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From the NS archive: Honest Mr Baldwin

17 November 1923: On Stanley Baldwin’s ineffectual leadership, ahead of his party’s loss in that year’s general election.

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In the autumn of 1923, the Tory prime minister Stanley Baldwin called a general election. At the centre of his pitch to the electorate was the issue of protectionism and tariffs. Baldwin saw tariffs on foreign imports as the solution to the increasing problem of unemployment at home. The leader writer of this piece took a different view, and acidly took the prime minister to task as an ineffectual leader, a “pigmy at the head of affairs today”. The writer also predicted that Baldwin’s Tories would lose the election. He was proved right.

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“It is not enough in a situation of trust in the commonwealth that a man means well to his country; it is not enough that in his single person he never did an evil act, but always voted according to his conscience, and even harangued against every design which he apprehended to be prejudicial to the interests of his country. This innoxious and ineffectual character, that seems formed upon a plan of apology and disculpation, falls miserably short of the mark of public duty. That duty demands and requires that what is right should not only be made known, but made prevalent; that what is evil should not only be detected, but defeated. When the public man omits to put himself in a situation of doing his duty with effect, it is an omission that frustrates the purposes of his trust almost as much as if he had formally betrayed it. It is surely no very rational account of a man’s life that he has always acted right, but has taken special care to act in such a manner that his endeavours could not possibly be productive of any consequence.” Edmund Burke on The Present Discontents.

So Burke wrote of Chatham. It was perhaps not an entirely just criticism of the great prime minister of the 18th century; but could anything more apt be said of the pigmy at the head of affairs today? Mr Stanley Baldwin, as we know, is an honest man. He has told us so himself, and the newspapers are busily engaged in dotting his “Is” and crossing his “Ts”. This excitement over the discovery of a virtuous politician is, no doubt, natural enough; memories of the last occupant but one of No 10 Downing Street are still in the air. Let us by all means praise the Lord for Mr Baldwin’s honesty. But since we are to have a general election about Mr Baldwin’s honesty, there is a good deal more, we think, to be said on the matter. Some of it has been said admirably in a general form by Burke in the passage we have quoted above. For the rest, the electors themselves can fill in the particulars of this “innoxious and ineffectual character” and judge Mr Baldwin’s past achievements and his promises for the future on their merits.

What Mr Baldwin has achieved during this last session amounts to precisely nothing. There is no dispute about that. It is, on his own admission, because he has failed to do anything to remedy the present discontents that he is dissolving parliament and throwing the country into the hurly-burly of an election. This, of course, is one of the practical inconveniences of the Prime Minister’s honesty. Still, it is some satisfaction that he has refused to break the pledge that no large changes should be made in our fiscal system without the electorate being consulted, especially when, as he has publicly stated, he “had been urged to try to avoid that pledge as much as possible”. It would perhaps be even more satisfactory if we could know who were his friends who urged the avoidance, and most satisfactory if honest Mr Baldwin were to proclaim that he could have no further dealings with such knaves. But honesty, after all, should not become a fetish, as the “Unionist Free Trade members” have recognised. These Macchiavels, we are told by the Times parliamentary correspondent, will now in all probability “agree to support the government in its present policy, on the ground that they regard it as an abnormal measure to meet an abnormal situation. At the same time they will declare themselves to be still opposed to protection...” We make no comment on this beyond saying that the italics are ours and that the policy of the government is, in Mr Baldwin’s own words, “unadulterated protection”. Nor need we labour another interesting fact about this outburst of honesty in the Prime Minister – the fact, namely, that it necessitates a snap election. Obviously, honesty is better taken hot and fresh; the less time the electors have to think about it, the more votes they will give it.

So much, then, for the advantages and inconveniences of honesty. Let us now return to Mr Baldwin’s programme. It is in principle a simple programme. He is going to tax imports in order to protect the home market, and his object in protecting the home market is to provide thereby the one and only effective remedy for unemployment. We are not going here to discuss the fiscal question in the abstract; we wish only to call attention to one very important fact. The issue of this election has been deliberately declared to be unemployment – that, and not the merits of free trade or protection in themselves. The long-suffering electorate, therefore, may be spared all the old fustian about the intrinsic beauties of imperial trade, the blood that is thicker than water, and the rest of it. Candidates can cut the cackle and come to the horses. And when Mr Baldwin and his friends come to their horses, any elector of average intelligence will see that they are not horses at all, but only chimaeras! The Prime Minister’s policy, we are given to understand, is contained in his three speeches delivered at Plymouth, Swansea and Manchester. We have read them, and we find honesty bulking very large in them, but nothing else. The policy, indeed – so far as the remedying of unemployment is concerned – is nothing but a mass of thin, vague words. Mr Baldwin is, no doubt, genuinely anxious to cure unemployment, but he has not shown the slightest evidence of knowing how it is to be done. The National Unionist Association send us a leaflet called “Unionist Six Point Plan to Help Unemployment”. Point three of this preposterous document is printed in large capital letters, with a fat black hand directed at it in the margin, and it runs: “To put no tax on wheat or meat.” Is it sheer imbecility that invents such an “argument”? Or is it sheer impudence? Of course, if you did put a tax on wheat or meat, it would worsen unemployment. But to claim that you are “helping” because you abstain from doing a criminal and politically impossible thing, is surely going rather far! Point eight, in fact, is about as relevant as a remedy for unemployment as it would be for jaundice or broken china. Yet this is the stuff they are going to serve out during the election. Mr Baldwin, in short, is to ask for a blank cheque on the strength of his simple belief that he can cure unemployment by juggling with tariffs. After the election, when his own honest job is finished, he will leave his Tariff Advisory Committee to do the juggling, ably assisted, as they no doubt will be, by a hundred scrambling interests, and we shall all be carried comfortably into Utopia.

But why should anyone be taken in by this farce? The issue, we repeat, is unemployment. Mr Baldwin’s honesty has not much more to do with the matter than the honesty of King George III or Bombardier Wells or poor Mr Austen Chamberlain. What is in question is Mr Baldwin’s brains – and we may include in them without much difficulty and, we hope, without offence, the brains of most of his colleagues in the ministry. This government has been faced with the two interlocking problems of M Poincare’s policy on the Continent and the industrial depression at home. It has pottered and fooled with both of them. Mr Baldwin has in a spasmodic way played the forcible-feeble with France. He has held out hopes to Germany and then put them back in his pocket. He has “harangued against every design which he apprehended to be prejudicial to the interests of his country” and after talking meaningly he has run away from his words. He has lacked, in short, the courage or, what is the same thing, the common sense to take any definite independent step.

His handling of the unemployment question has been marked by the same weakness. It has consisted, in effect, of talking sympathetically and throwing doles to the workless. And now, having failed to achieve anything by that, he asks for a new mandate to cure unemployment by throwing more doles – this time to the employers of the unemployed. It is difficult to believe in the seriousness of the Conservative Party’s attempts to deal with unemployment. And it is impossible to believe in their sanity. The fact is that on this issue the Labour Party alone has been consistent and insistent. It has preached from the beginning – and so, too, it is only fair to say, have many of the Liberals – that there can be no health in the working class of this country while our foreign markets go astray. They have demanded, therefore, that we should exert ourselves to restore those markets. A Tory leaflet before us asks sneeringly whether British Labour is to “go on being out of work until Mr Ramsay MacDonald and his Socialist comrades have reformed the whole of Europe and converted it to Socialism?” That cheap gibe, we suppose, is a hint that European markets are to be given up as a bad job; for the leaflet goes on to promise the development of the empire for British Labour. British Labour should be able to appreciate the hint and estimate the value of the promise! But, as these traffickers in trash know very well, the Labour Party has never put forward the resuscitation of Europe as the sole remedy for unemployment. The Labour Party has urged, and continues to urge, positive and immediate measures for dealing with the evil, and it is between those measures and taxes on tinned salmon and currant buns, and motor-cars and mouse-traps and God knows what, that the country will have to decide.

If a general election were what it ought to be – a rational judgement after full and fair argument – there could be no doubt of the result. But we know it is something less than that. There will be people ready to vote for a red herring to cure an earthquake, and Mr Baldwin’s honesty may not break his party quite so badly as Joseph Chamberlain broke it. But he has challenged the opposition to fight on their own ground; he has rallied dissentient Liberals against him, and he has made the dominant issue a subject about which Labour has forgotten more than he and his friends ever knew. In the circumstances he has very good reason for talking in a minor key about “taking his chances”. We expect “honesty” to lose heavily in this contest. And we shall not be surprised if it has to evacuate Downing Street next month.

Read more from the NS archive here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)