Lord Lexden is the Conservative Party’s official historian. His website can be found here. This is the text of a lecture he delivered to the Carlton Club on the 29th of March.
Stanley Baldwin, Tory leader from 1923 to 1937, dominated British politics in the inter-war era. He achieved that domination by altering its direction.
He removed Lloyd George, the architect of victory over the Kaiser, from the helm of national affairs with a short, deadly speech at a famous meeting which took place on 19 October 1922 at this Club, then housed in palatial premises in Pall Mall that were to be destroyed eighteen years later by a Nazi bomb, necessitating the Club’s move to the fine house in St James’s Street where it has flourished ever since.
The Carlton Club meeting, attended by most Tory MPs, was the pivotal moment in the career of Stanley Baldwin, then a little-known politician with brief Cabinet experience; it was also a turning-point in British political history.
Lloyd George and the section of the Liberal party, which included Winston Churchill, that supported him, had agreed plans with the then Conservative leader, Austen Chamberlain, son of a famous father, to perpetuate the coalition government that had held power since 1916. They had it in mind to create a new centre party into which the Tories would be subsumed.
Baldwin put a stop to it. His speech at the Carlton Club led his fellow MPs to repudiate Lloyd George. ‘I preserved the Tory party’, Baldwin said. It was no idle boast.
One of his colleagues, Lord Swinton, wrote later that ‘by his speech at the Carlton Club S.B. stood out as the man of the future…We all recognised that this was a new force being released in the Tory Party, someone with a new style of eloquence more effective because of its simplicity and control’.
Just seven months later Baldwin moved into Number Ten. He was to serve three terms as prime minister, the last two being separated by a term as deputy prime minister in the early 1930s in coalition with Ramsay MacDonald and small groups of Labour and Liberal MPs.
Baldwin, the almost unknown Carlton Club rebel of 1922, swiftly established himself as a statesman of the first rank, even in the eyes of members of the Labour party. They had a high regard for him, not least because of the goodwill he showed them as they settled into their new role as the second party in the state following the decline of the Liberals, which was sealed in this period.
Many Liberal voters became Tory supporters, attracted by Baldwin’s emollient style and policies. It is impossible to imagine him shouting raucously across the House with baying Tory hounds behind him as he answered questions.
Consensus was the hallmark of his politics; social reform the principal practical ingredient of the conservatism with which he won the three largest election victories in the party’s history. ‘Toryism, as expounded by him, lost many of its repellent features’, one leading journalist said in explaining his wide appeal across the political spectrum. Even in the two elections which Baldwin lost – those of 1923 and 1929 – the Tory party had the largest share of the popular vote.
Under Baldwin Britain finally became a fully democratic state. He gave women the vote on the same terms as men in 1928.
The Baldwin years saw major advances in housing, education, public health, insurance and pensions, foreshadowing a distinctive Tory welfare state whose life was cut short when Churchill placed responsibility for most of these areas of policy in the hands of Labour ministers in his war-time coalition after 1940. Attlee completed after 1945 what Churchill allowed his party to start as war-time partners.
All that had happened before the war was lost to memory. Who now recalls that with Baldwin in power new houses were built at the rate of a thousand a day, a million in all in just four years in the early 1930s? Who now remembers the creation of the first maternity units across the country? Under Stanley Baldwin the social services’ budget became the largest item of public spending for the first time. Britain’s welfare provision became the most advanced in the world.
Of course more needed to be done. Baldwin’s Britain was disfigured by much grinding poverty. In 1925 he visited the Glasgow slums, describing them as ‘terrible’ though to his surprise he had ‘an amazingly popular welcome’ with ‘hundreds of Union Jacks on display’. Such conditions were not transformed in Baldwin’s time, but they were tackled with greater vigour than is often realised.
Baldwin’s conservatism was progressive in character and national in tone, as befitting a man who loved Scotland, the home of his maternal Macdonald forebears, and who devoted much time in the 1920s to Ulster’s affairs (with which he also had distant family connections) while showing tact and skill in dealing with the leaders of the newly created Irish Free State. Thanks to him, goodwill was created between the leaders of the two parts of Ireland in the 1920s. Sadly, it was destroyed by De Valera’s confrontational approach in the 1930s.
It was Baldwin, not Disraeli, who first spoke of the need to unite rich and poor in ‘one nation’, the famous Tory phrase that was to echo down the years. Disraeli wrote movingly in the 1840s about Britain’s deep social divide, but did little to reduce it. Baldwin worked hard to try and heal it.
Addressing his party on 4 December 1924 in the aftermath of its biggest election victory ever, he said: ‘we stand for the union of those two nations of which Disraeli spoke two generations ago: union among our own people to make one nation of our own people which, if secured, nothing else matters in the world’.
After his death in 1881, the Tories put Disraeli on a pedestal above their other leaders. By the end of his career Baldwin had been placed beside him. Lord Crawford, a former Cabinet Minister and Chief Whip, wrote in his diary on 5 May 1937 that ‘Baldwin has established a mystique in public esteem comparable only to that felt for Disraeli’.
He was an idealist who told his party what it ought to do in clear, firm language. He insisted in the 1930s that India must have full internal self-government, facing down strong opposition within the party led by Churchill. A rift appeared between the two colleagues who had worked together in government after Churchill’s return to the Tory fold in 1924 at Baldwin’s invitation.
After 1930 Churchill adopted the role of diehard imperialist while Baldwin adhered to the liberal views which both of them had previously espoused. The rift deepened with the years and ended in bitterness on Churchill’s side. Baldwin for his part never spoke harshly of the man whose political career he had rescued.
They disagreed too on the most important change in economic policy that occurred during the Baldwin years: the reintroduction of tariffs on imported goods to try and protect the country’s prosperity at a time of world depression. Wrangling on this issue within the Tory party went on for years. It nearly brought Baldwin down in 1930-31 as Churchill and others colluded with press barons, who wanted Baldwin’s scalp and formed their own political party to try and destroy him.
He turned the tables on his unelected persecutors with famous words, accusing them of seeking ‘power without responsibility, the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages’. It became the best known of the vivid phrases that Baldwin regularly produced.
Baldwin’s final dispute with Churchill was the most bitter: the issue was of course Britain’s rearmament in the 1930s, which was to have a devastating impact on Baldwin’s reputation after his retirement. During his years of power Baldwin emerged victorious from his many Commons clashes with Churchill. Lord Swinton, who served in government under both of them, recalled that ‘Baldwin always got the better of Churchill when Churchill was attacking him in the House of Commons. Churchill admitted this to me many years later… I said: “Winston, you fought him for years and years when he was P.M. and party leader, and you never won a round”. Winston grunted, but he did not dissent.’
In the mid-Nineteenth Century some Tory candidates described themselves as Liberal Conservatives in their election literature. The term had died away long before Baldwin’s day. But a Liberal Conservative is what he was, firmly to the left of centre in the party’s spectrum. He drew on the liberal tradition in British politics as well as on Toryism.
The first Tory in the Baldwin family was his father, Alfred, a Conservative MP in later life, but a Liberal activist early in his career. A cousin of his father’s, Enoch Baldwin, was a Liberal MP in the 1880s. He married into a Liberal family, the Ridsdales; he had a brother-in-law who was a Liberal MP.
His mother’s family, the Macdonalds, had links with the early socialists. He may not perhaps have been unduly surprised when his eldest son, Oliver, a homosexual who lived openly with a partner during the inter-war years, joined the Labour party.
Though relations were sometimes strained, his father never expressed a word of criticism – only affection – even when Oliver joined him in the Commons as Labour MP for Dudley in 1929, a seat he held for two years, losing it at the next election in 1931. Stanley Baldwin is the only party leader to have faced a son on the other side of the House. Oliver returned to the Commons for another two-year stint after his father’s retirement as Labour MP for Paisley in 1945 before becoming Governor of the Leeward Islands, from which he had to be recalled in 1950 when gay scandal threatened.
Stanley Baldwin was the first prime minister whose voice was heard across the land. Most people never knew what his predecessors had sounded like. He followed their example by addressing large public meetings: 50,000 came to listen to him at Welbeck in Nottinghamshire in 1925 and again in 1928. Microphones and public address systems meant that his words could be heard by such vast crowds as those of Gladstone and others before him had never been.
Through the newly established BBC, he spoke to millions in their homes, talking straightforwardly and avoiding point-scoring. As a broadcaster he was in a class of his own; no other politician of the time matched his skill. ‘He might have been sitting in the chair beside me’ was a typical comment made to one of his ministers. Roosevelt followed where Baldwin had led with his famous fireside chats in 1930s’ America.
He was seen as well as heard throughout the land. The Tory party, streets ahead of its opponents in organisational terms, dispatched film vans across the country, spreading images of the prime minister about his duties. Wherever he went newsreel cameras and newspaper photographers were welcome companions. A shocked cabinet colleague said, ‘Bovril does this sort of thing, but ought Baldwins to do it?’ The answer was emphatically in the affirmative.
This year provides us with a golden opportunity to reflect on this unusual, much loved man of deep humanity and understanding, who became one of our most successful peace-time prime ministers.
2017 is replete with Baldwinian anniversaries. He was born 150 years ago in 1867, as Disraeli prepared to double the electorate to two million through the enfranchisement of working men in urban constituencies; he first held government office 100 years ago in 1917, when he was nearing the age of 50, a notably late start for a minister; he retired from political life as Earl Baldwin of Bewdley KG, amidst almost universal praise and at a moment of his own choosing (a rare thing in politics), 80 years ago in 1937, an event commemorated by the fine portrait painted by Oswald Birley which hangs in this Club; he died 70 years ago in 1947 at the age of 80.
It is surely fitting that this array of anniversaries should be marked by the erection this year of a statue of him in Bewdley, Worcestershire, his beloved birthplace which gave its name to the constituency which he represented for nearly 30 years and where he is still remembered with affection.
Funds to meet the cost of the statue are accumulating, following the launch of an appeal at the House of Lords at the end of January and in Worcestershire last month; the halfway mark has been passed with the backing of a long list of patrons, drawn from all parties and headed by the Prime Minister. The sculptor is Martin Jennings, who possesses a formidable reputation, being best known for his statue of John Betjeman at St Pancras station.
The case for a public memorial to this Tory statesman, who remoulded British politics, today seems overwhelming. But that was not how the matter was seen in 1982 when it was proposed that a statue should be placed alongside those of other prime ministers in the Houses of Parliament. Tories were indifferent; the Labour party, then led by Michael Foot, was hostile and the plan was abandoned.
Baldwin, once the recipient of so much praise, had fallen from grace. It happened swiftly following the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, two years after his retirement. The applause suddenly stopped; relentless, unsparing denigration began.
Indeed, few political reputations have soared so high, or plunged so low, as Stanley Baldwin’s. Bishops of the Church of England do not normally sing the praises of Tory politicians, but they bestowed lavish blessings on Baldwin when he retired in May 1937. He is ‘really a very great man, and a genuine member of “the goodly fellowship of the prophets”’, enthused Hensley Henson, Bishop of Durham. At the coronation of George VI on 12 May, Baldwin’s carriage was greeted only slightly less enthusiastically than that conveying the new monarch and his consort.
Yet a few years later after the outbreak of war, when the now lame and arthritic former prime minister was travelling on a packed train, no one would give up their seat for him. Abusive letters assailed him. An infamous act of pettiness took place: the iron railings and gates around his country home were removed on the utterly spurious pretext that the war effort would falter without them. He became accustomed to unpopularity. On his last visit to London in 1947, a few bystanders raised a feeble cheer. ‘Are they booing me?’, he asked a companion.
The cause of this sharp reversal of fortune is no mystery. It became lodged more firmly in the public mind than anything else relating to Baldwin. He was charged retrospectively with failing to rearm Britain in the mid-1930s as the fascist dictators in Germany and Italy began to make themselves ready for war in Europe. The case for the prosecution had no stronger advocate than Winston Churchill, the unsuccessful Tory rebel of the 1930s, who came to be regarded as infallible as a result of his war-time leadership.
Baldwin was too old and infirm to rebut the charge. It stuck, grossly unfair though it was. His second son, Windham, amassed the relevant documents and replied in detail in a persuasive book, My Father: The True Story, published in 1955. Historians have endorsed his conclusions after very wide further research. The results can be seen most clearly in the authoritative study by Professor Philip Williamson entitled Stanley Baldwin: Conservative Leadership and National Values, published in 1999.
In this year of anniversaries, the injustice of the attacks to which Baldwin was subject must be firmly underlined. It was Baldwin who, in the face of a largely hostile public opinion and sustained attacks by Labour in Parliament, began an ambitious rearmament programme to deter the dictators, men whose inhumanity astonished him; he thought them crazy.
In 1934, the year after Hitler came to power, he ordered 41 new RAF squadrons and another 39 the following year. At the 1935 election he sought, and won, a mandate ‘ to remedy the deficiencies which have accrued in our defences’. Further steady increases in air strength followed. Rearmament had grown massively by the time of Baldwin’s retirement.
Baldwin’s political career, then, is a story of triumph and tragedy – the triumph deserved, the tragedy unjust. Outside politics his success was almost unbroken. It rested on strong foundations. He loved his native Worcestershire as passionately as that county’s other famous contemporary son, Edward Elgar, though curiously they had little to do with one another. As a young man he served the county diligently as a councillor and magistrate.
His parents, Alfred and Louisa Baldwin, were devoted to each other and to him, their only child. Their home was filled with books. His mother was a published author, and a member of a remarkable family, the Macdonalds, who combined devotion to Methodism with rich creative talent in painting, prose and poetry. Rudyard Kipling was his first cousin and close friend, who flattered him by saying ‘Stan is the real writer in the family’.
Baldwin knew the works of the great English authors – Dickens, Scott and Browning were particular favourites – inside out, and quoted them repeatedly in the countless speeches that he delivered to learned societies, religious gatherings, universities and many other bodies outside politics – speeches that helped to increase his stature as a national rather than a party figure. No other prime minister has addressed so large a range of different audiences as Baldwin.
In Downing Street he was often found dipping into the classics, perhaps Virgil one day, Cicero the next. He was formidably well-read, the equal of Anthony Eden and Harold Macmillan, surpassed only by Churchill in an age when all national leaders had well-stocked minds.
His steady progress faltered during the years of education. After collecting several prizes at the start of his career at Harrow, his interest in study slackened. He was caught sending pornography -described as ‘Harrow filth’ – to a cousin at Eton, for which he was beaten by the headmaster. His parents made light of it, and the effects of the disgrace may not have been profound.
But whatever the cause, his academic promise was not fulfilled. He left Cambridge with a third. It was no indication of his talents. Later, the university was proud to have him as its Chancellor, and the Carlton Club’s portrait of him shows him in his Chancellorian robes.
After Cambridge he returned home to join his successful father in the family iron works at Wilden, near Stourport. The impression is sometimes given that it was a sleepy, unenterprising little concern, leaving Baldwin with plenty of time for rural diversions like leaning over pig sties, the kind of setting in which he would be depicted as prime minister in Punch cartoons as if country pursuits were his predominant preoccupation. It is true that he loved and idealised rural England -and walked through miles of it ,though he disliked hunting, shooting and fishing.
But industry was his calling, and he excelled at it. Far from standing still, Baldwin’s firm was constantly diversifying to keep ahead of changing markets, and expanding through the acquisition of other businesses which included steelworks in the Midlands and collieries in Wales. By the time he entered Parliament in 1908, Stanley Baldwin was a leading industrialist of 25 years’ standing, and a managing director of Baldwins Ltd., which had a workforce of some 4,000.
How did Baldwin the industrialist influence Baldwin the statesman? The chief purpose of his public life was to extend to British society as a whole the stability and harmony that existed in his own firm, where management and men pulled together, where strikes were unknown, where an income continued to be paid if work was disrupted by strikes elsewhere.
In his first broadcast in 1924 he said that ‘my one desire is to get people in this country to pull together, to set up an ideal of service and the love of brethren in place of class strife’. A heavy responsibility rested with the rich. He himself gave a fifth of his wealth anonymously to the state after the First World War. As Tory leader he insisted that the rich must contribute more in taxation in order to help secure ‘the union of all classes’ about which he constantly spoke.
Strong religious convictions led him to the same conclusions. He saw himself as ‘God’s instrument for the work of the healing of the nation’, often invoking the deity in his speeches, the only Tory leader ever to do so.
Baldwin worked for peace in industry with a dedication that none of his predecessors had shown, signalled memorably in a celebrated speech in the Commons in 1925 which ended with his famous call: ‘Give peace in our time, O Lord’. Applause swept the House. In the following year he did everything possible to avoid the General Strike, the severest test of his consensual style, and when it collapsed after nine days, he quickly rebuilt relations with the moderates who led the trade unions. One seasoned political observer wrote: ‘I don’t think he ever stood so high politically as at the defeat of the General Strike’.
There was one other such peak in Baldwin’s career. It came ten years later in 1936 when he handled the abdication crisis with a skill greater than anyone else could have shown, and prevented it inflicting damage on the unity of the country which it had always been his chief object to enhance. Harold Nicolson, well-known writer and MP, recorded that those in the Commons on 10 December 1936 when Baldwin explained Edward VIII’s decision to abdicate were conscious of having listened to ‘the best speech we will ever hear in our lives’.
There was nothing solemn or po-faced about this champion of national unity. His humour was earthy. News of a Tory by-election defeat in Rotherham was brought to him on the Commons front bench in 1934. He had once changed trains there and used the lavatory which had square seats. For several minutes he muttered away, repeating words that had been chalked up on the wall: ‘If square seats don’t bother ‘em/ They’ve got rum bums in Rotherham’.
Baldwin would have been dismayed by some features of life in Britain today: the Christian faith, which meant so much to him, relegated to the margins of society; the persistence of divisions amongst us; the weakening of the links between the parts of the United Kingdom. But he would, I think, have taken comfort from the humanity and tolerance in Britain today, and been delighted by the extraordinary prosperity we enjoy which no one in his generation could have imagined.
Anthony Eden, who regarded Baldwin as his political mentor, wrote in 1962: ‘No British statesman in this century has done so much to kill class hatred’. That above all is how Stanley Baldwin would wish to be remembered in this year of anniversaries.