John Baker-White (12 August 1902 - 10 December 1988) was a British propagandist and conservative politician. He was Director of the business propaganda group the Economic League from 1926 to 1945 and acted as a Publicity Adviser to the League from until 1976. Mike Hughes writes:
- 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 1988 (*1). 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 zeal (*3). 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 machine (*4). 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 down (*5). 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.