A cross-post from Patreon.
The Guardian this week reviewed an important new biography of Maxwell Knight, MI5's key agent runner in the 1930s and 40s.
As the review notes, Knight had remarkably close personal links to the far right, having been director of intelligence for the British fascisti in the 1920s. Like previous writers, Henry Hemming concludes that Knight was ultimately a hardline conservative whose British nationalism distinguished him from those who looked to the continental fascist powers. There is no doubt that his knowledge of the latter milieu was valuable to Britain during the Second World War.
Nevertheless, others have seen a measure of collusion in the relationship between MI5 and the far-right at this time. John G. Hope has suggested that Knight used the fascists as ‘a means for pursuing MI5’s anti-socialist agenda'. There was certainly a trend of agents recruited on the right being run into the left, rather than vice-versa.
Knight began his intelligence career in the 1920s with George Makgill's private Industrial Intelligence Bureau. According to Christopher Andrew's official history of MI5, Makgill operated against Irish Republicans among other targets. In the 1930s, Knight's key agent in the British Union of Fascists was William Allen, a former Unionist MP for West Belfast.
Knight also recruited John Bingham, the nephew of the Unionist MP for East Belfast, as one of his key officers at the outset of World War Two. Bingham was himself the subject of a recent biography, which reports that he postponed his retirement in the late 1960s in order to operate as an agent-runner in Northern Ireland.
The question arises as to what extent MI5's approach to loyalism during the Troubles was linked to its historic relationship with the British right. This is one issue that I want to pursue in a book which I am tentatively drafting (currently c.15,000 words) on British intelligence in the Irish Troubles.
I am hoping to use this Patreon page to support that work by posting exclusive extracts for patrons. So if you want to participate, through your support and feedback, in an investigation of the modern history of British intelligence in Ireland, please consider becoming a patron of this page.
As little as $1 a month could help support the cost of obtaining important books, travelling to archives, or photocopying useful titbits at the British Library. Who knows what we might find together!