Central Office of Information

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 13th May 1948.

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Photo of Mr Harold Macmillan Mr Harold Macmillan , Bromley 12:00 am, 13th May 1948

I am coming to that. I was stating that it would be difficult to distinguish between them. I have no doubt that the Government and the temporary civil servants in charge of this vast machine try to be objective. I am sure they do. I have no doubt they conceive that it is part of the duty of Government to embark on a kind of mass educational movement to teach the people "the facts of economic life." They feel that the people ought to know all about the elementary economics, of course between elections. They do not tell the people the same at elections. They tell how dollars are got and how exports and imports can be made to equate, and all the rest of it. Nevertheless, the analysis of a problem, whether positively or negatively, almost invariably tends to be one-sided. The Central Office is a Government agency. It cannot very well attack or criticise the Government it serves. It can make no reference to its failures and it must pass lightly over its lack of foresight. The fuel crisis must be represented not as the failure of the Minister but as the act of God. The convertibility crisis of last summer is not due to the improvidence of the Chancellor of the Exchequer but a kind of natural phenomenon like an eruption or a tidal wave.

In addition, they feel it to be the duty of Government to exhort, instruct, and appeal to the people in a period of grave crisis. While that is desirable, and necessary in time of war, when the whole efforts of the nation are concentrated on a narrow and agreed objective—victory—in time of peace these patriotic appeals easily degenerate into partisan propaganda. National appeals are best made by National Governments. It is very difficult, even with the best intentions, to remain objective and unbiased. Whether it be the poster, the pamphlet, the Press advertisement, or the speaker in the factories, objectivity and impartiality are not easily obtained. With the best will in the world, any presentation of what are called "the facts" are bound to be misleading.

After all, we have some experience here every day in the meaning which each side of the House draws from an agreed set of facts. What happens is that all the facts are emphasised which are favourable to the Government, who are represented as a kind of band of heroes struggling bravely against adverse conditions and events outside their control, and all the facts harmful to the Government are avoided or suppressed. Let me give some examples both of prose and verse.

The Government have issued through the Central Office a series called "Reports to the Nation." Some of them are obscure, some of them are silly and some are tendentious. Of the first type—the obscure—one of the most popular, for it has often been repeated as a slogan said: Ten per cent. more will turn the tide. I say it is obscure because this was too much for the intellectual grasp of the Minister of Labour. When he was questioned about what the ten per cent meant, he explained to an enrapfured audience that it was not after all very much—it was only two per cent. each day for a five-day week. Challenged as to the mathematical implications of this extraordinary proposition he found recourse in the excuse, "I am not an Einstein." On this showing he could not even pass a school certificate examination.

Perhaps of all the "Reports to the Nation," No. 13 is the masterpiece of silliness. It is called, "Who'll kill inflation?" It is in verse, and very well illustrated. In this ridiculous jingle about inflation no mention is made of the main criminals, the Government themselves. The director, the housewife, the worker, even the spiv are appealed to in turn to play their part in killing inflation. But who made the inflation? One might improve and enlarge those verses if one had several million pounds with which to advertise them. For example: I, said daddy Dalton,With my cocksure elationAnd Stock Exchange racket,I made the inflation. We could naturally go on with such verses to almost any extent. Who killed National Saving?I, said Stafford Cripps,With my class warfare ravingAnd capital levyI killed National Saving. Sometimes these propagandists hit on a good thing, something that has a sound human appeal. But that is nearly always withdrawn as being "contrary to the party line." I will give two examples. In July, 1946, a Savings advertisement was issued headed, "A bit of land of your own." It depicted a countryman leaning on a fence, and underneath a pleasing picture were the words: Lucky chap with a little place of his own in the country.It must be grand to own a few acres right away from the smoke and bustle of the town. Harmless enough, one might say, and rather appealing. Not at all. We did not know the depth of partisan rancour. A capitalist, a landowner—and worst of all bought out of his own savings. What are we coming to? Of course, objection was taken and, as they say in America, "objection sustained." On 30th July, the Private Secretary to the Minister of Town and Country Planning wrote to someone who had objected: The Minister does agree that the National Savings Campaign advertisement is inappropriate, and you will no doubt be glad to hear that steps are being taken to have it with-drawn. In answer to one of my hon. Friends in October, 1946, it was stated that the Minister had written: 'I did consider that the advertisement was having undesirable results and had better not be repeated.'"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 28th October, 1946; Vol. 428, c. 414.] The subsequent history of the artist and caption writer is not known. No doubt they were duly liquidated.

I will give another example. In September, 1947, a few weeks after the announcement of the abolition of basic petrol, at a time when all the small garage proprietors in the country were faced with closing down, the War Office—note the significance, the date was September, 1947—issued a recruiting advertisement. After talking about the chance a recruit had to learn a trade, it remarked on one of them: He aims to own a garage… Of course, it had to go. It was as well that it did. For a few weeks later there arrived at the War Office as Secretary of State the Minister of Fuel and Power himself.

Sometimes the efforts of the Central Office are very surprising. A friend of mine wrote the other day to renew his driving licence. Judge of his surprise when he received in return not merely his licence, but a booklet, in a stiff paper cover, entitled "Thank you! Fancy meeting you!" Words by McCullagh, whoever he may be, pictures by Fougasse. I pass by the unnecessary waste of printing all this. What is rather extraordinary is something which appears on page 15, which I will read. It is foolish—and quite unnecessary—to take risks with your insurance. The comprehensive motor policy issued by the Car and General gives you complete protection. Write to the Car and General Insurance Corporation, Limited, 83, Pall Mall, London, S.W.1, and embrace the policy of safety first. I admire the private enterprise of this company in getting its advertising done in this way. It seems to be a very good arrangement.