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15 December 2021

From the NS archive: The contemplative Tory

28 June 1924: The intellectual inadequacies of Stanley Baldwin

By New Statesman

The Conservative leader Stanley Baldwin lost his party’s parliamentary majority in the general election of 1923 but would win power again at the election of October 1924. This editorial, written in the intervening period, took a dim view of Baldwin’s intellectual accomplishments, not least his restatement of Tory beliefs and values. Who couldn’t agree with woolly professions of peace and prosperity, the writer asked. Who didn’t want better education and housing? Since Toryism was a fact of life, the country at least needed a strong and coherent Conservative Party rather than Baldwin’s vacuous version. The “Conservative mass, though it may not want Socialism, does want democracy. That is to say, it wants real, and not bogus, social reform.” In attacking Baldwin’s inadequacies, the writer fell into a lament: “Is this once great party to remain indefinitely the compound of silliness and reaction to which it has been reduced in these latter days?”

When all night long a chap remains
At Westminster, to chase monotony.
He exercises of his brains,
That is, assuming that he’s got any.
Though void of Dizzy’s guile,
Or snap like Birkenhead’s, yet I admonish you,
I am an intellectual chap, and think of things that would astonish you.
(With apologies to WS Gilbert.)

Mr Baldwin’s thoughts have always astonished us. But we have often wondered when they were going to astonish Mr Baldwin’s own friends. Now, it seems, they have; for we are credibly informed that the True Blues are in a flutter from Land’s End to John O’Groats. The cause of all this excitement is the issue of Mr Baldwin’s latest and most stupendous thoughts in a sixpenny booklet, entitled Looking Ahead.

Colonel Jackson, we learn from the “Foreword”, had reported to his chiefs that “there exists a widespread desire on the part of active members of the Unionist Party for a re-statement of our principles and aims”. And so Mr Baldwin, with the assistance presumably of his “Shadow Cabinet” colleagues, has supplied “a paragraphed statement of our views”, together with a reprint of three of his own recent speeches. This document, he trusts, “will meet the wishes of our supporters and afford them that guidance for which they have been asking”.

What it has done, in fact, is to produce two quite different sensations in the ranks. One section, firm in the faith, hope and stupidity for which the Tory party has always been famous, is carried off its feet by this tour de force of intellect. But others, more critical, stand aghast before the fruits of their leader’s contemplation. We asked for bread, they cry, and you give us “cauld kail het again”, a re-hash of your old sermons – verbose, platitudinous, soporific. With these internal commotions among the faithful we, who sit in outer darkness, are of course not concerned; we can merely express our gratitude for the touch of colour they lend to the drabness of politics.

But there is another aspect of the matter in which all of us may be interested. The Conservative Party is a national institution; it is the largest group in parliament, and it will, no doubt, govern us again one of these days. It is worthwhile, therefore, to examine a little more closely the aims and principles of the intellectual chap who guides it. The “restatement” touches on many matters, from the monarchy to ex-service men, from the League of Nations to temperance. The more we look at it, the more we are lost in admiration at the delicacy of the touch. Here is nothing to offend the most squeamish soul; all is as nice and gentlemanly as the conversation at a curate’s tea-party. And everything is summed up in these comfortable words: “Partnership in empire, peace with foreign nations, union of all classes at home, liberty, opportunity and security for every individual subject of the King – these are the ideals which inspire the Unionist Party.” A Great Programme, truly! But what astonishes us is not so much how Mr Baldwin conceived it, as how he supposes that, put like that, it will win votes from electors of even the most modest intelligence.

Almost all of us – Tories, Liberals, Socialists, Mugwumps – would subscribe heartily to it from beginning to end. “Ah! but,” it will be said, “you must not simply put it like that. This is only the flourish of the peroration – look at what the detailed paragraphs contain.” Very good; let us look. There is a great deal about the strengthening and development of the empire. But that is common ground. Mr Baldwin admitted the other day that no party ought to consider itself the special representative of dominion feeling in this country.

There is a disposition, however, among the more childish or more dishonest of his followers to vaunt their belief in the British Commonwealth of Nations and decry everyone else’s. We met one recently who maintained that the Labour Party was clearly convicted of treachery to the empire because Mr MacDonald was not at the opening of the Wembley Exhibition. There may not, perhaps, be many such abysmal fools as that, but there are certainly many who make the policy of Imperial Preference the test that divides the sheep and the goats. On the merits of Imperial Preference we need not argue here; suffice it to say that we would bet a five-pound note to a brace button that Mr Baldwin will not sweep the country with that as an election cry.

Is there anything else in his programme calculated to rally voters to his side? He tells us the Unionist Party stands for the preservation of the monarchy. What a challenge to the bloodthirsty Jacobins on the Treasury bench! It stands also for an adequate navy and army and air force, and for the support and strengthening of the League of Nations. Only fancy! Then there is the House of Lords. Mr Baldwin quaintly suggests “a reconsideration of the composition and powers of the House of Lords in the light of modern conditions”. That, if it means anything, means strengthening the Upper Chamber – a dainty dish to set before king Demos.

Women have a kind word said to them in this restatement – the Unionist Party desires that women should play their full part both in public life and in the field of social reform. There is no mention, however, of the fact that the Unionist Party does not regard women under 30 as fit to exercise a vote.

As for the four main social problems of the day – unemployment, agriculture, housing and education – the Conservative Party appears to be looking anywhere but ahead. Mr Baldwin merely prates. We are informed that work is preferable to relief and that “the only real remedy for unemployment is the re-establishment and maintenance of our trade at home and overseas”. As regards agriculture, we learn that the Tory plan is a conference representative of all those interested in the subject, and of the various political parties, to arrive at an agreed policy. The Tory opposition to wages boards is, of course, not referred to. The paragraph on housing calls attention to the “measure of success” achieved by Mr Neville Chamberlain and suggests that what is really needed is to give greater freedom to private enterprise.

Finally, when he reaches education, the intellectual chap becomes imaginative. “The Party,” we are solemnly told, “would desire to see all schools conducted in healthy and well-equipped buildings, by qualified and adequately remunerated teachers, and would maintain a close co-ordination between elementary, secondary, technical and higher education, so that secondary and university courses should be brought within the reach of every child in an elementary school who might be desirous and capable of taking advantage of them.”

O tempora! O mores! O Geddes! But perhaps the words we have taken the liberty of italicising in this quotation may give the reader a hint of its true meaning. There are a few more minor items in the catalogue of futilities; we have only space to mention one of them. This is the familiar sob-stuff about industrial strife and the want of a spirit of comradeship between employers and employed. For practical remedies Mr Baldwin has nothing better to offer than co-partnership and more Courts of Inquiry.

Such, in large and in little, is the “guidance” afforded by the contemplative philosopher to the “active members of the Unionist Party”. Certainly they have good reason to be astonished! But let us ask a serious question. Is this once great party to remain indefinitely the compound of silliness and reaction to which it has been reduced in these latter days? We hope not; for, though its creed is not ours, we recognise that, as Disraeli said, Toryism is a fact, and we should like it to be a relatively useful fact. The Conservative Party will, no doubt, continue to pit itself against Socialism. There is no need to complain of that, if it does it intelligently. Socialists themselves will bear the opposition cheerfully, especially as they will refuse to believe that they can be defeated in the long run, whilst they know at the same time that there is a great body of conservative sentiment in the country which cannot be rushed into radical measures.

But – and this is the important point which, as it seems to us, the Tory oligarchs forget – the Conservative mass, though it may not want Socialism, does want democracy. That is to say, it wants real, and not bogus, social reform. It wants honest attempts at levelling gross economic inequalities. It has no use for privilege, either in the political or the industrial world. If Mr Baldwin doubts all this, let him put it to the test. Let him go and tell the agricultural labourers in his own constituency that his first thought is for them and that he is coming out as the champion of wages boards. Let him tell the teachers that his first undertaking, on coming into power, will be to provide for increases in their pay, for healthy and well-equipped schools and for doubling the present secondary school accommodation. Let him tell any meeting (outside Belgravia or Eastbourne) that he sees no use for an hereditary House of Lords and is prepared to abolish it.

There would naturally be some incredulity among his hearers, and the Carlton Club would quickly put him out of action, even if they could not put him into an asylum. But he would be left in very little doubt about the general popularity of his proposals. Mr Baldwin, we suspect, is more than half aware of that. He never fails to pay lip service to democracy in his speeches; he may believe in it in his heart. His strongest denunciations of Socialism are mild stuff; he does not make a fool, or a knave, of himself, like some of his colleagues, by sham-fighting with Red Bogies. But these are negative virtues. What the Conservative Party wants is a leader with positive virtues, with a constructive mind, with the courage to tell it, as Disraeli told it, that it was “an organised hypocrisy”.

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