Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Stanley Baldwin

Stanley Baldwin (1867-1937) served three times as Prime Minister between the wars, after being unexpectedly chosen as leader of the Conservative party at the age of 56 after six unremarkable years in the Cabinet. He liked to present himself as an ordinary gentleman-farmer who loved the English countryside and was more interested in his pigs than he was in politics. But Churchill described Baldwin as "The most ruthless and astute politician of his day", and Lloyd George called him "The most formidable opponent I ever faced"; so I think we are justified in saying that his pose as a simple country squire was if fact a carefully constructed image.
Baldwin saw Britain through three very perilous events which could easily have developed into catastrophic constitutional crises: the General Strike of 1926, the formation of the National Government in 1931 and the abdication of Edward VIII in 1937. It is hard to think of any contemporary politician who could have handled these problems so calmly and adroitly. However, after his retirement in 1937 his reputation took a rapid nosedive as it was realised that he had failed to respond adequately to the rising power of Nazi Germany.
Despite twice losing General Elections, Baldwin's grip over the Conservative party was never shaken. The tabloid press of the day once tried to get him dumped, but he saw off the press lords in a single speech when he accused them of seeking "Power without responsibility; the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages". The plots against him immediately collapsed. One could only wish that today's leaders could find the courage to take on the media in this way!
My favourite Baldwin anecdote, and one which incidentally is fully in accordance with the image of himself that he wished to put forward, runs as follows. Late in his life he was asked if there was any political thinker whose ideas had particularly influenced him. He mentioned in reply the writings of a now-forgotten Victorian jurist, Sir Henry Maine, who had argued, said Baldwin, that human history showed the development of societies based on hierarchy and command into those based on freedom and consent: in other words; the story of progress from status to contract. Then Baldwin suddenly paused, and said, "Or was it the other way round?"

George Orwell dismissed Baldwin as "Not even a stuffed shirt, just a hole in the air". But the humorous writer A. P. Herbert satirised him perfectly. In one of his "Misleading Cases" series, Herbert imagined Baldwin giving evidence about himself in a court of law:-
"Mr Baldwin said that he was not a stupid man. On the contrary, he was as cunning as a bag of monkeys. But in British politics it was fatal to confess to the possession of brains. He therefore laid low and said nothing until everyone supposed he was in a stupor. He then rose and walloped the lot of them,after which he relapsed into reticence. This he did at intervals of about six months, and it worked very well".
This was written about 1930. Such behaviour is all very well in domestic politics, but hardly seems likely to be effective when dealing with Hitler and Mussolini.

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