Max Beaverbrook: Not Quite a Gentleman by Charles Williams

Max Beaverbrook is one of the most entertaining figures ever to have sat in a British Cabinet. He did so twice, during both the First and the Second World Wars, despite being detested and distrusted by a large part of the Establishment.

And yet the Beaver, as he was known, has slipped almost into oblivion, a name but not much more to most people under the age of 70. This book performs the valuable task of bringing a strange and gifted figure once more before the public.

Charles Williams provides, at the start of this biography, a useful list of some of the people who loathed Beaverbrook. They included Kings George V and VI, Stanley Baldwin, Clement Attlee, Lords Alanbrooke and Curzon, Hugh Dalton, Ernest Bevin and “a large segment of the Canadian political and industrial establishments”.

But Winston Churchill decided he was just the man to put in charge of aircraft production in May 1940, and David Lloyd George entrusted propaganda to him in early 1918, when the Germans were gathering themselves for a last attempt at a knockout blow in the west.

Beaverbrook was an adventurer who spotted opportunities where others could only see problems; a businessman of genius whose early fortune was founded on attaining, by devious manoeuvres to which this author devotes too much attention, a near monopoly in Canadian cement.

He was born Max Aitken in 1879, the third son of the Reverend William Aitken, a Scottish Presbyterian minister who had emigrated to New Brunswick, in Canada, as there were no jobs going in Scotland. Max was a rebel who started out with nothing except a knowledge of the Bible, but who soon displayed astonishing gifts as a financier.

Having made large sums and a reputation for sharp practice in Canada, he moved to Britain, where in December 1910 he was elected Conservative MP for Ashton-under-Lyne. At the same time he made friends with Bonar Law, like him the son of a minister in New Brunswick, who the following year became Conservative Party leader.

Aitken was at the heart of the manoeuvres which at the end of 1916 saw Asquith supplanted as Prime Minister by Lloyd George, after which Aitken was raised to the peerage as the first Lord Beaverbrook.

The King was not pleased, nor were the upper reaches of the aristocracy. But Beaverbrook had taken control of The Daily Express, and was turning it into an enormous success, the greatest mid-market newspaper of its time, smart and popular and a source for its proprietor of great influence, for there could be no doubt who decided the editorial line.

Beaverbrook sent jolts of electricity through any outfit where he took control. He was a malicious bully who was also capable of great generosity, and who stood by friends when they got into trouble. He had a brilliant eye for talented subordinates.

He despised Stanley Baldwin, who dominated the Conservative Party for the 14 years after Bonar Law’s death in 1923. Baldwin tempted Beaverbrook into overplaying his hand, and gave him and his fellow press baron Lord Rothermere a bloody nose by accusing them of exercising “power without responsibility – the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages”.

It seemed as though Beaverbrook’s career, except as a newspaper proprietor and a writer of vivid and perceptive books about Lloyd George and other men of power he had known, might well be over. Then the nation turned to Churchill, an outsider in Conservative Party terms, and Churchill needed to recruit other outsiders who could help him to grip and dynamise Whitehall.

This is the most exciting part of Williams’s account. The pace quickens as Beaverbrook seeks to ensure that the RAF gets the planes it needs. He picks tremendous battles within the bureaucracy, threatens at frequent intervals to resign, but is told by the Prime Minister that he is indispensable.

For Churchill, Beaverbrook is a boon companion, a friend with whom in the darkest days of the war he can find relief from the almost intolerable burden of leadership, an ally who can be sent to negotiate with Stalin and Roosevelt, and who charms them too. Clementine Churchill, by contrast, regarded him with “lifelong distrust”.

The first sentence of this book reads:

“Lady Diana Cooper, in her day one of London’s leading society lionesses, described Max Beaverbrook as ‘this strange attractive gnome with an odour of genius about him’.”

The word “lionesses” will not do as a category in which to place Lady Diana. Nor is there any need for “in her day”. But the quotation which follows is wonderful.

This mixture runs through the book. Williams can be cloth-eared, but has a keen eye for good material. The dust jacket notes that he is 86. His industry puts many younger biographers to shame.

At times, however, it is excessive. He sketches more of the background to various early transactions than we really need, and this thoroughness is accompanied by a sense of responsibility which sometimes gets in the way of conveying his subject’s utter irresponsibility.

He is not unscrupulous enough to revel in Beaverbrook’s exploits. The author remarks that his own wife, Jane Portal, who got to know Beaverbrook in her capacity as Churchill’s secretary, “still describes him as ‘somebody you would instinctively walk away from’.”

Her instinctive reaction was right. Beaverbrook usually treated the women in his life, who were numerous, with cruel neglect once his eye had been attracted by new conquests.

To get an idea of how intolerable but also invigorating Beaverbrook was, the short sketch of him in old age by his great-nephew, Jonathan Aitken, published as the first essay in Heroes and Contemporaries (2006), is in some ways a better place to start.

Williams quotes an admirable description of Beaverbrook by Peter Masefield, who worked for him during the war:

“He was unlike any other man I ever knew. For all his foibles and tough exterior, he was at heart deeply sensitive and often lonely. Critical, thrusting, demanding, self-centred and intolerant, he could be kind and even generous, just as he could be hasty and vindictive. He could reverse passionate feelings within hours. He perpetually maintained a hard front, even when the man inside had softened. I often thought of the frightened little boy in Canada, whose Presbyterian father had drunk away the family’s slender funds.”

The religion mattered. Beaverbrook was steeped in it, and said it was better to be an evangelist than a cabinet minister or a millionaire. As a lapsed Calvinist, he suffered from deep feelings of guilt, and was profoundly hurt by the scathing reviews given to one of his last books, The Divine Propagandist, which attempted “to present the life of Jesus as it appears to worldly men of my generation”.

Williams touches on the religion, but does not convey how important it was. Perhaps that is an impossible task. Beaverbrook was good at covering his tracks, and in 1964, shortly before his death, had a lot of his personal papers burned.

He liked buying up other men’s papers, and controlling access to them during his lifetime, but there were strict limits to how mischievous the great mischief maker wanted anyone else to be at his own expense.

It is a pity he is not better known today, for among many other qualities, he was a remarkable journalist, who for over 60 years cultivated at his various houses a range of contacts of which most people could only dream, and was ruthless and vulgar enough to publish what they told him, except when he was covering up Churchill’s stroke or Tom Driberg’s trial for indecent assault.

Beaverbrook’s  refusal to treat the Establishment with the respect it believed it deserved was attractive to men of the Left such as Driberg, Michael Foot and A.J.P.Taylor.

But it was not attractive to Attlee. When Churchill said during the 1945 general election that a Labour government “would have to fall back on some form of Gestapo” – an accusation against his wartime coalition partner which was generally reckoned to have gone much too far – Attlee was quick to counter-attack, while at the same time exculpating Churchill, whom he liked and admired:

“The voice we heard last night was that of Mr Churchill, but the mind was that of Lord Beaverbrook.”