One’s Rather Obvious Duty

Paul Smith

  • Stanley Baldwin: Conservative Leadership and National Values by Philip Williamson
    Cambridge, 378 pp, £25.00, September 1999, ISBN 0 521 43227 8

How bogus was Baldwin? When he said in 1925, ‘I give expression, in some unaccountable way, to what the English people think’, the statement was, as Philip Williamson notes in this ambitious new assessment, ‘in any literal sense … untrue’. Similarly with his claim to be ‘voicing what is in the minds of the dumb millions of this country’, though there the assertion was so framed as to make falsification more difficult. His continued appearances as ‘just a plain man of the common people’ strained plausibility even more than the occasional gaitered gaddings as a country squire, which at length (though only after his retirement) drove his wife to suggest that he might abandon a ‘pose’ which ‘had never deceived me and by now probably deceived very few others’. A smack of complacency, of relishing his own act, is caught in a Dickensian reference by the journalist Collin Brooks (in the diary recently edited by Nicholas Crowson), made when he read Baldwin’s skilful statement to the Commons on the abdication of Edward VIII: ‘He is a veritable Bagstock of a fellow – “deep, deep and devilish sly, is tough old Joe, sir.”’

But tough old Stan was only doing what a politician, or indeed anyone else at large in the world, has to do. Posing is a necessary part of public appeal, acting a basic technique in the management of relations public or private, all the more so when what you want to present is the genuine article. Genuineness has to look genuine, for what your audience gets is what it sees. Stanley Baldwin, moreover, reached the top in politics just when it had become possible for millions to observe politicians in close-up on the cinema screen and hear them, with an even greater illusion of intimacy, on the radio. One of his most vital skills was in the exploitation of these new ways to make a direct personal appeal.

He has a good claim to be the inventor of the ‘fireside chat’. His screen image – a benevolent bank manager – would bear more analysis than Williamson, who doesn’t seem much interested in the visual, gives it. But the nearer leading politicians get the further they recede; the closer the image introduced for your inspection, the denser the protective patina applied by the speech-writers, the make-up artists, the lighting men, the voice coaches, the hairstylists. The packaging was less carefully managed in Baldwin’s day than it is now, but even then there was nothing novel about it. The arts of presentation of the public figure were as old as politics.

The boundless appetite of the reading public for bulky volumes combining the paraphernalia of high politics with laundry-list lowdown has something to do with the urge to know what was real behind the reputation, to connect political posture with underlying character, to understand whether a political career is the product of dedication to principle, devotion to public service, or a serious personality disorder. But the historians on whose sifting of the record political history mostly depends are less willing to lend themselves to this ‘human interest’ approach than they used to be. Three years ago, Patrick O’Brien, then director of the Institute of Historical Research, disparaged the whole genre of political biography. He argued that ‘just as there are scholars of the performing arts who prefer to contemplate actors rather than acting, players rather than plays, so, too, in history the sheer volume of political biography represents a triumph of form over substance.’ The analysis of processes, institutions and the ‘lasting achievements of significant individuals’ is what historians should be concerned with; and unless important outcomes ‘can be attributed in large measure to the ideas and leadership exercised by prominent politicians, then their lives, however, deeply researched and readable, contribute very little to our understanding of the history of government and politics’.

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