In a letter to the Times in 1945, John Gloag, suggested a celebration of the Great Exhibition of 1851, to boost trade and show off Britain’s goods.The Attlee government agreed and Herbert Morrison was made responsible for organising the Festival of Britain to add to his already packed portfolio.
The appointment of Morrison – the minister responsible for government communications – suggests that the Cabinet saw the idea as a PR opportunity from the outset. ‘We ought to do something jolly,’ Morison said, ‘ . . . we need to give Britain a lift.’
This jaunty line concealed some deeper issues. The austerity measures affecting the whole country meant that any expenditure on exhibitions must be justified – hence the emphasis on trade as well as national morale. But despite the original plans for an international showcase, when Morrison reported to Parliament in December 1947 he announced that the4re would be no overseas participants, the Festival would be focused on Britain alone.
The shift of emphasis would save manpower and materials, especially for the Commonwealth countries who would not now be involved. But it would also suit Morrison and Attlee from a PR point of view because making the Festival a Britain-only affair would inevitably make it into a showcase for Labour Government achievements from 1945 to 1951. It would, in effect, be the biggest single PR campaign for British Socialism.
MPs of all parties – especially Tories – raised objections to the project: it would use up materials already in short supply. It would divert skilled labour from important permanent building projects. It was too focused on London alone. But despite objections, the plans received cross-party support and a Festival department was set up. It was granted an initial budget of £12 million, later cut to £11 million because of financial stringency.
When the Festival was opened in May 1951 by King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, the public began to flock to the South Bank in millions, in glorious May weather.
At least part of this success was due to the intensive PR campaigns waged on behalf of the festival. Two million advertising leaflets were printed in eight languages, and the exhibition was advertised in newspapers in 34 countries round the world. Four double-decker London buses were sent around Europe, showing the film Family Portrait made by Humphrey Jennings (one of the Socialist founders of Mass Observation, now of the Crown Film Unit). In the United States, the whole of the Festival’s $100,000 advertising budget was spent on a four-page full-colour ad in Life magazine, with its 5.2 million circulation.
But, effective though the PR campaigns were, it was the quality of the exhibition itself that won approval from the millions who visited the South Bank, and thanks for this were due to a large extent to the former members of the wartime Ministry of Information who were responsible for the Festival.
To read in detail about the ex-Ministry Of Information personnel responsible for the Festival of Britain, click here.