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‘We Work or Want’

15 May 2012

William Hague’s blunt assertion that Britain must simply ‘work hard’ if it is to overcome its current economic woes has been widely – if not sympathetically – reported. The Independent, for example, has portrayed his comments as little more than an attack on business leaders and call for the country to ‘stop moaning’. 

His comments, and the media’s reaction, are reminiscent of a similar campaign launched to boost exports during the ‘age of austerity’ that followed the end of the Second World War. Then, after a succession of crises, the government launched a campaign for increased production under the tagline ‘We Work or Want’. Spearheaded by the Chancellor Sir Stafford Cripps and the young Trade minister Harold Wilson the publicity campaign culminated in a ‘Work or Want Week’ when over 100, 000 posters, newspaper adverts, cinema shorts, pamphlets, wall charts, press conferences and radio programmes were employed to ‘give [the public] intelligible facts upon which they can form their own opinions’ (Crofts, p. 456).

This aim was important. Indeed, despite the blunt message, the impetus was seen to lie with the public and it was hoped that the campaign would engage them with the challenges facing the nation. But, in a lesson for Mr Hague, the campaign soon led to questions. Many workers felt berated by its message and – as noted in a previous post – saw it as little more than an attempt at exhortation. Many more simply failed to heed the message.

‘Work or Want’ – like ‘Work Harder’ – was a message built on a fear of the consequences of inaction. It was not a positive message built around a vision of what could be achieved. As later argued by the historian S.W. Crofts, it ‘failed … to find the right balance between the presentation of facts that adequately expressed a realistic picture of Britain’s economic problems and inspirational propaganda that would galvanize the nation to greater effort’ (p. 461). The challenge for today’s government is to do just that. In short, they, too, must work harder.

See S.W. Crofts, ‘The Attlee Governments Economic Information Propaganda’, Journal of Contemporary History, 21 (1986), 453-471.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. 7 February 2014 3:55 am

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