Alternative Tories

Jose Harris

  • Baldwin by Roy Jenkins
    Collins, 204 pp, £12.95, March 1987, ISBN 0 00 217586 X
  • Rab: The Life of R.A. Butler by Anthony Howard
    Cape, 422 pp, £15.00, March 1987, ISBN 0 224 01862 0
  • The Political Culture of Modern Britain: Studies in Memory of Stephen Koss edited by J.M.W. Bean
    Hamish Hamilton, 306 pp, £15.00, January 1987, ISBN 0 241 12026 8

No political transformation of the past hundred years has been more profound and far-reaching than the change in the canons by which British statesmen are judged. In the late 19th century it was almost universally regarded as a test of political virtue that a politician did not make promises; he did not have a programme, he did not make deals with foreign powers, he abstained from all but the barest minimum of policy-formation and legislative change. By contrast, the political culture of the late 20th century requires from its leading actors a commitment to incessant momentum: even the most dedicated rollers-back of state power expect to go to the electorate with an elaborate and detailed shopping-list of all the new things they are planning to do. This change of emphasis inevitably distorts and discolours popular judgment of the past. Undergraduates who write essays on ‘Palmerstonian diplomacy’ or ‘Gladstonian radicalism’ or ‘Disraelian social reform’ are continually disappointed to find that these high-sounding soubriquets involved doing virtually nothing: and certainly, if measured against the tireless activity of the governments of Wilson and Thatcher, the titans of British political history emerge as pretty small beer.

Such a change in popular expectations did not of course occur overnight, and there was a long-drawn-out period in which both political cultures co-existed with and rivalled each other. From the 1880s onwards the careers of nearly all major politicians exhibited some kind of compromise between the two. It was, however, the peculiar misfortune of Stanley Baldwin that he was the last British prime minister whose governments largely adhered to that older, reticent, passive mood. Even his immediate successor, Neville Chamberlain, belonged to the genre of modern politicians who draft monumental legislation and jump into aeroplanes to make visits to foreign powers. The Second World War immensely accelerated the pace of this change, and the reputation of Baldwin suffered, not merely because he was tarred with appeasement and unemployment, but because he represented a style and philosophy of government that was largely incomprehensible to the world of geopolitics and the welfare state.

Roy Jenkins himself belongs pre-eminently to the school of state intervention, but it is one of the virtues of his new study of Baldwin that he manages to recapture and make sense of some if not all of that now-vanished past. He portrays Baldwin as an intensely private individual, whose placid exterior concealed a very highly-strung disposition: like Harold Macmillan, he achieved unflappability at the cost of acute psychic strain. His main conception of politics was not one of ambitious policy-formation, but of conserving and adapting the invisible constitutional structures of national life. His political talents were ‘ruminative rather than executive’ and he ‘sought to govern by mood creation rather than decision’. He believed that it was the imperative task of government to ‘educate’ fledgling democracy into constitutional habits.

Beyond that, it was the function of statesmen to reflect and interpret the mood of the nation rather than to take the lead in shaping its affairs. His forte lay not in ‘constructive ideas’ but in symbolism: in conjuring up a vision of national identity strikingly similar to that portrayed by his cousin Rudyard Kipling in Rewards and Fairies and Puck of Pook’s Hill. It was a vision rooted in personal rather than collective virtue, in intuition rather than reason, in rural patriarchalism rather than industrial efficiency, and in an intense emotional commitment – not to the ‘privatisation’ of later Toryism – but to the intrinsic human value of quiet, private lives.

Like Lord Acton, Baldwin passionately believed that good public life could only be made up of the actions of good individual men – which may explain why, in a quixotic gesture unique in the history of politics, he gave away one-fifth of his personal fortune to the nation in the financial crisis of 1919. The meaning and consequences of Baldwin’s vision may be interpreted in many ways. Some see in him nothing but quietism, indolence and a maintenance of class-privilege – resulting in two decades of orthodox finance, mass unemployment and appeasement of dictators. Others have seen him as the quintessential party politician: the man who, in order to secure reelection in 1935, deliberately evaded (or concealed) hard and unpopular decisions about rearmament. More sympathetically, though with some equivocation, G. M. Young in his official ‘life’ suggested that, whatever the faults of Baldwin’s substantive policies, he at least deserved credit for having forged a united political nation, able to meet the crisis of 1940. Few have been prepared to see much virtue in Baldwin’s vision as a creed in its own right, as a humane and realistic alternative to the numerous more utopian, messianic or rationalistic visions widely on offer in Europe during the inter-war years.

There are signs, however, that the negative view of Baldwin is beginning to change. Roy Jenkins remarks that ‘Mrs Thatcher’s brand of Conservative leadership has made him an object of contrasting interest in a way that Mr Macmillan’s or Mr Heath’s never did’; and the contrast might be extended to include all brands of hard-edged, doctrinaire, holistic ideology. Even Baldwin’s defeatist agnosticism on unemployment seems far less perverse and unintelligible than it appeared two decades ago (and in fact most recent research suggests that in terms both of economic growth and public expenditure the inter-war years were considerably more expansive and innovatory than is often supposed). Jenkins’s study, which is an essay in interpretation rather than a full-dress political biography, adds little to what is known about the factual details of Baldwin’s career, but it does strive to present those facts in a balanced, sympathetic and judicious light. In particular, he praises Baldwin’s careful fostering of Labour, which was done partly from self-interest (socialists made easier targets than Liberals) but partly also from a disinterested desire to provide a constitutional context for inevitable social change. Certainly, however culpable Baldwin may have been of ‘putting party before country’ in the mid-Thirties, he did no such thing in his civilised and co-operative treatment of the Labour Government of 1929. And there is something peculiarly attractive about his belief (expressed in a letter to Rab Butler) that Conservative MPs should refrain from accepting jobs in the City, since such openings were rarely available to Labour men. One slight oddity of Jenkins’s treatment is that while Baldwin earns his praise for buttressing the two-party ‘balance’ in the Twenties, he is sternly taken to task for acquiescing in its abandonment in the Thirties, thereby precipitating the ‘damaging decade-long distortion of the political pattern’. Whether the disruption of such a pattern was a good or a bad thing is clearly a matter of judgment: but it is mildly surprising to find the elder statesman of the SDP concluding that subversion of the two-party system was ‘Baldwin’s biggest political mistake’.

Disenchantment with Thatcherism has led not merely to a revival of Baldwin but to the invention of an ongoing ‘Baldwin/Butler tradition’ of alternative Toryism: though, as Roy Jenkins points out, ‘it is difficult to think of two political careers of more contrasting shape, or two minds which worked more differently.’ Moreover, Rab’s career exhibits, par excellence, the transition from the passive to the active mood in British politics and government mentioned above. Anthony Howard’s Rab is the first fully-documented life of the man who on three separate occasions just missed becoming Conservative prime minister, and for that reason alone would be of peculiar interest. But even without the premiership R.A. Butler’s career was intimately woven into the fabric of high politics over more than three decades, and in his own person he embodied some important features of social and intellectual as well as political history. As a member of the Cambridge Butler clan, Rab belonged to that dynastic intellectual aristocracy whose predominance in all corners of public life was so suggestively mapped by Noel Annan. After a first at Cambridge he spent a brief period as a history don, then married the daughter of Samuel Courtauld and entered Parliament in 1929 as member for his father-in-law’s ‘pocket borough’. A junior minister at the India Office before he was thirty, Rab’s career was marked throughout the Thirties by a mixture of effortless superiority and docile conformity to the wishes of his political superiors. Unlike his future rival, Harold Macmillan, he showed at this time not a shred of interest in such questions as unemployment, the planning movement and the emergence of Keynesian economics (a brief spell at the Ministry of Labour was a mere ‘sordid’ interlude before his promotion in 1937 to be Under-Secretary of State for foreign affairs).

By the late Thirties Rab Butler, as the protégé and close associate of Neville Chamberlain, gave every appearance of being on automatic pilot for the highest ranks of government. His reputation was damaged, however, by his close identification with Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement: a connection which could have put an end to his ministerial life, but which in fact led to a major and ultimately fruitful shift in the sphere of his political concerns. In 1940 he was shunted by Churchill to the Board of Education, where he took up the cause of ‘secondary education for all’ and conducted the long series of negotiations with Churches, education experts and local government that led to the Education Act of 1944.

After the electoral defeat of 1945 he became head of the Conservative Research Department, and in this role was the prime mover in the refashioning of Conservative social, economic and industrial policy that occured after the war. It was he who, more than any other politician, persuaded post-war Conservatives that – in the adaptive and ameliorist tradition of Sir Robert Peel – they should accept the (apparently irreversible) political realities of Keynsian economics, public ownership and the welfare state. As Chancellor of the Exchequer in the early Fifties he continued the policies of fiscal management and full employment pursued by his Labour predecessor Hugh Gaitskell (though his simultaneous removal of many controls on consumption meant that Rab was the first Chancellor to encounter the subversive impact of Keynesianism on prices and the balance of payments). Later in the Fifties, as Home Secretary, he presided over a long series of liberalising social reforms – curtailment of capital punishment, prison renovation, relaxation of censorship, updating of the laws on prostitution and street-betting.

Throughout the Fifties, Rab was widely regarded as both the leading practitioner and philosopher of progressive Toryism; and he was seen by many, including himself, as the strongest and most obvious candidate for future prime minister. The story of how he was outmanoeuvred for this position – in 1956 (not unexpectedly or improperly) by Eden, in 1957 (with great cunning) by Harold Macmillan, and finally in 1963 (almost accidentally) by Alec Douglas-Home – makes fascinating and often distasteful reading. Quite why Rab was pushed aside in this way, and why he allowed it to happen, remains a matter for speculation. A common view is that he was never forgiven by the Churchillian sector of the Conservative Party for his association with appeasement: but this interpretation is unconvincing, not least because one of Rab’s successful rivals was his fellow appeaser, Douglas-Home. Anthony Howard’s emphasis on Rab’s own personality – his fatalism, his ‘renowned lack of instinct for the jugular’, his gentlemanly disdain for intrigue, his often ill-disguised contempt for the Tory Party’s ‘sheep’ and ‘walruses’ – seems to me much more plausible. There was no suggestion of false modesty in Rab’s character (if anything, the reverse), but one of the problems with effortless superiority is that it may ill-equip one actually to make an effort if the need should arise. The very ease of Rab’s early political ascent may have deluded him into believing that his talent spoke for itself, and certainly it gave him no experience of the kind of manoeuvring for position that became second nature to Harold Macmillan. There was perhaps a Machiavellian sense in which Rab did not deserve to be prime minister, because, though pre-eminent in virtue, he lacked that higher virtu which makes men grasp their fortune as it turns upon the wheel.

Anthony Howard has told an absorbing story with great clarity and zeal and with the unerring nose for detail of the first-rate lobby correspondent. Nevertheless, there are deficiencies in this book that make it less than wholly adequate as an official biography, and which leave many important questions about Rab’s life and times unasked and unanswered. The treatment of Rab’s contribution to policy is disappointingly sketchy at all stages of his political career, but particularly so in his days as Chancellor of the Exchequer. Much more use could have been made here of recently opened public records and of the large number of specialist works now appearing on postwar economic policy. And a major omission is the lack of any serious grappling with Rab’s intellectual life: an omission that seems espcially odd in the case of a man generally regarded as the embodiment of modern philosophic conservatism. The surprising transformation of Rab from the orthodox and largely unreflecting high Tory of the Thirties into the speculative philosopher of the Forties and the pioneer of progressivism in the Fifties is scarcely commented on, let alone explained. (Nor is Harold Macmillan’s opposite migration from the advanced economic maverick of the Thirties to the hero of the ‘blue blood and thunder group’ in 1957.) We learn nothing at all about how Rab came to understand and interpret Keynesianism, and indeed the very name of Keynes is never once mentioned. Rab’s relationship with the large number of conservative intellectuals who saw him as their figurehead is nowhere explored: and if Rab ever read a single book there is no mention of it here. Another defect, which Howard’s biography shares with Jenkins’s profile of Baldwin, is that neither of them has anything to say about their subject’s religious beliefs – though both Butler and Baldwin in private writing and public speeches constantly conjured up the idea of a Christian polity as the abiding core of Conservative political thought. If such a theme was mere rhetoric and hypocrisy, designed to placate residual Anglican piety among the Tory faithful, then it deserves to be discussed as such. If, as seems much more likely, both Baldwin and Butler genuinely believed that there was some kind of unique symbiotic relationship between religion and politics even in a secular world, then the omission is much more serious. It may be that religion has replaced sex as the taboo subject of the late 20th century. But that is no reason for the historian or biographer to foist such inhibition upon the characters of an earlier and different age.

A historian whose work spanned political, religious and intellectual history was Stephen Koss, who died in 1984 in his mid-forties. Koss was the author of eight books on modern British history, several of them classics, yet gave the impression of being a man with several decades of scholarly vitality still ahead of him. The Political Culture of Modern Britain accurately reflects the breadth of his interests and the originality of his work.