Saturday, October 31, 2009


. Saturday, October 31, 2009

"Attack it immediately."

Churchill had asked for advice, he got it. The French fleet at Mers-el-Kébir was in danger of falling into German hands. On July 3rd, in an act as ruthless as it was necessary, Churchill ordered the destruction of the French Fleet. He is said to have wept on giving the order. His interlocutor was not so moved. The Minister of Aircraft Production had reasoned that the French fleet might be blackmailed by the Germans, perhaps by a threat to destroy Marseilles, into joining their weight to the Italian navy, tipping the balance against the Allies in the Mediterranean. The minister's strategic logic was sound. Churchill knew that. He had appointed him to cabinet over the howls of many members of his war-time coalition. In the vital summer of 1940 the RAF was desperately short of Spitfires and Hurricanes. Britain needed pilots and planes. The volunteers were not lacking, their tools were.

A production miracle was needed, Churchill turned to Max Aitken, 1st Baron of Beaverbrook. Max was an old friend. He was also the most powerful press baron in the Empire. His Daily Express sold 3.7 million copies, the largest circulation of any paper in the world. He also had an uncanny knack for finance, making him, his associates and investors very rich. In four months he produced 6400 aircraft for the British war effort. Quadrupling the rate of production. His critics charged he was exaggerating the number of aircraft. Probably. Max had a tendency to do that. He had cut his teeth in the business world selling bonds door to door in rural New Brunswick. The hyper-active salesman never left him. He often went too far in making promises, in saying things he shouldn't. Yet what he did deliver was nothing short of brilliant.

As part of a series of books on influential Canadians, under the guidance of former GG consort John Ralston Saul, the noted New Brunswick novelist David Adams Richards has produced a thin one volume biography of Lord Beaverbrook. Written in a chatty manner, that might be irritating to some, Richards provides what is really a longish personal essay, on arguably the most influential Canadian of the twentieth century. Another son of the Miramichi, Richards intersperses his chronological narrative with personal and family encounters with Beaverbrook. What emerges is a character somewhere between Horatio Alger and Duddy Kravitz, yet on a grand scale. A smooth operator with sharp elbows, always thinking several moves ahead of the opposition.

Beaverbrook Book Cover

It was said of his contemporary, TE Lawrence, that he had a habit of backing into the limelight. So did Max, except he would usually bump into some famous personage of the day, or soon to be, as well. He ran R.B. Bennett's first election campaign, while he was not yet of voting age. He promised voters things that R.B. couldn't, or wouldn't deliver, which did not amuse the future Prime Minister. Yet when Bennett moved west, and ran for Parliament, there was Max with his impish grin and fast moving 5ft 5in frame. You could never quite stay mad at him. No matter how many times he committed adultery, or bent the facts just a wee bit too much, he usually got away with it. Because he could charm, yes. Because he was often right, even when he was wrong, yes. Above all, because people needed Max. He was smarter than they were.

He talked his way into a job with the powerful financier John F Stairs, who put the bright young lad - just in his twenties - to merging a smaller bank to Stairs' Union Bank, then to running Royal Securities. Soon Max was in Montreal, the centre of Canadian Edwardian capitalism. The venerable Sir Sanford Fleming was in distress. His interests in concrete were threatening the pioneering engineer with bankruptcy and disgrace. Lead by the President of the Bank of Montreal, and assisted by the Who's Who that was then the board of the CPR, the great and good of Canadian business asked that Max Aitken figure something out. It was a trap. The fast rising Aitken was a threat, and one with a slippery reputation. The collapse of Fleming's interests in concrete seemed ordained. Best that the blame might be placed on the pushy cad from nowhere New Brunswick. Max had the last laugh. He saved Fleming's fortune, introduced a sweeping consolidation of the Canadian concrete industry - which had been crippled in the wake of the Panic of 1907 - and made his own fortune into the bargain. Yet the whole thing has been just a bit too slick. There were rumours. Max, now a millionaire (pounds not dollars) while not yet thirty, headed for the epicentre of power and finance, London.

Arriving with his beautiful wife - daughter of a Major-General - in England, he set up in great country estate - his neighbour and new friend was Rudyard Kipling. Marital bliss was fleeting. Richards argues that Beaverbrook was chasing love most of life, in the arms of this lovely and that, in the respect of a series of father figures. Among the most influential of the latter, was a fellow Canadian, Andrew Bonar Law. A prominent Conservative, Law was engineered into the leadership of the party by Beaverbrook, a newly minted MP, in 1912. Aitken revered Law, deciding that his friend must become Prime Minister. The Liberals, under H.H. Asquith. were weak. An expected election in 1914 or 1915 would topple them. Sarajevo intervened.

Another one of Aitken's new friends, Winston Churchill, had wanted an Liberal-Tory coalition to fight the war. The Liberals refused. Yet the government's popularity waned. Asquith was to be overthrown through a parliamentary coup in late 1916, among whose leading plotters was Aitken. Law was denied the premiership, instead made number two to another new friend of Max's, David Lloyd George. Though their politics were rarely compatible, they were both in a sense actors. Lloyd George, however, was a professional and Aitken just starting. Dropping hints of a cabinet position, as Minister of Trade, Lloyd George secured Aitken's support.

In expectation of office, Aitken resigned his seat and started campaigning for re-election - as was required by British law at the time. Lloyd George, through Law, instructed Aitken not to run again, allowing the seat to go to "a Georgian" loyalist who would be made Minister of Trade. As consolation Aitken was raised to the peerage. According to legend, Kipling talked him out of becoming Lord Miramichi, on the grounds that Englishmen would be unable to pronounced it. The new Lord Beaverbrook had to console himself with PR work. First promoting the job Canadian soldiers were doing on the Western Front, then as Minister of Information in the war-time cabinet. Dreams of revenged never left him. From the end of the war in 1918 until 1922, Beaverbrook plotted again, to remove Lloyd George and replace him with Law. He succeeded only to have Law resign shortly after from throat cancer.

In the midst of the intrigues surrounding Asquith's fall, Beaverbrook had acquired control of a failing paper called the Daily Express. Lord Northcliffe had told him he would lose his fortune keeping it afloat. Instead he revolutionized the industry. He introduced the first women's section and crossword. No expense was spared on photography and layout. The modern tabloid was born. As the paper grew in importance, Beaverbrook's reputation as a pushy cad never left him. The Establishment found his enthusiasm and energy aggravating. The mixture of envy and hatred that is directed from old money to new money. From self-made men to the scions of great names. Being a colonial didn't help. The British elite were not completely averse to outsiders, the Empire would never have lasted without the ruling classes talent for co-opting rising stars. Disraeli had been Prime Minister the year Beaverbrook was born. Dizzy, however, was a witty novelist and insanely charming dinner guest. The Maritime accent, and manners, hung too closely to the backwoods baron.

They hated him, but they needed him. Nor was the hatred expressed in ordinary terms. That great worshipper of the upper classes, Evelyn Waugh, mocked his former employer as Lord Copper in Scoop. My own personal suspicion for years has been that Rex Mottram, the amoral materialist from Canada in Brideshead Revisited, was another dig at Beaverbrook. Isolated again, he sought out more women and more business ventures. The lure of politics remained. In a quixotic gesture he founded the short-lived Empire Party in 1930. Disgusted with the defeat of the Tories under Stanley Baldwin, who had succeed Law as leader and PM. Never an admirer of the famously pragmatic Baldwin, the Empire Party was a political blunt weapon to be used to take down Baldwinite Tories. The ideas was dropped, but not the party platform. Since coming to England, Beaverbrook had been a highly vocal advocate of Imperial Preference, a free trade zone within the Empire. This was a first step toward some kind of greater imperial unity, which he never defined.

Imperial Preference faded, after a brief vogue during the Ottawa Conference of 1932. Like many middle aged men, Beaverbrook's world view had frozen in his youth. Then the idea of some kind of imperial federation was widely discussed in the first decade of the twentieth century. The idea of empire, however, was fading. The colonial boy made good found himself, so to speak, being more royalist than the king. The centre had no interest in holding. If his views didn't always carry the day in the councils of state, his dominance of the press was unquestioned. He almost single handedly kept news of Edward VIII's relationship to Wallace Simpson secret - in Britain - for much of 1936. Eventually the Daily Express did break the story, once it was clear Edward was set on abdication. If he couldn't prevent a constitutional crisis in the 1930s, he could at least give a platform to his old friend, Churchill, to warn of the gathering storm. Few in late 1930s Britain were interested in what Churchill had to say. The Times and the BBC effectively banned him for long stretches of time. When war came, and in time his appointment as PM, Churchill remember Beaverbrook's aid and comfort.

The post-war world proved disappointing to Beaverbrook. He had resigned from the cabinet in 1942 when Attlee was made Deputy PM. The age of socialism and decolonization was alien to Max. He made a few attempts to resettle in New Brunswick, but England was now his home. In all this he found time to write books. Richards describes his writing style as "Beaverado."So was his life. In his last public appearance, an interviewer asked him if he was disappointed in the ultimate failure of imperial preference. The old man replied quietly: "I was unworthy." Yet again he was exaggerating. Not from hubris, but undeserved humility.


'99 Referendum Veteran said...

Will the Canadians amongst us allow us poor south sea cousins in Australia an article this week on the 10th anniversary of the defeat of the republican referendum? Not much space for feathers, braids, medals and flummery I guess - but enough to give us Australian "constitutionalists" who want to keep our Governor-General to be appointed by the Queen rather than Parliament, some cheer.

A sign that the commentariat is slowly coming to terms with the monarchy's near-certain future longevity in Australia is shown by these two articles. David Marr and Mike Steketee are anything but royalists but they know what the numbers tell them. And winning a vote is, as we all know, about the numbers.,25197,26279002-25072,00.html

Marr (a particularly toxic individual) mentions a speech Howard is going to give. I'll be there and will post some thoughts and reflections.

Beaverbrook said...

99 Referendum - send The Monarchist an email and I will send you an invite, if you wish to write about the 10th anniversary. Better it come from an Australian than a Canadian.

You writing about me, Kipling? I should let it be known that I chose my pen name because I grew up in the stump ranch community of Beaver Creek, British Columbia, but also because of the man himself. What could be more Canadian than beaver, or more British than brook. The name is synonymous with the idea that one could be both British and Canadian in equal measure, without contradiction.

Of course in Beaverbrook's day, everyone wanted to be English, even our French imperialist prime minister Sir Wilfred Laurier considered himself to be an Englishman. Englishmen were on top of the world, with their own giant playgrounds in Canada, Australia, South Africa and India.

Beaverbrook wasn't perfect. Still, you got to admire the man and what he stood for.

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Peter Hitchens: People love the Queen...and the BBC hates us for it
Our Greatest Monarch: Paul Johnson says Henry V was our greatest monarch
Princess Diana Inquest: A Dirty Raincoat Show for the World
Malcom Turnbull: 'Queen's death will spark republican vote'
Duke of York: The Royals are not "stuffed dummies". They should have their say
Peers of the Realm: The decline and fall of the House of Lords - Charles A. Coulombe
Peter Hitchens: Get rid of the monarchy and you will get rid of a guardian of liberty
Honouring Sir Edmund Hillary
The Queen versus an E.U. President
Going Solo: Prince William earns his Wings
James C. Bennett: The Third Anglosphere Century
Knights of Oz: Revive Sirs or I'll have your guts for garters
Princess Diana Inquest: A Dirty Raincoat Show for the World
Malcom Turnbull: 'Queen's death will spark republican vote'
Future Peer: The life and times of Lady Victoria Beckham
Peers of the Realm: The decline and fall of the House of Lords - Charles A. Coulombe
Peter Hitchens: Get rid of the monarchy and you will get rid of a guardian of liberty


New York Times: Ever Backwards into the Royal Future
Peter Hitchens: People love the Queen...and the BBC hates us for it
Christopher Hitchens: An Anglosphere Future
Andrew Cusack: Republicanism is a traitor's game
Courageous Patrician: Rt Hon Ian Douglas Smith (1919-2007)
The Last Rhodesian: What began with Rhodes and ended with Ian?
Gentleman Journalist: The Lord Baron W.F. Deedes, 1913-2007
Not Amused: Blair's sinister campaign to undermine the Queen
Loyal Subject: Queen Elizabeth: A stranger in her own country
Reverence Deference: Bowing and Scraping Back in Tradition
Rex Murphy: Kennedy, Churchill, Lincoln - The rousing bon mot is no more
Gerald Warner: Don't shed a tear for Diana cult in its death throes
The End of Grandeur: Rich, chincy Canada puts Strathmore on the blocks
Confessions of a Republican Leftie: "The Queen charmed the pants off me"
The King's Own Calgary Regiment: Cpl. Nathan Hornburg is laid to rest
The Royal Gurkha Rifles: Prince William grieves the death of Major Roberts
Queensland Mounted Rifles: Trooper David Pearce, 41, killed in Afghanistan
The Order of Canada: 100 investitures later, Canada's highest honour turns 40
Prince Edward on Prince Edward Island: Troop's link to monarchy important
HER MAJESTY THE QUEEN: Unveils the UK Armed Forces Memorial
Great Britain: "A rotten borough with a banana monarchy" - by Europhile
Peers of the Realm: The decline and fall of the House of Lords - Charles A. Coulombe
Remembering 'Smithy': An obituary tour de force by Andrew Cusack here, here and here.
NOT AMUSED: Her Majesty The Queen in Right of Quebec not invited to Quebec's tercentenary