GENERAL ARTICLES

LONDON LETTER

Brtain Wrestles With Propaganda

Beverley Baxter February 1 1939
GENERAL ARTICLES

LONDON LETTER

Brtain Wrestles With Propaganda

Beverley Baxter February 1 1939

LONDON LETTER

Brtain Wrestles With Propaganda

Beverley Baxter

THERE ARE many things agitating the British Government as 1938 ends and the year 1939 knocks at the door. The life of a British Prime Minister today seems a thing of fantasy rather than fact. One of Mr. Chamberlain’s secretaries told me recently that they had arranged for him a completely clear afternoon from four to seven o’clock. Instead, the Prime Minister held exactly twelve urgent consultations, and reached Downing Street at eight o’clock for dinner.

The secretary expressed his regret to the Prime Minister. “That’s nothing,” said Chamberlain. “I have not had one clear day since I took office.”

I am not pleading for sympathy for him. There is not one of us who would not give his boots and his worldly goods to be Prime Minister of Great Britain. That is one of the glorious insanities of being a man. We long for heartbreaking responsibility like a drunkard reaching with shaking fingers for the bottle.

Women, I suppose, achieve their immortality by giving birth to children. They can say: “There is my son, whose children and children’s children will carry me on through the centuries.”

Men have no such sense of immortality. They long for it without knowing that they do. They build bridges, paint pictures or govern nations, so that the people who pass by in fifty years will see their work and say, “That was well done.”

All the space that the editor would grant me would not be enough to enumerate the Premier’s problems. Yet. curiously enough, one of the most important of them is also one of the most absurd.

“Should Britain advertise?”

The Art of Showmanship

THAT IS a question that is pounding at the Cabinet doors these days. Many of us are pestering the Premier about it. It follows him wherever he turns.

“Must I create a propaganda ministry?” he asks himself, and tries to drive the vile thought from his mind.

The average educated Englishman is a curious animal. He likes the palm without the dust. His attitude is that he is superior, but does not like to have to prove it. To demonstrate his superiority would be to vulgarize it.

“I am not a bit clever,” he says. “In fact, I'm an ass about most things. Of course you’re frightfully clever and all that.” By that he means that he would much rather be himself than you.

You should not imagine that he lacks showmanshipbut it must be called by some other name. A couple of years ago I was in a foreign semitropical port when H.M.S. Hood arrived and dropped anchor. There she rested against the skyline like the spirit of incarnate power.

Presently a pinnace put out for shore. In the front sat two sailors at attention with upright pikes. As the pinnace neared the wharf the two sailors rose like automatons, reached for the wharf with their pikes and drew the pinnace alongside, then stood rigidly at attention.

A midshipman leaped ashore and stood at the salute. An officer in his white uniform stepped onto the shore, carelessly returned the “snottie’s” salute, and looked around as if the world was his private property.

The midshipman jumped aboard the pinnace, the two automatons shoved with their pikes, the propeller churned the water, and the officer strolled up the road from the wharf.

It was terrific. I could have sung “Rule Britannia” all by myself. No people can put on the dog like the English when they set their minds to it.

They call it in the Navy “Showing the Flag.” It is really just good honest showmanship, but you must not use the word.

Rudyard Kipling was the first Imperial advertising agent for Britain. As a creator of slogans he was without parallel.

“God of our fathers, known of old,

Lord of our far-flung battle line,

Beneath whose awful Hand we hold Dominion over palm and pine ...”

Kipling was out to sell the Empire idea to the Empire, and he did it superbly.

Shakespeare of course had to content himself with just advertising the home product. But if you paid a hundred thousand pounds to the best copy writers in existence, where could you get such value as:

“This precious stone set in the silver sea,

Which serves it in the office of a wall Or as a moat defensive to a house,

Against the envy of less happier lands,

This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.”

The strange thing about the Englishman is that his one desire is to disparage himself and glorify England. That makes him feel a cut above the lesser breeds who trumpet their own virtues and forget those of their country.

Vansit+arf ... his publicity machine, silent as the moon.

Stanhope ... a brave officer should make a propaganda minister.

Thus even that sensitive soul, Rupert Brooke, became a propagandist. I met Brooke before the War. He was a beautiful creature, if such a description could lxused for a man. His splendid youth, his fine height, his magnificent head and his thick fair hair—all these made him a g(xl among men. When his country called him, he sank the poet in the soldier and went out to kill and be killed. But, feeling that death was to rob him of all the exquisite things that lay in the unmined recesses of his mind, and that it would take from him the children that he dreamed of. he wrote those lovely lines to strengthen the faith of Englishmen in the dark years he saw ahead:

‘There’s some corner of a foreign field That is forever England

Thus you have this paradox. Every Englishman is at heart a propagandist. And every Englishman detests propaganda. A year ago the Government had to face the fact that British publicity was being done extremely badly. There was a travel agency which was given a few thousand pounds each year by hotels, railroads and the Government, wherewith to persuade the peregrinating foreigner to visit Britain.

The Silent Publicity Machine

THERE was the British Council, which also drew from patriots and the Government enough to send someone to Egypt to acquaint the Egyptians with the beauties of English poetry, and to educate a few dozen Roumanians in the joys of Dickens, Shakespeare and Edgar Wallace.

There were three or four other societies as well which aimed at putting Britain on someone else’s map. There was also the film industry, but that had been captured by enterprising European Jews and was heading for disaster beyond recall.

The Government took a great decision. Someone must co-ordinate the lot! One man should become the supercharged. high-powered director of the combined forces of national publicity.

Whom did they choose? Beaverbnxik. who first as propagandist for Canada and then as Minister of Information in the War, did such terrific work? No. Rothermere? Not likely. Some advertising genius? 1 )on't be foolish.

They chose Sir Robert Vansittart, the permanent head of the Foreign Office, who has always been known as "The Man of Secrets.” Only two men in Britain know the names of the men who comprise the Secret Service, -and the money they are paid. Vansittart is one of the two.

"Van” is the most charming host in the world and has a beautiful wife, but it is only with the greatest reluctance that he reveals the day on which he is expecting you to lunch. If you would come without knowing the day, he would be happier.

His appointment as the head of “British Ballyhoo” was a typical English compromise. If you must lxso vulgar as to advertise the virtues of the country, for heaven’s sake give it to someone who will keep quiet about it.

Believe me, the silence of the moon on the water is more raucous than Vansittart's publicity machine.

Then, of course, there came the crisis 'wav back last September. It looked as if there was going to be a war and that propaganda would be necessary.

What a task ! To vitalize the jxople at home, to confound and confuse the enemy, to rouse the spirit of the race in the outlying Dominions and Colonies, to win the support and respect of neutral nations .

Where was the man? Or rather where was the superrnan? The Government found him all right. The Minister of Propaganda was to be Earl Stanhope, the President of the Board of Education. 1 le had never seen the inside of a newspaper office and still spoke of filmsas “flicker pictures,” but had been a brave officer with the Brigade of Guards in the War.

Virtue Must Advertise

TT WAS about this time that a few of us began to raise A our voices and declare that complete unsuitability for the task should not be the sole requirement of a Minister of Propaganda.

Make no mistake about it. none of us were touting for the job. Every now and then after a public banquet I have a terrifying dream that the Prime Minister sends for me and asks me to be the Minister of Propaganda. Then I wake with a cry of horror and realize with a gasp of relief that it is only a dream, and that a man who has spent his life in newspapers is absolutely safe from any such fate.

Unfortunately for the Government, there has emerged a little band of realists in the press and Parliament who refuse to be satisfied with gestures and compromises. They keep on telling the Cabinet that the case for Britain is going by default and that something should be done about it.

They reproduce cuttings from the American press in which renegade Englishmen. at so much a word, defame the country of their birth, and curiously named writers in Hoboken reveal the keyhole secrets of London society which holds Mr. Chamberlain and the fate of Britain in its sinister, jewelled grip.

“This filth is crossing the border into Canada,” we say.

They are not perturbed. The Canadians will know what to do with it.

Patiently we argue that defamation of character can only be offset by the truth. Virtue, these days, must advertise her wares with a trumpet. Even in Australia, where Britain means “home,” the poison of slander oozes into the blood stream and contaminates the system.

At this the ministerialists smile and decide to humor us.

"Sit down, old chap, and tell us exactly what a Minister of Propaganda could do now’ that isn’t being done.”

A Neglected Weapon

7"E TAKE a deep breath and vow to vV he calm. “First,” we say, “nothing is being done. Therefore as far as that is concerned, we start from scratch.”

Then facing them with an Ancient Mariner eye, we start our speech:

"During the September crisis not one official spokesman went to the microphone, until the fateful Tuesday night when war seemed a matter of hours and Mr. Chamberlain broadcast to the world from Downing Street.

“Yet in the preceding fortnight the attitude of our Dominions, of America and of potential allies or enemies was being determined. A Minister of Propaganda would have seen that the British Government’s case was put openly and constantly to the world.

“We don’t expect an alliance with the U.S.A., but her friendship and moral backing are of immense importance. May I tell you something? No important Minister of the Crown has visited America for seven years.

“Is that good business? And even after seven years the first prominent political figure to break the ice is Mr. Eden, who, after all, is an open opponent of the Government’s foreign policy.

“You cannot do without propaganda these days. We live in an era of advertising. Nothing sells itself now—not even a foreign policy.

“Propaganda is like the artillery in a war. Not only does it punish and scatter the enemy, but it keeps up the spirit of the troops in the front line.

“The Ministers of the Crown are all in the front line these days, and they have no artillery support. Then they wonder why the battle goes against them.

“For some reason, the Government has determined to have a voluntary register of the adult population so as to be ready for a war emergency. I can’t see the value of a voluntary register any more than a voluntary telephone book, but if the Prime Minister wants it that way, it should be put over on a grand scale.

“The newspapers and radio and the public platform should be used to rouse the people to an overwhelming fervor. You must sell the nation the idea that it is going to show the world that a voluntary register in Britain is the same in its result as a compulsory one. A week or ten days should be set aside for it, the beacons should be lit upon the hills as in the days of Drake, each county should be urged to outstrip its neighbor.

“Not only would you get an enormous response, but you would rewake a pride of citizenship in breasts that have lost it long since.

“Think of the effect on the Empire. Think of the effect on Germany and Italy. The only thing the dictators can hear is noise.

Why Muzzle Crown Ministers?

A MINISTER of Propaganda would

*■ insist upon cancelling the present ruling that prevents Ministers of the Crown writing articles for the press. Look what happens. Lloyd George ceases to be Prime Minister and at once becomes an anti-Government contributor to the foreign press. Winston Churchill, another critic, makes nearly £15,000 a year out of his newspaper contributions.

“Duff Cooper leaves the Admiralty and finds a world market for his writings. Anthony Eden quarrels with the Prime Minister, and is offered large sums to take up the pen and write. As long as you once held office and are prepared to criticize the policy of Ilis Majesty’s Government, there is a large income and a large public waiting for you.

“I do not blame these gentlemen. Their opinions are their own and they must live. But why muzzle the only men who can adequately reply to them? His Majesty’s Ministers should be urged to write, although it would be beneath their dignity to take remuneration for it.

“All over the world there are publicists saying that Britain is finished, and no one contradicts them. Wake up, you fellows! The film, the wireless, the loud-speaker and the rotary press have arrived in this world. There is no use pretending it is not true. As far as propaganda is concerned, you are still travelling in a stagecoach.

“What a story you have to tell the world. Think what happened a little time ago. With violence and cruelty sweeping the world, the British Parliament found time to bring about legislation which advanced the whole question of penal reform by twenty years. That is Britain’s mission — to keep the torch of civilization alight even in a barbaric world. That should have been told to the people across the seven seas by its author, Sir Samuel Hoare.

“You hate the word propaganda and so do I. Well, let us find another word for it, but see that we get propaganda just the same.

“National prestige affects everything these days—tourist traffic, exports, international relations, shipping and a thousand other things.

“Propaganda need not be lies. The best advertising is to tell the truth, and that is not being done. The detractors, the cynics, the slanderers and the blackmailers all have their say about Britain.

“Why not give them the real story of these Islands?”

“This precious stone set in the silver sea.” Did ever an advertising agency have such a brand of goods to put over?

I hope I shall not have that dream again tonight. England has not quite forgiven Stephenson for inventing the railway engine. She will be pretty rough with her first peacetime propaganda minister, whoever the poor devil may be.