Rustic Cunning

Stanley Baldwin: Conservative Leadership and National Values

Philip Williamson <em>Cambridge Unive

Beaverbrook thought Stanley Baldwin "the toughest and most unscrupulous politician you could find" - but that was never the image he chose to project of himself. Instead, he liked to pose as a simple countryman who had somehow got mixed up in the sordid business of politics without ever really caring for it. The British public, on the whole, bought his legend. When he retired, just after George VI's coronation in May 1937, the then respectable Punch magazine published a marvellous period-piece cartoon depicting him as a ploughman, complete with cherry-wood pipe, being congratulated by John Bull: "Well done, Stanley - a long day and a rare, straight furrow."

It was all nonsense. Even his wife, Lucy, admitted in old age that Baldwin could be "quite a cunning politician" - and the political corpses of Lloyd George, Curzon, Birkenhead and even Edward VIII certainly bear that impression out. Far from being "a man in whom there is no guile", he was brimming over with it: the ranks of the unsuspecting (whether in his own party or outside it) who thought otherwise soon received their come-uppance, as both Beaverbrook and Rothermere learnt to their cost.

There remains, however, a mystery about Baldwin, and the author of this predominantly academic study - not so much a biography, more a kind of interpretation - is quite right to start off by meeting it head-on. Very few politicians this century have been so lavished with praise during their lives and then so vilified after their deaths. It was Baldwin's fate to be cast as the scapegoat for Britain's lack of preparedness for the second world war, with probably the unkindest cut of all being delivered by an obscure Tory MP who (at a time when all wrought iron was being requisitioned for the war effort) pointedly inquired in the Commons whether "it was not very necessary to leave Lord Baldwin his gates in order to protect him from the just indignation of the mob".

Baldwin died in 1947, believing of his fellow citizens that "they hate me". But it had not always been so. Even Churchill, who in the first volume of his war memoirs accused him, over rearmament, of "putting party before country", described Baldwin, as late as 1935, as "a statesman who has gathered to himself a greater volume of confidence and goodwill than I have known in my long career".

Inevitably, history tends to get written by the victors - and, so far as rearmament was concerned, Baldwin was on the losing side of the argument. None of his posthumous biographers, with the possible exception of Roy Jenkins over a decade ago, has managed to do much to rehabilitate his reputation - and it is partly in recognition of this that Philip Williamson has chosen to adopt an unorthodox approach. "Politicians," he somewhat tendentiously argues, "are what they speak and publish," and, after a preliminary canter through the milestones of Baldwin's career, he devotes his attention thematically to what Baldwin actually said and wrote.

In one sense he is lucky in his subject. Baldwin, a cousin of Rudyard Kipling's, was one of the few politicians who knew the power of words and took great care in the way he used them. There is also, though, a snag - and one which the author, to his credit, does not try to disguise. Surprisingly for one who sailed under the colours of bluff, straightforward "Honest Stan", Baldwin was the first leading British politician to take advantage of the volunteered services of a speech-writer - the ubiquitous Welsh deputy secretary in the Cabinet Office, Tom Jones, whom Baldwin (always a shade on the lazy side) seems to have been quite content to have draft all his major speeches and essays for him. Are we therefore, in this book, being asked to peer into the mind of the monkey or the organ-grinder? It is not a dilemma that the author ever quite manages to resolve; but he comes perhaps as near a solution as he can by implicitly suggesting that the two verbal doppelgangers - like JFK and his wordsmith Theodore Sorensen - grew so close that the thoughts and phrases of the one became interchangeable with those of the other.

With that as a health warning, this book certainly makes a valuable addition to the literature on pre-1945 politics. Williamson may miss a trick or two - he never cites Baldwin's crushing put-down of the editor of the Daily Mail in 1931 ("I would only observe that he is well qualified for the post that he holds") - but he can claim to have covered the waterfront, not just of speeches but of books as well.

Baldwin, like Denis Healey, possessed "a hinterland" - even if, in his case, it was a pretty conventional one. It was, nevertheless, his breadth of interest reaching beyond politics that enabled him, while leading the Tory party for 14 years, consciously to put himself forward as being above party and as being entitled to speak in the name of the nation, rather than in the voice of mere partisanship. It was, admittedly, essentially a con-trick, with some ugly and unattractive undertones when it came to his references to "poisonous dogmas of foreign manufacture" or "backward and primitive" colonial races.

But during his lifetime it worked a treat, even if his wife did once tell him that he should give up his pose as "a simple country squire", as it had never deceived her and "by now probably deceived very few others". But on the latter point she was wrong. If the inter-war Tory hegemony was owed to one man, then that individual was Baldwin, whose "deep rustic cunning" proved more than a match not just for his more sophisticated metropolitan colleagues but for the sturdiest of Labour and trade union yeomen as well.

This article first appeared in Kids just say no to party politics

1999-09-13