George Makgill

George Makgill, the son of Captain John Makgill and Margaret Isabella Haldane, the sister of Richard Haldane, was born in Stirling on 24th December 1868. Makgill spent most of his childhood in Waiuku, New Zealand, where his father was based.

Makgill became a successful businessman, who according to Gill Bennett, was "ultra-conservative in his views and full of ideas about the efficient management of labour (including a deep-rooted dislike of Trade Unionism)." In 1891 he married Frances Elizabeth Grant. After his father died in 1906, Makgill inherited the Baronetcy of Makgill and became the 11th Viscountcy of Oxfuird. He settled in Eye, Suffolk where he leased Yaxley Hall. Makgill became a supporter of Leopold Maxse, who campaigned against liberal idealism in foreign policy and warned of the German menace. He also shared Maxse's anti-semitism.

During the First World War he established the British Empire Union. The BEU advocated "wholesale internment" of German-born British citizens and disrupted meetings of pacifist groups such as the Union of Democratic Control and the No-Conscription Fellowship. The BEU was anti-socialist and after the Russian Revolution it claimed that the Labour Party would "Bolshevise Britain". Makgill thought that the Treaty of Versailles was not harsh enough and was a supporter of the short-lived National Party.

In 1919 Makgill joined Reginald Hall and a group of industrialists to form the Economic League, an organisation dedicated to opposing what they saw as subversion and action against free enterprise. John Baker White, a future Conservative MP, was brought in the run the organisation. White called Makgill "perhaps the greatest Intelligence officer produced in this century." The Economic League later worked closely with MI5 to blacklist workers who they suspected of association with certain left wing groups.

Makgill also set up the Industrial Intelligence Bureau (IIB). According to the author of Churchill's Man of Mystery (2009), it was "financed by the Federation of British Industries and the Coal Owners' and Shipowners' Associations, to acquire intelligence on industrial unrest arising from the activities of Communists, Anarchists, various secret societies in the UK and overseas, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and other subversive organisations." Makgill recruited his agents from far-right organisations such as British Fascisti (BF). This included Maxwell Knight, the organization's Director of Intelligence. Another agent was W. B. Findley, who known as Jim Finney, infiltrated the Communist Party of Great Britain.

Christopher Andrew, the author of The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5 (2009), claims that Makgill developed a very close relationship with Vernon Kell, the head of MI5, the government organisation investigating espionage, sabotage and subversion in Britain. Makgill provided intelligence on several well-known left-wing figures to MI5. This included George Bernard Shaw who he claimed was "certainly one of the leaders of the Revolutionary Movement in this country" and H.G. Wells who "writes a good deal of propaganda very cleverly camouflaged".

Another of Makgill's agents was Kenneth A. Stott, who recruited spies from within the trade union movement. In September 1922, Stott claimed that he attended a meeting in Cologne of the Deutscher Uberseedienst (German Overseas Service). Stott claimed the organisation had "its own secret service, which sent couriers to collect information, working through extremists, Trade Unions and labour movements". This information was passed on to MI5.

Vernon Kell introduced Makgill to Desmond Morton, the head of MI6's Section V, dealing with with counter-Bolshevism. Morton wrote to Makgill on 2nd February 1923, that "anything I can find out is always at your disposal". Morton was not always impressed with the information provided by Makgill's agents. On 28th May 1923 Morton wrote to Makgill: "They are the kind of reports which a policeman would put up to his inspector when told to watch people, but not one statement really carries us any further. All the names mentioned are the names of people known to be interested in Communist or Irish intrigues, and... there is nothing to show what these intrigues are, which is the important thing."

Kenneth A. Stott continued to provide information to Vernon Kell, Desmond Morton and George Joseph Ball. However, one of MI5's senior officers wrote in July 1923: "His methods are unscrupulous and peculiar... while Stott's knowledge of the Labour movement in this country is undoubtedly very extensive and complete... his knowledge of foreign espionage methods seems to be sketchy and coloured by imagination. He does not appear to realise the difference between commercial and military espionage."

In the 1923 General Election, the Labour Party won 191 seats. Although the Conservatives had 258, Ramsay MacDonald agreed to head a minority government, and therefore became the first member of the party to become Prime Minister. As MacDonald had to rely on the support of the Liberal Party, he was unable to get any socialist legislation passed by the House of Commons. The only significant measure was the Wheatley Housing Act which began a building programme of 500,000 homes for rent to working-class families.

George Makgill, like other members of establishment, was appalled by the idea of a Prime Minister who was a socialist. As Gill Bennett pointed out: "It was not just the intelligence community, but more precisely the community of an elite - senior officials in government departments, men in "the City", men in politics, men who controlled the Press - which was narrow, interconnected (sometimes intermarried) and mutually supportive. Many of these men... had been to the same schools and universities, and belonged to the same clubs. Feeling themselves part of a special and closed community, they exchanged confidences secure in the knowledge, as they thought, that they were protected by that community from indiscretion."

In September 1924 MI5 intercepted a letter signed by Grigory Zinoviev, chairman of the Comintern in the Soviet Union, and Arthur McManus, the British representative on the committee. In the letter British communists were urged to promote revolution through acts of sedition. Hugh Sinclair, head of MI6, provided "five very good reasons" why he believed the letter was genuine. However, one of these reasons, that the letter came "direct from an agent in Moscow for a long time in our service, and of proved reliability" was incorrect.

Vernon Kell, the head of MI5 and Sir Basil Thomson the head of Special Branch, were also convinced that the Zinoviev Letter was genuine. Kell showed the letter to Ramsay MacDonald, the Labour Prime Minister. It was agreed that the letter should be kept secret but someone leaked news of the letter to the Times and the Daily Mail.

The letter was published in these newspapers four days before the 1924 General Election and contributed to the defeat of MacDonald and the Labour Party. In a speech he made on 24th October, Ramsay MacDonald suggested he had been a victim of a political conspiracy: "I am also informed that the Conservative Headquarters had been spreading abroad for some days that... a mine was going to be sprung under our feet, and that the name of Zinoviev was to be associated with mine. Another Guy Fawkes - a new Gunpowder Plot... The letter might have originated anywhere. The staff of the Foreign Office up to the end of the week thought it was authentic... I have not seen the evidence yet. All I say is this, that it is a most suspicious circumstance that a certain newspaper and the headquarters of the Conservative Association seem to have had copies of it at the same time as the Foreign Office, and if that is true how can I avoid the suspicion - I will not say the conclusion - that the whole thing is a political plot?"

After the election it was claimed that two of MI5's agents, Sidney Reilly and Arthur Maundy Gregory, had forged the letter and that Major George Joseph Ball (1885-1961), a MI5 officer, leaked it to the press. In 1927 Ball went to work for the Conservative Central Office where he pioneered the idea of spin-doctoring. Later, Desmond Morton, who worked under Hugh Sinclair, at MI6 claimed that it was Stewart Menzies who sent the Zinoviev letter to the Daily Mail.

In his book, The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5 (2009), Christopher Andrew argues that on 9th October 1924 SIS forwarded the Zinoviev letter to the Foreign Office, MI5 and Scotland Yard with the assurance that “the authenticity is undoubted” when they knew it had been forged by anti-Bolshevik White Russians. Desmond Morton, the head of SIS, provided extra information about the letter being confirmed as being genuine by an agent, Jim Finney, who had penetrated Comintern and the Communist Party of Great Britain. Andrew claims this was untrue as the so-called Finney report does not make any reference to the Zinoviev letter. As Finney was employed by Makgill as an agent of the Industrial Intelligence Bureau (IIB), he has also been accused of being involved in the plot against Ramsay MacDonald.

During the General Strike Makgill managed the Organization of the Maintenance of Supplies, set up to supply and maintain blackleg workers during the dispute. He also used his agent, Kenneth A. Stott, to spy on the strikers.

George Makgill died in London on on 16th October 1926.

Primary Sources

(1) Christopher Andrew, The Defence of the Realm (2009)

Kell's search for informants to compensate for his post-war lack of an agent network led him to co-operate with Sir George Makgill, a businessman with ultra-conservative views and a deep-seated dislike of trade unions. At the end of the war, with the support of a group of like-minded industrialists, Makgill set up a private Industrial Intelligence Bureau (IIB), financed by the Federation of British Industries and the Coal Owners' and Shipowners' Associations, to acquire intelligence on industrial unrest arising from subversion by Communists, anarchists, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and others. From an early stage Makgill was in contact with Kell, who claimed that he had helped Makgill found "an organisation of a secret nature somewhat on Masonic lines" - probably a reference to the IIB. (Unlike Kell, Makgill and his son Donald were both prominent Freemasons.) Before joining MI5, Boddington had worked for the IIB and remained in touch with, notably, Makgill's agent, "Jim Finney", who, like Boddington, succeeded in joining the CPGB.

(2) The Times (20th October, 1926)

He (George Makgill) 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...

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.

(3) Mike Hughes, Spies at Work: Rise and Fall of the Economic League (1995)

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.