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.

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