This week, workers are shifting the statue of Lord Beaverbrook from Officer’s Square in Fredericton to the Beaverbrook Gallery site. It is a suitable moment to reconsider his life and legacy.
In his alternate history novel, Dominion, C.J. Sansom casts Beaverbrook as the collaborationist Prime Minister of Nazi-occupied Britain. This is not as fanciful as it might seem. Power was his lifeblood, irrespective of where it came from.
Max Aitken, the future Lord Beaverbrook, left Canada under a cloud and sailed to England in 1910. He had made millions of dollars in shady business deals that dogged his reputation in ways he could never quite shake off. Yet despite it, and within a year of his arrival, he was elected an MP in the UK House of Commons. Within a few years he owned the Daily Express mass circulation newspaper group based in London and was a wartime cabinet member.
How did this son of the manse from the backwoods of New Brunswick rise so far and so fast? Who was this man variously described by some who worked with him as “a monster of vanity and unprincipled power,” “a brutally shady operator,” “the only evil man I ever knew,” or by friends as a man who was kind and exceedingly generous, described by historian A.J.P. Taylor as the best foul-weather friend one could possibly have.
The most recent biography by Charles Williams goes some way towards explaining the twists and turns of a complex figure. The easy but not the whole answer is a combination of money and power. Initially, fellow New Brunswicker Andrew Bonar Law, soon to be leader of the Conservative Party in the UK, eased Max Aitken’s way into the right circles. Thereafter he needed no help.
Yes, Aitken bought his way in. For his first election campaign he hired fellow lover of empire Rudyard Kipling as a speaker and speech writer and paid him lavishly. This was the Aitken modus operandi: He made you an offer you couldn’t refuse.
His influence was immediately evident. He played a large role in removing Prime Minister Asquith from power in 1916. He was rewarded with a peerage by his successor, Lloyd George and created the title “Lord Beaverbrook” for himself.
Beaverbrook was invited to join the World War I cabinet. Churchill became a lifelong friend. He was now set with his political connections and newspaper holdings to play a key role in British public life for the next 30 years.
He was under no illusions about the role of his newspapers. He declared to the Royal Commission on the Press of 1948, “I run my papers purely for propaganda.”
Beaverbrook’s rise was down not only to money and propaganda but also huge ambition, immense energy and great organisational skills. According to Williams, Aitken was also “fun to be with … posh English society was no match for his charm, and part of that charm was his ability to laugh at himself.”
He was an appeaser, quite happy to turn Eastern Europe over to Hitler. The Daily Express headline of Sept 1, 1938 declared “There Will Be No War.” Beaverbrook echoed the lies of Hitler when he said, “The Jews may drive us into war.” He was friendly with Nazi sympathizers the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.
Despite his opposition to war, he became a key figure on the Allied side. Once World War II was declared, he was drafted into Churchill’s cabinet as Minister for Aircraft Production. In this role he demonstrated his tremendous organizational skills, matching German fighter and bomber output. According to Churchill, “His personal force and genius made this Aitken’s finest hour.” The Battle of Britain was won in the air. But Beaverbrook was not a team player and soon quarrelled with cabinet members, leaving in 1941.
He famously got on well with Stalin whom he admired and defended, a further clue to his character. He went to Moscow with Averell Harriman, the US representative, to arrange Allied military aid to the Soviet Union. Harriman gives him full credit for the success of this mission. Beaverbrook was happy to deal with power, whatever its source. He even flirted in the forties with left-wing radicals such as future Labour leader Michael Foot.
Beaverbrook was an arch imperialist to the day he died. For him, the Empire was all. He had no interest in Europe or the wider world outside the lands colonized by Britain. He hated the United Nations and its predecessor, the League of Nations. He would have been a flag-waving Brexiteer in today’s world.
Beaverbrook’s feelings for Empire undoubtedly began and were nourished by his Scottish father in the manse in Miramichi, New Brunswick. The hymns he learned as a child, the local folklore he retained all of his life. He sometimes startled political gatherings by breaking into song.
With the decline of empire and of his own political role his thoughts turned back to his origins in New Brunswick. He had always retained an affection for the province and visited frequently. He became Chancellor of the University of New Brunswick in the tried and trusted Beaverbrook way by spreading his money around lavishly.
According to Williams his post-war years “became a progress like a medieval king’s with a great retinue of servants, cronies, henchmen, useful politicians and pretty women.” He moved from residence to residence — he had 13 in all — and from country to country.
Ann Moyal in her charming memoir on Beaverbrook in Fredericton gives us some telling insights. She worked for many years as a researcher for him. She arrived in Fredericton in October 1955 and was promptly whisked by Beaverbrook around to the grand residence of the University of New Brunswick President, Colin Mackay, on Waterloo Row. Mackay was promptly dispatched to the Beaverbrook Hotel. Moyal recalled, “I got his bed.” She in turn was dispatched to the same hotel when Beaverbrook’s old cabinet colleague, Brendan Bracken, arrived and he got her bed. This was Beaverbrook’s style. A domineering autocrat who delighted in moving people around like pawns, sometimes even humiliating them. According to Moyal, “He was like a potentate, a visiting potentate.”
In some circles there has been a positive re-assessment of Beaverbrook as an historian. Previously regarded as self-serving and hagiographical, his books on the First World War are now seen by Cambridge historian John O. Stubbs as essential reading for the period.
Beaverbrook was loyal and generous to his influential friends and was a great benefactor. He did not always allow his personal prejudices to affect his better judgement. He described Harold Laski, the left-wing guru of the London School of Economics as “the Antichrist” yet funded several of his protegés, Dalton Camp for example, to study under him.
His legacy in New Brunswick is obvious in the public buildings all over the province. As for his life, he was a newspaper man of genius lifting the Daily Express circulation to an unheard of 3,706,000, the highest of any newspaper in the world. He was undoubtedly a manipulator of people and moments to further his own ends. His political role and wartime role in two global conflicts was significant.
New Brunswick got him in the end. His ashes lie under his bust in Newcastle/Miramichi.
Many thanks to Neal Ascherson of the London Review of Books (Oct. 2019). Selected sources: Max Beaverbrook: Not Quite a Gentleman, Charles Williams (Biteback 2019), Ann Moyal. Conversation with John Reid. St. Mary’s University, UNB Archives and Special Collections. UAPC4 no5w.
Gerry McAlister writes for the NB Media Co-op and delivers The Brief in Fredericton. Gerry has a Masters degree in Modern Irish History from Dublin City University.