Sir Arthur Beverley Baxter, FRSL (8 January 1891 – 26 April 1964) was a Canadian-born journalist and politician. He spent most of his career in the United Kingdom working for the Daily Express and as a theatre critic for the London Evening Standard, and was a Member of Parliament (MP) for the Conservative Party from 1935 until his death.
Life in Canada
Baxter's father, James B. Baxter, was a Yorkshire-born Methodist who had emigrated to Canada, and Baxter was born in Toronto. He left school at the age of 15, to work as an office boy for a stockbroker. However, Baxter disliked the work and left soon after to work for the Nordheimer Piano and Music Company where he sold pianos. He was made personal assistant to the owner. In his spare time he composed music, sang in operas, and wrote a novel.
Baxter found that he enjoyed writing and was considering a professional career as a novelist when the First World War broke out. In 1915 he enlisted in the Canadian Military Engineers and served as a lieutenant in the infantry with the Canadian Expeditionary Force in France. He was attached to the Royal Engineers for a time in 1918. Baxter received no decorations in the war, saying he was "neither sufficiently forward, nor far enough back".
Entry to newspapers
After the end of the war, Baxter remained in Europe and settled in London. In 1920 he managed to get an interview with fellow Canadian Lord Beaverbrook, who was one of the British "press Barons" seeking to build up the circulation of the Daily Express to match that of Lord Northcliffe's Daily Mail. The interview led to an appointment as a leader-writer and occasional reporter. When something written by Baxter caught the approving eye of editor R.D. Blumenfeld, Baxter was put in charge of page 4 of the paper which included the editorial, opinion pieces, and letters to the editor.
Baxter was appointed the managing editor of the Sunday Express, a paper launched after the war, in 1922. Under Baxter's guidance, the paper became livelier and its features were remarked upon. After two years, Baxter was moved to the same position on the Daily Express, in effect as deputy to Blumenfeld. Baxter, who was nicknamed "Bax" within the office, got on well with both Blumenfeld and Beaverbrook. In 1924 Baxter married Edith Letson, a girl from Vancouver.
In early January 1923, Beverley Baxter made a last-minute effort to save the life of Edith Thompson, who had been sentenced to death for murder. Like many others, he was convinced Thompson had been unjustly found guilty in the Bywaters-Thompson trial. In his memoirs, he provides a staggering account of the events, concluding that "on an appointed day we shall rub our eyes and believe that it could only have been in a nightmare that judicial killing was ever countenanced by a supposedly civilised people" (Strange Street, 1935, p. 154ff )
In 1929, when offered a considerable increase in salary to work for the Daily Chronicle group (Inveresk publications), Baxter made the move; however, within months Blumenfeld retired and he was persuaded back to follow him as editor-in-chief of the Daily Express. Baxter increased circulation, which for the first time it exceeded 1,000,000 under his stewardship; in 1933 it topped 2,000,000.
That year Baxter left the newspaper industry to work as Public Relations counsel for the Gaumont British Picture Corporation Ltd. In 1935 his autobiography, Strange Street was published; it illuminated the internal rivalries of Fleet Street newspapers and was well-reviewed. He was recruited by Allied Newspapers to be an Editorial Adviser in 1938 but did not hold this post for very long.
Transfer to politics
Baxter was selected as Conservative Party candidate for Wood Green in London in 1935. The 1935 general election was called inconveniently for him as he was touring in Canada at the time and had to be sent a telegram urging him to return immediately; he won the seat with a majority of over 21,000.
Baxter's maiden speech in December 1935 argued that the problems of depressed areas in Britain could be alleviated by encouraging emigration to the other countries of the British Empire, and he returned to this theme in several later speeches. He used his experience in the film industry when the issue of a Films Council to encourage more production in Britain was debated; Baxter called for a "dictator approved by the industry" to take charge.
During the debates about foreign policy in the late 1930s, Baxter was an advocate of appeasement. In a debate in July 1938 he called for the United Kingdom to go to Germany helpfully, and not to block Germany wherever she tried to expand. He drew a parallel between Germans and Britons, saying that the two had the same human ambitions and sense of destiny. While a Member of Parliament Baxter often wrote features which were published in various newspapers (especially the Daily Sketch), and he became known as one of the most eloquent and persuasive supporters of the government.
Second World War
In the early days of the war, Baxter obtained a pledge from the government that there would be no repeat of an incident when the police went to newspaper offices to check on the contents of the next days' papers. He supported Neville Chamberlain in the Norway debate of May 1940, and the next morning protested vigorously about the attacks on Chamberlain's character, urging him not to regard the vote as one of censure but to show the courage of David Lloyd George; Chamberlain however decided otherwise and resigned that day.
Despite his allegiance to Chamberlain, the incoming Churchill government appointed Baxter to an unofficial post with the Ministry of Aircraft Production where he was responsible for keeping up production of aero-engines. He became as strong a campaigner for the new Prime Minister as he had been for the old; when Sir John Wardlaw-Milne put down a motion of no confidence after the loss of Libya in June 1942, Baxter put down an amendment assuring Churchill of "unqualified support in the introduction of any measures .. for the intensified prosecution of the war". In April 1941 Baxter was in the minority, but with the government, in opposing a motion to keep theatres and cinemas closed on Sundays.
Brendan and Beverley
Baxter's earlier support for Chamberlain was not forgotten, nor was Brendan Bracken, who had switched from one to the other and become Minister of Information under Churchill. Writing under the pseudonym of Cassius, Michael Foot in Brendan and Beverley (1944), imagined a joint effort by a Chamberlain supporter and a Churchill supporter to write a reply to Guilty Men (1940), which he had co-written under another pen name. Foot characterised the two men as Mr Tadpole and Mr Taper, the two petty politicians in Benjamin Disraeli's Coningsby, and while insisting that they were fictitious, identified his targets in the title of the book.
Baxter retained his seat at the 1945 general election, a Labour landslide, with a majority reduced to under 6,000. Despite having no official role he was mentioned as a potential future Conservative Party leader by Sir Hartley Shawcross in July 1946. Baxter was part of the large Conservative rebellion against the Anglo-American loan in December 1945, and in 1948 was one of eight Conservatives to oppose Marshall Aid. However, he supported the suspension of capital punishment.
At the 1950 general election, Baxter moved constituencies to stand for the newly created Southgate constituency. He was always returned with more than 60% of the votes cast. After Churchill returned to power in 1951, Baxter condemned the Foreign Office under the previous Labour government for having been "like a branch of the State Department".
Baxter was given a knighthood in the Queen's Birthday Honours list of 1954. He continued to support the abolition of capital punishment and acted as a sponsor of Bills to that effect brought in by the Labour MP Sydney Silverman, and spent a great deal of the late 1950s campaigning for a reduction in theatre tax. In 1959 he signed a motion deploring the call by some Labour MPs for televising the proceedings of the House of Commons.
London theatre critic
In a foreword to Beverley Baxter's collection of theatre reviews, published in 1949, he writes that he "first did dramatic criticism for the Daily Express 25 years earlier", and was the author of a failed play, It Happened in September, "which made the round of the provinces and arrived in the blackout at St James's Theatre in December 1942. The critics said that I was a bad playwright and I replied with an article in the Evening Standard in which I declared that they were bad critics." Four months later he was appointed by Lord Beaverbrook as theatre critic for the Standard, a post which he held for the next 8 years, combining it with his duties as a Conservative MP for the Wood Green constituency.
Milton Shulman, then the paper's film critic, would fill in whenever Baxter was on holiday or his political commitments made him miss a first night. And as Shulman reports in his 1998 memoirs, he eventually found that "Baxter's ability to attend first nights was becoming somewhat erratic." In fact Shulman was instrumental in Baxter's 1951 downfall. Gavin Lambert had written "a sardonic knifing of all of Fleet Street's working theatre critics but was particularly derisive about the 'merciless volubility' of Beverley Baxter". It was published in an undergraduate magazine Panorama edited by Kenneth Tynan, and Shulman mischievously showed the article to Charles Curran, the features editor, who passed it to Baxter who "was not amused."
About a year later, Baxter was presented with a golden opportunity to get his own back, when he reviewed Tynan's performance as the Player King in Alec Guinness's 1951 production of Hamlet at the New Theatre in London, writing: "I am a man of a kindly nature, who takes no joy in hurting those who are without defence, but Mr Ken Tynan would not get a chance in a village hall unless he was related to the vicar. His performance was quite dreadful"
Tynan responded with an open letter to the Standard, published 22 May 1951, declaring that his performance was "not 'quite dreadful'; it is, in fact, only slightly less than mediocre." This intrigued the Standard's editor Percy Elland who gave Tynan freelance work for the Standard and in July 1951 Beaverbrook appointed him as replacement for Baxter as the paper's theatre critic, a post Tynan held until August 1953.
In 1961 Baxter broke the whip to support a Conservative backbench amendment to restore corporal punishment for young offenders. He was very concerned at the Macmillan government's application to join the European Communities lest it damage ties with the Commonwealth, and abstained rather than support the government when it was put to the vote in August 1961.
In poor health, Baxter announced that that Parliament was to be his last. He was criticised in January 1963 by the television programme That Was The Week That Was for having made no speeches since the 1959 general election. Baxter died before Parliament was dissolved, but no byelection to replace him was held due to the imminence of the general election.
- The Times, especially the Obituary of 28 April 1964
- Michael Foot, Brendan and Beverley (Victor Gollancz, 1944)
- "Who Was Who", A&C Black
- "War in Fleet Street" (Time archive, Monday, 25 September 1933, page 2)
- First Nights and Noises Off (collected theatre reviews) by Beverley Baxter, with pen and wash actors' portraits by Grant Macdonald, Hutchinson, London (undated, but probably 1949)
- First Nights and Footlights (collected theatre reviews) by Beverley Baxter, illustrated with 18 production photographs, Hutchinson, London (1955)
- The Life of Kenneth Tynan by Kathleen Tynan, Weidenfeld & Nicolson (1987) ISBN 0-297-79082-X
- Kenneth Tynan: Letters edited by Kathleen Tynan, Weidenfeld & Nicolson (1994) ISBN 0-297-81076-6
- Marilyn, Hitler and Me: The Memoirs of Milton Shulman, Andre Deutsch (1998) ISBN 0-233-99408-4