‘It’s a disgusting case – her face lights up whenever that animated little deformity so much as turns to her.’ This was Diana Manners, writing to her fiancé, Duff Cooper, in 1919. ‘Her’ was Venetia Montagu, the light of Herbert Asquith’s life when he was prime minister, but now sharing a Paris hotel room with a small, grinning Canadian millionaire. This ‘deformity’ was Max Aitken, still only forty but already – despite the private objections of George V – sitting in the Upper House as Lord Beaverbrook and considered indispensable by Lloyd George and Winston Churchill. The First World War had established him as a ‘press lord’, controlling the Express empire, as well as a member of the coalition cabinet. Soon Lady Diana herself would take the Beaver’s shilling and write a column in the Sunday Express until the editor managed to suppress it (‘the veriest twaddle’).
This snapshot – one of many in Charles Williams’s biography – reveals two factors in Beaverbrook’s success. The first is that posh English society was no match for him. He was ‘vulgar’, but there was a charm in his self-promotion which made languid ladies and gentlemen want to be on his side and at his side. He was wildly rich even then, but knew how to use his wealth in hospitality and (discreetly) by rescuing grand friends from awkward debts. Above all, he was fun to be with. The other factor is the importance of ‘press power’ in the times before first radio and gradually other media began to challenge the information monopoly of newspapers. It was assumed that the new mass circulation papers, under their ambitious proprietors, were able – through slanted reporting, threatening opinion pieces and fat headlines – to influence the votes of their readers and deliver an election result.
The proprietors happily went along with this assumption, developing stupendous arrogance. Williams quotes a letter from Rothermere (Daily Mail) to Beaverbrook in 1923:
I propose that you, Bonar [Law, Conservative prime minister at the time] and myself have a discussion as to how his administration can be made into one of the most successful of modern times … If Bonar places himself in my hands I will hand him down to posterity … as one of the most successful prime ministers in history, and if there is a general election I will get him returned again.
The evidence that the press barons really had that sort of influence over voters is thin. What mattered was that politicians chose to believe it, some heaping honours and flattery on the owners, others – those who found themselves on the wrong end of press campaigns – hitting back with majestic abuse. In 1931, shortly before his man won the Westminster St George’s by-election against Beaverbrook’s candidate, Stanley Baldwin complained that Rothermere and Beaverbrook’s newspapers were ‘engines of propaganda for the constantly changing policies, personal wishes, personal likes and dislikes of two men … What the proprietorship of these papers is aiming at is power, and power without responsibility – the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages.’
Beaverbrook, who already despised Baldwin, was to remain his enemy for the rest of his life. But all the ‘harlot’ speech really demonstrates is that the press had power over politicians, not necessarily over ordinary people. This biography records countless examples of Conservative and sometimes Liberal grandees basking or flinching after reading Daily Express leaders, or privately begging for the paper’s support. Perversely, this delusion of press omnipotence has survived into the digital age. Politicians apparently wish it to be true. Harold Wilson was obsessed with the idea that the Daily Mirror could undo him; Neil Kinnock in his defeat accepted that it was ‘The Sun Wot Won It’; and more recent governments convinced themselves that the Daily Mail under Paul Dacre’s editorship was the voice of the electorate. In reality, Beaverbrook often got public opinion quite wrong and made his papers announce imminent triumph for parties that then lost elections – most spectacularly in 1945.
William Maxwell (‘Max’) Aitken, born in 1879, was a restless son of the manse. His father was a Church of Scotland minister from Torphichen, near Linlithgow, who ended up ‘called’ to a congregation in New Brunswick. Max grew up in a heavily Scottish environment, and flourished among other highly acquisitive Scots-Canadians. He was to live a cheerfully profligate life once settled in Britain, but he kept a sentimental loyalty to the Kirk. The tyrant of Fleet Street often underlined his orders by reciting a metrical psalm; he was familiar with the precepts of the Shorter Catechism and Calvin’s Institutes and, though he was apparently free of Calvinist guilt, his moods of black depression may have owed something to that unforgiving literature.
He was a rebellious boy, given to impish pranks and easily bored – both lifelong traits. After devising ways to hide drawing pins in the chairs of unsuspecting friends, and walking out of Dalhousie University after only three days, he escaped from a lawyer’s office in New Brunswick at the age of 17 and headed west to Calgary, where he ran a bowling alley. There, in Williams’s words, he learned ‘knowledge of how a grandee looked and behaved, and more to the immediate point, of the advantages of insider information as a sure way of making money’. Soon he was trading bonds and shares, before starting a meat business in Edmonton. When it went bust he was obliged to flee from his debts.
Back in eastern Canada, he went into business again, and emerged with a huge fortune, some powerful enemies and a reputation as a brutally shady operator. Williams, who himself spent a long life in business and banking before becoming a Labour peer, gives many pages to Aitken’s daring takeovers, well-aimed loans and cunning financial deals. In 1909 his acquisition of several cement plants ended in big trouble as a rival insisted, not without grounds, that Aitken had defrauded him. The scandal simmered, then blew up dangerously in 1911, while Aitken was trying to build a political career in Britain. He solved the problem by privately assuring Wilfrid Laurier, the Canadian prime minister, that if the inquiry into the cement deal was called off, he would promise not to run as a parliamentary candidate in New Brunswick. Some of the mud from his deals stuck (years later in London, Lord Salisbury opposed his recruitment to the cabinet as ‘a very wicked man … ask anyone in Canada’) but Aitken had been made a knight in the 1911 ‘coronation honours’, and was worth more than $5 million.
He had first visited London in 1908 with his new wife, Gladys (‘I hope the experiment will be successful,’ he wrote in his diary on their wedding day). There he was introduced to Andrew Bonar Law, another Scots-Canadian son of the manse with a New Brunswick background, who was a rising star in the Unionist (Conservative) Party. It was the beginning of a strange, enduring relationship: Bonar Law as Aitken’s political patron and friend, Aitken – still under thirty – responding with a loyalty that never wavered and an affection something like love. In character, they seemed to have nothing in common: Bonar Law, shy, upright and undramatic, is perhaps the least remembered of British statesmen, although he became both leader of his party and prime minister. But by helping Aitken to find a parliamentary seat in 1910 (Ashton-under-Lyne), he brought the future Beaverbrook into British politics. Ebullient from the start, Aitken settled into the mighty Midland Hotel in Manchester, which he made his campaign headquarters, and hired Kipling to speak on his platforms.
He won, narrowly, but his party was not very appreciative. It found his campaign ‘bumptious’, and he in turn found the House of Commons and constituency business boring. ‘Don’t mind if you find the House, at first, about as stimulating as a Fundy fog-bank,’ Kipling wrote to him. ‘The whole secret of government is to prevent that damned House doing anything at all.’ Aitken might have been offered a minor government post, but by now nasty rumours about the Canadian scandals were filtering back to London. New friends, including Churchill, temporarily backed away from him. Only Bonar Law stood by him and in return, when the Unionist leadership became vacant in 1911, Aitken displayed his skill for plotting and manipulation by helping to get Bonar Law chosen as successor to Balfour.
By now, Aitken was a minority shareholder in the Daily Express (he soon became the controlling investor, but did not acquire full ownership until 1916). His career as a propagandist for causes and individuals had begun, and at the core of it was the grandiose project of Imperial Preference (or tariff reform), which he came to call his ‘Empire Crusade’. This was the notion that the empire (or at least the ‘white Dominions’) should form a global protectionist bloc, economically united internally but imposing tariffs on imports from outside countries. Forgotten now, but recognisably reborn in aspects of the Brexit fantasy and in the structures of the European Union, the vision was older than Beaverbrook’s. It obsessed a whole generation of British Tories and, like the European issue a century later, repeatedly ‘brought party disunion and electoral defeat’ (in the words of A.J.P. Taylor, who was to become the Beaver’s favourite historian). In Taylor’s definition, ‘Imperial Preference … meant in practice British tariffs on foreign food, while foodstuffs from the Dominions came in free.’
There were two fatal flaws in the scheme. One was that ‘the Dominions’ were not all that keen, Canada proving especially uneasy about building trade walls against the United States. The second was that it would sharply put up the price of food in Britain. There were popular protests against the prospect of ‘food taxes’ and ‘stomach taxes’. Unionist politicians split between Whole Hoggers (apply the tariffs!) and Free Fooders. Weird bargains, prefiguring contemporary Westminster contortions, were dreamed up: Balfour, for example, offered to hold a referendum on ‘food taxes’ if Asquith’s Liberals would allow one on Irish Home Rule.
Bonar Law was a Whole Hogger. So was Aitken. His interest in Imperial Preference wasn’t simply idealistic; in 1912, he formed a consortium that bought all the grain terminals in Alberta, anticipating a hefty rise in wheat prices if tariffs were imposed. Yet his passion for imperial union in some form, excluding the rest of the world as far as possible, was his only absolutely unwavering political belief. India didn’t fit into his ‘empire’: he thought that Indian nationalists should be bombed and clubbed into submission. As for the Irish, the Daily Express chastised them as a threat to imperial unity until in 1922 a friend, the Irish nationalist politician Tim Healy, persuaded him to turn his papers in favour of a settlement and to support the negotiations that led to the establishment of the Irish Free State. Come to that, Beaverbrook was not particularly pro-English (Scots were a different matter). He felt no emotional bond with the English masses, even in wartime, and once told Ivan Maisky, the Soviet ambassador, that the English were ‘carefree and sluggish, underestimate the severity of the situation, do not look ahead, are always late, have grown accustomed to the quiet life’.
Well into the 1930s, Beaverbrook was still sponsoring and financing Empire Crusade parliamentary candidates. Baldwin, a far more cunning politician, encouraged him to corral them into a United Empire Party, which he knew was certain to evaporate at the next election. While the Crusader still waved his sword at the top of the Daily Express front page, the movement was effectively dead by the mid-1930s. ‘In the end,’ Williams writes, ‘apart from a few empty slogans about “fiscal union” (whatever that was meant to mean), the whole enterprise had descended into a civil war in the Conservative Party, the casus belli being the state of English agriculture.’ Churchill was baffled by his friend’s wasting his time with this. He told Harold Nicolson that ‘it was a thousand pities that … this man, who with his wonderful dynamic force, his boundless vitality and energy could do so much for the country in its hour of need, was spending all his strength in disruptive enterprises merely out of vanity or boredom.’
The ‘hour of need’ had been the First World War. Aitken, whose ‘one clear political belief [was] the greatness of the British Empire’, flung himself into supporting Canada’s loyal response to the call to arms. Again, he kept one eye on the bottom line. In a morally rather puzzling paragraph, Williams concedes that Aitken exaggerated his own importance at the outbreak of war, but continues: ‘Nevertheless, credit must be given where credit is due. Aitken perceived at a very early stage that the prospects for Canadian heavy industry, if converted to the production of armaments for the mother country, were almost unlimited. For instance, the demand for steel would be enormous.’
His first wartime achievement was, in fact, reporting. At a time when British journalists were restricted in what they could write, Aitken had got himself into uniform as a lieutenant-colonel and was publishing in Canadian newspapers his famous sequence of ‘Eyewitness’ dispatches from the front. The most vivid – possibly written with some help from his friend Kipling – described the 1915 Second Battle of Ypres in heroic terms. He did spend time in France, taking over a villa near headquarters in St-Omer. But his main base for operations was the Hyde Park Hotel in Kensington: eight rooms rented on the fifth floor, after he bought shares in the hotel to ensure good service. Meanwhile, he enjoyed every kind of political intrigue, from a long and successful vendetta against the Canadian minister of defence to bamboozling Sir Douglas Haig into shunting an unwelcome general sideways. His biographers differ over his role in bringing about the downfall of Asquith in 1916 and his replacement by a coalition government under Lloyd George. A.J.P. Taylor, in his 1972 biography, headed his chapter about the episode ‘The Kingmaker’. Williams recounts Aitken’s press campaign against Asquith and his tireless involvement in plotting, but thinks that ‘kingmaker’ stretches his role much too far. Asquith’s agreement to resign went on and off like a faulty light bulb, but it wasn’t Aitken who finally changed the bulb. In fact, his choice as successor was not Lloyd George but his own ‘meekly ambitious’ patron Bonar Law, so – apart from having helped to demoralise Asquith – the outcome was not a triumph for him. All he got out of it was a peerage.
For a while, as Lloyd George’s new government settled in, he found himself out of politics. As he wrote himself,
a quietude like death settled on the Hyde Park Hotel … Even the telephone bell ceased to ring … It is said that people in a balloon do not feel any sensation of motion, but simply think the earth is drifting past them. There came to me this same curious sense of detachment – passing by degrees into boredom, and then into anxiety.
It wasn’t until 1918 that Lloyd George brought him into the cabinet – as chief of war propaganda – allowing him to return to real mischief-making. All three mighty press barons, Northcliffe, Rothermere and Beaverbrook, now held government jobs (Rothermere was president of the Air Council). It was hoped, vainly, that this would shut them up and spare the government while it got on with the war. But Beaverbrook continued to leak juicy and embarrassing political stories to the Daily Express, and finally outraged Lloyd George with an article threatening to campaign against him in the next election unless he endorsed Imperial Preference and tariff reform. By October, the Beaver was out of office again.
But with historical hindsight, we can now see that his most significant action in the war had already taken place. In 1915, Churchill had lost his job at the Admiralty over the hideous failure of his Gallipoli campaign; Aitken and others went to share a long night of commiseration with him, and Aitken was seized by the sheer force of his personality: ‘The charm, the imaginative sympathy of his hours of defeat, the self-confidence, the arrogance of his hours of power and prosperity’. Later that year, he came across Churchill in France, lonely and seeking to expiate his disgrace by finding himself a military command in action. Aitken gave him shelter in his house at St-Omer. A momentous friendship began. In return for contacts and inside information, Aitken would give Churchill hope and energy, and Churchill – in spite of some volcanic quarrels over the next half-century – came to rely on him not only as a political and journalistic ally but as an unfailing source of optimism, gossip, reassurance and sheer fun. It’s at least possible that the nervous resilience which kept Churchill’s health going during the Second World War might have failed without the stimulus of Beaverbrook beside him.
Beaverbrook’s own health was fragile. Cigars and whisky had felled him several times in his Canadian youth. Now he was a better judge of his own capacity, but asthma attacks were beginning to interfere with his life, never to be subdued except by Mediterranean escapes to the villa he bought on Cap-d’Ail, near Monaco. La Capponcina was only one of many houses he acquired across the world, in Jamaica, the Bahamas, Canada and rural England; Cherkley, the run-down Victorian mansion in Surrey he bought in 1911, was his domestic base. Here he invited the political elite for sumptuous meals or urgent secret meetings. Here he parked Gladys and the children and, increasingly, his current chief mistress (there were limits to Gladys’s tolerance, and she eventually moved out when it looked as if Mrs Jean Norton was becoming a permanent resident at Cherkley).
As the Empire Crusade faded away in the interwar years, Beaverbrook was left with its disreputable core: ignorant and boorish hostility to the non-Anglophone world. Unlike Churchill, he seems to have had nothing but contempt for European nations and their entanglements. Shortly before Munich, he harangued the Daily Express’s readers: ‘Remember always that the British Empire is a Treasure House. Do not ask foreigners to protect your possessions. And do not get caught up in quarrels over foreign boundaries that do not concern you.’ He proclaimed himself an ‘isolationist’: as Williams says, he would most certainly have been an enthusiastic Brexiteer. His newspapers were directed to mock the League of Nations and to jeer at schemes for collective security in Europe. The Daily Express, proclaiming itself ‘the World’s Greatest Newspaper’, tried to ignore what was happening in Spain; Beaverbrook had at first been impressed by Hitler, but abruptly changed his mind in 1934 over the Night of the Long Knives, when Hitler’s rivals in the Nazi movement were murdered. From then on, Beaverbrook referred to him as a ‘gangster’.
Although he was ignorant about foreign policy, rulers all over Europe sought publicity and support from his newspapers. Joachim von Ribbentrop, who as German ambassador had been a guest at Cherkley, invited him with a large party of titled friends and hangers-on to the 1936 Olympics, but Beaverbrook hated the ‘regimentation of opinion’ and came home after the opening ceremony. He shrugged off Hitler’s reoccupation of the Rhineland, but the Anschluss dented his complacency. Isolation, he now pronounced, should not exclude defence preparations, but he argued that the European crisis only reinforced the case for that isolation. He was at odds with Churchill, who was arguing for British diplomatic support for Czechoslovakia as German pressure over the Sudetenland mounted. Beaverbrook dismissed Czechoslovakia as ‘that artificial nation’, and on 1 September 1938, the Daily Express ran its notorious headline: ‘There Will Be No War.’ Hitler, the paper insisted, was too ‘astute’ to risk conflict with France and Russia. Beaverbrook supported Neville Chamberlain’s ‘peace for our time’ betrayal of Czechoslovakia at Munich, and continued to use the foghorn of his papers, even through most of 1939, to tell his readers that war was only a remote possibility. ‘I want the empire to remain intact, but I don’t understand why for the sake of this we must wage a three-year war to crush “Hitlerism” … Poland, Czechoslovakia? What are they to do with us? Cursed be the day when Chamberlain gave our guarantees to Poland!’ he told Maisky.
During the 1936 abdication crisis, Beaverbrook had tried to mediate with Baldwin’s inflexibly disapproving government on behalf of the king. Now George VI was on the throne, and vainly objected when Churchill, on becoming prime minister in May 1940, instantly took Beaverbrook into his cabinet. At the Ministry for Aircraft Production that summer, as the Luftwaffe prepared for its assault on Britain, he trampled civil service routines and behaved like the barking, phone-pumping, autocratic tycoon he was to speed up the delivery of fighters for the RAF. It worked. Some historians have claimed that without him the Battle of Britain would have been lost. Williams is more cautious. Beaverbrook’s new output programme ‘was one of the most important single incidents in the history of war production’, concentrating work on the aircraft types the coming battle required. ‘Yet it would be wholly wrong to credit Beaverbrook, as many have done (including, naturally, Beaverbrook himself), with the earlier surge in fighter production which took place in the spring of 1940. This … had been long planned.’
In 1941, he and Averell Harriman, Roosevelt’s special envoy to Europe, led the crucial mission to Moscow which planned Allied military aid to the Soviet Union. Harriman gave Beaverbrook the credit for its success: he ‘has been a great salesman … His genius never worked more effectively.’ Beaverbrook got on famously with Stalin, deciding he was a great and good statesman who deserved every support: ‘Communism under Stalin has won the applause and admiration of all Western nations,’ he told a stunned American audience in 1942. When somebody brought up the 1930s show trials, he retorted that ‘the men who were shot down would have betrayed Russia to her German enemy.’ For the next three years, he vexed Churchill acutely by using his newspapers to call for an immediate ‘Second Front’ invasion in the West, to support the Red Army in the East. He argued that the Soviet Union was entitled to annex the Baltic states (‘the Ireland of Russia’) and even defended Stalin for refusing to assist the Warsaw Rising in 1944 (‘The Poles have always been unsatisfactory … the friendship of Russia is far more important to us than the future of Anglo-Polish relations’).
His grip on British realities was no surer. To be fair, Beaverbrook never pretended to be the authentic ‘voice of the people’, disarmingly telling the Royal Commission on the Press in 1948 that he ran his papers ‘purely for propaganda’. But he failed to recognise three great and sudden turns of public opinion: over the Abyssinia crisis in 1935; after the Munich Agreement; and the surge towards Labour as the war ended. He helped manage Churchill’s disastrous election campaign in 1945, and the abuse he received for it, even from young protégés like his beloved Michael Foot, was unnerving. His wartime colleague Clement Attlee called him ‘the man in public life who is most widely distrusted by decent men of all parties’.
Beaverbrook’s career as a politician was over. With Labour in power, he had lost all his top-level contacts. Instead he concentrated on mischief-making through his newspapers, and on his private life. The Express continued to startle and infuriate the establishment, and the Beaver used it to meddle constantly in Conservative Party decisions; he backed Anthony Eden and the Suez adventure as a glorious exercise of Britain’s imperial might, and declared war on Eden’s successor, Harold Macmillan (‘He is not the choice of the people,’ he wrote from the Bahamas). He pretended that his editors were independent. In reality, though he hardly ever went into the Express office, he harried or encouraged his journalists almost daily with imperious phone calls and – later – with a bombardment of small plastic discs from a SoundScriber, carrying random thoughts and opinions in that harsh Canadian voice. At the same time he was collecting archives (he had acquired the papers of both Bonar Law and Lloyd George) and writing tendentious but wonderfully lively books about his own times.
His life became a progress like a medieval king’s, cruising on Atlantic liners and luxurious yachts with a great retinue of servants, cronies, henchmen, useful politicians and pretty women. But the Beaver did not forget old comrades. The ageing Churchill was free to stay and paint in the sun at La Capponcina whenever he pleased, and their friendship grew closer until Beaverbrook’s death in 1964. He used his money and connections quietly to rescue many other lesser figures in trouble. A.J.P. Taylor justly called him ‘a foul-weather friend’.
Taylor, whose ecstatic review of Beaverbrook’s Men and Power in 1956 encouraged its author to plan a new career in political life-writing, produced the official biography in 1972. Beaverbrook is massive: marvellously written in Taylor’s brusque, combative style, and blatantly slanted in defence of its subject. That isn’t to say it’s a hagiography. Taylor also showed Beaverbrook at his worst, as in his warning in 1938 that ‘the Jews may drive us into war … their political influence is moving us in that direction.’ It’s a remark that it seems Williams, writing more than forty years after Taylor, cannot bear to repeat.
This new biography has to establish that it adds to Taylor’s work. It certainly does not replace it. But Williams writes fluently and wisely, and judges the Beaver’s reputation in the new light of a declining press, a low and dishonest political class, and 21st-century sensitivities about race and gender which would have baffled the young Max Aitken. As for new material, the chapters about Aitken’s business conquests and dealings in Canada are detailed, fascinating and often shocking – Taylor’s grasp of the laws of the takeover jungle was much less expert. Williams also discusses Beaverbrook’s private life, an area Taylor left mostly unexplored.
With women, was Beaverbrook a Whole Hogger or a Free Fooder? Probably the latter. Apart from Gladys, who died in 1927, the lasting attachments were only two: Jean Norton (a baronet’s daughter weirdly described by Taylor as ‘a tousleheaded Scotch lassie’) and the dignified Marcia Christoforides, whom he married a year before his death. But ‘his name was linked’, as they used to say, with scores of others, some posh (Pamela Churchill), some not (the Dolly Sisters of Deauville), some very young but dextrous in managing him (Josephine Rosenberg), some who loved him and ended up badly hurt (Rebecca West, or Lily Ernst, a beautiful refugee from Austria). Dismissal came with the delivery of a mountain of red roses. But several survivors, including Jean, stayed in touch with one another and continued to be guests in his travelling retinue, a ‘joyful coterie’, according to Williams. The Beaver’s appeal, as a mischievous tyrant who knew how to laugh at himself, whose company was so alarming but such fun, for a time enslaved another coterie: the young left-wingers – Foot, Frank Owen, Tom Driberg, even Taylor – who worked on his papers. But the British public, especially after the Second World War, was immune to the charm of the man once described by Diana Cooper as ‘this strange attractive gnome with an odour of genius about him’.
By the end, he was seen only as a monster of vanity and unprincipled power. The empire vanished, leaving only a sulky Little Englandism behind, while the Daily Express withered into a tabloid without personality or influence. In comparison to Beaverbrook, Rupert Murdoch and the Barclay brothers are political fumblers. All that remains of the Beaver today is a lingering whiff of his demonic, optimistic energy. As Williams recounts, a friend said that it didn’t matter if he went to Heaven or Hell; he would soon arrange a merger between the two.