British Empire Union

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The British Empire Union was created in the United Kingdom during World War I, in 1916, after changing its name from the Anti-German Union, which had been founded in 1915. Sir George Makgill was the BEU's Honorary Secretary and Lord Edward Illiffe was its treasurer.

The BEU was anti-socialist and thought that the Labour Party would "Bolshevise Britain" and argued for a paramilitary force to combat it. It was also associated with the antisemitism of Leopold Maxse.

It held anti-German demonstrations in Hyde Park and elsewhere and is thought to have had around 10,000 members across fifty branches by the end of 1918. The BEU advocated 'wholesale internment' and received over 1,250,000 signatures on petition for this cause, which it presented to the Prime Minister. It also disrupted meetings of pacifist and civil liberties groups and produced anti-German posters.

The BEU also protested to the BBC about Patrick Hamilton's play Rope.

By far the largest and most active of the groups whose activities National Propaganda was coordinating was the British Empire Union. It had its origins in the Anti-German Union of 1915, changing its name to the British Empire Union in 1916. A minor novelist of imperial life, Sir George Makgill, was the secretary and organiser of the AGU and was then the BEU's Honorary Secretary. Its treasurer was the newspaper proprietor Edward, later Lord, Illiffe who was later also to be a member of the Central Council of the Economic League. (*17)

Despite the change of name throughout and following the War it was associated not only with general anti-German agitation but specifically with the sort of anti-semitic agitation and conspiracy theories associated with Leo Maxse, editor of the National Review and speaker at its first public meeting in the Aeolian Hall on June 1915 (*18). By 1916 the BEU was organising anti-German demonstrations, four in Hyde Park in London during June and July. and 50 throughout the country during the year. It later raised petitions in support of its campaign for wholesale internment, one containing 1,250,000 signatures was presented to Downing Street following a demonstration organised by the National Party in July 1918. At the same time it also adopted a boycott of German goods and refusal to employ anyone of German origin for six years after the end of the War, which had been proposed by the Merchant Seaman's League. The League was run by J Havelock Wilson, who stood successfully against the Labour Party in South Shields having received at least two secret payments from the British Commonwealth Union (*19). The British Empire Union's attempts to disrupt the meetings of pacifist and civil libertarian organisations didn't stop short of violence and threats of violence, and it was implicated in anti-jewish riots in Leeds in 1917.

The historian Panikos Panayi has estimated that by the end of the War the British Empire Union had a membership of 10,000 - spread across fifty local branches. Its vice presidents included 25 peers or their wives, and it had been closely associated with establishment figures such as Lord Derby, Lord Leith, and the Earl of Harewood and with leading Diehard figures such as Lord Carson, Ronald McNeill, and William Joyston-Hicks. After the War the BEU maintained its anti-German and anti-semitic campaigns but also adopted many of the "imperial unity" ideas of the Tariff reformers and became fanatically anti-communist.

In Liverpool the British Empire Union became the instrument of its secretary, a remarkable man called John McGuirk Hughes. Hughes obtained substantial support from Liverpool employers, in particular the shipping firms, for what was obviously something more than a simple propaganda machine. According to John Hope:

"For five years Hughes and his agents broke into premises, stole and forged documents and behaved as agents provocateurs. "

Documentary evidence of Hughes' and the BEU's activities in Liverpool were first unearthed by Ron Bean in 1977, in the Cunard Papers which were deposited with Liverpool University. These show that not only was Hughes passing on to local employers the names of trades unionists he felt to be in some ways "ringleaders", he had also established a formal relationship with Scotland Yard.

In one of his reports, in the Cunard papers, Hughes wrote:

". . . . we have the complete confidence and help of Scotland Yard, and in fact have received payment from them. The Assistant Commissioner [Col. Carter] considers that we are the only efficient organisation. . . our relations with the provincial police continue to be good. . . We had placed under us a number of plain cloths (sic) men of the Glasgow police. . . . ".

Hughes seems to have been recording the activities of the BEU nationally here, not merely in Liverpool and in 1924 he would seem to have been involved in the theft of documents from the Headquarters of the Minority Movement in London (*20). But it is also possible that he was presenting a report from another organisation, since by 1924 Hughes relationship with the BEU national and locally had collapsed. Indeed between 1923 and 1925 he was running his "Special Propaganda Section" as an independent organisation and operating in Liverpool, Glasgow, Barrow and Sheffield. This organisation seems to have been financed by shipping lines of which Cunard was the main one.

Eventually Reginald Wilson, the Secretary of the BEU and a director of the Economic League, approached Cunard asking for the support for Hughes to be withdrawn. Cunard did withdraw its support with the result that Hughes' setup was closed down and the Central Council of the Economic Leagues and its satellites once again had a monopoly on this area of private intelligence work. Quite what was actually happening during this early, and obviously acrimonious, split remains a mystery.

Afterwards James McGuirk Hughes disappeared from the scene until 1932, when he reappeared, as "P. G. Taylor" head of the intelligence section of the British Union of Fascists. At the same time he was also claiming to be an established MI5 agent, probably therefore controlled by Maxwell Knight. This of course only deepens the mystery and further muddies already murky waters. It would seem to suggest that some sort of reconciliation may have been effected, but it may simply bear witness to Knight's pragmatism in choosing agents, at a time when MI5 resources were limited and fully stretched (*21). In the first years following the Great War there was a reorganisation and rationalisation of Radical Right wing pressure groups. According to the historian Maurice Cowling, after the War the BEU had absorbed "about twenty similar organisations in Britain and Ireland". (*22)

How long the BEU was closely associated with National Propaganda remains unclear. It remained in active until the mid 1970's, although it changed its name to the "British Commonwealth Union" in 1960, and it was publishing a monthly journal until at least 1952 (*23). Those later involved in it included the Monday Club Founder, Sir John Biggs Davison who had in the Club's first pamphlet described it as an attempt to revitalise the Diehard tradition in the Conservative Party.

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This page is taken from Mike Hughes Work on the Economic League, Spies at Work.