The National Government and the air

A while back, The National Archives made all Cabinet papers from 1915 to 1980 freely available for download. Now TNA Labs have created a visualisation tool for said papers, allowing you to see clouds of the 25 most frequent words and contributors for any year (month in wartime) or, using the 'flexible querying' mode, any period you specify (up to ten years). Mouse-overing each result gives the actual count and links to the relevant DocumentsOnline entries. It's something of a toy at the moment (though they encourage you to download the XML dataset it is based upon and play with it yourself). For blogging purposes, it's annoying that there's no export function: I've had to grab some screen shots to show the results. And it's not possible to search for specific words or change the stop word list. But the potential is easy to see.

Cabinet Minutes word frequency, 1931-1940

When looking at the lifetime of the National Government (1931-1940, spanning three prime ministers: Ramsay MacDonald, Stanley Baldwin, and Neville Chamberlain) one word inevitably caught my eye: air. At 1970 mentions over the decade, it's the fourth most common word after war (2537) , foreign (2125) and meeting (2059). Air could be used in a number of contexts, of course: the Secretary of State for the Air (a Cabinet position at this time) or Air Ministry, Royal Air Force, German air force, air routes, air raids, air raid precautions, air defence, air attack and so on. (I assume the tool is sophisticated enough to match only whole words and not just substrings.) But it suggests that the National Government spent a great deal of its time talking about the air, that it was, so to speak, airminded. (Naval, which admittedly has a somewhat narrower compass, is the only similar term and was used only 1204 times.)

Cabinet Minutes word frequency, 1931-1933

Is that impression accurate, though? If we take a closer look, the answer is: not entirely. For 1931-1933, the first three years of the National Government's existence (actually less, as it was only formed in August 1931), air does not show up at all in the top 25 words. It comes across as a fairly pacific period, with the only warlike word being war itself, which sneaks into the top 20.

Cabinet Minutes word frequency, 1934-1936

I would expect that to change for the next three years, 1934-1936, which corresponds to Britain's early rearmament, which favoured the RAF, and the (behind the scenes) start of air raid precautions. And so it does. Air is now in there at equal 15th (with trade), with 217 mentions, beating war (184), though not defence (243). To get an idea of the context in which air was used, the first reference in 1934 was to the 'Air Force Reserve (Pilots and Observers)'; in 1935 it was to German rearmament; and in 1936 Italian air attacks on the Red Cross in Abyssinia.

Cabinet Minutes word frequency, 1937-1939

In 1937-1939, the air really becomes a hot topic. It rates 653 mentions: only foreign (677) and war (791) get more. Again, that's expected from an air policy point of view: there's the last pre-war RAF rearmament schemes, ARP propaganda in full swing, the bombing of Guernica and Barcelona, and of course the Sudeten crisis and the start of the Second World War itself (which accounts for more than half of the 653). Still, it is striking just how much the word is used compared to other words which might have been equally topical: military is used only 400 times, admiralty only 370. In 1937, the first air discussion was about the 'Defence Programme' and the visit of Air Staff officers to Germany; in 1938; the arms trade with the far east and defensive armament for merchant vessels; and in 1939 the move of the Air Ministry's headquarters to Whitehall.

Cabinet Minutes word frequency, 1940

Just to round things off, here's 1940 (of course, the National Government fell with Chamberlain in May). It being wartime -- and the year of Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain, and the start of the Blitz -- of course the Cabinet would talk about the air a lot. It's still impressive that it is the second most common word, with 918 occurrences (war gets 1326). And now a second airminded word reaches the top 25: aircraft (519). The first War Cabinet meeting of 1940 discussed the 'Air Situation', supply of aircraft to beleaguered Finland, and anti-aircraft guns for the BEF.

So the National Government became increasingly airminded over its lifetime, though not by choice. It was forced to pay increasing attention to aviation thanks to the deteriorating foreign and military situation. Negative airmindedness, not positive airmindedness.

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2 thoughts on “The National Government and the air

  1. Of course, ‘War’ gets in both under discussions of war and the War Office (ie the army), which might qualify your comments on other ‘military’ words.

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