‘We’re Not Jittery’

Bernard Porter

  • Listening to Britain: Home Intelligence Reports on Britain’s Finest Hour May-September 1940 edited by Paul Addison and Jeremy Crang
    Bodley Head, 492 pp, £18.99, May 2010, ISBN 978 1 84792 142 0

When Chamberlain took the British to war in September 1939, he had little idea of how they would respond. Very few of those in authority did. In their introduction to this important collection of documents, Paul Addison and Jeremy Crang point out the ‘gulf of mutual incomprehension’ that separated ministers and civil servants from ‘the broad mass of the British public’. Ordinary MPs and the press thought they had a better grasp of popular opinion, but they may not have done. This was a serious matter: if the government was to take the people along with it, it had to know how they felt and what kinds of appeal they would respond to. It was with this in mind that in December it set up a brand new Home Intelligence Department, within the fairly new Ministry of Information (or propaganda), to find out. It was headed by Mary Adams, one of British television’s earliest producers, before TV was shut down for the duration of the war: she moved to Whitehall and was given the task of monitoring domestic morale.

She may be thought to have been a surprising choice. For a start, she was a woman – ‘a tiny, vivacious, brainy blonde with bright blue eyes who always dressed very elegantly’ – in what was predominantly a man’s world; though it could also be argued that looking after the home front was very much in line with traditional perceptions of gender roles. (‘Keep an eye on the children while daddy goes off to fight.’) She was married to a Tory MP, which will have reassured the establishment; but he was an anti-appeasement Tory, and she herself is described as ‘a socialist, a romantic Communist … a fervent atheist and advocate of humanism’, which didn’t fit the conventional bill nearly so well.

We should probably thank our lucky stars for that. The Conservative men often got things very wrong; her own boss, Duff Cooper, then minister of information, among them. How things might have turned out if MI5 – an obvious alternative candidate – had been given the job scarcely bears thinking about: it’s hard to imagine those stupid old reactionaries being anything like as relaxed as she was about the Communists in Britain, romantic or not; or saying, as she did, that people should be pleased rather than angry that conchies were refusing to join up because pacifists did not generally make good soldiers. Nor could one absolutely rely on MI5’s anti-Fascism. Adams was sound on that, and receptive and open-minded about most other things. If the information she elicited succeeded in preventing or correcting some of the ministers’ faux pas, she may have been one of the most important, if unsung, heroes of the Second World War.

Her task was a delicate one. It involved – to put it bluntly – spying on ordinary people, which was considered anathema. Even door to door surveys were highly suspect; Duff Cooper tried them in the summer of 1940, only to have his canvassers vilified as ‘Cooper’s Snoopers’ in the press, and compared to the Gestapo. ‘The idea of sounding opinion by doorstep inquiries can hardly have been produced by a British mind,’ the Observer commented. Adams’s own investigators later claimed this was a typical instance of the press’s being out of touch with ‘real’ people; most of the latter, they reported, had ‘little idea of what the fuss has all been about’, and if they did have some idea, were broadly in favour of the ‘snoopers’. Had the press known how Adams got her information it might have been even more savage. It came via ‘regional information officers’, and mainly consisted in what they and trusted voluntary contacts overheard in factories, offices, buses, pubs, various clubs and societies, and in air-raid shelters, where ‘observers’ insinuated themselves as genuine refugees from the bombing. All this was supplemented by intercepted Irish mail (justified because of the very real fear that the Germans might use the Republic of Ireland, with Irish Fifth Column help, to launch an invasion of Britain), and information volunteered by special branches, chief constables and the ‘snoopers’, for as long as they operated. Between May and September 1940 information was phoned in from the various regions each day – thereafter weekly – in time to be collated and typed up for the minister around teatime. (It is the daily reports that are reproduced here, complete.) The process was far more covert than Cooper’s ill-fated little enterprise, and consequently even more ‘un-British’.

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[*] Reviewed by Bernard Porter in the LRB of 27 August 2009.