Press baron, Cabinet minister and behind-the-scenes government fixer - the multi-talented Lord Beaverbrook appeared to suffer no qualms about conflicts of interest, says Rhymer Rigby.
Lord Beaverbrook was one of the greatest British press barons. His life should be of particular interest to those who get themselves in a lather about the power of Rupert Murdoch, Peter Mandelson or the media. Beaverbrook saw no apparent conflict when he was, simultaneously, a Cabinet minister, a behind-the-scenes government fixer and a newspaper owner expounding his views through the newspaper with the largest circulation in the world.
Born William Maxwell (Max) Aitken in 1879 in Ontario, Canada to Scottish immigrants, Beaverbrook was one of 10 children. His childhood was uneventful and, by all accounts, happy. When he failed his university entrance exams, he entered the law. This relatively sedate calling did not detain him for long, however. Soon he was selling insurance and, shortly after that, he moved into government bonds. A propitious move, as it turned out: the market boomed and, in his early twenties, Beaverbrook found himself a rich man.
Beaverbrook had discovered his real talent lay in deal-making. So, in 1906, he moved with his wife to Montreal where he took a seat on the stock exchange. By 1907, he was a dollar millionaire and, in 1909, through a series of audacious amalgamations that raised more than a few eyebrows, he formed the Canada Cement Company, effectively cornering the market.
Friends in high places
In those days, ambitious Canadians still looked east rather than south.
Beaverbrook was no exception and he headed to Britain in 1910, where he fell in with an influential fellow Canadian, Andrew Bonar Law. Bonar Law encouraged him to stand for Parliament, which he did, winning a surprise victory over the Liberal incumbent by 196 votes. He also became Bonar Law's private secretary.
Beaverbrook was not a particularly active MP but he did have a lot of friends in the right places. This was doubtless a factor in his 1911 knighthood (which caused much grumbling among the sanctimonious and not so well-connected). Beaverbrook was also a first-class fixer and when he helped Bonar Law become leader of the Tory party his political standing grew accordingly.
During the first world war, Beaverbrook represented the Canadian government at GHQ (Government Headquarters), was an observer at the Western Front, and published a newspaper for the Canadian troops. More importantly, he played a key role (especially in his own eyes) in the downfall of Herbert Asquith, the then prime minister, whom he disliked, and in the rise of David Lloyd George who replaced Asquith in December 1916. For his assistance, Beaverbrook had expected to be given the post of president of the Board of Trade. He was to be disappointed. The job and his seat in parliament were required for Sir Albert Stanley. Beaverbrook had to make do with Lloyd George's offer of a hereditary peerage and the post of minister for information in 1918.
Meanwhile, his businesses in Canada had been doing well and, in 1917, he gained control of the London Daily Express (and its debts) for £17,500.
At the time of purchase, the paper was, to put it mildly, uninspiring.
Beaverbrook turned it around. He ploughed in money, courted advertisers and, most importantly, made it controversial. He claimed to be hands-off but, in reality, he used it as an outlet for his opinions. In November 1918 he launched the Sunday Express and in 1923 the Evening Standard.
Crusader for free trade and the King
He had his greatest success with the Express. Its circulation skyrocketed: in 1936, it was the biggest in the world at 2.5 million; by 1940, circulation had hit 3 million; and by 1954, 4.5 million. Between the wars, Beaverbrook was every inch the press baron. His newspaper campaigns included the 'Empire free trade crusade', in which he advocated a single-market empire with external tariffs. He also supported Edward VIII during the abdication crisis in 1936. He was defeated by Stanley Baldwin, the then prime minister, on both issues - though he voiced his opinions vigorously in the Express, he failed to win over the powers that be.
Before the second world war, Beaver-brook supported Neville Chamberlain who was insisting that there would be no hostilities. When war broke out, Winston Churchill succeeded Chamberlain, and harnessed his friend Beaverbrook's talents by giving him a Cabinet post. As minister for aircraft production, Beaverbrook was unorthodox but brilliant, doing the job well and providing the planes that won the Battle of Britain.
In a particularly populist move, he exhorted the British public to give up their pots and pans for the war effort. Although in a real sense these contributions were negligible, as propaganda they were invaluable. After resigning this post in February 1942, he made a spectacular come-back again as Lord Privy Seal in 1943.
Things went less well from then on. Beaverbrook's modus operandi was seen as contributing to the Conservative defeat in 1945 and his career in politics ended. Yet he continued to expound his views through his newspapers. His last great crusade was against the Common Market, which he saw as Britain selling out the empire. He died in 1964, aged 85. Two days after his death, his son refused to assume his title, explaining that his father had earned it and he had not.