Coercion or Persuasion?: Propaganda in Britain after 1945

William Crofts

Winston Churchill's broadcast speech of August 1947 proclaimed a dire warning to the nation: "If you submit yourselves to the totalitarian compulsion and regimentation of our national life and labour there lies before you an almost measureless prospect of misery and tribulation, of which a lower standard of living will be the first result, hunger will be the second, and the dispersal or death of a large proportion of our people the third" (p. 105).

The author of this study, Coercion or Persuasion? Propaganda in Britain after 1945, is concerned with the post-war Labour government's attempt to avoid provoking the spectres which the former Conservative Prime Minister so eloquently conjured up. Attlee's administration saw its task to be the creation of a socialist commonwealth which would be "free, democratic, progressive and public-spirited" (p. 18) . At the same time, however, the new government had to devise methods to address the crippling social and economic problems which were the legacy of the Second World War, methods which needed the active support of the people of Britain.

The 1947 Economic Survey, the first in a series of White Papers on the state of the nation, emphasized the essential difference between totalitarian and democratic planning: "a democratic government must conduct its economic planning in a manner which preserves the maximum possible freedom of choice to the individual citizen" (p. 18). The attempt to eschew wartime methods of coercion in favour of effective mass persuasion during the 1945-49 period is the central theme of this study.

The author seems well prepared for his topic; no sheltered academic, Dr. Crofts spent over 20 years working in advertising and is an expert in marketing communication. In the very densely-written first chapter of Coercion or Persuasion, he sketches the political and economic background of the inter-war period, traces the recurrent economic crises of the immediate post war years, defines the term "propaganda," examining its use in England during and since the First World War and describes the establishment of the Social Survey, the main indicator of public opinion against which each of the government propaganda campaigns was measured. All this in the book's first 17 pages! The reader who is not limp from exhaustion would be well advised to proceed further, for this is an important and valuable study.

Within a broadly chronological framework Crofts traces the establishment and development of the Central Office of Information (the peacetime replacement of the Ministry of Information) the government's propaganda headquarters, and the variety of ingenious (and perhaps ingenuous) campaigns it spawned. From the spectacularly unsuccessful "We Work or We Want" attempt to acquaint the British with the gravity of their economic plight (Crofts acknowledges that the phrase was to have "the devastating impact of a tornado," p. 40), through the more carefully conceived efforts to recruit vitally needed labour: women for the textile mills and men for the mines, to the anti-propaganda propaganda devised by some of Britain's biggest industries in an attempt to forestall the threat of nationalization, the author reveals an industry, still in its infancy, but with the perceived potential to shape public opinion to order, if only the correct strategies were devised.

Crofts' study is wide-ranging and exhaustively thorough, with the three chapters on the efforts to increase recruitment in the Lancashire cotton mills being particularly full of revealing detail regarding both the national and local dimensions of a major effort to lure women back into the post-war work force. The book is not, however, without its faults. The author's style seems to vacillate uncertainly between the informally familiar and the dryly academic and there are only occasional shafts of literary lightness: Crofts' observation that the government "took it for granted that the COI would operate quietly and efficiently, rather like a small town public library" (p. 18) shows an all too rare adroitness. The author's seemingly endless paragraphs (see, for example, the one which runs from pp. 107-109) and his editor's careless proofreading (typographical errors abound; see, for example, p. 72, l. 34; p. 167, l. 12; p. 191, l. 8; p. 244, l. 4) are less culpable faults than Crofts' tendency to use language in a way that is less precise than might be expected from one who has spent much of his life in gauging its effect. He employs the word "exhort" in a way that is particularly casual, observing, of the "We Work or We Want" scheme that "It was a campaign of explanation and fact giving, not of exhortation" (p. 41), yet later concluding "it was exhortation unsupported by government action" (p. 44). It is hardly surprising that the author of the dust jacket promotional material confusedly contrasts "exhort" with "persuade."

Testimony to the depth and value of Crofts' work is provided by the many wider themes and areas of study suggested by his material. The attitude of the post-war propagandists towards women as a target group is a case in point: from the Economic Information Unit lady's confident assertion that "animals are no good in appealing to women" (p. 72), through the opinion that "in dealing with women sentiment is more powerful than logic or elaborate explanation" (p. 95), to the finding of the Social Survey that women were "less responsive than male readers to the government's more sober economic information propaganda" (p. 217), women were seen during this period (and are apparently still seen by this author, for he questions none of these assertions) as a distinct and less rational propaganda market. Further examination of the evidence for this supposition and of the advertisers' responses would provide valuable insights into attitudes towards women in peacetime Britain.

A second, perhaps even more significant area for closer investigation and analysis is the question of post-war attitudes towards information, from whatever source. The director of Mass-Observation, speaking to the Advertising Association in May 1947 declared: "All propaganda is now more suspect than ever before.... Even the scientist, so long a symbol of integrity, has become suspect since the atom bomb and the V2.... People feel ... that the papers have been proved wrong or unreliable too often.... I believe that the power of written propaganda has much diminished in the past 10 years" (p. 48). And yet Tom Harrison was speaking in a period which often seems, especially in contrast with today, naive and innocent in its attitudes to propaganda. Orwell's 1984, that savage and haunting indictment of media manipulation, did not appear until 1949 and indeed Orwell, in an article written in 1946, spoke with quite a different voice, asserting that the government's troubles "arise quite largely from its failure to publicize itself properly. People are not told with sufficient clarity what is happening and why and what may be expected to happen in the near future" (p. 221, my italics). An age of innocence or of disillusion? Propaganda as a harmless alternative to restrictive government legislation or a sinister method of thought control, more pernicious than coercion? While he does not venture into such areas, Crofts has provided a solidly factual foundation for the further exploration of these resonant questions.



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