Little crusader rides again

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The Independent Online
THE most striking phrase in Jonathan Aitken's broadside against the press last week was the one culminating with the phrase: "the simple sword of truth and the trusty shield of British fair play". Mr Aitken was casting himself as a crusader, and not just any old crusader. Simple sword, trusty shield, British fair play - this, clearly, was the stalwart figure who stands guard each day over the front page of the Daily Express.

It was audacious of Mr Aitken to borrow his image from the very industry he was attacking - albeit a corner of it more loyal to the present government than any other. But it was also appropriate, because the little crusader was introduced to the Express by Mr Aitken's great-uncle, the first Lord Beaverbrook.

When Beaverbrook, then Mr Max Aitken, bought the paper in 1916, the only symbol next to the title was the royal coat of arms. So it remained until 1929, when Beaverbrook launched a campaign for free trade within the British Empire.

On 11 July 1929 Beaverbrook wrote the Express's splash (front-page lead item) himself. "I have combined with the Daily Express," he declared, "to launch the Imperial Crusade."

His motive was partly a wish to protect his native Canada from being annexed, in trade terms, by the United States, and partly to push Stanley Baldwinout of the Tory leadership.

The symbol followed shortly afterwards. It looked exactly as it does today: a crusader, in profile, wearing chainmail and helmet, sword drawn, shield in place and showing a dagger superimposed on a cross.

Beaverbrook's crusade was more than just a newspaper campaign. It had its own office, staff, a steering committee drawn from the great and the good (paid, furtively, by Beaverbrook), and candidates in by-elections.

But it was less than a success. Following the Wall Street crash, people were more concerned about unemployment than freedom of trade. The Imperial Crusade was abandoned in 1931.

The crusader, however, remained, "a memorial to a lost campaign", as Anne Chisholm and Michael Davie put it in their biography of Beaverbrook (Hutchinson, 1992).

And the Express flourished. By 1938, the crusader had been joined by the rubric "World's Largest Daily Sale".

For Beaverbrook, the symbol came to represent himself. In 1951, when Churchill had returned to power but given up on the Empire, Beaverbrook put the crusader in chains.

Bob Edwards, Express editor from 1961, says he thinks the crusader was put in chains again when Britain was invited to join the Common Market.

Beaverbrook died in 1964. The crusader lived on: he stood for the Express.

His stature was further reinforced when Private Eye put a parody of him on its front page.

In the 1970s, the Express's hold over Middle England was shaken by David English's Daily Mail. Editors came and went at a spectacular rate. "It was as if they were First World War subalterns," wrote Simon Jenkins in his history of Fleet Street, The Market for Glory (Faber, 1986).

Only one person on the paper could be sure of a job: the little man with the simple sword and the trusty shield.