Spies at Work, Chapter 10: 'The Need for a Change of Direction'
Any threat of the British military establishment taking action against elected governments receded in the wake of the defeat of Ted Heath in the Conservative Party leadership election, and the resignation of Harold Wilson and his replacement by Jim Callaghan.
But at first the Tory "Revolution" had more leaders than troops. Over the next four years these latterday diehards, or the "New Right" as they liked to be known, had to make sure their old fashioned anti-interventionist politics were secured at the centre of the manifesto upon which the next election would be fought. The business of consolidating their infant revolution had been made easier by the right-wing Labour government of James Callaghan, who took over from Wilson when he surprisingly resigned in April 1976.
Callaghan's insecure and beleaguered Government ended its days clinging to power with political help from the Liberals and Northern Irish Unionists, and substantial loans from the International Monetary Fund to which strict monetarist conditions were attached. During the four year run up to the 1979 election the Economic League gave up its pretence to political independence and was actively canvassing for the new-look Tories.
But there were also the first signals that a sympathetic Conservative Party leadership might pose problems for pressure groups like the Economic League, which relied for most of its support on Conservatives who were unhappy with the direction of the Conservative Party leadership. In 1978 Labour Research recorded a 63% increase in corporate donations to the Party, although this increase was not experienced by the Radical Right in general. Aims, Common Cause, and the Economic League only recorded modest increases, barely if at all in line with inflation. This, of course did not prevent the League pulling out the stops for the Tories.
At a time when more and more companies were refusing to disclose their donations to the League to avoid the bad publicity, spuriously claiming such donations were "non-political", the pre-election presidential speech to the League's Annual General Meeting, by merchant banker H I Matthey, was a shameless address from the hustings:
- "It cannot be denied that a change for better is coming over this country with people in ever-increasing numbers realising where the post-war drift and in the last few years, the rush to bureaucratic socialism is landing us. A healthy discontent is spreading fast which I devoutly hope will be reflected during 1979 in a change of government and a very positive shift away from Whitehall domination of our lives. Should we be blessed by such a change and should its success become so obvious, as I hope it will, that we finally throw of the shackles of socialism the necessity for the League's continued existence will abate not one jot; for the price of freedom is eternal vigilance and the league will need to be ever watchful that the soil is never again made fertile for the corrupting creed of socialism."
For the League and its subscribers the scent of victory was to be sweeter than its taste. H I Matthey's electioneering speech had already anticipated the problem that the League would have in maintaining its Industrial support with a sympathetic government in power. What it did not anticipate was the number of its own members who were - in the popular phrase of the day - "lame ducks".
"The Need for a Change of Direction"
In a controversial interview with the Morning Star in 1987  the League's Director, Michael Noar, described the two major problems that the League had faced under "Thatcherism". The first was that "between 1980 and 1982 . . . many of our members went out of business". The other was British Industry's complacency ". . . thinking that Maggie has solved all their problems with her anti-union laws, this is dangerous. As I'm sure your readers will agree, when the economy picks up, then so will militant trade unionism. The League is busy warning employers of this."
The person responsible for steering the League through the difficult days of the first Thatcher administration was Noar's predecessor as Director General - Peter Savill. On the one hand Savill had to convince the League's surviving members that it still had something to offer them, while on the other hand he had to rationalise the organisation to survive the economic depression. His attempts at turning the Economic League into a leaner, fitter, fighting machine were supported throughout by Matthey's successor, Gerald Thorley. Thorley had a considerable reputation within the City and Industry for his ability to get companies "into shape", but Savill and Thorley gained little support from the League's staff. Unable, for pretty obvious reasons, to take industrial action, the leading dissidents among the Economic League's staff produced in 1984 a highly critical report which they circulated to "past and present Central Council members" and regional elected officials. This report, called "The Need for a Change of Direction", came into the possession of the Labour Research Department soon afterwards, and its authenticity was confirmed by Thorley.
Its highly personalised criticisms of Savill present a revealing picture of the nature and scope of the League's operations before and after the rationalisation. Its authors claimed that the League's factory gate leafleting and its "training and management advisory services" had "disintegrated"; that the League's regional organisation was collapsing; and that "far more staff and money are engaged on administration and subscription raising" than on "services for member companies". In a particularly vitriolic attack on Savill, it claimed that "senior executives" had "no confidence" in him and that the feeling was "shared by elected representatives on Regional Councils and the Central Council".
Amongst the information to be found in the document is the following:
The number of leaflets distributed by the League fell from just over 18 million in 1978 to barely 1 million in 1983. But leaflets were no longer the most sophisticated way of getting information across, and by 1979 the League increasingly relied on its ability to plant stories in the press. Their 1979 Annual Report had announced that "Several papers ran whole articles or series of articles based on information provided by the League". Unfortunately for them the League encountered serious problems with its "news management" programme when Venessa Redgrave successfully sued papers that had taken up one of their stories. "The Need for a Change of Direction" also criticises the winding up of the leaflet distribution because of its disastrous effect on the League's intelligence gathering capabilities:
- "The League is no longer able to counter extremists at the works gate. It is no longer able to inform companies of the attitude of shopfloor employees to the current issues. It is unable to pass back information to the Research Department about local extremists."
The loss of more than seventy leaflet distributors also meant the some of their other information-gathering duties were cut back:
- "For example, the leaflet distributors used to be responsible for obtaining information on extremist candidates standing in all local elections. As each candidate had ten supporters this provided an enormous input about extremists throughout the country."
The League's other main direct point of contact with the shopfloor was also, more or less, shut down. In 1978 11,500 apprentices and 1,574 supervisors had been on League training courses. In 1983 barely 1,000 and almost no supervisors were trained. The apprentice magazine "News and Views" and its supervisory cousin "Supernews" had ceased publication. The number of managers attending courses had fallen from 3,578 to "very few", and the circulation of the management-aimed publication "2-Minute News Review" had fallen by a quarter to 75,000.
At the end of 1983 the League closed down its London based team of eight senior managers and ex-trade union officials who acted as advisors on "industrial relations and personnel matters".
In 1980 Savill had told subscribers that the League was to "concentrate on our two main activities - mass communication and research". But, according to the dissident authors of the "Need for a Change of Direction", research had also been profoundly damaged by Savill's rationalisation.
Before 1980 research had been coordinated by the London Region. In 1980 Savill personally took control of it and moved it to special offices in Thornton Heath and instructed regional offices that all regionally held files were to be moved there. The four men working in the Research Department in London "who had professional security or police background" refused to make the move and left its service.
Savill also lost another valuable intelligence asset when a "former Deputy Chief of Naval Intelligence", who had become director of the London Region in 1979, resigned nine months later following three months of argument.
How Bad Was It Really?
The Economic League was clearly in a lot of trouble during Thatcher's first term of office. By 1985 it had stopped completely its factory gate leaflets, and in October 1985 Savill resigned after a number of important companies (GEC, Midland Bank and H & J Heinz) withdrew their subscriptions. During Savill's reign of terror only the "labour screening" service had survived reasonably unscathed. But that too had its problems. Not only had the so called "Cowley Moles" initially slipped through their blacklist, but the number of enquiries they had been handling had fallen, chiefly as a consequence of the downturn in the Labour market and the recession in the construction industry. In 1978, for example, the names of 400,000 job applicants had been checked by the League. In 1983 it was less than a third of that.
Although Peter Savill had a rough ride as Director General, and was probably hounded into resignation, there has been no attempt to undo his reorganisation. In fact under his successor, Michael Noar, the centralisation of the League's operation continued. Furthermore, although the loss of substantial subscribers may have precipitated Savill's resignation it did not prevent him from immediately joining the Central Council of the Economic League.
What went wrong?
There is a delicious irony in the internal strife experienced by the League during Thatcher's first term of office. After sixty years of campaigning for an unregulated industrial sector the Economic League was staring success in the face, and finding it extremely hard to cope with it both economically and politically. Internally a significant group of staff were on the verge of open rebellion. And its two fields of operations which could lay some claim to legitimacy - training and propaganda - were in disarray as nationally only the most urgently needed vocational industrial training survived the tidal wave of monetarist recession. The League was also finding itself increasingly marginalised as the Government transformed key sections of the Civil Service into a powerful radical right-wing propaganda machine, to reinforce the message of its own think tanks.
While Savill and the League's Central Council could reshape and rationalise the organisation quite easily, it was much harder to find a credible new role for the League. The only obvious role was as policy advisors. But this was already filled, since Thatcher and her closest political allies had surrounded themselves with a new and rejuvenated set of think tanks and ginger groups to put flesh on the bones of their revolution, and create the illusion of spontaneous support for their ideas.
By the end of Savill's rationalisation almost all that was left of the League's operations was the blacklist. And if subscribers didn't yet know it, Savill himself certainly knew that the blacklist was in a complete mess.
The Economic League's final years degenerated into a catalogue of disasters and irreversible decline. All attempts to carve out new areas of work failed, leaving the League unable to compete with services already offered efficiently by commercial companies and consultancies, and unable to identify any lucrative gaps in the market. To make matters worse, with so many discontented former employees let loose, the League's own security was blown open, and the shambolic nature of its vetting became public and more newsworthy than ever before. If corporate subscribers were not particularly moved by the arguments of civil libertarians about the principle of the Economic League's political vetting, they were influenced by the exposure of its incompetence. In an age in which companies were spending millions on image, and promoting themselves as professional, efficient, effective, friendly and caring, the danger of being publicly associated with the Economic League just was not worth the risk. But, for all its problems, the Economic League survived for many years praying, one would imagine, for a combination of a Labour victory, a rapid resurgence in industrial conflict and a marked shift towards the democratic centre by the Conservative Party.
When in October 1985 Peter Savill resigned as director general of the Economic League, the anonymous source who had leaked "The Need for a Change of Direction" to Labour Research wrote to them to explain that while this was ". . . ostensibly . . . to enable him to spend more time with his wife, who had been ill for some while, but in reality, his resignation was the result of his inability to provide the League with any real leadership, or attract companies into membership."
A number of retired military officers were, it claimed, interviewed to replace Savill. If this is the case than they were unsuccessful since the job was given to Michael Noar who was recruited from the Federation of Civil Engineering Employers Contractors (FCEC), for whom he had worked for 23 years. His only industrial experience since leaving public school four years earlier had been as a technical writer for Elliot Automation.
Noar, in fact, spoke and looked every bit like a real manager, with a good solid military background. But though he was a former pupil of Rugby School, he came to the League after working for many years at the FCEC where he had a reputation as a good "committee man" with little in the way of personnel or industrial management skills. At the FCEC Noar had at first been Assistant Secretary (Industrial Relations) and was, he claimed in the CV he submitted for the job with the League, "particularly concerned with political disruption of major sites". "I thus," he went on to say, "developed some understanding of the Unions and also the very helpful role which the League plays". In 1965 he took charge of training at the FCEC, and in 1968 also became secretary to its general section adding secretary of the Future Planning Committee to his job description in 1973. Soon afterwards he was also given responsibility for developing "a formal press and parliamentary effort". Of this role he said:
"I think it is fair to claim that we now have a reputation within Parliament as a responsible and effective organisation and that we have become a lobbying force to be reckoned with. I have also built up personal relationships with many MPs and more importantly perhaps with others with influential positions within the political system."
But if there remained any doubt about the nature of Noar's influential political connections these are then dispelled:
"I am a member and secretary of a small group which seeks to bring together people from different industries with members of the Prime Minister's private staff. The group was formed at the time of the steel strike to maintain employer solidarity. Subsequently it played a useful role in circumventing some of the industrial opposition to reform of industrial relations law and encouraging the Government to pursue a more robust line. It played a small part in the coal dispute and now generally seeks to encourage sometimes disappointingly reluctant industry to support, or at least not to undermine the Government's efforts."
Having known the Economic League for more than twenty years, Noar clearly believed that the League was seeking a radical right-wing Conservative political operator, for certainly that is how he pitched his successful Curriculum Vitae.  But to make a success of his new job Michael Noar needed more than friends in high places, he needed what he modestly described as his ability to "perform well on both radio and television". For the new Director General had inherited an organisation which had lost important subscribers and undergone a demoralising restructuring, and yet still had no clear place in Thatcherism's community of think tanks and lobbyists. When, therefore, he took up the appointment, Noar had three priorities: to increase the number of companies subscribing to the League, to sort out the chaotic blacklist, and to develop new areas of operations. Within months, however, each of these would have to take a back seat to "crisis management" and "damage limitation", as the League became the object of a damaging, prolonged attention from the media.
As we have seen the business of tidying up the League's files had already been initiated by Peter Savill with his centralisation of all its records in Thornton Heath. Isolating the records from the less rigorous and more maverick of the regional officers, had been the important first stage in this process. The obvious next stage would have been to create a computer database while the files were being "weeded". This logical development was ruled out because the Data Protection Act would have given the blacklist's victims access to their files and a right to have them amended where they contained inaccuracies.  The League were unprepared, or unwilling, to handle even modest numbers of inquiries from people who believed they were on its files, and an orchestrated campaign of inquiries to which they would have by law to respond, would probably have brought the League's administration to a halt. This was especially the case as so much of the information that the League held on individuals was based on opinion, and not provable. Consequently, though both the Economic League Company and its pension fund registered with the Data Registrar, the blacklist was, or was at least claimed to be, maintained exclusively on manual files - which were not covered by the Act.
Throughout his time as Director General Noar repeatedly claimed that the files were being "weeded". He refused to answer specific questions about the leaked list, claiming that it had been "withdrawn". This of course raised the question about what the League was using while the list was being cleaned up. The former Regional Director of the North West Region later said that the list was not withdrawn while it was being checked. This much was obvious, for without a blacklist the League could not have continued to offer the "labour screening" service. However right up until 1990 it was still, for example, screening each of Ford's new employees. The process of weeding such a chaotic and amateurish manual database was a massive and difficult project which would take years to complete and would probably have left little of value. Speaking on After Dark in 1988, two years after he had taken up post, Noar suggested that this weeding had still not yet been completed.
Peter Savill had singularly failed to retain the support of existing subscribers, never mind attracting new ones. Michael Noar was to be even less successful.
Since the 1920s the League had been subjected to periodic investigations by the Labour Research Department, and had to fend off embarrassing investigations by the press several times. But the sustained media onslaught which began in 1987, and which was fed by leaks from disgruntled ex-employees, made Noar's job of attracting new business very difficult and made the task of raising the League's income from additional subscription hopelessly unrealistic.
"The Boys on the Blacklist"
A series of three half-hour television programmes about the Economic League, made by Granada TV's World In Action, were transmitted between January 1987 and February 1988. Each programme was followed up by stories in newspapers like the Guardian, the Independent and Observer. In Parliament a group of Labour MPs, led by Glasgow MP Maria Fyfe, responded by pressing for the Data Protection Act to be extended to manually held files on individuals, a move which would severely hamper the League's blacklist. In June 1988 Richard Norton-Taylor and Mark Hollingsworth's book Blacklist examined the practice in general and devoted a whole chapter to the Economic League. At the same time MPs like Maria Fyfe and Max Madden and trade union leaders like Roger Lyons (then assistant general secretary of MSF) were interrogating companies about their connections with the League.
Without question however it was the first World In Action programme, "The Boys on the Blacklist", which did the most damage to the League in a single instance, exposing not only the existence of its blacklist, but also highly damaging revelations about its inaccuracy. And in a secretly filmed interview Alan Harvey, a League officer, made damaging claims about connections with the local police. Harvey was subsequently sacked by the League, and his claims were investigated by the local police and pronounced unfounded.  The League were aware that "The Boys on the Blacklist" was about to be transmitted and it carefully prepared its response. This adopted what was to become a familiar line. Admitting that it had compiled and maintained an "archive of current political material", and that "the League's information is naturally available to its supporters on request", it stressed that:
- "The League does not ever advise any firm for or against employing anyone. It is for them to make up their own mind in relation to the particular job and on the basis of all the facts, including any supplied by the League."
It is clear that the Economic League were not anticipating the extent of the programme's damaging attack on their credibility. For the programme included secretly filmed footage of Harvey recommending to two undercover reporters, posing as businessmen, that they should not employ a man called Ken Mullier, a former personnel officer with the construction company John Mowlem. At John Mowlem's, Mullier had been responsible for liaison with Alan Harvey and his colleagues in the League's Skipton office. He was approached by a concrete ganger in the trade, who was a good worker with impeccable reference who had suddenly found it impossible to get work. Mullier agreed to try to find out if the man was blacklisted, and to his surprise discovered that the League thought he was politically unsuitable.
Mullier challenged the League's verdict on the man, but they remained unmoved. Eventually they told Mullier that his own boss had passed on the ganger's name to them but agreed to remove it if he himself could supply them with six other names.
It was no secret in the construction industry that employers operated a particularly ruthless blacklist. The earlier leaked document "The Need for a Change of Direction" had already revealed the crucial role which the League's "Services Group" played in maintaining the industry's blacklisting activities.
When, following the broadcast of these programmes the police investigated the allegations, one subscribing group of companies - which in its own words "relies very heavily indeed on the League's research department" - produced its own interpretation of the possible legal consequences of the Police investigation. Marked "STRICTLY CONFIDENTIAL", the report highlighted potential legal problems for the companies which subscribed to the Services Group. It admitted that it was "certainly true" that the Research Department's records on individuals were based on information obtained illegally from special branch officers. It also admitted that it was also "probably true" that "Police officers have been induced, by payments in kind or cash, to divulge classified information illegally to the League". If the official inquiry into the League's sources in the police were to find this out, the strictly confidential briefing paper argued, then companies subscribing to the League's Service Group, and their representatives on Regional Services Groups might be themselves open to legal action.
As it happened it was a groundless worry, since the police investigation did not find any evidence of what this subscriber nevertheless believed to be "certainly true".
Noar's attempts to steer the League through its troubles was next undermined by his handling of a damaging dispute with Richard Brett, director of the North West Region. It brought him into conflict with Brett's Regional Council, and in the end destroyed the Central Council's confidence in him.
After twenty-five years in the Army, mostly in the "political side" of Military Intelligence, Richard Brett had retired from the services. His first job after the Army was with the Association of Works Managers, and he subsequently became financial director of the Distributive and Allied Trades Industrial Training Board. In 1983 he went to work for the North West Region of the Economic League, becoming its Regional Director in 1985.
He had therefore been with the League for three years before Noar was appointed as the national Director General. During this time Brett claims to have done as much as he could, given his resources, to "clean up" the North West's operations. The poor quality of the index to his region's blacklist, of which I have a copy and which was in use throughout Brett's time with the League, suggests this "clean up" was very limited in its effect. As Noar continued the centralisation of the League, Brett and members of his Regional Council clearly resented the interference in the North West's work.
Increasingly Brett felt that his attempts to inject a degree of professionalism into its activities were being undermined by Michael Noar's inexperience in intelligence and security fields. The conflict between the two men exposed a political difference between them. Brett was by no means a liberally-minded Conservative. He believed in blacklisting; he had been approached - but refused - to join Unison (Major General Walter Walker's private army) in 1974; he acted as one of Eddie Shah's chief advisors during the Warrington print dispute, and he briefed senior police officers during the miners' strike. He believed that the Militant Tendency, an extraordinarily puritanical political organisation, had a bizarre and implausible scheme for importing illicit drugs through the Port of Liverpool in order to turn the drug addicted youth into Trotskyists. Yet even by Brett's own standards Michael Noar was a man of the "extreme right".
The conflict between the two men came to a head in the middle of 1987. In December three members of the North West Regional Council submitted a motion to the Central Council, expressing concern at the "mismanagement of the industrial dispute and its North Western Regional Director Mr. Richard Brett which has arisen over his terms and conditions of service".  The resolution was accompanied by a catalogue of examples of Noar's mismanagement: In June he had threatened Brett with instant dismissal if he "did not sign an undertaking which gave [Brett] grounds for constructive dismissal and defamation of character", and which Noar had been forced to withdraw in October; subsequently Noar had suspended Brett without notifying the North West Regional Chairman, then South Manchester businessman Bob Willan, or observing the League's disciplinary procedure. Willan had then reinstated Brett, but Noar had refused to recognise him and threatened not to pay him.
Michael Noar eventually received the backing of the Central Council and succeeded in sacking Brett. But Brett by this stage was not prepared to go quietly, and took the League to an Industrial Tribunal for "unfair dismissal". What was more he threatened to call every Central Council member as a witness. As a result Brett had the media-bruised League over a barrel and it was forced to make a generous out-of-court settlement, with which the former Military Intelligence officer purchased a holiday home in France.
When the League then went back on part of the out-of-court deal Richard Brett resolved to keep up his fight against his old adversary. In his continuing struggle to undermine Noar and what even he saw as "dangerous" aspects of the Economic League he became a ready source of information for journalists keeping the League in the newspapers and on television, and for the MPs taking on the League in Parliament. In February 1988, World in Action broadcast two further programmes about the Economic League, that highlighted more errors and inaccuracies in the list, and exposed the undercover role of Ned Walsh. The BBC's consumer affairs programme Watchdog was also onto the story and by now in contact with Brett. Unusually, almost the whole programme on November 28th 1988 was given over to Mike Emberley's report about the League and an interview with Brett. It was the first time that a former employee had gone on the record, and Brett was careful to make sure his remarks and revelations hit the right target:
- "I feel that the League as it is presently constituted is a danger to the democratic way of life in this country. You have got the case of the job prospects of thousands of people in the hands of one man. It is a situation unparalleled in this country in peacetime."
The programme unearthed yet more inaccuracies on the League's lists and challenged Brett about the surveillance operations carried out in his region. "I had 'friends' who were available for that operation" he told the BBC's reporter Mike Emberley. In addition to attending public meetings, the friends also worked "in various factories or operational units passing information back". Of the meetings attended by Brett's "friends" he admitted that "it had been known" for them to hide in broom cupboards to gather their information.
By the time that Watchdog was broadcast the League was in crisis. It was only later however that the full effect of the crisis which had hit the League emerged. In just over eighteen months the Economic League had been the subject of three primetime TV exposés and a number of critical articles in national newspapers. In November 1988 a trade union organised anti-Economic League Conference in Leeds brought some of the growing number of campaigners together. Out of this conference grew the idea of a more permanent and investigative opposition - League Watch was launched in June 1989. In the House of Commons Labour and Liberal MPs, including the then Shadow Chancellor John Smith, signed up for the Anti-Blacklisting Campaign.
Two weeks after the launch of League Watch The Guardian discovered that Noar had been sacked. It also emerged that the director of Information and Research and company secretary, Thom Robinson, who was then a ubiquitous figure on the Thatcherite think-tank circuit, and a number of the League's researchers had also already resigned. Days later the League held its sixty-ninth annual general meeting in secrecy. League Watch turned up to it, photographed delegates and delivered a somewhat disparaging message by courier to the twenty or so delegates. In the Balaclava Room of the Cavalry and Guards Club what should have been the League's celebration of seventy years of clandestine political activity was not even attended by its new president, Scottish tycoon Sir Maxwell Harper Gow. League Watch could not, and did not claim responsibility for Noar's dismissal.
There had been a growing tension between the Director General and the Central Council and his personal vendetta against Brett had helped to keep the crisis on the boil. While subscribers wanted the League to keep a low profile in the hope that the press would go away, Noar was bullish and wanted to respond to criticism, to win the argument for blacklisting or at least recruit some more subscribers. The dispute about the League's high profile was an interesting one, and suggests that Brett was less than frank about the reasons why he was dismissed.
I have a copy of the League's own record of "The Director General's Advisory Committee" on August 25th 1987. It was attended by J Lawrence-Mills, the League's Chairman, Thom Robinson, Noar, the Regional Directors, P Thackery, (National Coordinator of the Services Group) and J O Udal, (described as Liaison Director). The minutes of the meeting make it clear that Brett was one of a small number of Regional Directors arguing against the "League's high profile". Lawrence-Mills, however, made it clear to Brett and his supporters that the Central Council supported the new high profile. Noar argued strongly that refusing to respond to attacks would only make matters worse. But Brett seems to have maintained the support of the Research Director, Jack Winder. In his own region, said Brett, "subscribers were only concerned with the checking service and were worried by the profile".
On the evidence of this document it is clear that the centralisation of the blacklist was not the only cause of disagreement between Brett and Noar, Brett would seem to have been trying to protect the secrecy surrounding the League's vetting operations.
The Central Council in Crisis
By the time of the Leeds conference in November 1988 the League and its Director General were in serious trouble. It was already aware that it was likely to be called before the House of Commons Select Committee on Employment the following year. Noar's determination to draw regionally held files into the central research department was partly driven by his desire to assure the Select Committee that "grey files", which were not properly authenticated and were allegedly only used for research, were not also actually being used for employment vetting. Throughout these particularly difficult times Michael Noar was pressing on with attempts to find a new direction for the League. In a brutally frank memorandum for the Policy and Finance Committee (26/1/88) Noar summed up the problem:
- "The League has suffered a surfeit of enquiries and reports for over the last ten years. What it badly need is either to settle on a role for itself and get on with it or to agree that it no longer has a useful function and to wind itself up. Continuing uncertainty is the worst of all possible worlds."
The particular problem for the League, Noar pointed out, was that:
- "It is an anti-extremist/subversive organisation or it is nothing. While there are no doubt other roles which could be found there is no shortage of other organisations fulfilling them."
He argued strongly against using the League's reserves to expand its areas of activities, and argued strongly for making the Regions less independent, as a part of the rationalisation to preserve "the core business". Five days after the Policy and Finance Committee met to discuss Noar's memorandum World in Action broadcast the first of a further two-part programme. This time even the Royal Bank of Scotland felt it had to withdraw its support for the League, even though one of its senior directors, Sir Maxwell Harper Gow, was on the Economic League Central Council and likely to become the League's new president when Sir Gerald Thorley retired at the 1988 Annual General Meeting.
I have been unable to track down the League's response to Noar's memo, but in a sense it no longer mattered. Neither Noar, or the central Council of the Economic League, were in control of events and over the course of 1988 Noar's case for the League's high profile began to look increasingly shaky. His public defence of the League was competent, but he was not winning arguments, converts or new subscribers. On the contrary the "we-make-the-ammunition-but-don't-fire-the-gun" argument was putting subscribers under a great deal of embarrassing pressure, and inevitably they were leaving. Tactically it looked increasingly like Brett and Winder had been right about the high profile.
On November 24th 1988, Sir Maxwell Harper Gow and the president of the South Wales Region, Eddie Rea, both resigned from the League, plunging it deeper into crisis. In a letter to League Watch, Harper Gow later explained, intriguingly, that he had resigned for "reasons of his own". The Economic League company articles of association required there to be at least thirty members of the Central Council. After the Gow and Rea resignations a number of other Central Council members expressed their intention to resign and if this happened the League would not have been able to muster a full Central Council.
Thus, on 13th December, the League held an extraordinary general meeting to consider a resolution to reduce the minimum number of Central Council members from thirty to twenty. It was passed, and twenty seven businessmen were confirmed as Central Council members. Of these twenty seven members, seven had been recruited in the previous three months. Four more, long serving Central Council members, resigned within two weeks of the extraordinary general meeting.
Then in January 1989, with the Central Council in disarray, Thom Robinson resigned as Director of Information and Company Secretary and a number of researchers, including Derrick Knight Dewell - head of the Central Research Department - left the League. The final calamity for Noar's fragile relationship with the League occurred a few weeks later. Noar's dismissal was probably precipitated when, a month before the Economic League's 1989 AGM, the Guardian published details of an internal meeting which had discussed possible developments of the blacklisting service. The meeting at which these ideas had been discussed was in fact the first meeting of The Research Group, coordinated by its chairman the Director of Research Max Telling, with representatives from the regions and Jack Bramwell from the Central Research Department and Russell Walters from the Information Research Department.
Two possible developments of the service had been considered. Firstly, that the League might cash-in on the spread of HIV/AIDS by selling the names of gays and lesbians to insurance companies. Secondly that it might sell the names of hooligans to football clubs. Neither of these suggestions could be justified on the basis of "counter-subversion" or "national interest". They were money-making propositions, intended to either bring in more subscribers or else increase the range of services to existing subscribers. When the proposals were published this strategy completely disintegrated. Most of the solid core of the League's subscribers were not remotely interested in the suggestions, and those that might have been remotely interested must have been horrified by the blundering ignorance, impracticality, and, what must have seemed like, the gratuitous controversy of the line being pursued by the League.
Worse still, for an organisation obsessed with industry's need for "security" it was clear that its own was practically non-existent. If the register of gays and lesbians was suggested as a means of providing a more substantial service to an important group of subscribers then it was chronically misjudged. Life insurance companies know that as a group lesbians run the smallest risk of contracting the HIV infection. There was no reason for them to be remotely interested in the League's proposal. Nevertheless Max Telling had told the meeting that:
- "Gays, lesbians and racial extremism were all preserves of the extreme left and right. Elementary monitoring should yield some useful connections in terms of determining individuals or left-wing groups. It might be that homosexual or gay groups would be useful information for insurance companies."
Russell Walters, perhaps unsure of the League's ability to take on this additional work immediately told the meeting that "hopefully, in the long run the League would have the resources to monitor gays, lesbians and extremist racial groups from a subversive viewpoint". Tom Wilson, from the Scottish Region later pointed out the usefulness of help lines in compiling information, but admitted that he "found the Lesbian Help line response a bit peculiar". It may not have been particularly surprising to find the Economic League indulging in gay bashing, but the idea of selling the names of football hooligans to football clubs was pure idiocy. There was simply nothing that the League could offer the clubs that they could not get openly from the police, or from the aborted identity card system itself.
By the middle of 1989 the Economic League was a shambles. Its strategy for dealing with its crisis had failed. It had no new role; its well connected and influential Director General Secretary and Company secretary had gone, Derek Knight Dewell had been recruited by the channel tunnel, and Russell Walters had been given a senior and controversial position in the Scottish Conservative Party headquarters by Michael Forsyth; it could not find anyone with the same status in the business community to replace Maxwell Harper Gow as president; its income, which had fallen significantly in respect of inflation since 1979, was now falling in terms of hard cash.
To political and organisational crisis was added a financial crisis that gave the League little room to manoeuvre. The House of Commons Select Committee inquiry into political vetting, which had not materialised in 1989, was now confirmed to take place in 1990. The new team in charge of the League were faced with the herculean task of rebuilding the confidence of its remaining workers and subscribers, and putting together a convincing case for the Select Committee on Employment. On the face of it, it was not the sort of team that would inspire much confidence in anyone. Jack Winder, a longstanding employee who had been overlooked in the promotion stakes before and had backed Brett's opposition to the "high profile" was given responsibility for both "information" and "research" and M F J Barnes was brought out of retirement to become Company Secretary again.
While these two old hands together replaced Robinson, Noar was replaced by someone called Frank Biles. Biles had only recently become Director of the League's Northern Region which had been created by merging the old North West and North East regions. As a political operator he had neither the confidence, experience or contacts that Noar had. This was brought out at the "gays and football hooligans" research Group Meeting which he also had attended. During a discussion of the way in which the various regions managed their paid informers:
- "Frank Biles told the group that as a man from a selling background he had no contacts that he could build on when he joined the League. Only one informant had come to light because the man virtually offered his services through the post. Gordon Baker was now handling that informant known as L5A. Frank Biles said that he was looking for guidelines and hints on how to get people into meetings."
At an absolutely critical moment in its history the League was having to field its second eleven. Fortunately for the League's continuing existence it now had to rely less on their performance, and more on the support of the Conservative Party and the hard core of subscribers who could not care less about their public reputations or the accuracy of the claims made about it.
Notes and References
(see Bibliography for full details)
- ^ 19/12/87
- ^ The quotes from Noar are all taken from his Letter to the League's company secretary M.F.J. Barnes, 10th January 1986 sent prior to his interview on 15th January
- ^ Richard Brett speaking on BBC Television's programme "Watchdog"
- ^ "The Boys on the Blacklist" Transmitted 16/2/87, "The Secret Life of Ned Walsh", 1/2/88 and "The Secrets of Wine Office Court" 8/2/88
- ^ Resolution dated 14th December, taken from the Minutes of an Additional Meeting of the Policy & Finance Committee, 26th January 1988