An average MP

Oliver Baldwin: a life of dissent

Christopher J Walker <em>Arcadia Books, 355pp, £12.99</em>


Photographed in flowing Coronation robes in 1953, Oliver Baldwin looked like a portly grandee in one of his favourite Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. His Ruritanian features masked the sad, decent, homosexual son of the inter-war Conservative prime minister.

For six decades Baldwin fils laboured at soldiering, journalism and politics, and for a short, hilarious time he became governor general of the Leeward Islands. But his troubled, rebellious temperament ensured that he never enjoyed the glittering prizes for which he seemed destined.

His difficulties surfaced at Eton, which he loathed for its cruel snobberies. He could not wait to leave school and sign up for the First World War. But his experience of the trenches confirmed his independent streak. He returned with the belief that humanity should live in harmony. Perhaps suffering from shell shock, he dropped out, joining the Comrades of the Great War (a forerunner of the British Legion) in the forlorn hope that the group might initiate social change.

He found liberation in the sunshine and Arab culture of North Africa. A chance meeting in Alexandria inspired him to accept a job as an infantry instructor in beleaguered Armenia, which had gained independence from the Turks in May 1918. No sooner had he arrived in Yerevan in late 1920 than the weak social democrat government crumpled and Baldwin was imprisoned by pro-Bolshevik putschists.

He was freed in a counter-revolution a few months later, but while travelling home he was arrested again by the Turks who, angry at his espousal of the Armenian cause, accused him of spying for the Soviets. The jail conditions were, if anything, worse, and execution a daily threat.

Despite a brief, unconvincing engagement, he opted after his release to live with Johnnie Boyle, a charming ne'er-do-well who had run a tea shop. The couple set up home in Oxfordshire, where they raised turkeys, welcomed guests such as Beverley Nichols, and referred devotedly to each other as "koot" - apparently after the phrase "queer as a coot". Walker describes their domestic life as "one of gentle, amicable, animal-loving primitive homosexual socialism".

Baldwin began taking socialism seriously. He joined the Labour Party and, after a false start, won seats at Dudley and later Paisley. An average MP, he was better known for his journalism, incongruously using the Rothermere press to propagate an anti-fascist message. He also wrote books about Armenia, politics and a curious novel called The Coming of Aissa, which emphasised the socialistic leanings of Jesus within an agnostic, Asian, neoplatonic context.

Baldwin's service in the Second World War is best skimmed over. He found a berth in the Middle East in a propaganda job that Walker insists had intelligence links. His claim to fame was (shades of the Americans in Panama) to run a loudspeaker unit that tried to win over enemy waverers by blasting out broadcasts on the battlefield in Eritrea.

Returning to politics, he was made a peer - for no better reason, one suspects, than that the Labour Party needed bodies in the Lords. But before he could take his seat (uniquely, he would have sat opposite his father in both houses of parliament), the old man died and Oliver was elevated as the 2nd Earl Baldwin.

When he went to the Leeward Islands in 1948 he took two male friends (one as private secretary, the other as butler) and ran an egregiously camp governor's household. The plantocracy was soon complaining about foibles such as skinny-dipping with visiting sailors. One woman alerted the Colonial Office to his enthusiasm for steel bands with such butch-sounding names as Brute Force. She feared that Baldwin might turn these into paramilitary units to overthrow the constitution.

But Baldwin's real sin, epitomised in a speech in which he quoted from the Mahabharata, was to foster a sense of multiracial inclusiveness. After a politi- cal storm, he was recalled to London to explain. The colonial secretary decided to defuse matters by sending the governor back. But his career was finished.

Walker is alert to the comedy and pathos of this intriguing slice of alternative history. He writes crisply and sympathetically, although a sense of his ennui occasionally intrudes. He has access to good primary material, including letters that show his father and mother affectionately and rather nobly coping with his "dissidence" (the author's own word). Walker might however have made more effort to flesh out his account from other sources, such as Turkish archives.

Ultimately, one must weigh up whether this biography of a lightweight is worth reading as a political or even as a human-interest tale. It scores on both counts.

Andrew Lycett's most recent book is Dylan Thomas: a new life (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)