Spies at Work, Chapter 11: The Fall
The Select Committee
The League's worries about being called to give an account of their work to a Parliamentary Select Committee were realised in 1990. In June, the House of Commons Select Committee on Employment took evidence from the Economic League about its blacklist.  The League faced searching questions from most of the committee members, and made a poor submission. They were forced to agree to submit additional information to the committee, including the information they kept on file about the Committee's members. However when this information was finally delivered, late, it seems their files contained a number of embarrassing inaccuracies. Shortly afterwards the London listings magazine City Limits revealed that an example of a supposedly ultra left-wing anti-Economic League leaflet, put forward as evidence by the League, was a crude forgery published by a non-existent left-wing group. The clear implication of this was that either they were taken in by the crude forgery, or a party to its production. The Select Committee then asked the League to reappear in October, after the summer recess, in order to answer supplementary questions. Shortly afterwards Ford was due to give evidence to the committee. It was not only one of the League's largest subscribers but one of the few who had publicly supported the League. While the League were about to go to the Select Committee Ford told the press that they had withdrawn their subscription.
The poor quality of the League's evidence and their failure to provide the Committee with the supplementary evidence they had promised led to a decision to have them recalled to answer more questions. But just as it seemed that the League were on the ropes, Conservative members of the Committee then moved to overturn the Committee's earlier decision to recall them. Not all the Conservative members had been present at the previous meeting and when it was reconvened the recall decision was successfully rescinded. However, in an intriguing move, the decision to call Ford was not rescinded, suggesting that some of the Conservatives on the committee were not inclined to let the League of the hook too easily.
The League had told the Select Committee that just 16% of its resources were taken up in providing its "labour vetting service" which, it claimed, involved maintaining 10,000 files (until the previous year the number had been 50,000) on alleged "subversives" and responding to 100,000 - 200,000 name checks a year. Details of the League's apprentice and trainee managers course at Bristol University that April were presented to the Committee as evidence of what it did with the remaining 86% of their money and employees' time.
However, when the Bristol magazine Venue investigated the Autumn course at the University they found just eight, rather uninspired students.  The small scale of the course supported claims by the League's opponents that its figures didn't make sense. The League, they said, couldn't possibly be spending £600,000 on running a handful of training courses, producing a two-page, typewritten monthly newsletter and making cups of coffee in its remaining regional offices and its research department.
An important part of the League's defence in the Select Committee had been its suggestion that it operated a "code of practice" which recommended to any employers using their vetting services that any allegations be placed before interviewees. When Ford, who had been the blacklist's largest client, gave evidence to the Committee they had no knowledge of any such code. Jack Winder and Stan Hardy, giving evidence for the League, also tried to put across the impression that the League operated a comprehensive training and security advice service. This was reinforced by the bundle of written evidence which included publicity for their "services" and cuttings from left-wing papers including the one which was a crude forgery. They also offered to provide the committee with names of other organisations carrying out the same sort of employee vetting as they themselves were. They eventually provided the name of C.I.U.K. Ltd., but closer inspection reveals this to be an off-the-peg company, with two unknown directors and no evidence in its company records of ever having traded.
The League's response to the Select Committee's investigation was badly handled, and dangerously contemptuous - they had lied, played shoddy verbal games and tried to deceive the Committee. But in the end they got away with it. They had offered one apparent concession in the form of support for the idea of registration for employment vetting agencies, which of course would have had the effect of legitimising its activities. The Select Committee, with its government manipulated Conservative majority, recommended some form of registration. The Government however decided that the time and expense of registration was not justified. Nothing would therefore be done. 
The Scale of the Operations at the Time of the Select Committee
In 1988, following Richard Brett's dismissal the League had appointed two "Regional Directors"; one covering the North and one the South. The Northern Regional Director was based at the League's Skipton office making its North West regional office, in Warrington, a sub-branch run from Skipton.
These two appointments replaced existing members of staff - Stan Hardy, the Northern Director, for example replaced Jimmy Bromley when he retired as North East Regional Director - and were a logical extension of the centralisation of the League's operations. Stan Hardy subsequently became Director General after Michael Noar's dismissal.
Where the money came from
At the back of this book there is a list of slightly more than 600 companies known to be connected with the Economic League in the last fifteen years (see Appendix 1). Of these about 400 have paid a subscription to the League. The remainder, and some of the subscribers, have a director who is or has been, in the past ten years, on the Central Council of the Economic League. Before its demise a number of companies claimed to have broken their links with the League in some way or another, or qualified their support for the League. These claims were usually worded cautiously, suggesting that they were a public relations exercise. More indirect methods of funding, and using, the League's services were being adopted. A very brief comparison of this list with the "Times 1000" of 1986 reveals that, of the top 100 UK companies, this list contains:
- 6 of the top ten companies
- 20 of the top fifty companies
- 37 of the top one-hundred companies.
Together these 37 companies employed over 2.1 million people.
The list for that year also includes:
- 9 of the top 50 investment trusts
- 10 of the top 50 life insurance companies
- 10 of the top 50 non-life insurance companies.
It is not known exactly how many companies were subscribing to the League at the end. The figures that have been claimed, or quoted, vary between 700 and 2000. The list of companies given here therefore contains somewhere between a fifth and a half of the total subscribers. Accurate figures were not available for the subscription rates but it is possible to make some estimates on the basis of what we do know.
Subscription rates were roughly calculated on the basis of a fee per hundred employees. In 1986, the top of the range was represented by a company like Rush and Tompkins at more than £40 per one-hundred workers. R&T were members of the League's "Service Group" of construction companies which paid an enhanced subscription to employ League workers to look after their interests. A more average subscription was that paid by Vickers, one of the companies involved in the establishment of the League, which was about £26 per one-.hundred workers.
In 1986 the League's income from subscriptions was about £1,000,000. On the basis of these per capita rates subscribers would have employed between 2.5 and 4 million workers. If the top 37 companies employ more than 2 million people we can presume that the figure was nearer 4 million than 2 million. That represents somewhere between 10% and 15% of the total working population. If we exclude from the working population those who work in public services or are in the armed forces these figures would be closer to between 15% and 20%.
Declaring and laundering
Without the help of internal documents it would have been difficult to even begin to determine which companies subscribed to the League. Until the late 1970s many subscribers declared their subscriptions to the League as a political donation. The law was not however particularly clear and a judgment in favour of a bank's undeclared donation to Aims of Industry, which was never fully tested, suggested that Company Law only regarded as "political" donations directly to or from political parties. Subsequently Aims and the League encouraged companies to take advantage of this loophole, even though for several years in the late 1980s the Conservatives main clandestine fund-raising body - British United Industrialists - actually operated from the League's Wine Office Court Headquarters and made payments to it over and above its rent.
In the face of growing hostility to the League from the media, many corporate subscribers took up the chance to hide donations to the League.
Where the money went
In 1987 the Economic League's own, confidential, projections for the 1988 financial year anticipated a continuing income of £1m. Speaking in the Houses of Parliament in June 1989, Richard Brett reliably suggested that, as a result of bad publicity, there had been a significant shortfall on the projections. Instead of an income from subscriptions of more than £1m the actual figure was closer to £800,000. In fact the figure presented in the annual report was £804,348. The following year it fell even further to £663,331, perhaps half as much as it might reasonably have projected a couple of years earlier.
But in 1990 a slight increase in subscriptions was recorded - taking its income to £732,437. If campaigners were anticipating an early end to the League's operations they were mistaken. It seemed that a solid and unshamable core of support had been reached, and a small number of new subscribers had even been attracted by its disreputable reputation.
The End Comes
The League and the Radical Right
The Radical Right had grown and changed dramatically after Thatcher's election as Tory leader. But the League's place in this network of commie-bashers and deregulators was never clear. Prior to 1974, and the appearance of the Centre for Policy Studies, the Economic League had been a major component of the Radical Right. Indeed apart from the League, the Radical Right only consisted of:
- A politically motivated PR company - Aims of Industry.
- Two apparently more liberal versions of the League - Common Cause and "Industrial Research and Information Services".
- A jumble of anti-communist groupings with links to emigré groups associated with "The Captive Nations".
Lurking in the background was a clandestine organisation called British United Industrialists (BUI), which raised funds for the Conservative Party and some of the radical right-wing groups. British United Industrialists was formed in 1962 by the merger of two earlier groups called United Industrialists Association (UIA) and the British Industrialist Association (BIA).
The UIA and BIA were part of a secret mechanism for channelling money discretely into the Conservative Party. It also involved a number of other secret companies named after rivers. However the BUI, and the UIA and the BIA previously, were also responsible for funding the Economic League; in 1949 the League received more than £18,000 from the UIA and BIA and this quickly rose to a regular donation of more than £25,000. The funding continued at this level after the formation of the British United Industrialists. BUI was also a major source of finance for Aims of Industry, making donations of £15,000 in 1986 and 1987. Following changes to the Companies Act in 1967 the BUI relinquished its status as a Limited Company so as to avoid having to declare more details of its finances. In the late seventies and early eighties the BUI operated from its own office in Park Lane. However in 1985 it moved into the Economic League's premises in Wine Office Court. It was not a move welcomed by all concerned and some League officers felt it compromised the League's pretence to political independence.
In 1988 however the BUI moved out again, perhaps worried by the increasing and unsympathetic publicity that the League was receiving. It moved in with Aims of Industry.
In the early 1970s there was an expansion and consolidation of the Radical Right. Amongst its new members was the Freedom Association, which had grown out of the "Private Army" movement associated with the conspiracies of the early seventies. Originally it seems to have been a demobilised version of Major General Walter Walker's army - "Unison". NAFF's subsequent activities have been well documented; it specialises in maverick private prosecutions, and encouraging and funding legal actions.
The key figure linking these groups, and the Thatcher/Joseph Centre for Policy Studies, together was Lord Nicholas Cayzer. Cayzer was "British and Commonwealth Shipping", a veteran sanctions buster and owner of the blue collar mercenary operation "Airwork" (virtually a privatised subsidiary of MI6). Although a far from well known tycoon he remained to the end a key member of Thatcher's "kitchen cabinet". He was, until 1989, a longstanding member of the Economic League's Central Council who was eventually made one of its vice presidents. He was the principal source of money for Unison, through British & Commonwealth he was a generous contributor to NAFF, and he was one of the first central council members of the Centre for Policy Studies.
The natural alliance between the Economic League and the NAFF (now called the Freedom Association) continued until the end. This was reflected in the League's appointment of Thom Robinson (the Freedom Association's head of research) to head its own Information and Research Department.
Since 1979 this network has been augmented by a host of Radical Right groups with more restricted purposes and sometimes acting as trailblazers for the more controversial Tory proposals.
Amongst the better known of these groups are:
Although thoroughly enmeshed in this Radical right-wing network of interlinked personnel and sources of funding, the League's role within it became increasingly more restricted. More and more of its various interests and activities were taken over by more specialist organisations.
The result of this was that for all its attempts to maintain its own positive political programme, the League had no real role when its own political programme became Tory Party policy. The league was a movement of resistance not of reform or revolution, and it had quickly become clear that its lightweight economic simplification was practically useless to Thatcherism.
By 1989 the future of the League already seemed extremely uncertain. It was loosing support and staff, and the sustained bad publicity which was responsible for this showed no sign of abating. The League was, however, a resilient organisation with a hardcore of support and a proven market for its services. Thus although predictions of its ultimate collapse were entirely plausible it was impossible to predict precisely when, or if at all, it would actually cease to trade. When the end came it caught everyone by surprise, and received comparatively little press coverage.
The Economic League - An Obituary
On April 24th 1993 Richard Norton-Taylor reported, in the Guardian, that the League was being disbanded. The story was later confirmed by the League itself, in more sympathetic Conservative newspapers. They also claimed that the blacklist had been destroyed, by Securicor.
The League had not merely been disbanded but had gone into voluntary liquidation with debts of £300,067. Amongst its creditors were Jack Winder (£24,804) and Stan Hardy (£9,951). Peter Shipley, a Conservative Party worker who specialises in smearing Labour candidates was owed £1,679.
After seventy-three years of campaigning against socialists and trade unionists working in industry, the League had finally succumbed to the one great idea that it has always advocated - the unfettered free market. The most fervent apostles of free enterprise had become its victims.
Although the League itself had ceased to exist, blacklisting was set to continue.
Within weeks of the announcement of the League's demise the Sunday Times revealed that the Nat West Bank was keeping political information on its clients. Although there was no immediate evidence that this amounted to a "blacklist", since it wasn't clear what the Nat West did with the information, it revealed the degree to which the monitoring of the political opinions of British citizens was almost becoming routine, and was being done by organisations with far better resources than the League.
Though heavily in debt and the palest shadow of its former self, it was not a completely humiliating end for the Economic League. Although there was no gap in the market for its intelligence gathering or political propaganda, the League could have stumbled along had it not become the focus of a great deal of media interest, and a concerted campaign.
For the last six years I was closely involved in the campaign against the League, and was a founder member of "League Watch" which was set up to inform and support the wider and more loosely organised campaign.
The League collapsed because fewer and fewer employers and bankers could see the value in using its services or supporting its activities. But this did not happen just like that. Since Granada TV's World in Action broadcast the first of its three exposés, there has been a steady stream of attacks - the BBC's Watchdog devoted a whole programme to damaging revelations by Richard Brett, a former regional director, and the NCCL published a pamphlet titled "The Silent Macarthyism". Finally, the last concerted media assault was led by Paul Foot who got hold of a copy of the whole of the League's blacklist and ran a series of damaging articles in the Daily Mirror. The Mirror even took the list to the Labour Party Conference to raise funds for the Party. For a modest fee Party members could check if they were on the lists - this service earned more than a thousand pounds for campaign funds. 
The blacklist had been an important part of the League's operations since the early 1920s, but not its only activity. By the early 1980s it had to abandon its other main area of work - pro-free enterprise propaganda - when this was in effect nationalised by the Thatcher Government and its politicisation of the Civil Service. The League was now either a blacklister or it was nothing, and try as it could to find a wider role for its self amongst the constellation of Conservative satellite groups it failed. As the media had closed in on the League there were a growing number of case studies of people blacklisted by the League on the basis of wholly incorrect allegations.
Of course many people felt uncomfortable with an approach which seemed to suggest there were "innocent" and "guilty" victims of the League's vetting. Surely, they argued, in a liberal democracy it is not right to sentence someone to years of unemployment for being a shop steward, taking part in a strike, being a member of a socialist, communist or Trotskyist party, no matter how briefly?
But in the end it was this approach that played a critical role in undermining the League, because it revealed the blacklist to be incompetent - out of date, based on unjustifiable assumptions, sometimes straightforwardly malicious.
Looking back it seems that the campaigning approach of "League Watch" was a sensible one. But the policy of feeding information to journalists and letting them go after the story had been a decision dictated by necessity rather than design. There were just too many massive companies and conglomerates who backed the League. A campaign of boycotts would not have been practical.
Naturally the use of the media as a campaigning tool did not always work. A journalist on one of United Newspapers' titles was pulled off the story by an editor who thought it would be hypocritical to run an expose of the Economic League's activities locally, since they subscribed to it.
League Watch also adopted other approaches to the campaign against the League. Following a meeting between League Watch and the Labour Leader of Leeds City Council, for example, the council took the lead in writing to all its suppliers to ask if they supported or used the League. Although in the end the council lacked the organisational will and political power to follow the correspondence up, nevertheless it probably rattled a few suppliers and certainly made it harder for the League to recruit new members from companies which regularly won contracts from the council. When Wakefield City Council challenged the construction giant Amec, with whom it had just signed a massive contract, there was a short lived panic resolved only when Amec disclaimed any support for the League itself, claiming only to support the Services Group. The "Services Group", was of course a part of the League specialising in blacklisting construction workers. So it was not a victory in itself, but it was things like this that began to drive home to employers just how potentially damaging their support of the League might become. Tens of thousands of pounds of costly corporate advertising could be wasted with one well timed association of the company with the League as a politically motivated, macarthyite and shambolic organisation.
The disbanding of the League was not the end of the story. The principle of discriminating in employment on the basis of actual or supposed political opinions has not been nailed. While the League was being wound up the "Services Group" was thought to have survived, yet again underlining lack of professionalism in personnel and operational management in the construction industry.
Former employees of the League were also rumoured to have taken their card indexes with them and to have set themselves up as employment consultants. This rumour was confirmed in April 1994 when "Tribune" anonymously received copies of a newsletter called "Caprim Monitor". The newsletter was published by a company called "Caprim", and advertised its services to companies:
- "Caprim helps its clients by checking the bona fides of anyone a company is concerned about, whether external or members of staff. A simple CV check is often sufficient and economical."
The new company was, like the Economic League, also concerned with organisations which monitored ethics in business, like Ethical Investment Research and Investment Service (EIRIS). EIRIS had been a well established League target. It thus came as no surprise to "Tribune" to discover from Companies House that two people behind Caprim were none other than Jack Winder and Stan Hardy, the two most senior League employees who had presented the League's Evidence to the Parliamentary Select Committee.
"Tribune" rang Caprim, which operates from a PO Box in Redditch not far from Winder's home in Alcester. They pretended to be a PR firm with South African connections which was being written about by a certain journalist. Could Caprim, they asked, check the journalist out? Jack Winder offered to check their files and contact "researchers" based all over the country for a fee of £60. If the journalist was a member of the NUJ, Winder said he could check him out there since:
- "We have very good connections in the unions, very good contacts in the NUJ in a senior position."
Caprim is clearly a radical right-wing, political, business venture. But it is not a political group in the way the Economic League was. It does not, for example, have a central council of members elected by participating organisations and is therefore not so much the League reincarnated, as its malevolent ghost.
On the other hand Caprim does represent what in the end was the core-business of the Economic League and it is run by those that had run the League in its final days. The confirmation that the League's blacklist has survived only serves to emphasise the need to legislate against employment vetting on the basis of an individual's - actual or presumed - political beliefs. But that legislation would not be easy to enforce. Legislation would need to be policed, and any whistleblowers would need to be protected.
The history of the League demonstrates the critical role of the campaigning media in bringing about its eventual collapse. But for all their commitment those journalists could not have achieved anything without the diligent work of trade union campaigners, the willingness of victims to speak out, and of former employees to break cover.
But perhaps the most important of the various elements of the lethal cocktail that led to the demise of the League was the widely felt outrage at the League's blacklist. It was that outrage which meant that the story of the League's blacklist ran and ran.
The price of democracy, as ironically the League itself frequently reminded us, is eternal vigilance. Responsibility for that vigilance today seems to lie largely with the hard-pressed and, unfortunately, increasingly rare investigative journalist. So vigilance too has its price: it must sell papers and keep viewers tuned in to a TV station. No matter how cynical we become about the activities of politicians, political activists or the powerful we must never allow that cynicism to degenerate into complacency. We must continue to expect the highest degree of integrity and commitment to democratic principles from those in power, whether in politics with a big "P" or in industry or the financial institutions, even when in fact it doesn't surprise us when they fail to meet our expectations.
Notes and References
(see Bibliography for full details)
- ^ For the conclusions of the Select committee's investigation see the Employment Committee Second Report "Recruitment Practices", Session 1990-91, ISBN 0 10 273691 X
- ^ "Venue" no 219, 28th September-12th October 1990
- ^ The Select Committee's full recommendation reads:
"Under the Consumer Credit Act 1974, any consumer denied credit can obtain the name of any credit reference agency consulted, and can thereafter obtain details of the information held about them. WE BELIEVE THE SAME SHOULD BE TRUE OF INFORMATION ABOUT POTENTIAL EMPLOYEES SUPPLIED TO THE EMPLOYER BY ORGANISATIONS KEEPING SUCH INFORMATION; IF THE POTENTIAL EMPLOYEE IS REFUSED EMPLOYMENT THE INFORMATION SHOULD BE PASSED ON TO THE EMPLOYEE; INDEED IT SHOULD BE PUT TO THE EMPLOYEE SO AS TO PROVIDE A CHANCE FOR THE EMPLOYEE TO REFUTE IT. "WE ALSO RECOMMEND THAT LEGISLATION SHOULD PROVIDE THAT, WITH THEEXCEPTION OF PREVIOUS EMPLOYERS PROVIDING REFERENCES, ALL ORGANISATIONS SUPPLYING INFORMATION ABOUT POTENTIAL EMPLOYEES SHOULD BE SUBJECT TO LICENSING AND TO A CODE OF PRACTICE, PERHAPS SIMILAR TO THE LICENSING SYSTEM FOR EMPLOYMENT AGENCIES UNDER THE EMPLOYMENT AGENCIES ACT 1973. "We believe that the recommendations we have made would go some way to lessening the disadvantages faced by those who apply for jobs at companies using the services of organisations who provide information about them."
- ^ "Daily Mirror September 25th - October 3rd 1991. In Scotland the "Daily Record" for the same period used the same sources for its expose of the League's blacklist.