Max Aiken and the Limits of Unidirectional Power

The Canadian who did most to change the world in the first half of the 20th century did so as a a British tycoon. Max Aitken, First Baron Beaverbrook (1879-1964), a small pixie in appearance, was a phenomenon of energy. Son of a Scottish clergyman, growing up in New Brunswick, he made his first fortune in Canada as a bold and adventurous company promoter and stockbroker, becoming a millionaire before he was thirty. He left permanently for Britain in 1910 and became a Commons MP less than a year later. He then set about becoming the richest and most politically influential of the British press barons. He built the Daily Express, from a circulation of 40,000 when he acquired it, into a giant, with hundreds of thousands of readers by the end of the 1920s; after 1945 it reached daily sales of almost 4 million, highest of any newspaper in the world. By then, he owned as well a large string of other newspapers and businesses, and maintained a dozen luxurious homes in England, France, Canada, and the U.S., famous as well for his many affairs and for the lively conversation at his dinner table.

Businessman and writer
Aitken was both a whirlwind business expansionist and a writer of real talent. Near the end of his life, over eighty and dying of cancer, he still sometimes telephoned orders to his employees, barking “You gotta say…you gotta say…” I knew some Daily Express reporters in London in the early 1960s; an otherwise irreverent crew, they all held “the Beaver” in awe. They recognized his astuteness about what readers wanted, and his own literary gifts. His many books included three brilliant ones about British politics in the First World War. He also hired other first-class writers, including Evelyn Waugh, who lampooned him in two of his novels.

Egomaniacal but shrewd, Beaverbrook never lost his touch for making money. But his real insatiable appetite was for political power, and in that realm he was far less successful. He did have an early major success, when he and fellow press baron Lord Northcliffe brought down the Asquith Liberal government in World War I, and its replacement by a fiercer national coalition under Lloyd George. But his two favourite causes of the interwar years – establishing “Empire Free Trade” and averting another war through support of Appeasement – entirely failed. The trade theory modestly flowered in the late 1920s, but became inconsequential in the following decade. His support for Appeasement put him on roughly the same side as the 1930s governing establishment, although not winning its affection; he was one of the press barons Stanley Baldwin denounced in the Commons as men who wanted “power without responsibility, the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages.” He saw support for Appeasement collapse in March of 1939, when Hitler broke his Munich promise and invaded what remained of Czechoslovakia.

Ally of Churchill
The most politically skillful, while understanding when they have to be tough and unyielding, also know just when and how they must seek out common ground and areas of mutual understanding. However, Beaverbrook had been drawing near power in another way between the wars. He became the close friend, adviser, and key political ally of Winston Churchill, despite their very different views of foreign policy. It was an alliance that would continue throughout their lives, despite some explosive disagreements. When Churchill came to power in May of 1940, he regarded Beaverbrook’s “vitality and energy” as indispensable to him. After the fall of France in June, the greatest priority became maintaining control of the air over Britain. By-passing several existing ministers, Churchill put Beaverbrook in charge of a new “Ministry of Aircraft Production,” with control over several departments of state, giving him an authority almost like that of a second war Prime Minister.

The months he spent at the M.A.P. could be described as Beaverbrook’s own “finest hour.” A tornado of energy, he tore red tape to shreds and ignored all the normal distinctions of bureaucratic procedure and military rank. An R.A.F. Group Captain who made the mistake of explaining that a phoned request was “impossible” was likely to find himself instantly demoted to Pilot Officer, and told to get someone on the phone who could do the job. Historians are still debating what were the most important factors in driving back the Luftwaffe that summer – the effectiveness of radar combined with ground control, the superior performance of Spitfires over Messerschmitts, and the supply of new aircraft and pilots. But it is reasonable to assign no small amount of the victory to that tireless Canadian barking voice on the phone.

Nonetheless, Beaverbrook resigned from the position a few months later, convinced that he had become ineffective by then. Churchill gave him a couple of later and less powerful cabinet appointments, and they did not go very well either, although Beaverbrook continued to have more informal influence on the conduct of the war, as part of a small intimate circle of trusted counsellors around Churchill, often keeping late hours over drinks with him at Chequers.

Unhappy experience with government
Beaverbrook’s unhappy experience with government offices has implications for all egomaniacs in politics, especially any lacking his considerable intelligence and experience. Men like Churchill and Roosevelt had their own large egos, but they managed leadership of a larger kind, able to persuade powerful figures who might be their bitter opponents in other circumstances. Beaverbrook could do the same only in those few months in which everyone from air marshalls to union shop stewards could see they were in a great national crisis demanding completely determined and unified action. But once the most intense moment of crisis passed, even while there was still a world war to win, Beaverbrook started finding that his phone calls would somehow fail to reach the people he needed to press, or that his barked orders would not continue to be carried out with the speed and efficiency he continued to demand.

Less talented Egomaniacs
History is full of tales of other men of power who encountered this same law of diminishing returns from constant arm-twisting. Consistently ruthless dictators can break resistance by going beyond dismissals from offices to arrests, imprisonments, and even executions. But impatient authoritarians in democracies who, like Beaverbrook, confine themselves to firings and a rich language of verbal abuse, have always been likely to encounter the same kind of eventual frustration. Granted that all politics involves some coercion, and that ruthless practitioners may sometimes be shrewd bargainers, that isn’t the whole story. The most politically skillful, while understanding when they have to be tough and unyielding, also know just when and how they must seek out common ground and areas of mutual understanding. Absent those talents, demonstrated past successes in, say, launching a new technology, building a giant business, or acquiring great wealth, are no guarantees of of similarly triumphant political achievement. Political leadership frequently requires large egos, but also an ability to negotiate with the large egos of both confederates and opponents whose support is indispensable, and who may also have a whole repertoire of ways to resist unwelcome changes in their power and privileges. Beaverbrook did have two moments of great political impact, in the war conditions of 1916 and 1940. Today’s less talented egomaniacs are unlikely to do as well.

(Neil Cameron is a Montreal historian and Discourse Online contributor. This essay was first published by the Prince Arthur Herald.)