The Apotheosis of Mr Baldwin

<strong>Taken from the <em>New Statesman</em> archive, 29 March 1937.</strong>

Within a few years

Looking back from the unfair advantage of the future, the historian of England is likely to regard 1937 as significant, quite as much for the apotheosis or Mr Baldwin as for the Coronation of George VI. Mr Baldwin has wisely chosen his moment of retirement. Discreetly in the background during the Coronation itself, a feudal and religious ceremony in which no commoner, however distinguished, can compete with bishops and peers, Mr Baldwin was yet to the discerning eye the central fingure. Had it not been for the Premier another king would have been crowned -- and perhaps another queen. But in that case, would the crowds have cheered? Would the crown have stood as it does stand today, once again above criticism, and established in the hearts of the British people? No one will openly acclaim Mr Baldwin as king-maker, but many will whisper that he has saved the British monarchy.

Externally his success is unquestionable. He is retiring, as he has done most things since his accession to power 14 years ago, with dignity and distinction. He has avoided the mistake, common among public men, of indulging in an excessive political longevity; he is wise enough to retire at the height of his acheivement. Mr Gladstone announced his final retirement in 1872; he lived to be twice again Prime Minister, to split his party and to die an object of detestation as well as awe to younger men who for twenty years had kicked against his domination. As for Mr Lloyd George, how much less controversial would his position in history be if his retirement had been as voluntary and well-timed as Mr Baldwin’s! No, Mr Baldwin declared he would stand by Mr MacDonald until the National Government had weathered the economic storm; he has kept his promise and now, still in Mr MacDonald’s company, he gracefully steps down from the seat of power, presumably prepared for a peaceful life with his pigs in Worcestershire, occasioonally varied by an excursion to the House of Lords. As an elder statesman he may now look back with some complacency on his own achevement. His enemies to the Right as well to the Left are confounded: his party maintains its overwhelming majority, its political coherence and basic unity; capitalism seems once more capable of surmounting ts difficulties, the tariff policy which he has always stood for may well seem justified by results, and England, with the strike wave checked at its outset, giving the appearance, at least in comparison with some other countries, of a green and pleasant land, of a gem set in the silver sea.

Mr Baldwin owes his success partly to luck and partly to character. He slipped into the leadership of the Conservative Party because Lord Curzon was a member of the House of Lords, and because he had made a prominent place for himself so recently – he was almost unknown a year before he became Premier – that he had not yet had time to make anyone jealous of him. He was cut out for the leadership of the Conserviatve Party. A progressive party needs a challenging, doughty fighter, a Gladstone or a Lloyd George, but a Conservative Party does best when it is led by a man of mediocre intellectual ability and outstanding shrewdness in the management of men and the appeasment of faction. Mr Baldwin had these qualities. Solid, easy-going, uninterested in reading a document and apparently incapable of taking trouble about anything, he yet ruled because he divided the Party least, and because after Lloyd George’s wizardry a reputation for simplicity and honesty was worth a million votes. The simplicity, however, was a delusion -- whatever we may think of the honesty. A remarkable combination was here; a shrewd businessman trusted by bankers and coal owners and a sentimental orator who remembered that he was the decendant of George Macdonald as well as a relative of Kipling and Burne-Jones. Mr Lloyd George himself is not a more subtle blend of incompatibilities. In practice Mr Baldwin exactly suited the role assigned to him, because his speeches, with their vaguely poetic flavour and their literary allusions, were nicely calculated to soothe the conscience and distract attention from actions which, under another Prime Minister, might have been attributed to hard-faced businessmen.

This capacity for enshrining a philosophy of goodwill between classes and nations in sentences which are individually commonplace, but which when strung together prove effective enough, has been frequently useful to Mr Baldwin and his party during the last fourteen years. He displayed this gift pre-eminently in 1926 after the General Strike, when the most famous of all his “peace in industry” speeces was the precursor of the Trade Disputes Act, which in its original conception amounted to a declaration of war on the working classes of this country, and which in its final form was nicely designed to weaken their power. It is a pleasant feature of his speeces on such occasions that, when he has done, everyone feels that the Premier is on their side. A few days ago he appealed for a settlement in the mining industry – and a settlement has been reached for the moment. But it was a remarkable fact that the newspapers that the newspapers the morning after his speech interpreted it in exactly opposite ways, the press of the Right assuming that it was a warning to thje Miners' Federation, and the press of the Left taking it be be an appeal to the mine-owners. A similar vagueness is to be found in most of Mr Baldwin's great public utterances. We defy anyone to study his farewell appeal to Youth and to assign to it any concrete significance. Youth is to do something and democracy is to be saved. Perhaps it is scarcely fair to ask the preacher of such a good sermon to say what youth is to do or of what the democracy consists. The task of definition would be fatal. Starting from the picture of the happy days of his own youth, when personal relations still existed between master and men, Mr Baldwin has often deplored the social fissure made by the development of mass production. The premier's own account of this change precludes him from believing that this social cleavage can be salved by an appeal to democracy, even when advanced in beautiful language and a fine mellow voice. Such speeches make not difference in action and the easing of the social atmosphere is cheap at the price.

If Mr Baldwin is not able to deceive himself into thinking that there is real peace in industry, he is certainly less capable of tge illusion that we are advancing towards the peace in europe for which he has often appealed. Indeed, he retires at a moment when he and his Party have committed England to that very policy whose horror and futility he has himself most movingly described. Mr Baldwin shares none of the illusions that rearmament makes us safe. The bomber, he has told us, will always get through., and the result of the bombing of great cities will be general ruin and revolution in every country. Unable to understand the new idea of the League, Mr Baldwin's government has made a frce and a by-word of “collective security” and brought this country into an isolation oand a general distrust – not least manifest in the Dominions – with no concrete policy save a rearmament programme such as the wildest militarist had never dared to pray for. Once again Mr Baldwin, the pleasant apostle of a simple, unaggressive and democratic England, distinguished for its humanity and freedom, stands at the head of an Imperialist Party which has proved singularly indifferent to the democratic cause in Europe, and which has now embarked on a morally and politically ruinous competition in armements. Crowned at the summit of his career, Mr Balwin the peacemaker is most loudly cheered by the gamblers in death.

Historically it is it is surely a strange role this of Mr Baldwin's – to stand as the responsible head of a Party which is doing all the things that as an individual he condemns; to win a reputation for honesty because he honestly warns us agains the danger and futility of a policy which he then proceeds to persuade us to adopt on the comfortable understanding that it must be safe and good to follow so honest and straightforward a leader.

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