The Empire Crusade was a brief-lived attempt to convert the British Conservative Party to the virtues of protectionism which was fought on the pages of the Express newspapers and in a series of by-elections during the years 1929 to 1931 against the background of the Great Depression. The Crusade was largely the creation of one Max Aitken, 1st Baron Beaverbrook, the proprietor of the Daily Express and was ultimately an attempt by the popular press to create and mobilise public opinion in order to challenge and overwhelm the existing party political system.
The Birth of the Crusade
Having been Prime Minister since October 1924 Stanley Baldwin called a General Election in June 1929, campaigned on the uninspiring slogan of 'Safety First' claiming to be 'The Man you can Trust', and duly lost; an event which ushered in a minority Labour government headed by Ramsay MacDonald.
Beaverbrook was largely of the opinion that under Baldwin's direction, the Conservatives had "nearly ruined the country" and that the solution was the adoption of wholesale protectionism, the keynote of which was a "tax on foreign wheat and meat coming into England", an apparently necessary condition required to bring the farmers on side. As far as Beaverbrook was concerned, Baldwin should either accept the principle of protectionism, or stand aside to allow someone else to do so, and chose to promote his campaign under the slogan of Empire Free Trade and warned that otherwise the nation would be forced to either become a "hanger-on of the European System" or a "satellite of America".
There was of course, nothing particularly new about this, as back in 1903 one Joseph Chamberlain had argued in favour of what he called Tariff Reform, that is a policy of import tariffs coupled with preferential terms for the component territories of the British Empire, a development which led to a long-running debate within the Conservative Party between the proponents of protectionism and those of free trade. A succession of Conservative party leaders including Arthur Balfour, Andrew Bonar Law, and Stanley Baldwin all toyed with the notion of Tariff Reform, only to drop the idea once it became clear that imposing taxes on imported food was distinctly unpopular with the voting public.
Amongst those who became convinced of the benefits of Tariff Reform was the Baron Beaverbrook himself, although he was just plain Max Aitken at the time, and he now decided to revive his old obsession. Beaverbrook himself was to claim that the difference between Chamberlain's Tariff Reform and his plan was that whilst Chamberlain had "proposed a tariff wall around Great Britain"; his idea was to build a "tariff wall around the whole Empire". The distinction was however, more apparent than real, as Chamberlain was similarly convinced of the benefits of trade within the Empire, but nevertheless Beaverbrook now proposed that the rather loose collection of independent dominions, dependent territories, and various protectorates known as the British Empire should form itself into a new trading block, and that he was therefore advocating nothing less than the "fiscal union of the Empire". Thus would the British Empire be "made one and everlastingly prosperous by the unbreakable link of Free Trade between all its parts". Beaverbrook adopted the slogan of 'Empire Free Trade' for no better reason, as he admitted himself, than that the British public were so fond of the principle of free trade that "they would only swallow protection if suitably disguised".
It was on the 8th July 1929 that the Daily Express announced the birth of a new "minority movement", that of the "Empire Crusaders", and a few days later on the 11th July the Baron Beaverbrook came forward to explain how he had "combined with the Daily Express to launch the Imperial crusade". (Beaverbrook always liked to give the impression that he was entirely unconnected with the newspapers that he owned and controlled.) This Empire Crusade was soon endorsed by Arthur Conan Doyle whose letter of support was printed in the Express on the 15th July, whilst on the 17th July 1929 the paper reported that John Ferguson, the Conservative candidate in the upcoming Twickenham by-election, had declared his support for the Empire Crusade.
In the meantime the Empire Crusade attracted the support of a number of prominent businessmen such as Samuel Waring, Baring Waring and chairman of Warrng and Gillow, Alfred Mond, 1st Baron Melchet the chairman of ICI and Hugo Cunliffe-Owen of British American Tobacco, whilst on the 30th July Patrick Joseph Hannon the Conservative member for Birmingham and chairman of Birmingham Small Arms also endorsed the Crusade. Hannon was persuaded to write an article for the Express which appeared under the headline 'Empire Shirkers' and put forward the notion that the Empire should be "completely independent" of foreign markets; although this was only part of the deluge of pro-Crusade coverage that appeared in both the daily and Sunday versions of the Express as well as the Evening Standard; even the merest hint of a favourable mention in the Alberta Farmer led the Express to claim that 'Canada Joins the Empire Crusade'.
As it turned out, Conservative Party Central Office formally repudiated John Ferguson on the 23rd July, a few days after he declared his support for the Crusade, although with the by-election set for the 8th August there was no time for the Party to select an alternative candidate. As it was, Ferguson scraped home by 500 votes in what should have been a reasonably secure Conservative seat, but the result was nevertheless hailed by Beaverbrook as a great victory for his Crusade.
Following a brief trip to the Soviet Union where he visited the Kremlin and met Josef Stalin, Beaverbrook returned to Britain and began building a campaign organisation. He hired Bruce Lockhart as his chief lieutenant, established a headquarters in Trafalgar Square, and began recruiting a number of public spirited individuals to serve on his Empire Crusade Committee whose members eventually included the aforementioned Cunliffe-Owen and PJ Hannon, as well as James Parr, former New Zealand High Commissioner, and the obligatory representatives of aristocracy in the form of the Lords Lovat and Chaplin. (It should be noted however, that a good number of these individuals such as Parr and Hannon were on Beaverbrook's payroll.)
On the 24th October 1929 under the headline 'Manifesto Out Today' the Express announced the publication of Empire Free Trade by Lord Beaverbrook, priced at a penny, since Beaverbrook was working on the principle that people took much more notice of propaganda that they'd paid good money for. The Empire Crusade then set about producing propaganda to counter the main objection to the notion of Empire Free Trade, which was that it would increase the cost of food, by arguing that given guaranteed markets British farmers would "produce abundantly" thereby ensuring that any increase in price would be minimal. There were many that doubted this conclusion, but any such doubts were brushed aside, at least in the pages of the Express newspapers.
Once this message had been hammered home, it was time to take the next step and seek recruits for the campaign, and on the 10th December 1929 the Daily Express ran the headline 'Join the Empire Crusade today' on its front page as it announced that "the great body of feeling in the country which is behind the movement must be crystallised in effective form" and that a register of supporters was being compiled together with the selection of officers. On the following day the paper claimed that there had been a "tremendous response" to its appeal as the first Crusaders signed up to this new political movement.
The United Empire Party
From the beginning Beaverbrook made efforts to elicit the support of his fellow Press Baron the Viscount Rothermere, who owned the Daily Mail amongst other things. Rothermere had also developed an intense dislike of Stanley Baldwin, although in Rothermere's case it appeared to be more to do with his disappointment in not being awarded an earldom in return for supporting Baldwin's successful leadership bid back in 1924, rather than any question of policy. However as much as Rothermere disliked Baldwin he was opposed to the idea of food taxes, and whilst he was happy for his newspapers to publicise the Empire Crusade, he felt unable to lend it his whole-hearted support.
Nevertheless Beaverbrook continued to court Rothermere throughout 1929, and by the end of the year it appeared that the two had established some kind of common ground. In January 1930 the Daily Mail suggested that Beaverbrook should replace Baldwin as Conservative Party leader, whilst the Daily Express reciprocated with similarly complimentary sentiments regarding the abilities of the Lord Rothermere.
On the 18th February 1930 the Daily Express announced the formation of a new party, the United Empire Party, for which the justification was that "No one of the existing parties is big enough to embrace the doctrine of Empire Free Trade in its entirety". On the following day the Express reported that Rothermere supported the new party, and on the 20th February announced an appeal for a £100,000 fighting fund, whilst on the 28th February the Express announced that "No MP espousing the cause of Empire Free Trade will be opposed by a United Empire candidate"; a statement which was a clear implied threat to every Conservative candidate who failed to fall in with Beaverbrook's wishes.
Beaverbrook's eagerness to get Rothermere onside was explained by the fact that between them the two peers controlled no less than eight national newspapers, whilst Rothermere also possessed a chain of local newspapers. With such media firepower at their disposal they believed that together they possessed the ability to mould public opinion in whatever direction they desired. Or as
Rothermere told Beaverbrook; "No two men ever had the ball more completely at their feet than you and I have today". The United Empire Party was duly promoted on the front page of the Daily Mail for ten days in succession, and it was a similar story in the other newspapers controlled by the pair as the public were subjected to a relentless press barrage pressing home the point that it was the United Empire Party that embodied the "true spirit of Conservatism".
However as it turned out, one of the key demands of the United Empire Party was for a referendum on the issue of Empire Free Trade, and on the 5th March 1930 Baldwin apparently conceded this point, and agreed to hold a referendum on the issue. Beaverbrook hailed this as a "Bloodless Victory" and the greatest advance in the cause of the Empire Crusade, and so on the 8th March 1930 announced that he was withdrawing from the United Empire Party and that all the donations received would be returned. Rothermere however begged to differ and decided (for the time being) to continue with his promotion of the United Empire Party, although he now broadened its scope to include a call for "ruthless economy", coupled with the call for "no surrender" in India, and a refusal to countenance relations with the Soviet Union. As far as Beaverbrook was concerned this was a "complete departure from the original aims" of the Party, since he had no particular interest in India, and was quite well deposed towards the Russians, and so resolved to continue to pursue the aims of Empire Free Trade by other means.
The Empire Crusade Revived
On the 3rd April it was all change again when the Daily Express announced that the Empire Crusade had re-opened for business and was now appealing for a fighting fund of £250,000, and on the 5th April even announced the formation of the League of Young Crusaders. Given the claim of a 'bloodless victory' in the previous month, this was a rather abrupt about turn, but it seemed that, having called for a referendum on the issue of Empire Free Trade, Beaverbrook now argued that the Conservatives had only conceded this point in order to frustrate rather than progress the cause.
The now revived Crusade then seized on the up-coming West Fulham by-election, which had arisen as a result of the resignation of George Ernest Spero due to ill health, and ensured that the Conservative candidate Cyril Cobb endorsed its aims, although this time around Conservative Party Central Office decided to leave well alone and did not to repeat its previous mistake of disowning him. 'Crusader Captures Socialist Seat' proclaimed the Express when the result of the by-election held on the 6th May was declared and Cobb was returned to Parliament with a majority of 240 votes, despite the fact that Cobb had previously held the seat from 1918 until he was surprisingly defeated by the Labour candidate George Spero at the General Election of 1929.
With victory in West Fulham secured, the Crusade turned its attention to extolling the virtues of the Empire loaf, the 'Finest Bread in the World', which it persuaded Harrods to sell, before turning its attention to the next crop of by-elections. First came the North Norfolk by-election of July 1930, where Conservative candidate Thomas Russell Albert Cook openly declared his support for the Crusade which he proclaimed as the "salvation of British Agriculture". Beaverbrook travelled to Norfolk on a number of occasions to speak on behalf of Cook, but in the end could do no more than reduce the Labour majority from 1883 to 179. However the succeeding Bromley by-election proved to be less fertile ground for the campaign, as although the Conservative candidate Edward Taswell Campbell offered his "warmest personal support" to the policy of Empire Free Trade, he insisted that he would also "loyally support the duly-elected leader of my party".
Nevertheless, the fact that both Conservative candidates had come out in favour or protectionism suggested that the tide was moving n Beaverbrook's favour. Both The Times and the Trades Union Congress supported the policy and it seemed as if the Empire Crusade was on the verge of some tremendous success and that it was only matter of time before Baldwin would be forced to resign.
The next test came with the South Paddington by-election scheduled for the 31st October 1930. Here the Conservative candidate was Herbert Lidiard, the chairman of the local Conservative Association and a natural loyalist who came out in support of Baldwin, and declined to endorse the principles of Empire Free Trade. The Empire Crusade was therefore obliged to put forward an alternative in the form of Vice-Admiral Ernest Augustus Taylor who thereby became the first 100% Empire Crusade candidate. The Express duly characterised the contest as being one of "Conservative Imperialist v Conservative wobbler" and quite ignored the presence of Mrs Stewart-Richardson the United Empire Party candidate.
It certainly seemed as if there were many in the Conservative Party who were wobbling, as the chief whip told Baldwin that over forty MPs were of the opinion that "a change in leadership is essential to the national interest". In the circumstances, Baldwin was obliged to convene a meeting of Conservative MPs, peers and prospective candidates at the Caxton Hall on the eve of the South Paddington poll which Beaverbrook attended (he was after all a peer). No doubt Beaverbrook was disappointed when the meeting returned a vote in support of Baldwin's leadership by a majority of 346.
However despite this vote of confidence in Baldwin, the Empire Crusade candidate won a resounding victory over the official Conservative candidate at South Paddington, whilst the United Empire Party only managed to gather rather less than 500 votes, which was perhaps not surprising given that even the Lord Rothermere himself decided to withdraw his support from Mrs Stewart-Richardson on the grounds that "no woman candidate seeking to secure Conservative votes would have any chance of success unless, like the Duchess of Atholl or Viscountess Astor, she had a high title".
War To The Knife With Baldwin
Although Baldwin remarked on the 17th November 1930 that "the foul press is lying quiet", this period of calm was deceptive. In fact despite their apparent difference of opinion over the United Empire Party, Beaverbrook hadn't given up hope of getting Rothermere on side, and by June 1930 it seemed that Rothermere and Beaverbrook were back together again, since the former had now apparently accepted the principle of tariffs on food imports. As Rothermere remarked to Beaverbrook at the time; "If you, with my assistance, can overthrow the Central Conservative organisation, the Conservative Party is ours". Beaverbrook therefore sought to capitalise on the success at South Paddington by persuading the Conservative candidate at the East Renfrewshire by-election to come out in favour of Empire Free Trade, but the future Duke of Hamilton would have none of it, and so Beaverbrook decided to focus his efforts on the upcoming East Islington by-election.
East Islington was a Labour held seat where the Conservative candidate was Thelma Cazalet, whose husband Victor Cazalet was already sitting in the House, and had indeed earlier indicated his sympathies with Beaverbrook's campaign. The Empire Crusade nevertheless put forward its own candidate in Paul Springman. However he soon came to the conclusion that Mrs Cazalet was "a decent and honest person" and held largely the same views as he did, and so decided to withdraw. In the circumstances Beaverbrook tried to get Mrs Cazalet to sign a letter supporting the aims of his Crusade and repudiating Baldwin, but she refused to do so. The Crusade therefore put forward another candidate in the form of Brigadier-General Alfred Cecil Critchley, best known for having built and operated the nation's first greyhound racetrack, despite the fact that Springman, the previous Empire Crusade candidate, now supported the Conservative candidate.
In the event the Conservative vote was split between the two rivals, and Labour managed to retain the seat, although Beaverbrook was consoled by the fact that his candidate came second, leaving Thelma Cazelet trailing behind in third place. East Islington was however merely a prelude to the main event, a by-election for St George's Westminster, one of the safest Conservative seats in the country, which became the scene of "one of the most celebrated by-elections in British political history".
The Empire Crusade put forward Ernest Petter as its candidate who, according to the Express, was standing "in opposition to Mr Baldwin's policy and leadership". Indeed things began to look decidedly rocky for Mr Baldwin's policy and leadership when the official Conservative candidate John Moore-Brabazon (later the Baron Brabazon of Tara) decided to withdraw since he felt that he could not defend his party leader. In fact, things were so bad that at 3.00 pm on the 1st March 1931 Baldwin spoke to Neville Chamberlain and said that he was going to resign, and it wasn't until later that evening that he was persuaded to at least defer his decision until after the by-election result was known.
Of course the first thing was to find a candidate willing to stand as a Conservative, a task that proved unusually difficult since many expected that St George's Westminster would simply be a re-run of the South Paddington result. Eventually a suitable candidate came forward in the form of Duff Cooper, who had recently lost his seat at Oldham in 1929, a development that was of some embarrassment to Beaverbrook, since Cooper's wife Diana had once been part of his circle.
With no Liberal or Labour candidate standing the by-election contest therefore became a straight fight between Ernest Petter and Duff Cooper, albeit a rather confusing fight, since Petter insisted that he was neither a member of the Empire Crusaders nor the United Empire Party, and that he would be a "loyal Conservative" despite standing under the Empire Crusade banner'. As far as Petter was concerned it was all simply a question of "Baldwin's personal untrustworthiness".
As The Times noted at the time, the contest succeeded in "arousing wide interest throughout the country". The Express and the Mail both attacked Duff Cooper for delivering a lecture in Germany under the title 'An Apology for the British Empire' on the grounds that he was actually apologising for the Empire, and when Malcolm Campbell came forward to endorse Petter, Cooper got into trouble, and was subsequently forced to apologise, when he suggested that Campbell's support had been bought with Beaverbrook's money. Duff Cooper found himself on stronger ground when he claimed that Petter had "two powerful newspapers behind him and nothing else" and that the only issue at hand was whether the Conservative Party should be allowed to conduct its own affairs or whether it was to be dictated to by "one very powerful section of the Press".
Indeed from the beginning Stanley Baldwin made the decision to fight the by-election not on questions of policy or on his own qualities as leader but rather on the single issue of 'press dictatorship'. At the Queen's Hall in London on the 17th March 1931, he made what came to be regarded as one of the finest speeches he ever delivered, which consisted of a rousing attack on the likes of Beaverbrook and Rothermere. In his speech Baldwin claimed that their newspapers were "not newspapers in the ordinary acceptance of the term", but simply vehicles for "propaganda for the constantly changing policies, desires, personal wishes, personal likes and dislikes of two men". He accused them of such methods as "direct falsehood, misrepresentation, half-truths", and concluded with the telling, and oft quoted, remark (believed to have been supplied by Rudyard Kipling) that, "What the proprietorship of these papers is aiming at is power, but power without responsibility - the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages".
The verdict of the electors was delivered on the 20th March 1931 when Duff Cooper received 17,242 votes against 11,532 for Petter. Even the Daily Express was obliged to report this result under the headline 'Complete Triumph for the Cons'. Indeed the failure to win the St George's Westminster by-election was a shattering defeat for the Empire Crusade, and Beaverbrook felt obliged to reach a truce with Baldwin, which he afterwards referred to as the Stornaway Pact. Baldwin apparently agreed to introduce quotas and duties to help agricultural production in return for a cessation of hostilities; Beaverbrook privately expressed doubts as to whether Baldwin would actually deliver and contemplated returning to the fray at some future date, but it proved to be the end of the Empire Crusade.
Beaverbrook launched his Empire Free Trade manifesto on the 24th October 1929, the day of the great Wall Street Crash. The battles of the Empire Crusade were therefore fought against the backdrop of a rapidly deteriorating economy as unemployment rocketed upwards. Whilst Beaverbrook's call for protectionism initially cut against the grain of the free trade tradition; a year or two later it seemed only commons sense to argue that something needed to be done to defend British commerce. Indeed by the time the National Government took office it had become almost taken for granted that some kind of protectionism was required and there was hardly a murmur of dissent when the new Chancellor of the Exchequer, Neville Chamberlain introduced what became the Import Duties Act in February 1932 which imposed a general tariff of 10% on imports, although food was exempted. However that was as far as it went, as the Ottawa Imperial Conference of August 1932 failed to agree an kind of comprehensive agreement on tariffs within the British Empire and ultimately exposed the central weakness of the whole idea of Empire Free Trade; as much as there might be those in Britain who favoured the notion of building a tariff wall around the Empire, many of the component territories of the Empire saw that their economic interests lay in directions other than the mother country.
Stanley Baldwin survived the assault and went on to succeed Ramsay MacDonald as Prime Minister of the National government. The movement's one Member of Parliament, Ernest Augustus Taylor, accepted the Conservative whip in 1931 and continued to represent South Paddington until 1950, being eventually succeeded by the colourful Somerset de Chair. Beaverbrook himself spent the rest of the 1930s telling his readers that there would be no war right up until the moment that war finally broke out.
The one permanent consequence of the Empire Crusade was that during the campaign the Daily Express began running a drawing of a helmeted crusader clutching a sword and shield on its masthead. To this day it continues to do so, although everyone has quite forgotten what he signifies.
Mainly sourced from the account contained in Beaverbrook: A Life by Anne Chisholm and Michael Davie (Hutchinson, 1992). Additional material taken from contemporary accounts in The Times newspaper, and English History 1914-1945 by A.J.P Taylor (OUP, 1990)