Hello I’m Colin Sanders and this is the History Books Review where I read history books and tell you what I think of them, and maybe pick a few interesting points out to give you a taste. This time I’m covering a new book called The Ministry of Spin by Richard Milton, an author whose work I haven’t really come across before.
We all have odd memories that stick in our minds from a young age. I have one from some time in the early seventies. It was an advert on the television advising of the wisdom of making sure you know what is behind you when driving. It was a cartoon that showed a man driving a car that gradually panned out to show that he was being followed by a turban wearing man on an elephant. You should use your mirror frequently. Good advice! I hope you take note. It was credited to the Central Office of Information.
My child mind was intrigued by the notion that there was an office somewhere where all the information was kept. It must, I supposed, be quite a big place. I don’t remember this body ever coming to my attention again. But in fact the Central Office of Information is part of the interesting story of how British governments adapted the propaganda techniques learnt in World War 2 to communicate their messages to the electorate. It is a story that at the time was hidden behind plenty of smoke and lots of mirrors. The public, who were paying for it all, knew nothing about. (Though thanks to Guy Burgess, Stalin was very well informed about what was going on indeed.)
It is hardly surprising that politicians would take a keen interest in the way their policies were sold to the electors. And as there is a grey area between legitimately communicating what the government is up to and manipulating the message to portray the politicians in a good light, it isn’t surprising that they would interpret it in a way favourable to themselves. It is perhaps slightly more surprising just how extensive this activity was. In the late forties the government sponsored hundreds of films. This was the mass media of the day and if you wanted to find an audience, they were in the cinema. But it went further even than this, with actual news agencies being bought up and used to promote the interests of the UK and its rulers.
The basic thesis of the book is that post war governments have used the emergency war powers to issue state funded Propaganda to win support for their political objectives. The book opens with a dramatic scene in House of Commons, which gets us off to a rollicking start but it isn’t really where the actual story of the book begins.
This starts in 1945. Herbert Morrison was the main man behind it all. He combined huge ego and lust for power with great skill at Machiavellian manipulations. He set up a committee to basically revive the highly successful Ministry of Information that produced propaganda for Britain during the war. It would now be devoted to selling the policies of the government to the people.
The 1945 Labour government certainly needed some help. Despite being the party of planning it managed to get caught out by the weather and by scheduled loan repayments. Their presentation of their performance was initially as poor as the performance itself. But thanks to Herbert Morrison’s artful co-opting of experts in advertising and PR this was turned around.
It has nothing in particular to do with the central story of the book but there is an interesting digression about the Labour government’s education policy.
It is astonishing to imagine that the Labour government’s education policy could be based on the work of a man called Cyril Burt. He was a eugenicist, and as it turned out later a terrible scientist. He laid the foundations for the 11 + test used to select people to go to Grammar School. This was based not so much on flawed data as positively fraudulent data. This led to streaming of children into 3 different types of school at age 12 more or less arbitrarily, with the ones who were supposed to be brighter getting more resources devoted them than the others. This crazy scheme was to last for decades and still has enthusiasts to this day.
It is easy to demonise an individual like Cyril Burt. He later went on to be the president of Mensa – an organisation devoted to people congratulating themselves on how clever they are. So it can be inferred where his bias came from. But he was only able to get away with it because the prevailing culture was amenable to the idea that he was putting forward. There is no getting away from the fact that some members of the first serious Labour government were not just intellectual snobs but were discriminatory against the people that they were supposed to be representing. It was little wonder they needed help with their communications.
Incidentally the shortcomings of the Grammar School system did become more apparent as time went on, but the government that introduced it can’t be excused on the grounds that nobody knew any different. The discrediting of Burt’s work didn’t take place until the seventies, but the teachers could see the problems straight away and the Association of Labour Teachers came out in favour of comprehensive education in 1948.
Finding fault with some of the attitudes of socialists of the 1940s is one thing. Claiming their preference for using propaganda was what led to the campaign that sugar company Tate and Lyle ran against nationalisation is quite another. But it does give a good reason to tell a good story. It seems incredible nowadays but Tate and Lyle actually published political slogans on the sides of the sugar packs on sale in the grocers up and down the country. As they were responsible for 80 percent of the sugar market they were able to do this with impunity. Although this would seem on the face of it to be a straightforward demonstration of Monopoly power and therefore strengthen the argument in favour of nationalisation, the campaign was effective. The idea of nationalising the sugar industry was shelved and has never been revived.
The line of attack taken was that the government would be too disorganised to effectively distribute the sugar. The accusation that nationalised Industries are by definition incompetent is one that has a history as long as nationalisation itself. It is of course an appealing argument if you oppose nationalisation. Presumably the Tate and Lyle company’s motivations were a bit more self interested than a simple desire to ensure maximum efficiency in sugar distribution. But the argument seemed to work.
Mr Milton’s analysis that this propaganda offensive against the government was only used because the government had already been using propaganda itself seems a little naive to me. I find it hard to imagine that the shareholders would have held back on any strategy they thought would be effective simply because their opponents had behaved like gentlemen.
The Conservative party got back in under Churchill in 1951 and initially cut the funding to the Central Office of Information. But it didn’t take them long to learn its value. Before long they were spinning like the best of them. They were however soon to discover the limits to which manipulation could be pushed.
Anthony Eden, Churchill’s successor, used PR to full effect in the run up to the Suez affair. But it couldn’t save him from the huge political damage caused by the lack of support for the invasion of Egypt from the United States. No amount of favorable PR coverage in the UK newspapers could overcome the fact that a key IMF loan has been blocked by our supposed allies.
Nonetheless it’s an interesting observation that PR techniques were becoming a mainstream part of the political process as early as the 1940s. This continues to this day of course. Opponents of the National Health Service continue to play the inefficiency card whenever they can. Sadly it probably remains an effective tactic.
I didn’t like the way this book was sold via its hyperbolic subtitle and racy synopsis on Amazon. That suggested something rather more sensationalist than the book you actually get. It also suggested a book I wouldn’t want to read. But what you find if you open the pages is a well written account of an interesting and important aspect of post war British politics. The style is popular – it is obviously written by a journalist not an academic. But it deals with the subject matter intelligently and you want to keep reading. I’d like to see more books like this. In particular I would really love to read the sequel to this book where the story is taken up from the 1960s to the present day.
I’ll put the link to its Amazon page on my blog, but do try and support your local bookshop if you can. In the meantime, thanks for listening.