Beverly Baxter's STRANGE STREET
HOW FAR has a newspaper proprietor the right to enter public life, able as he is to command the complete support of his own newspapers and to dictate or dominate their attitude toward his political opponents?
That is a question which has been on many men’s lips, and was brought into the forefront by the decision taken at Beaverbrook’s dinner that night at Stornoway House, where he had summoned the editorial heads of his group.
It was the birth of the Empire Crusade, that movement which rocked the Conservative Party and threatened even to absorb it. No one can question its audacity or its effectiveness in swaying the mind both of the public and the jx)liticians. The motives of the man at the head have been questioned ad infinitum, ad nauseam.
Here is the case against Beaverbrook uttered with righteous indignation across 10,000 silver-laden dinner tables and through vast clouds of the very best cigar smoke.
“The fellow is just a stunt merchant. He has a vendetta against Baldwin because good old Stanley will not dance to his tune, and this Empire stuff is just a stick to beat him with. He wants to build up the circulation of his confounded newspapers and make a lot of money for himself. He wants to be a dictator like Mussolini. If he believes in protection why didn’t he support Baldwin in 1923? He is no better than Hearst, and Lloyd George ought to be kicked for having made him a peer. Newspapers used to be newspapers in the good old days before Northcliffe and Rothermere and Beaverbrook came along. Now they are just rags. Watson ! Bring me another brandy and tell the servants I will not allow the Express in my house.”
Thus spoke the purple, growing more purple as they spoke. And this was Beaverbrook’s case:
“In the war this country opened its ports to the imports of fighting human beings from the Colonies and Dominions, and did everything to facilitate their safe passage. Now our wharves are so cluttered up with cheap foreign products that the home market is being steadily closed to the Empire producer. I do not believe in the Empire as a purely wartime institution. If it is worth dying for, it ought to be worth living lor. I cannot see why the separation of an ocean need destroy our community of interest, any more than a border line can dissolve the common weal of Wales and England. We should create an Empire Customs Union, erecting a tariff wall against the foreigner and reaching a state of Imperial free trade as soon as possible. The ideal may never be 100 per cent possible, but we should go as far as we can. I did not support Baldwin’s 1923 truncated policy of protection because Free Trade in foodstuffs and tariffs on manufactured goods is impossible and completely destructive to the Im;)erial plan. I did not support him in 1929 because his only plan was to be returned to office.”
Someone suggested that he should call his policy Empire Economic Unity.
“I don’t agree,” said Beaverbrook. “You can’t fight for a policy that everyone would favor. Policies are like newspapers. When everyone speaks well of them they die. We shall call this movement ‘PImpire Free Trade.’ That will focus fierce opposition, and when we line up the opposition we shall be able to gauge our own strength.”
Our Manchester editor uttered a warning note.
“Empire Free Trade,” he said, “would only be possible by taxing foreign foodstuffs.”
“Exactly,” said Beaverbrook.
“This country won’t stand for food taxes.” went on the Northern editor. “Joe Chamberlain tried to put the idea over and was crucified. It broke Balfour. Baldwin had to declare against them in 1923.”
“You see danger to the Express, then/”
“It would smash the Express. The old cry of the small loaf cannot be met.”
Other voices took up the same line. The verdict was almost unanimous.
Beaverbrook bowed and with assumed calmness replied; “Then, gentlemen, you are going to see the Express smashed. You cannot have agricultural development at home or Empire P'ree Trade without taxing foreign wheat and meat. So drink up your champagne, for tomorrow we die.”
THE CRUSADE was launched with a fanatical fury.
Beaverbrook proclaimed his policy in the columns of the Express and then announced the formation of a new political body, “The United Empire Party.”
The response was very large. Since the war the public had been fed on the husks of compromise and disillusionment and here was a gospel of glory, a thing to fire the imagination of youth and straighten the drooping shoulders of age.
“We must have a party fund,” shouted Beaverbrook, “because no one can be a follower unless he backs his conscience with his money.”
The enrollment days were like recruiting days. Money poured in by silver, notes and cheques. A hungry people clamoring for the nourishment of a great idea sent their contributions in surprising quantities. There were many sixpences and there were £1,000 and £5.000 cheques as well. The Conservative ranks began to murmur. This was a gospel dear to the true Tory heart. Whatwas their leader doing?
Day by day the United Empire Party gained strength. We talked of contesting fifty seats at the next election. Then we talked of contesting 2Ö0. After that it was a simple matter to raise the figure to 600. As Harry Tate would remark, “There’s no harm in saying six hundred.”
Beaverbrook took to the public platform and became the biggest draw of any speaker at that time. From an indifferent orator he became a most effective one. He blended the fanaticism of the Methodist evangelist with the fiery language of the Old Testament and the stem purposefulness of the Presbyterian faith. Back of it all was a first-class
political and economic brain that made his replies to questioners a thing of joy. Throughout his exeditions he was sustained and stagemanaged by the faithful Fred Doidge, a New Zealander with a maternal heart and an lago brain whose loyalty to his chief would not have stopped at death.
T had the difficult task of propagating the Empire policy in the paper and maintaining a balance of general news as well. It was not easy. Beaverbrook could think of only one thing and nothing else mattered to him. The United Empire Party, in its original form, changed
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hands suddenly after a whirlwind campaign. Baldwin and Beaverbrook unexpectedly agreed on a food-tax referendum to be held after the next election. In other words, the public would be allowed to vote without endangering the existence of the Conservative Party.
It was a makeshift ruse, utterly unsound in principle, but it sufficed for a rapprochement, and an announcement was made that the United Empire Party would be handed over to Lord Rothermere and the subscriptions returned.
The incident is the least glorious in the Empire Crusade story, and reflects no credit on men who were posing as serious leaders of political thought.
Beaverbrook prepared the press announcement of his withdrawal from the Empire Party and sent for Robertson and myself to “vet” it. The moment I read it I realized that Beaverbrook was contemplating one of the worst blunders of his career. He had written the announcement when his judgment was under the sway of his temperament.
I pleaded to be allowed to rewrite it.
“You want to give it the Toronto touch,
I suppose,” he said, an Eastern Canadian reference to the smugness which is supposed by those not resident there to characterize the citizens of Ontario’s capital. “Well, let us see what you can do with it.”
I went into another room and wrote what I thought the announcement should be.
Beaverbrook took it with a smile, read it and then his face grew grim.
“I am much obliged,” he said. “You have saved me from one of the greatest mistakes of my career.”
When we were leaving he said to me:
“I wonder if you will be like Birkenhead. He is always saving people from blunders, and then tells everyone how he did it.”
That is why I have refrained from telling what Beaverbrook had written, and content myself with the mere description of the saving.
A Significant Victory
AS MOST of us expected, the ReferenYi dum plank soon gave way and the Empire Crusade—minus the United Empire —started up again.
We fought and won by-elections. Month in and month out we proclaimed the necessity and glory of the Empire policy. We pilloried Baldwin with every arrow in our quiver, and went to bed with the same cry as we rose with in the morning: “We must tax foreign food.”
Repercussions began to be felt. Senator Elliott in Australia became the spearpoint of our policy there. Conservative members at Westminster openly espoused the cause. The farmers, at first suspicious, began to helieve that there might be something in the idea of saving agriculture. Thus encouraged,
I bought a racing greyhound and named him “Empire Crusader.” Like many well-bred pups, he turned out to be fast but foolish.
At the party meeting at Drury Lane in 1930, Baldwin reiterated that as long as he was leader he would never introduce food taxes but he was in favor of improving the general standard of material welfare.
The attacks against Beaverbrook and the Express grew more violent than ever. There was a by-election at West Fulham, and we opposed the Socialist candidate with Sir Cyril Cobb as a Conservative Empire Free Trader.
The Conservative Party looked on while an outlaw Crusade carried the banner of Joe Chamberlain. Eatanswill was not more fierce or furious. Beaverbrook stormed from platform to platform, until it was not certain at times whether he or Cobb was offering himself to the electorate, while the rest of us back at the office, like the stokers during a battle, kept the engines of propaganda at full pressure.
The election takes place. The foam and
fury have subsided. Whatever is to be is to be, and they are counting the votes. In the Express office we sit around on the desks, waiting and smoking, while the tape machines sleepily hiccup an unimportant item of news from Japan or Paraguay and then relapse into silence.
“I do hope we win!” mutters the youngest reporter, who never had a political thought in his head before.
“I’d give a thousand pounds to see Cobb in,” says a sub-editor who always had to borrow by Thursday.
The sports editor nods sympathetically. His work has been finished for hours, but he hangs around. The office cat mounts my desk and sniffs suspiciously at the inkwell.
Before me are the proofs of two sets of headings:
1. “Empire victory at West Fulham.”
2. “Empire defeat at West Fulham.”
Which is it to be? Upstairs the men “on
the stone’ are ready to insert either and rush the news to a waiting world.
Silence. The clock ticks wearily on.
The sub-editor by the tape shouts the words like a warning in the trenches.
There is a splutter from the tape, an agonizing moment as it stops, and then a cry that rings right through the “big room.”
The sports editor shakes hands with the night foreign editor. The cat leaps from my desk in alarm at the uproar. A sub-editor tears the tape from the machine, writes a sentence above it and a small boy races to the composing room.
I take up the phone. “Give me Lord Beaverbrook.”
The connection is made to Stornoway House.
“Ya-as?” came Beaverbrook’s voice almost wearily calm.
“Cobb is in.”
“That’s good news.” The words end in a cavernous yawn. “You’ll let me have the figures.”
He rings off. I get him again.
“The Press Association wants a message from you.”
The reply comes with such violence that my eardrums are nearly shattered.
“Glory Hallelujah ! That’s my message. Glory Hallelujah !”
And as he puts down the phone I gather from the medley of sounds that he is singing a revival hymn and executing a war-dance at the same time.
It is nearly daylight when I get home. The youngest reporter drives me in his sports car and leaves me with the comforting thought, “We’ve certainly made history tonight, sir.”
For or Against Baldwin
AND STILL the fight went on. Bald-YA. win’s position became increasingly difficult. We stormed a Conservative fortress at South Paddington, with Admiral Taylor as an Empire Free Trader opposing the official Conservative candidate.
That resulted in the most dramatic change-over I have ever seen in an election battle. On the actual morning of the voting Baldwin called a meeting of the party so that he could face his critics. Beaverbrook attended it. Thus, while the infantry was in action in Paddington, the opposing generals were staging a battle of their own at Westminster.
The miniature battle went hopelessly against Beaverbrook. With the authority of office and the dignity which he could always summon, Baldwin closed his ranks until the mutineers were silent and Beaverbrook stood on his feet with nothing but a corporal’s guard about him. He came out knowing that he had suffered a crushing and humiliating blow. There was nothing now but to wait for the news that South Paddington had confirmed the rout.
The result was not announced until the next afternoon. With the ink not yet dry on Beaverbrook’s Caxton Hall defeat, came the news that the Conservatives of South Paddington had elected his candidate and defeated Baldwin’s man.
That night my dog, Empire Crusader, won a race at the White City. He was, as I have said, a stupid dog, but nothing could stop us in our onward sweep.
Let the trumpets be silent and the drums muffled.
In spite of Caxton Hall, the moves continued against Baldwin within the party, and more than once he had to resort to storm tactics to restore the situation. Things could not go on as they were.
Then there came a vacancy at St. George’s Westminster—the very heart of Conservatism. Lt.-Col. Moore Brabazon, a former Conservative M. P. and Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport—and as an unfortunate reporter once wrote, the “first certified Englishman to fly”—was the prospective Conservative candidate. Beaverbrook decided to enter an Empire Free Trade candidate, which resulted in Baldwin announcing that he would make the St. George’s fight a test of confidence in himself. In other words, instead of the Empire issue it would be a straight “for or against Baldwin” contest.
Moore Brabazon came to my house and told me that he would not stand as a Baldwin candidate and authorized me to publish an interview to that effect. At the same time, in spite of urgings, he would not stand as an anti-Baldwm candidate. I suggested to him that there was an almost indiscernible difference between forsaking one side and joining the other. He could not see it that way, and so we chose the able and kindly Sir Ernest Petter, a great authority on internal combustion engines but not exactly a human dynamo on the platform.
The Baldwinites were lucky. Duff Cooper, who acquired fame first by marrying Lady Diana Manners and then earned general respect by his own abilities, took on the burden. The Daily Mail joined us in the fight, and together we raked St. George’s from all angles.
A Heavy Blow
DUFF COOPER, however, did a brilliant bit of generalship. Instead of defending Baldwin, he attacked the newspaper peers. Instead of the issue being “Are you in favor of Baldwin?” it became one of “Will you submit to newspaper domination?” Baldwin, who had maintained a dignified silence for a long time, went to a Tory meeting at the Queen’s Hall and struck a series of blows at Rothermere and Beaverbrook that were so far below the belt that they took on the character of all-in wrestling.
Every night Duff Cooper attacked us in terms of almost apoplectic contempt. Every night his lovely wife addressed the duchesses and their cooks and urged them to remember for at least a few hours that they were sisters under the skin and vote True Blue Conservative.
Nearing the end Sir Malcolm Campbell, who had just scored a racing triumph at Daytona, Florida, came back, and we secured him for our platform. The next night I was at the office when a report of a speech by Duff Cooper was handed to me. It was a libellous document of the first water.
Cooper openly charged Campbell with having sold his political principles for our money. The charge was aggravated by repetition and enlargement of the theme. The only explanation was that Duff Cooper had lost his head completely.
A few minutes later Beaverbrook came on the phone.
“What are you going to do with the speech about Malcolm Campbell?” he asked.
“I am going to publish.”
“I wouldn’t if I were you. This might mean the ruin of Duff Cooper and he’s only a young man.”
“He is more than twenty-one and he can look after himself.”
Beaverbrook sighed. “Have mercy on him, Baxter.”
I began to get annoyed.
“Is this a real fight or a pillow fight at St. j George’s?”
“Oh, it’s a real fight all right, but it’s j Baldwin we are after.”
There was a long pause. Then to break it \ I said:
“Unless you directly order me not to do so, ! I shall publish the story tomorrow.”
“Do you like your wife?”
For a moment I was too astonished to answer. Then with a glow of tenderness I said:
“Of course I do.”
“Well—I like Duff Cooper’s wife.”
It was his queer Puckish way of trying to save his opponent from the consequences of his own folly, but I refused to be deflected without a direct order and the libellous speech duly appeared next day.
It should have resulted in the withdrawal of Duff Cooper—but did it?
Cooper said he was sorry to have said anything against such a fine sportsman as Sir Malcolm Campbell. In reply, Campbell said it was a fine sporting thing for Duff Cooper to come out with such a manly apology. He felt no grievance and they would be better friends than ever.
In the end Duff Cooper appeared in the light of a gallant and chivalrous gentleman and even the duchesses mingled murmurs of admiration with the gurgles of their cooks. Such is the irony of political strategy.
Two days before the election the tide turned against us. When the fight began, it looked odds against Baldwin surviving. In the end we knew we were beaten and our only hope was that it would not be a rout.
Baldwin was sustained by a substantial though not spectacular majority. It was a heavy blow to us. for the challenger to the throne must only have victories. At the same time the Conservatives realized that it was an Austerlitz for Baldwin, and that another such victory could not be risked.
BOTH SIDES drew back to count their casualties and estimate their reserves. In my own case, I continued at the head of the Express wondering at what hour my batteries of propaganda would be ordered into action again. Our representatives everywhere were writing that the paper was being killed by the amount of Empire Free Trade matter being carried. I did not even show the letters to Beaverbrook. I knew that if I did the battle would reopen next morning.
And then the impossible happened. Neville Chamberlain, on behalf of the Conservative Party, came to see Beaverbrook. A real peace was arranged, based on a general acceptance of Beaverbrook’s policy. Letters were issued to that effect, and the order went forth that the Crusaders and the Baldwinites were at liberty to fraternize.
In a short time we began our plans for doing our best to assist the Conservatives toward a decisive victory over the Socialist Government, when the startling election of 1931 intervened.
The Socialists were routed horse and foot, and the National Government was returned with a colossal majority to carry out a policy practically indistinguishable from that of Beaverbrook—protection for industry and agriculture and an immediate Ottawa Imperial Conference to bring about the largest possible measure of economic unity.
Let us admit that fear and disillusionment played a heavy part in the voting; but Beaverbrook’s campaign, violent and upsetting as it was, had prepared the country and forced the Conservative Party to accept a policy which had spelled disaster to all who had ever espoused it in any form.
Were Beaverbrook’s attacks on Baldwin too harsh? In my opinion, yes. Beaverbrook’s greatest weakness is his belief in the effectiveness of frontal attack on all occasions. In other matters he is adroit and subtle, but in politics he seldom blends his methods. Nor did he estimate the strength of Baldwin’s character. No statesman has
made more blunders, but no man in public life so represents the kindly, unostentatious, well-meaning honest averageness of the English temperament as does the Conservative leader.
So this paradox results: Beaverbrook won the battle of policy and lost the battle of personalities. The 1931 election was a triumph for Beaverbrook’s vision and tenacity, but such a large section of the public had been so impressed with the belief that the newspaper proprietor was doing it all in order to “get even’’ with Baldwin that he never received the recognition that the political historian must eventually give him.
Beaverbrook’s enemies say that he never could have done what he did without his newspapers. Certainly he could not have done it in anything like the same space of time. But the means of his victory denied him its fruits in the end. The public will not I readily accept as its political leader a man who can command the automatic support of a group of newspapers through his controlling interest in the shares.
That is why I believe that this strange and fascinating figure from Canada would have attained a greater position in politics, not even excluding Downing Street itself, if he had never owned a newspaper. For one thing, he would not have found a bludgeon always ready at his hand and he would have learned the occasional use of the stiletto and even the poisoned flower.
But it was a great victory and in the
course of the battle the Express found its soul. As for my dog Empire Crusader, his stupidity increased and his speed lessened, so 1 gave him away to a kind family where he became a great favorite with the children.
To be Continued
Owing to inadvertence on my part I wrote in my book, “Strange Street,” that Mr. Samuel Nordheimer died early in 1914, and that it was my belief that his trip early that year to Germany had made him believe that there was trouble coming in the world. 1 now realize that Mr. Nordheimer’s death occurred in 1912, and therefore, while he may have believed that trouble would break out between the nations, it was not in the imminent sense that my narrative might have indicated.
Naturally, in publishing extracts from my forthaoming book a considerable amount of material has to be condensed or left out. The book in its entirety pays the greatest possible tribute to my old friend and employer, Albert Nordheimer, whose loyalty to the British cause, in spite of his natural love of everything that was good in Germany, culminated in the gallant and tragic death of his only son, Victor.
My affection for Mr. Nordheimer, who is still a prominent figure in Toronto life, is so great that I am sure you will not begrudge these few lines of explanation.