Stanley and the Activists

Philip Williamson

  • Baldwin and the Conservative Party: The Crisis of 1929-1931 by Stuart Ball
    Yale, 266 pp, £25.00, April 1988, ISBN 0 300 03961 1

During the present century the British political system has undergone three periods of severe stress – of strains so serious that the leaders of all the major parties felt obliged to suspend party politics and to combine in coalition governments. The first and third periods of crisis are obvious: the world wars. Here the nature of the threat is evident, and the domestic consequences are familiar – in each case a major advance for the Labour movement and substantial increases in state responsibility for and expenditure upon social and economic reform. The second period of crisis, from 1929 to 1931, is less well-known, perhaps because it was more complex in its causation and because its immediate outcome was by contrast a defeat for the ‘forces of progress’. Yet contemporaries compared the gravity of this situation to that of the Great War, and its consequence was, in Stuart Ball’s words, ‘a reshaping of the party system, and a new basis in the pattern of issues, which was to hold sway for the following fifty years’.

The difficulties of 1929 to 1931 were of three kinds – imperial, economic and party-political. With Dominion governments asserting greater autonomy, the Commonwealth seemed about to dissolve from a British-led international entity into a loose collection of separate states. In India an imperial nightmare was being enacted as Gandhi’s civil disobedience campaign provoked widespread disregard for British authority, serious outbreaks of violence, and a loss of control on the North-West Frontier. At home an already stagnant economy was hit hard by the onset of world depression: exports collapsed and competition from imports increased, unemployment rose towards three million, there were deficits in the balance of payments, in the unemployment insurance fund and in the Budget, and sterling came under severe international pressure. Yet in conditions which required firm, decisive government, the 1929 General Election had resulted in a hung Parliament, with a divided Liberal Party keeping in office a minority Labour government which lacked sufficient authority, experience and resource to cope with the imperial and economic difficulties.

The imperial pressures were met by the Statute of Westminster and Round Table consultations which culminated in the 1935 Government of India Act, both measures intended to preserve the essentials of Empire through conciliation of nationalist opinion, but in the event representing major concessions of British authority. The economic pressures resulted in the final collapse of 19th-century economic internationalism, as it became apparent that Britain could not regain its competitive advantages: free trade and the gold standard gave way to protection and the sterling area. In contrast, the Budget deficit was met by re-assertion of earlier conceptions of financial orthodoxy, including the imposition of large cuts in social service expenditure. Ironically, this defeat for policies of economic expansion was to jolt Keynes towards the full development of his economic theory and policy prescriptions.

The political pressures produced in 1931 the final disintegration of the old Liberal Party, the ignominious collapse of the Labour Government and Ramsay MacDonald’s defection to join with Conservatives and Liberals as head of a national government. This was the last major British political reconstruction: it was to solidify into the two-party system which despite the 1940-45 wartime coalition and recent challenges has survived largely intact to this day.

The chief beneficiary of the crisis was the Conservative Party under the leadership of Stanley Baldwin. As the largest component of a coalition which won a majority of 500 seats in the post-crisis 1931 Election, it became dominant in government for the rest of the decade – and has remained the most successful party ever since. Yet immediately beforehand Conservatives had themselves endured two years of severe party difficulties. These Conservative divisions were part of the larger crisis, especially as for a while they seemed to make the Party incapable of providing a credible alternative to the Labour Government.

In an excellent introduction, Ball places his subject within the larger history of the party system and emphasises the importance of the events of 1929-1931 for understanding the specific character of the Conservative Party: ‘periods in opposition are more significant in the development of a party than its tenures of office, and reveal more about its nature.’ His central theme is that of ‘power and authority’: the role of the party leader and his relationship with the Conservative rank and file. These were exposed with particular clarity by an ‘extremely bitter revolt from below against the leader’ which followed the Conservative Government’s defeat at the 1929 Election. Baldwin and his advisers came to be blamed for the defeat, and he failed to satisfy as an opposition leader. He neither provided a fighting lead against the Labour Government, not initiated fresh developments in party policy. Whereas most Conservatives considered the election defeat an opportunity to discard earlier electoral inhibitions and resume the campaign for tariff reform, Baldwin remained sceptical and tentative. He disturbed many by countenancing promises by the Viceroy of India and the Labour Cabinet of further advances towards native representation in Indian central government. Critics of his leadership were consequently able to obtain considerable rank-and-file support. Centres of opposition included the diehards (the ‘hard’ right), protectionist associations, Churchill (on India) and, most spectacularly, the proprietors of the chief mass-circulation newspapers, Lords Beaverbrook and Rothermere, who created their own political organizations – the Empire Crusade and the United Empire Party – and ran candidates against official Conservatives in by-elections. The result was ‘a moving battle for control of the party, and therefore a struggle over its leadership’. Baldwin had to defend himself and his policies in a series of party meetings and remarkable Parliamentary and public speeches. No other party leader has endured such intensive and persistent criticism and survived.

Ball explains the party crisis, its outcome and its implications by means of a detailed narrative. This reads with deceptive ease: in fact, his construction of a reliable and sensitive account of such a complicated crisis is a substantial achievement, not merely adding new information but making it possible to obtain a much clearer understanding of the character of the criticisms made against Baldwin and the reasons for his survival. A further, unusual, strength is the amount of attention given to the opinions of the party rank and file. As well as examining the papers of party leaders, MPs and peers, Ball has used every known surviving collection of regional and constituency party documents. This work enables him to make authoritative assessments of the balance of forces within the Party. It also highlights the peculiar difficulty facing Baldwin – the problem of controlling party activists. In these years, the Conservative Party had a ‘militant tendency’ in the safe Conservative seats of Southern England. Their desire for the Party to be committed to outright imperial protectionism – including taxation of foreign food imports – ran far ahead of Conservative opinion in marginal Midlands, Northern and Scottish constituencies, and was a source of concern for party leaders anxious both to retain party unity and to maintain an appeal to urban and working-class voters, who feared higher food prices. It was by tapping the frustrations of these party activists that Beaverbrook and Rothermere were able to cause such difficulties for Baldwin.

Ball shows how this tension between the demands of activists and the calculations of leaders was a major problem. But there was a further complication. Baldwin had for long hated and feared the press lords and regarded their political aspirations as ‘the most obvious peril to democracy’. It is likely that a desire to resist any impression that party policy was being imposed by Beaverbrook and Rothermere was from the beginning the reason for his peculiarly stubborn resistance to full imperial protectionism. Certainly from June 1930 Baldwin outmanoeuvred his critics with increasing success by shifting the issue from trade policy to the constitutional one of resisting press dictation, ‘power without responsibility’. Paradoxically, although the press lords were Baldwin’s most troublesome opponents, their intervention was probably a principal reason for his survival. Ball considers that one of Baldwin’s strengths was the absence of an obvious successor, and inclines towards a kindly interpretation of the actions of his colleagues. But there was no shortage of possible candidates. Rather, Neville Chamberlain, Hailsham, Horne and others felt inhibited or drew back from striking at Baldwin because they feared that allegations that the party leadership had been changed at the behest of newspaper proprietors might severely damage the Party and their own prospects.

While not underestimating the hierarchical and deferential character of Conservative party structure, Ball is particularly concerned to contest ‘the commonly held view that the Parliamentary Conservative Party is the decisive force in the removal of unpopular leaders.’ This, he writes, is ‘to confuse the knife which strikes the fatal blow with the hand that wields it’: the hand by which Conservative MPs are guided is the rank and-file. From his extensive study of rank-and file disaffection, he concludes that the state of the Party in autumn 1930 was more critical than at the more notorious period of the St George’s by-election in March 1931. This is an important point: the fact that in the earlier period the Conservative Party was, as one MP described it, ‘rotting before their eyes’, supports other evidence that autumn 1930 was regarded as a moment of deep national crisis. It is possible that if Neville Chamberlain had not found a means to enable Baldwin to adopt imperial protectionism without appearing to submit to Beaverbrook, the whole Conservative collective leadership might have been ousted as comprehensively as that of 1922, with considerable consequences for the Party’s future character. Nevertheless it is not certain that Ball’s evidence altogether establishes his argument about the importance of the ‘low politics’ of the rank and file as against the ‘high politics’ of MPs and party leaders. For despite the severe party discontent in autumn 1930, Baldwin did not consider resignation, whereas in the less serious party conditions of March 1931 he very nearly went. The difference between the two periods is that in the first Baldwin had the support of his Shadow Cabinet, however reluctant; in the second, most of his colleagues withdrew support, though soon changing their minds. It was less the existence of rank-and-file disaffection that threatened Baldwin, than the way in which other party leaders and MPs perceived and responded to it. The power to change the Conservative leadership appears to have remained in the hands of the party élite.

Ball writes impressively about the August 1931 political crisis and formation of the National Government. He quite rightly argues that, far from plotting the overthrow of the Labour Government, Conservative leaders wished to keep it in office for the duration of the crisis and to help it make unpopular cuts in social service expenditure, in order to clear the way for a Conservative government. However, in rejecting the notion of a Conservative plot to form a national government, Ball is perhaps too dismissive of earlier discussions of such a coalition. If the Conservative hierarchy had disintegrated in October 1930 in the manner he suggests possible, some party leaders might well have been attracted to the coalition idea. In the event, a national government seemed irrelevant in terms of their normal expectation of a Conservative victory at the next general election. But in the grave and unsettled economic conditions of mid-1931, it again seemed possible that an abnormal situation might develop – and by July some Conservative leaders were contemplating a national government, not as a positive objective, but as an alternative to fall back upon if some emergency did occur. That is to say, the idea was available well before the Labour Cabinet collapsed. Given the mounting financial deficits, government retrenchment had now become the major issue: the danger was that the Conservative Party might not win the election on protection but might lose it over cuts in unemployment insurance. If the ‘patriotic duty’ of trying to save sterling was a leading motive for Conservative leaders implementing the idea of a national government, equally strong was a cool party calculation that it was desirable to spread responsibility for drastic expenditure cuts as wide as possible.

Baldwin is the central figure throughout. As the common view of him is one of complacency, lethargy and bucolic simplicity – the images are of pipes and pigs – it might be wondered how he survived the 1929-1931 party crisis, and was Conservative leader for a total of 14 years. Churchill’s answer was that, appearances notwithstanding, Baldwin was a party manager of extraordinary slyness. Ball, in very good descriptions of Baldwin in action, shows that this was simply not the case: quite the reverse, he could be remarkably inept in dealing with his party. Real weaknesses as leader were offset by the institutional advantages of his post, an instinctive sense of timing, an ability to produce excellent speeches under extreme pressure, and a certain amount of luck. What should further be stressed is the success of his message: that he was to be trusted, that he stood for decency, seriousness, responsibility, tolerance, truth, duty, and harmony between classes and denominations. However much the practicalities of his leadership were criticised, when Baldwin exerted himself he could call on this reservoir of values to devastating effect. Though deliberately designed to transcend party politics, his appeal was nevertheless a formidable party weapon. He was regarded by his colleagues as an expert on the attitudes of the ordinary ‘man in the street’. In so far as this was accurate, it was perhaps less because of Baldwin’s own ‘averageness’ than because he had helped show the ordinary citizen what he ought to think and value. Baldwin’s many non-political speeches – collected and, in cheap editions, sold in large numbers – were in effect lay sermons. What is now needed is a thorough study of how Baldwin was perceived in popular Conservatism.