Agents of Future Promise

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For whose benefit? Children’s welfare and the future


A 1945 election advertisement for the Labour Party, illustrating their appeal to the future through children

A 1945 election advertisement for the Labour Party, illustrating their appeal to the future through children

By Laura King, Project Principal Investigator, School of History, University of Leeds

In my research into Britain during and after the Second World War, I have already come across a number of different reasons why children are used to represent visions of the future. Children are used for political, commercial and more generally ‘rhetorical’ purposes within popular culture:

  • Political: as illustrated in my last post, politicians often used an image of children in the future to help illustrate their actions and decisions in the present. Suggesting that their political stance or policies were going to benefit currently innocent and vulnerable children in their future adult state was an effective tool for persuading voters their intentions were good. Especially during wartime, politicians and military leaders from Britain and elsewhere used this tactic to suggest they were acting for the right ideological intentions. For example, in 1948, an article in The Times reported a speech from the President of France, Vincent Auriol, discussing progress made in implementing the Monnet Plan, which outlined plans for France’s reconstruction after the war. He argued that the nation must push for rapid recovery, through his suggestion that ‘There is no middle way between swift decadence and rapid recovery. We of to-day hold in our hands the fate of our children and of our country for many generations to come.’ Here, the President underlined the gravity of the situation through a reminder of his and the nation’s responsibility for its future generations.
  • Commercial: advertisers also often used descriptions and images of innocent and vulnerable children, and referred to their potential futures, as a way of selling their particular product or service. Appealing to parents in this way seemed to be an effective technique, as it was widely used in this period in newspaper advertising. For example, an advert for Stork margarine published in the Daily Mail in 1942 appealed to potential consumers by reiterating that good nutrition for small children was crucial. They offered a cookery leaflet to guide mothers that was ‘all about food for these future citizens’. In a slightly different vein, charities also appealed to potential donors to help secure the prosperous and happy future of the country by helping to care for deprived British children in the present. For example, the Waifs and Strays Society appealed for donations in 1943 by telling potential donors ‘Remember! Children are the Nation’s Greatest Asset for the Future’.
  • Rhetorical: Finally, some uses of children to represent the future were about helping to make a particular argument, in letters or opinion pieces in newspapers for example. Appealing to the need to help children in the present and therefore adults and the country as a whole in the future was a fairly uncontroversial motivation, and therefore could help make the case for a whole range of different, and often controversial ideas, from eugenic policies to changing the education system. For example, the Daily Mirror published a letter from a Mr R.F. Andrews in 1942, on the topic of women’s war work. The letter writer suggested that mothers’ contribution was too often undervalued, supporting his argument by reminding readers that ‘Little is said in tributes to women’s war work of the mothers tending to the future generation often, I know, going without much of their own rations to ensure that the children are fed and made fit in body and mind to inherit the better world of tomorrow.’ He called for greater recognition for women’s sacrifices.

Highlighting that children were agents of future promise could be very much for their own benefit. In appealing for potential donors, for example, children’s charities drew on a particular image of the children as future citizens and leaders in order to secure funding for children in need, from orphaned boys and girls to those with disabilities of some kind.

But some of the use of children to represent particular futures was clearly not about the children themselves. This way of thinking and talking about children seemed to increase in times of political change, such as elections and during the Second World War, perhaps suggesting this tactic was less about children’s welfare and more for the (political) ends of the adults using this argument. For example, the Daily Mirror reiterated this tactic several times through an editorial on the election in May 1945, reminding voters of the importance of voting because ‘the future of your children is at stake’. The purpose of this article was to encourage readers to vote, and to cast their vote for the Labour party.

As we move into full campaigning for the upcoming election in May 2015, this is also apparent in contemporary political debates – and was effectively satirised by Pub Landlord Al Murray in his recent bid to stand against UKIP leader Nigel Farage. In Murray’s ‘election manifesto’, he noted that ‘I believe the children are the future and there’s no way you’ll get me knocking teachers. Teachers are on the front line, the coalface. Doing their bit to create a level playing field for our kids… although I’m not sure they’re going about it the right way by making sure none of the kids can read and write.’ Though light-hearted, like all effective satire, Murray underlines an essential truth about the use of children in election rhetoric.

At the heart of all of this is a tacit acceptance that children can be used for the motivations and benefits of others. Using a child’s image in an advert is not in itself inherently harmful – but our project is starting to question whether the use of children to represent future promise might contribute to a wider culture in which the exploitation of children occurs and in some instances is accepted. For me, there is a parallel with understandings of gender; as the Everyday Sexism project highlights, small instances of a particular way of thinking can lead to a wider culture in which discrimination, exploitation and inequality are accepted. Is this an over cautious approach to thinking about how children are used, or a legitimate concern about the welfare and wishes of children themselves?


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