I appeared on BBC Radio 4s the Long View this morning. Discussing the advertising and posters of the 1929 election with Dr Laura Beers from the University of Birmingham, Danny Finkelstein from The Times, Tony Blair’s former Political Director Matthew Doyle and the host Jonathan Freedland was a brilliant way to pass the day.
One thing we didn’t have time to chat about was how some posters articulated Conservative leader Stanley Baldwin’s fear – a fear that had germinated following the General Strike – that society would fracture along class lines. Conservative posters showed all classes of British society enjoying the paternalism of Baldwin’s Conservatives. Such billboards provide a startling insight into a political leader’s mind.
The exhibition Picturing Politics was opened on Friday night by Times columnist Matthew Parris, who gave a great speech. Just before it opened I wrote a blog for the Nottingham University Politics department blog Ballots and Bullets, on the ten things the exhibitions tells us. You can find it here. Details about the exhibition can be found on the People’s History Museum website.
In his work The Treachery of Images Rene Magritte questioned whether his painting was an actual pipe, or an image of one. When looking for posters to use in the exhibition this Labour example turned up.
Here the pipe is not a pipe it is Harold Wilson. Produced in 1966, such was Wilson’s reputation as the pipe-smoking politician that there was no need to include the then prime-minister name or image. Furthermore, the pipe did not simply stand for Wilson, but also for what Wilson stood for. The pipe was a symbol of trustworthiness, and if the cigar – which Wilson preferred to smoke – was a symbol of wealth and privilege, the pipe was an indication of working class, trade union intellectualism.
Wilson wasn’t the first PM to be symbolised by the pipe. Stanley Baldwin’s name appeared on Presbyterian mixture tobacco and such was Baldwin’s relationship with the evil weed David Low satirised it in his 1923 the “Pipe of prosperity”. Here Baldwin’s pipe is choked by his own protection mix tobacco.
And Low wasn’t the only cartoonist to satirize Baldwin’s pipe smoking ways. Ern Shaw, Hull cartoonist and sometime Labour party poster artist, depicted Baldwin alongside a sleazy Lloyd-George. For Shaw, Stanley’s pipe was a symbol of an outdated, and out of touch politician. Shaw and Low’s interpretation of Baldwin’s pipe smoking was, however, only one view. While some used Baldwin’s seemingly old fashioned smoking habits against him – his rival Ramsay MacDonald smoked the more modern cigarette – Conservative posters played up to the pipe as an icon of solidity and respectability; just as Labour did in 1966. In Smoke Baldwin’s Security Mixture, the Conservative took Baldwin’s endorsement of the Presbyterian mix and used for their own ends, as political imagery mimicked the commercial. In a further 1929 poster Baldwin was captain of the British ship, sucking on his pipe as he set a course for prosperity.
In 1955, a photograph of Clement Attlee – not usually the type to appear in posters – was displayed on the hoardings across Britain. Attlee leans back in his chair, holding his pipe. The poster projected the idea of a genial, trustworthy statesman.
By looking at a single object we can track the temporal shifts in the meaning of symbols. We can come to some understanding about how posters reflect or inject meaning into the most mundane of objects. And one thing is clear, Magritte was correct in stating that it wasn’t a pipe; it was clearly a lot more significant than that.
The squeeze on household budgets is a hot topic in the news. Our ability to pay for the daily essentials, food, energy, and transport are key issues. Indeed, our increasingly shrinking disposable income extends beyond individuals and is having a detrimental effect on the recovery of the high street.
The ability of families to afford to live has been a key issue for centuries, from the anti-corn law league to the present day. At the beginning of the 20th century, political parties produced posters claiming a vote for them was a vote for low food prices and attacking the opposition for driving the cost of living skywards. One of the great issues of the Edwardian period, Tariff Reform or Imperial Preference, centred on the issue of whether imported goods, including food, should be taxed.
The street was the battle ground for pro and anti tariff reform campaigners shouting their arguments and posters were key to their campaigns. The Imperial Tariff Committee published the above poster sometime after 1903. In the left hand image, tariff reform provides for a happy family and well stock cupboard, the family on the right is destitute under free trade. This was before the advent of women’s suffrage in 1918 and the poster implores men to vote for tariff reform for the benefit of their family.
After the equal franchise act of 1928, both Labour and the Conservatives appealed to new female voters on the issue of food prices. In one Conservative poster from the election of 1929 (below) a young modish women contemplates what the “tea leaves say” as the party implore her to do her duty.
The Conservatives had abolished the tax on tea, a populist act, designed specifically at attracting women voters. A Labour poster from the same election depicted a woman holding a shopping basket rejoicing in taxes taken off food.
The politics of the shopping basket continued into the post war period. A Conservative poster from 1955 (sorry I couldn’t source this image) depicted a queue of women holding baskets. The poster stated that women should vote Conservative unless they wanted a return to rationing, which had ended in 1954. As late as 1973, Labour based its appeal to housewives on the cost of food; the shopping basket ever present.
Many of these posters conflate women as domestic budget holders, but that’s for a later poster. Importantly, if household budgets continue to be squeezed the issue of food prizes may be a key one at the next election. It remains to be seen how party propaganda might highlight this.