Lord Beaverbrook was an extraordinary man , who as a politician and much more importantly owner of the Express and Evening Standard was highly influential in the first half of the 20th century. He was a man who aroused extraordinary strong opinions he was described by Atlee and Rebecca West ( one of his innumerable mistresses) as “evil” and by Field Marshall Lord Alan Brooke as “an evil genius who exercised the very worst effects on Winston”.
This new biography “ Max Beaverbrook: Not Quite A Gentleman” by Labour peer, Lord Charles Williams is a welcome addition and certainly gives us plenty if insight into his character – his extraordinary ability to make a room come alive , his relentless and often mischievous energy and his extraordinary ability to seduce – and then treat abysmally, a vast number and range of women.
Beaverbrook had a meteoric rise – born the son of a poor Canadian clergyman of the Church of Scotland by the age of 30 he had made a fortune. Williams makes a valiant attempt to explain how the fortune was made through his skills in merging and reorganising companies but at the end of the day his defining deal , which made him C$5m remain obscure. It was dodgy enough though to mean he had a very poor reputation in Canada and he came to Britain where in 1910 he became a Tory MP and then in 1917 a peer. He had bought the Express on a whim and built it into the UKs best selling paper – and one which Beaverbrook used to carry on his vendettas and push his ideas for Empire free trade – some of which have many resonances with the Brexiteers fantasies today – though to be fair to Beaverbrook we did at least have an empire in those days.
His finest moment came in 1940 when Churchill made him Minister of Aircraft Production – a job in which he was said to have made a big difference in winning the Battle of Britain by doing whatever it took to increase production if fighter planes. That is certainly the story put about by Beaverbrook and the hagiographic official biography by AJP Taylor but the coverage here is disappointing – a chapter of 19 pages much of which is not concerned with the MAP job. It is clear that the main claim of AJP Taylor that “ it was Beaverbrook who made survival possible” is wrong as the effect of Beaverbrook’s changes didn’t come through until 1941. But it would be been good to have a much more detailed look at what Beaverbrook did in this role – and whether it was on balance positive or negative.
One area it would have been nice to have more of it is how his (often very bad ) relations with colleagues in Government were affected by the knowledge that if they fell out with him, his newspapers would turn on them and more about how he controlled his newspapers.
So how evil was he ? Just like his famous charm this doesn’t really come across. It was perhaps the combination of ruthlessness, cynicism and a delight in trouble making which combined with no qualms at all about using his papers to help his friends and punish his enemies.
I can recommend this book -its not perfect and perhaps Beaverbrook needs a really heavy duty biographer – but its an excellent read for anyone interested in the politics of the period – or the use of power.