British Commonwealth Union
According to Mike Hughes' account:
- The British Commonwealth Union, that is the group that acted as midwife to the Economic League, was according to the historian Barbara Lee Farr :
- "An important, unique direction of right-wing activism. Money not moral pronouncements was its means of persuasion. Its methods reveal an underground network of secret subsidies to sympathetic politicians and labour leaders, infiltration of government departments and spying. " (*4)
- But the most complete published account of the BCU's origins is to be found in an essay by J A Turner describing the BCU's activities from its foundation in 1916, until the Election of December 1918 (*5). According to this the first meeting of the group that became BCU took place on December 18th, 1916. It was attended by: Sir Vincent Caillard, Sir Trevor Dawson, Sir William Bull MP, F Orr Lewis, F H Barker, G Muir Ritchie, F N Garrard, F W Ashe, Grant Morden. This group, which initially called itself the "London Imperialists", had from the outset the intention of creating some sort of "Industrial Party" in Parliament. To this end they set about trying to enlist the formal support of the Federation of British Industries (FBI). The FBI had also been founded in 1916, with the aim of being an employers' organisation capable of representing the political interests of business and manufacturing. But in order to attract the broadest support from industries, the FBI had to fudge its position on the one issue that dominated the political thinking of industrialists and manufacturers - the debate between the Free Traders and Protectionism, about which there was some considerable dispute between industries. On March 29th 1917 the London Imperialists met 9 members of the FBI council with the objective of securing its official approval for their plans. After the meeting eight of the FBI council members joined the London Imperialists. The ninth was the FBI President, Frank D Docker who was enthusiastic but reluctant to become a paid up member without the FBI's formal support of the group. In spite of the success of this meeting, within the FBI there was considerable, and successful, resistance to the London Imperialists' approach. Their opponents argued, successfully, that support for the protectionist London Imperialists would jeopardise the compromises over "tariff reform" that were then essential to the FBI existence (*6). Spurned by the FBI, the London Imperialists changed their name briefly to the "Industrial and Agricultural Legislative Union" and went a-courting the British Empire Producers Organisation. By October 1917 it was now finally calling itself the British Commonwealth Union and was in negotiations with the "patriotic labour" group called the British Workers League. The British Workers League was one of the more successful of a number of political organisations trying to mobilise support for conservative and anti-socialist causes amongst working class voters. The negotiations with the British Workers League were, it seems, successful. But it was a relatively small and poor group and the BCU therefore continued to make overtures to a variety of employers' organisations. These included the Engineering Employers Federation, Shipbuilding Employers Federation, the National Employers Federation and other manufacturing, chemical, commercial and shipping organisations (*7). Eventually, on February 22nd 1918, the BCU received the formal support of the management committee of the Engineering Employers Federation (EEF). According to its Director Allan Smith: "The political developments which are taking place and the probable large increase in the strength of the Labour Party in the House of Commons makes such an action appear to be a necessary development. . . . " (*8)
- In the light of its success with the Engineering Employers, on May 8th the BCU was again reorganised. There was now to be a "Council", meeting infrequently and chaired by Sir Richard Vassar-Smith. Also on the Council were the FBI's Frank Docker and three members of the Engineering Employers Federation. A monthly "Executive" was chaired by Sir Hallewell Rodgers and included Docker and Sir Joseph Lawrence. Sir Ernest Hiley chaired its "Finance Committee", and Allan Smith, its weekly "General Purposes Committee". On 13th June the BCU appointed Patrick Hannon, then secretary of the Navy League, as its General Secretary with the substantial salary of £1,500 per year. In the run-up to the 1918 General Election the BCU spent a great deal of time and money establishing a secret slate of its own candidates. Although these candidates were expected to run for already established parties, it was made clear to them that the "political label of the candidate takes second place following upon his clearly defined duty to the Union". By the time of the Election, in December, there were 26 BCU candidates of which 20 entered parliament (*9). All but one of the BCU's clandestine candidates (Norton-Griffiths) had pledged support for Lloyd George's coalition, and all but five were Conservatives. Morris was a Liberal, Hallas and Seddon were British Workers League, Cristabel Pankhurst had been a candidate for the "Women's Party" and J. B. Cronin was a "Lower Deck" candidate standing for better pay for ordinary naval ratings.
- Contributors to the BCU funds, and thus to these candidates' election expenses, had included shipbuilders, gas companies, electrical supply companies and British Sugar refineries. The two largest contributors were Vickers Ltd and the Metropolitan Carriage, Wagon and Finance Co (*10). After the election, according to J A Turner, the BCU "abandoned its attempts to organise in constituencies and concentrated upon propaganda and organisation among M. P. s; in 1922 it turned exclusively to propaganda and in 1926 submerged its identity in the Empire Industries Association." The secretary of the Empire Industries Association was Patrick Hannon, by then a Birmingham MP (*11).
J. A. Turner The British Commonwealth Union and the General Election of 1918 The English Historical Review, Vol. 93, No. 368 (Jul., 1978), pp. 528-559.