can only be guessed, that he had a motive and the opportunity to re-write his own corner of history cannot be denied. The question, in trying to determine the historical significance of the League and its satellites, is not whether anything White wrote was a hundred percent accurate but whether any of it was a complete fabrication.
He certainly believed that most effect propaganda was "The Big Lie" surround by countless little truths and half truths. That it is unlikely that White fabricated "McGill" and his organisation is borne out by the fate of the real George Makgill's personal papers. After discussing what I presumed to be the identity of "McGill" with fellow researcher John Hope, he undertook what we expected would be the hopeless task of tracking down any of Makgill's surviving papers. We were however surprised to eventually discover that many of his papers had been preserved. Unfortunately they had been deemed to be so sensitive and potentially dangerous that they had been entrusted to the care of the Vatican.
- 1His estate was valued at £483,142.70, the majority of which went to his son Robin and daughter Jennifer Treherne-Thomas. However a bequest was also made to one Barbara Bell, of Brighton, "in recognition of the long service she has given to the cause we both have at heart.
- 2John Baker White, "True Blue" Frederick Muller, 1970 p122
- 3"True Blue", p123
- 4Webster's anti socialist intelligence gathering was impressive. Her book "The Socialist Network" is widely collected by socialist historians, not least of which for a large fold out diagram of the inter connections between left wing groups.
- 5Lobster, Bernard Porter, "Plots and Paranoia", and John Hope
- 6For a profile of Makgill see Mike Hughes in "Lobster 28" [Original Dorril].
- 7See also Porter, Hope
- 8See Andrew, "Secret Service", pp 458, 470 and 469. For a significantly different account see Compton Mackenzie's commentary in Wilfred MacCartney's "Walls Have Mouths", Left Book Club, 1936
- 9 "The Great Beast", Julian Symmonds, Granada 1973
- 10"It's Gone for Good" p129
- 11"It's Gone for Good" p131