Economic League (United Kingdom)

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Economic League
Formation 1919
Extinction 1993
Type NGO
Purpose political advocacy
Key people
William Reginald Hall
Former name
National Propaganda

The Economic League was an organisation in the United Kingdom dedicated to opposing what they saw as subversion and action against free enterprise. As part of this the organisation maintained a list of alleged leftwing troublemakers for decades, which corporate members of the League used to vet job applicants, often denying jobs on the basis of the list. In the late 1980s press investigations revealed the poor quality of the League's data, and following a 1990 parliamentary inquiry and further press reporting, the League closed down in 1993. However, key League personnel continued similar vetting activities through organizations including The Consulting Association.

Early history[edit]

The organisation was founded in December 1919 to January 1920 by a group of industrialists and then MP William Reginald Hall under the name of National Propaganda.[1] Hall had been Director of the Naval Intelligence Division of the Admiralty from 1914 to 1919. The organization's chief function was to promote the point of view of industrialists and businessmen, as well as to keep track of communist and leftwing organizations and individuals. Predating McCarthyism, it worked closely with the British Empire Union. John Baker White worked as the league's Assistant Director, and then from 1926 to 1939 as Director.[2] In 1925 the Economic League was organised into a policy-making Central Council of 41 members, with 14 district organizations covering most industrial areas of the UK. Income came from tax-deductible company subscriptions and donations.[1] The Council in 1925 included two Lords, 15 knights, high-ranking military officers, directors of newspapers, and Lord Gainford, chair of the BBC.[1] Hall, the first chair of the organization, had by 1925 been succeeded by Sir Auckland Geddes.[1]

The League in this period played a particular role in opposing the 1926 United Kingdom general strike (including printing and distributing a daily newssheet) and opposing the hunger marches organised by the National Unemployed Workers' Movement, particularly the one in 1934. In the 20s and 30s the League organised thousands of public meetings and distributed millions of leaflets annually, and began collecting centralised records on communist trade union organisers (some obtained from police files). In 1938 the League estimated that it had held almost a quarter of a million public meetings since its foundation.[1]

Post-war era[edit]

In the 1960s and 70s, various newspapers reports confirmed the existence of the League's blacklist of leftwing workers - the existence of which the League denied until confirming in 1969 (in an interview with The Observer) that it held files and in 1978 (in its Annual Report) that it used those files to supply members with information.[3] The Daily Express (12 January 1961) reported that firms could check if "a prospective employee is listed as a Communist sympathiser", while The Guardian (30 January 1964) reported on the secrecy surrounding such inquiries, quoting a League circular saying "If a director asks for details of our work, he should be told that some of it is highly confidential and therefore cannot be put in writing."[3] In 1974 reports included the Sunday Times (11 April), Time Out (May), and The Guardian (11 May).[3]

The league's running cost was funded by contributions from various companies. According to the Labour Research Department, the League had income of £266,000 in 1968, with £61,000 of this contributed from 154 known companies, with 21 known banks and financial institutions contributing as much as the 47 known manufacturing companies.[4] In 2013 Labour MP John Mann said he had had a job offer at Ciba-Geigy withdrawn in the 1980s after the company found his name on the League's list.[5]

Publicity and decline[edit]

The League became more visible in the 1980s, as the press investigated its activities, and questions were asked in Parliament in a campaign against the League, led by Maria Fyfe.[3] Granada TV's World in Action broadcast three reports on the League, the first on 16 June 1987, with another in 1988 showing "that a League employee called Ned Walsh had been working undercover in the trades union ASTMS for more than twenty years."[3] These investigations, together with a leaked 1985 League document "The Need for a Change of Direction", showed how poor the quality of the files was, with much of it amounting to hearsay and circumstantial evidence, much of it out of date (sometimes by decades) and substantial parts simply not providing enough information to clearly identify specific individuals. "Speaking to MPs, trades unionists and journalists in the Houses of Parliament (in 1989) the former North West Regional Director, Mr Richard Brett, suggested that 35,000 of the 45,000 files would have to be weeded out because they were either hopelessly inadequate or uselessly out of date."[3] Despite the poor quality of the files, the attitude of at least some League officials was shown by World in Action filming an official who "recommended that a company not employ someone because he had the same surname as someone on the blacklist".[3]

In 1986 the League had income from company subscriptions of around £1m; following bad publicity, this fell to around £800,000 in 1988 and £660,000 in 1989.[6] In 1990, the House of Commons Select Committee on Employment took evidence from the Economic League about its blacklist.[7] At this time Ford Motor Company, one of the League's largest subscribers and one of its few public supporters, cancelled its subscription.[6]

Demise[edit]

Following the 1990 parliamentary inquiry, press reports maintained pressure on the League. The BBC's Watchdog reported on it, and Paul Foot obtained an entire copy of the blacklist and ran a series of stories in the Daily Mirror.[6]

The League was wound up in 1993, with two of its former directors forming the similar organisation CAPRiM shortly afterwards. At the time of its closure, the League had files on 22,000 people, including Gordon Brown, 40 Labour MPs, "as well as journalists and thousands of shopfloor workers."[8] Another descendant of the League, the The Consulting Association, was raided by the Office of the Information Commissioner in February 2009. It had been founded by Ian Kerr, described by the League's 1986-9 director-general as "a key guy. He was one of our most effective research people..."[9][10] Kerr later gave evidence to Parliament that the Construction Association was founded in April 1993 with a £10,000 loan from Sir Robert McAlpine, and "was started out of the Services Group (SG), operated by and within the Economic League (EL). A Steering Committee of key people in construction companies of the SG drafted a constitution. Key operating features of TCA were decided by representatives of the major construction companies, who were the original members..." [11]

Footnotes[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d e Arthur McIvor, "'A Crusade for Capitalism': The Economic League, 1919-1939", Journal of Contemporary History 23 (1988), 631-55
  2. ^ Thomas Lineham (2000) British Fascism, 1918-1939: Parties, Ideology and Culture, p. 45
  3. ^ a b c d e f g cited in Spies at Work, Chapter 9.
  4. ^ Labour Research Department (1969), "A Subversive Guide to the Economic League", cited in Spies at Work, Chapter 8.
  5. ^ John Mann, The Guardian, 23 January 2013, We need an inquiry into the construction blacklisting scandal
  6. ^ a b c Spies at Work, Chapter 11.
  7. ^ Employment Committee Second Report "Recruitment Practices", Session 1990-91, ISBN 0 10 273691 X, cited in Spies at Work, Chapter 11
  8. ^ David Hencke, The Guardian, 9 September 2000, Left blacklist man joins euro fight, retrieved 14 May 2009
  9. ^ Rob Evans, Severin Carrell and Helen Carter, The Guardian, 27 May 2009, Man behind illegal blacklist snooped on workers for 30 years
  10. ^ Phil Chamberlain, Lobster, The construction industry blacklist: how the Economic League lived on, Lobster 58, Winter 2009/10
  11. ^ Written evidence from Ian Kerr to the "Blacklisting in employment" inquiry of the House of Commons Scottish Affairs Select Committee

References[edit]

  • The Economic League - The Silent McCarthyism, Mark Hollingsworth and Charles Tremayne (National Council for Civil Liberties), 1989, ISBN 978-0946088355
  • Arthur McIvor, "'A Crusade for Capitalism': The Economic League, 1919-1939", Journal of Contemporary History 23 (1988), 631-55

External links[edit]