William Maxwell Aitken, the third son and fifth member of a family of ten children, whose father, William Cuthbert Aitken (1834–1913), was a Presbyterian minister, was born in Maple, Ontario, on 25th May 1879. His biographer, David George Boyce, has argued: "Until he was sixteen he attended the local school, where he was described as a bright but idle boy and (an epithet which he was to relish later in life) mischievous. He was also sensitive and nervous and harboured a fear of death that remained with him."
In 1895 he failed his examination for Dalhousie University after refusing to sit the Latin and Greek papers. He moved to Chatham where he became local correspondent of The Montreal Star and an agent for the Great West Life insurance company. He then moved to St John, with the intention of being a lawyer. However, he eventually worked as a full-time insurance agent, but this did not turn out to be a very successful venture.
In 1900 Aitken moved to Halifax, a rapidly growing town that was developing an infrastructure of gas, telephones, and tramways. Aitken became friendly with John Fitzwilliam Stairs, a financial expert and highly successful businessman. With the help of Stairs he began dealing on the stock market. He also bought and sold companies as well as investing in Cuba and Puerto Rico.
On 29th January 1906 he married Gladys Henderson Drury. The authors of Beaverbrook: A Life (1992) pointed out: "The bride was Gladys Drury, a girl universally liked and universally thought beautiful. She was very young, eighteen to his twenty-six, with long auburn hair and green eyes... The Drurys were a cut above the Aitkens. The bride's distinguished father, Lieutenant-Colonel (later Brigadier-General) Charles Drury, had lately been appointed to a coverted post demanding social as well as military accomplishments; he was the first Canadian to command the Halifax garrison after the British Army relinquished its responsibilities." Their first child, Janet, was born on 9th July 1908.
In 1909 the cement industry in Canada was in grave trouble. Overproduction and the establishment of new companies meant that the producers had to cut their prices to the point where they found it very difficult to be profitable. Aitken began buying these companies and merging them into one company he called Canada Cement. By September 1909 he had a near monopoly of the cement industry.
Sir Sandford Fleming, Canada's leading industrialists, accused of Aitken of corrupt business activities, claiming that he had bought the merged companies for some $14,000,000, whereas he had told the shareholders that he had paid over $27,000,000, and issued himself with bonds and shares far in excess of the companies' true cost. The case received a great deal of publicity and after paying back a large sum of money to shareholders, he decided to move to London.
Aitken soon became friends with Andrew Bonar Law, a leading figure in the Conservative Party. As David George Boyce has pointed out: "The two men got on well, despite their very different individual temperaments: both had Scots-Canadian connections, both were sons of the manse, both were businessmen." Aitken gave Bonar Law business advice. A.J.P. Taylor claimed in his book, Beaverbrook (1972) that Bonar Law "probably benefited to the extent of some £10,000 a year."
In November 1910 Law recommended him as a possible parliamentary candidate for Ashton under Lyne. Aitken agreed to fight the seat and with plenty of money to spend on publicity he was able to organise a good campaign. A local reporter claimed: "He set a new fashion in electioning... He planned the election exactly as though it were some great new business enterprise." Aitken won the seat by 196 votes.
Aitken rarely spoke in the House of Commons. However, he became a leading political figure because of his financial contributions to Conservative Party. Aitken bought Cherkley Court, a large house near Leatherhead, which became a centre of political gatherings. Aitken began to appear in political cartoons. David Low commented: "He was not a ready-made subject for caricature. Large head, boyish face, full cheeks, wide forehead, unruly hair, small nose with peculiar curve, wide grin belied by sharp light eye, slight small figure, short neck, high shoulders, neat extremities, hairy hands, undistinguished dark blue suit. The whole thing lay in the wide grin belied by the sharp eye."
In 1911 Aitken and several senior figures in the party put up £40,000 to buy The Globe, the oldest of London's seven evening newspaper. Founded in 1803 and printed on pink paper. According to the authors of of Beaverbrook: A Life (1992): "The Globe, though unsuccessful, gave Aitken useful practice in dealing with advertisers and editors, like a young fighter testing his skills in the amateur ring before turning professional." Aitken also purchased shares in The Daily Express.
Aitken remained close to Andrew Bonar Law and supported him in his bid to oust Arthur Balfour as party leader. In October 1911 Aitken wrote to his friend, Rudyard Kipling: "Bonar Law has come to the conclusion that Balfour's position is very dangerous. Bonar is loyal to his leader, but admits that he may owe his allience elsewhere in the near future." Balfour resigned on 8th November.
At a meeting of Conservative MPs on 13th November, it was discovered that it seemed to be a contest between Joseph Chamberlain and Walter Long. Bonar Law only had 40 firm supporters. Balfour's secretary wrote to his boss during the leadership contest: "Much intrigue has been at work.... Bonar Law's own methods are open to much criticism. In this struggle I am told that he has been run by Max Aitken, the little Canadian adventurer who sits for Ashton-under-Lyne. Aitken practically owns the Daily Express and the Daily Express has run Bonar Law for the last two days for all it is worth. The real Bonar Law appears to be a man of boundless ambition untempered by any particular nice feelings. It is a revelation."
With the help of Aitken, Bonar Law became the new leader. It has been argued that Bonar Law's accession to the leadership probably saved the unity of the Conservative Party. David Low has argued: "He (Aitken) dislocated the pattern, ruptured the continuity, pushed traditions and institutions around. His loyalty was placed where and when, in his arbitrary judgment, at any given time, it was deserved. He certainly did not conform to anything. He was nobody but himself. Two simple ideas underlaid the success story in Canadian business: mergers and the exploitation of new values there from. His subsequent story in British politics had run on the same lines. His main political operations had been all mergers, achieved or attempted, of people, parties and/or policies." H. G. Wells suggested: "If ever Max ever gets to Heaven, he won't last long. He will be chucked out for trying to pull off a merger between Heaven and Hell after having secured a controlling interest in key subsidiary companies in both places, of course."
The outbreak of the First World War in August 1914 gave Aitken the opportunity to show his organisational skills. On 3rd October, 1914, 30,000 Canadian troops sailed for England. They camped on Salisbury Plain while they received training before being sent to the Western Front. Aitken became honorary lieutenant-colonel and was appointed to help the Canadian Overseas Expeditionary Force. He was instrumental in creating the Canadian War Records Office in London and arranged for stories about Canadian forces appearing in newspapers. In January 1916 Aitken published the first volume of Canada in Flanders.
Valentine Browne, 6th Earl of Kenmare, met Aitken during this period: "He was not very tall but sturdy enough. His head was large and round - eyes far apart. He was dressed in the uniform of a Canadian colonel, wearing no strap on his belt and boots laced up the centre. Not a military figure from a Guardsman's point of view but singularly engaging from a young man's angle. The approach to youth is delicate. Some have a sensitive touch and they alone always know how to get response out of mankind... Max Aitken had this touch."
In 1916 Aitken purchased a controlling interest in The Daily Express. However, he kept this a secret as he disapproved of the way the war was being pursued and used his newspaper to undermine the power of Herbert Asquith. He was also involved in the plot to remove Asquith from power. He later recalled that it was the most important thing that he had done in politics: "The destruction of the Asquith Government which was brought about by an honest intrigue. If the Asquith government had gone on, the country would have gone down."
The consequences of the Battle of the Somme in the summer of 1916 put further pressure on Asquith. Colin Matthew has commented: "The huge casualties of the Somme implied a further drain on manpower and further problems for an economy now struggling to meet the demands made of it... Shipping losses from the U-boats had begun to be significant... Early in November 1916 he called for all departments to write memoranda on how they saw the pattern of 1917, the prologue to a general reconsideration of the allies' position."
At a meeting in Paris on 4th November, 1916, David Lloyd George came to the conclusion that the present structure of command and direction of policy could not win the war and might well lose it. Lloyd George agreed with Maurice Hankey, secretary of the Imperial War Cabinet, that he should talk to Andrew Bonar Law, the leader of the Conservative Party, about the situation. Bonar Law remained loyal to Asquith and so Lloyd George contacted Aitken instead and told him about his suggested reforms.
On 18th November, Aitken lunched with Bonar Law and put Lloyd George's case for reform. He also put forward the arguments for Lloyd George becoming the leader of the coalition. He later recalled in his book, Politicians and the War (1928): "Once he had taken up war as his metier he seemed to breathe its true spirit; all other thoughts and schemes were abandoned, and he lived for, thought of and talked of nothing but the war. Ruthless to inefficiency and muddle-headedness in his conduct, sometimes devious, if you like, in the means employed when indirect methods would serve him in his aim, he yet exhibited in his country's death-grapple a kind of splendid sincerity."
Together, Aitken, Lloyd George, Bonar Law and Edward Carson, drafted a statement addressed to Asquith, proposing a war council triumvirate and the Prime Minister as overlord. On 25th November, Bonar Law took the proposal to Asquith, who agreed to think it over. The next day he rejected it. Further negotiations took place and on 2nd December Asquith agreed to the setting up of "a small War Committee to handle the day to day conduct of the war, with full powers", independent of the cabinet. This information was leaked to the press by Carson. On 4th December The Times used these details of the War Committee to make a strong attack on Asquith. The following day he resigned from office. On 7th December George V asked Lloyd George to form a second coalition government.
Aitken expected David Lloyd George, the new prime minister, to appoint him as President of the Board of Trade, but this did not happen. Instead he was granted a peerage and as Lord Beaverbrook he became a leading political figure in Britain. However, Beaverbrook remained critical of the government and in 1917 he helped finance The Imperialist, a newspaper run by the right-wing MP, Noel Pemberton Billing. His biographer, Geoffrey Russell Searle, has pointed out that "Billing campaigned for a unified air service, helped force the government to establish an air inquiry, and advocated reprisal raids against German cities. He also became adept at exploiting a variety of popular discontents."
The journal also claimed the existence of a secret society called the Unseen Hand. As Ernest Sackville Turner, the author of Dear Old Blighty (1980) has pointed out: "One of the great delusions of the war was that there existed an Unseen (or Hidden, or Invisible) Hand, a pro-German influence which perennially strove to paralyse the nation's will and to set its most heroic efforts at naught... As defeat seemed to loom, as French military morale broke and Russia made her separate peace, more and more were ready to believe that the Unseen Hand stood for a confederacy of evil men, taking their orders from Berlin, dedicated to the downfall of Britain by subversion of the military, the Cabinet, the Civil Service and the City; and working not only through spiritualists, whores and homosexuals."
Beaverbrook decided against supporting The Imperialist after he was told that he was to become the first Minister of Information, responsible for Allied propaganda in Allied and neutral countries. Lord Northcliffe became Director of Propaganda, with the job of controlling propaganda in enemy countries.
On 9th February, 1918, Noel Pemberton Billing launched a savage attack on Lord Beaverbrook in The Imperialist. "His name for the moment is Beaverbrook; and was Max Aitken, which some people believe is derived from an original name of Isaacs. If this is true, he belongs to the same tribe as our Lord Chief Justice Ambassador, and the ruling and representing of Britain has become a close tribal affair ... It seems, if they have accepted Lord Beaverbrook as Minister of Propaganda, they have walked into the first trap baited by a banking organisation most to be feared by those who wish this country well."
After the war Beaverbrook concentrated on his newspaper business. He told the readers of the Daily Express that his newspaper was "the prophet of equal opportunity and the unrelenting opponent of that system of preferred chances which gives one man an unfair opportunity over a more competent rival." In 1919 the newspaper's circulation was under 400,000; but by 1930 it was 1,693,000 and in 1937 it stood at 2,329,000, the largest circulation of any newspaper in the British Isles.
Beaverbrook, who developed ideas pioneered by Alfred Harmsworth and the Daily Mail, turned the Daily Express into the most widely read newspaper in the world. Beaverbrook also founded the Sunday Express (1921) and in 1929 purchased the Evening Standard. Beaverbrook's biographer, David George Boyce, has tried to explain the success of his newspaper: "This was because of its popular, aggressive tone, but also its optimism, enthusiasm, and claim to speak for those who were, like Beaverbrook himself, determined to stand up for themselves and take control of their own lives. There were also lively features, and all this in the style of the new journalism. Beaverbrook, like his great predecessor Northcliffe, was careful to keep up with the new technology and to experiment with layout. Unlike Northcliffe he did not use stunts to promote sales: his success was based on his belief in the importance of the words on the page, and to this end he hired first-rate staff - financial writers like Francis Williams and the great cartoonist David Low (whom Beaverbrook brought to the Evening Standard in 1927)."
Beaverbrook was a strong supporter of appeasement in the late 1930s and his newspaper praised Neville Chamberlain and the Munich Agreement, with the Daily Express claiming on 22nd September 1938 that Britain had made no pledge to protect the frontiers of Czechoslovakia. In March 1939 he denied that Chamberlain had made any absolute guarantee to Poland, and when war broke out in September, Beaverbrook's political judgement was severely damaged.
After a meeting with Winston Churchill on 10th May, 1940, Beaverbrook threw his energy behind the war effort. Churchill appointed Beaverbrook minister of aircraft production, knowing how good Beaverbrook was at inspiring and driving staff. Beaverbrook took over responsibility for repairs to damaged aircraft, as well as production of new planes. On 2nd August he became a member of the war cabinet.
Other posts held by Beaverbrook during the Second World War included Minister of Supply (1941-2), Minister of War Production (1942), and Lord Privy Seal (1943-45). He eventually clashed with Ernest Bevin. The historian, A.J.P. Taylor, has argued: "Beaverbrook had a fatal weakness. He had no political following. He commanded no wide popularity in parliament or in the country. He was in his own words, a court favourite, who owed his position to Churchill's friendship. The protecting hand was now withdrawn. Beaverbrook's defeat was cloaked by the excuse of physical illness. No doubt more lay behind. Churchill could not go into battle against Bevin. Besides he did not want to. Beaverbrook was as enthusiastic for Soviet Russia and the Second Front as any factory worker. Churchill resisted these enthusiasms. This brought Beaverbrook down. He left the government."
In 1947 Beaverbrook told the Royal Commission on the Press he ran his papers for propaganda purposes, and that he was unwilling to allow his editors to oppose policies that were "dear to his heart". He argued: "No paper is any good at all for propaganda unless it has a thoroughly good financial position. So we worked very hard to build up a commercial position on that account". The commission later reported that Beaverbrook picked staff who shared his views and policies. This included his views on the European Common Market (EEC) which he complained was "an American device to put us alongside Germany. As our power was broken and lost by two German wars, it is very hard on us now to be asked to align ourselves with those villains".
His biographer, David George Boyce, points out: "He argued that free enterprise was the way forward, but he was not a consistently right-wing thinker: the cold war was, he thought, unnecessary. He still clung to the ideas of imperial unity, freedom from foreign entanglements, and a distant relationship with the United States of America, all of which though not necessarily mistaken - were out of touch with the times. He remained the empire crusader, opposing British acceptance of an American loan in 1947, and, above all, against the British application to join the European Common Market (EEC)."
William Maxwell Aitken, Lord Beaverbrook, died of cancer at Cherkley Court on 9th June, 1964.