A History of the Ministry of Information, 1939-46

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A review of some conclusions arising out of a year of Home Intelligence Weekly Reports.

1. Some definitions

Morale is the “state of conduct and behaviour of an individual or a group”. Morale must therefore ultimately be measured, not by what a person thinks or says, but by what he does and how he does it. This distinction is particularly important in dealing with the British public in whom admirable behaviour is often coupled with a veritable wail of grumbles. Indeed, the constitutional pessimist is often the most reliable soldier, while the constitutional optimist is the least reliable.

Good war morale of the British public is “conduct and behaviour indicating that they are prepared to go through with the war to final victory, whatever the cost to the individual or the group”. Indices of good morale which may be mentioned are:-

a. The ready acceptance of the compulsory fire-watching order.

b. The demand before the last budget for an increase in income tax.

c. The present demand for the exercise of the Ministry of Labour's compulsory powers to conscript women.

d. The complaints, both by workers and by managements, that they are not yet working “all out”.

Public opinion is “the integrated result of expressed private opinion”. It is not a simple summation, since opposite opinions do not cancel out, but persist. From public opinion, it is often possible to assess the probable state of morale. But such assessments must be made with great care. The relationship between the two is seldom a direct one. Thus, when the war as a whole appears to be going well, grumbles are often loudest, while when things are going badly, grumbles are silenced.

2. The factors on which Morale depends .

These factors are of two kinds:- Material and Mental. Since most British people are, on the whole, practical and unimaginative, the material factors appear to be more important than the mental ones. This generalisation is subject to one proviso. Certain of the mental factors are so strongly ingrained in the average British man and woman that they are not shaken by the ordinary processes of argument and reason. If, in some as yet unforeseen situation, they were shaken the results might well be more disastrous than the most dire material upset. So far, even the most calamitous events have been turned to a mental profit by the British public. Thus, the collapse of France was treated along these lines:- “At last, we're on our own and there's no-one else to let us down; now we've really got to get on with the job”. Again, the blitz was converted from a thing of terror to a symbol of pride and toughness. “Our blitz was worse than yours - and look at us”.

The material factors affecting morale are:-

1. Food . Starvation, particularly starvation of children, is a probable breaking-point. In severely blitzed populations, hot food has been found to be of great importance in morale. As minor irritations in non-blitz times, inequalities of distribution, and wastage and profiteering, have proved to be the main foci of feeling.

2. Warmth . Heat, like food, has assumed a particular importance in blitzed areas. Lack of either accentuates the need for the other. The problem, has three aspects:- warm clothing; the heating of rooms; and cooking. The danger points here are:- the coal situation; the paraffin situation in rural areas; and the post-blitz situation where gas, electricity and fuel transport may be dislocated

3. Work . The demoralising effects of lack of work are obvious. Less obvious, but no less important, is the fatigue which follows overwork. Not only does it lower output, but further it reduces vitality and resistance to disease. The uneconomical effect of excessive overtime is fully recognised officially, but employees, welcoming overtime pay, and employers, working on the “cost plus 10%” basis, in some cases still need convincing

The failure to explain to the workers the reasons for lack of work (shortage of materials, changes of design etc.) creates a feeling of inefficiency and futility, which may combine dangerously with the other effects of idleness.

4. Leisure, rest and sleep . The importance of rest is a natural corollary to the dangers of overwork. With regard to sleep, the continuous aerial bombardment of London demonstrated the self-assertiveness of nature. People who were determined to remain awake in all raids finally fell asleep, and a combination of physical fatigue and “growing use to raids” redressed the balance of enforced insomnia.

5. A secure base . The need for a secure base for the fighter in civil defence has been demonstrated most clearly in the medium-sized provincial towns which have been repeatedly blitzed. Unless, after his spell of duty or danger, the civilian can have “time off” in a place which he believes to be safe, he returns to the battle less vigorous, and consequently less efficient and less determined.

In the medium-sized provincial towns, there was no part which could be regarded as outside the target area, and when heavy aerial attacks were made on successive nights, their effect on civilian morale was in geometric rather than arithmetic progression. A suitable secure base, in which the civilian fighter may get his “second wind”, may be a billet outside the town or a shelter of such a kind that he believes it to be safe. The secure base has not arisen as a serious problem in large cities, as so far there have always been large areas of houses escaping unscathed.

6. Safety and security for dependants . Evacuation, and the nightly trek from the blitzed cities, are the organised and unorganised answers to the problem of safety for dependants in blitzed areas. The official answers to the problems of security for dependants are the various pension arrangements for Service and civilian casualties, and the systems of Service dependants' allowances. The fact that the Forces' dependants now constitute the poorest section of an industrial community in which wages have risen rapidly, has not passed unnoticed by the public.

Turning now to the main mental factors which affect morale, the following stand out:-

1. Belief that victory is possible . This is not synonymous with belief that defeat is impossible, which must be regarded as a slightly less satisfactory morale state. All the evidence points to confidence, on the part of the great majority of the public, that victory is not only possible but certain. Six months ago, questioning voices were asking how victory could be won. Events in Russia have now silenced these enquiries, though should another period of apparent stalemate arise, these questions will probably spring up again.

2. Belief in equality of sacrifices . The ubiquity of the bomber and the income tax have done more than anything else to silence doubts on this score. With the recent improvements in the food situation, the complaints about the unrationed rich in restaurants have declined. The main doubt now in the public mind is over the profits accruing to the controllers of industry, and there is need for further explanation of the working of the Excess Profits Tax.

3. Belief in the efficiency and integrity of leadership . This includes national, local, industrial, and Forces leadership. Efficiency is, perhaps, rated higher in the public mind than integrity. Particular exception is taken to anything which can possibly be regarded as “kid-glove” handling of our enemies. It is for the absence of “kid-gloves”, as well as for many other qualities, that the public particularly admires and respects the leadership of the Prime Minister.

Least confidence in leadership is expressed in the industrial and military spheres. The absence of opportunity which has hampered the Army in showing its paces is not fully appreciated. And the need for more explanations to workers of the often cogent reasons which produce industrial hold-ups has been repeatedly stressed.

4. Belief that the war is a necessity and our cause just . The combination of the propaganda of events, and a large volume of direct and indirect public education on this subject, have succeed in convincing the great bulk of the public on both these points. The “What have I got to lose” school is steadily diminishing, though in another period of stalemate they may again raise their heads.

3. The factors on which Public Opinion depends .

Public opinion is notoriously fickle. Yet when in possession of the relevant facts, it is surprisingly sound. It respects “security reasons” for reticence, provided it can be satisfied of their validity. It always spots if it is being “talked down to”, and it is most suspicious of the “high falutin’”. The factors which influence it are as follows:-

1. Personal Experience . For the British public, this is the most important of all. Seeing, for them, is believing. Air-raids, food shortages, shopping difficulties, queues, factory conditions, evacuees and hosts, these are the things about which the British public thinks and feels most. A good example of this “out of sight, out of mind” attitude is provided by the income tax. Deduction at source has greatly reduced the volume of criticism with which the regular payers usually meet their demand notes; though the new classes, who are paying for the first time, are less silent.

It is a common custom of the public to argue from the particular to the general, from the single instance which has touched them personally to the problems of the country as a whole. Thus misconceptions requiring correction are constantly arising.

2. Conversation . Conversation consists largely of magnified and distorted experience at second-hand, or material culled from the radio or press treated in similar ways. Its most important end-products are rumours, gossip, and idle talk. It is, perhaps, the least important factor in forming public opinion.

3. The Press . The press claims for itself a double function, that it both forms and reflects public opinion. Since it does not discriminate as to which it is doing at any one time, its reflection of public opinion is, at times, inaccurate. As a creator of public opinion, its activities fall into two parts:-

  1. 5 Foreign affairs . On all matters outside Britain it exercises considerable influence on opinion, as the public as a whole has no means of cross-checking by personal experience. On such matters, press feeling and public feeling often go hand in hand, with an occasional lag behind on the part of the public when faced with a press campaign.

  2. Home Affairs . On matters at Home, the press is a far less powerful formative agent. The public often makes up its mind on its own experiences before the press knows anything about it. Then the press “clocks in” on a pre-existing discontent and may claim the credit for any Governmental action. (A similar process, on a smaller scale was formerly the regular practice of the Communist Party). As a reflection of public discontents the press is handicapped in two ways; press investigations of discontents must be “good stories”, and as a result, public indignation is overplayed, and often the reporter's indignation is projected on to the public; further, long-standing troubles soon cease to be “news”, while they still continue to bulk large in the public mind.

A distinction must be drawn between the National Press and the Provincial and more particularly the Local press. The local weekly newspaper is a much more accurate reflection of public opinion than the big national dailies, for two reasons. First, its staff are members of their local community and not of a coterie of other journalists. Secondly, it devotes a much greater proportion of its space to the local happenings which are, in themselves, the main creators of public opinion.

The sifting of public feeling from national press influence is complicated by certain special wartime factors:-

  1. Political proprietor bias has largely disappeared, as a result of all-party Government.

  2. The limited supplies of paper and advertising have done much to reduce news bias on behalf of advertisers, if such there was.

It may be noted that the public has shown no signs of regret at the reduction in size of the newspapers.

One aspect of public opinion the national press does reflect. It gives a fairly accurate index of the national taste of the different social groups.

4. The Radio . Next to personal experience, the radio is the most powerful agent in forming public opinion. It has a degree of universality not possessed by any group of newspapers. On affairs outside Britain, it is a powerful corrective to the press. It is regarded as having no axes to grind. Its honesty is thought to be unimpeachable. Its errors are regarded as being due to ineptitude rather than knavery. Though an intelligent and vocal minority protest when the radio drops its “kid-gloves”, the public as a whole appreciate vigour rather then good taste. Any inconsistency, woolly speaking, or obscurity of meaning, is quickly detected and proclaimed.

4. Some Generalisations and Conclusions .

The following generalisations have many exceptions. But their essential validity has become obvious during the past year's work on Home Intelligence Weekly Reports:-

1. The British public as a whole shows a very high degree of common sense. Given the relevant facts, it will listen to and accept explanations when it will not accept exhortations.

2. Its taste is as low as its common sense is high. In England, the main exception to this is in the matter of the spoken word. The English appreciate fine oratory - but it must be rich in the meat of common sense. In Wales, the main exceptions are in the matter of music and poetry.

3. The British public are pragmatic. They are little influenced by immaterial, ethical or theoretical considerations. To this, there are three main exceptions:-

  1. A determination not to be “put upon”, or “messed about” except by their own consent. In fact, a deep-rooted belief in the liberty of the subject.

  2. A determination not to allow others to be “put upon” similarly, provided the “others” concerned are reasonably near the British Isles geographically, or in the British Empire. Thus, the butchering of a thousand Chinese creates far less indignation than the shooting of twenty Belgians.

  3. A sense of “fair play” inside our own team. Outside “the public school” classes, “dirty tricks” on the enemy are, however, regarded as most desirable and very funny.

4. The British public has a basic stability of temperament, with a slightly gloomy tinge. Arising apparently from this are:-

  1. A tendency to speak out and voice grumbles loudly. The volume of grumbling varies inversely with the severity of the war situation.

  2. A distrust of excessive enthusiasm, and a delight in “knowing the worst”. With this is coupled a strange anxiety about not being told “the worst”.

  3. A tendency to doubt rather than believe any new information, unless gloomy, and particularly, a suspicion of “newspaper talk”.

5. The public has a great capacity for righteous indignation when things go wrong. For disasters, the tendency is not to blame the enemy, but to blame some section of those in authority. In this process, it is usual for the public to get hold of the wrong end of the stick. Thus, when the news is bad, it blames the Press, the radio, and above all, the Ministry of Information.

6. Gratitude is rarely exhibited. It is usual rather to examine the actions of benefactors to discover what personal benefit they obtain from their actions.

7. A fundamental tenet of the British public's creed it that all in authority, above all “officials”, are inefficient.

8. The public is unimaginative. It is unable and has, apparently, no great wish to picture the details of the postwar world. It speculates relatively little about the end of the war. And the possibility of defeat is neither imagined, nor imaginable.

9. The English public is basically lazy, with, in consequence, a very large reserve and capacity for effort on the rare occasions when it considers this vitally necessary. This does not apply to Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. This innate laziness leads secondarily to a high degree of tolerance, coupled with an apparent indifference to unpleasant environments.

10. The public, as a whole, is happier since the war, than it was in the peace, for the following reasons:-

  1. The uncertain fear of the unknown has gone. The predicted picture of war on the home front was fortunately far more terrible than the real thing turned out to be.

  2. Schisms and party distinctions have largely disappeared. In their place there is a new sense of purpose in life with a clear-cut objective in view - winning the war. Class distinctions among men have also greatly declined.

  3. Thanks to air-raids, rationing, war industrialisation, and civil defence, everyone has some sense of personal participation in the work of the country.

  4. Many gross inequalities of income have been “ironed out”.

  5. Thanks to dispersal by evacuation, higher wages for the undernourished, rationing for the overnourished, and milk for children, general health has, on the whole, improved rather than deteriorated.

The only large groups who have suffered seriously are:-

  1. Those who have lost members of their families.

  2. Dependants of Service men.

  3. Pensioners and others with fixed incomes.

11. There is, at present, no evidence to suggest that it is possible to defeat the people of Britain by any means other than extermination.

M.D., M.R.C.P.,

Home Intelligence.

October 1st, 1941

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