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’.

O’Brien’s insistence on ‘properly validated achievement’ as a precondition for biographical treatment conjures up those East European academies of science which, before the fall of the Wall, told you what subjects you were allowed to tackle, and how. Williamson’s principles are broadly O’Brienite. ‘Narration of a life,’ he believes, ‘is easy on the mind of author and reader but it is not obviously a powerful or even an effective form of explanation.’ Politicians are ‘diverted and shaped’ by the pressures of their milieu; their careers ‘lose the linear and self-propelled trajectory assumed by biography’, and as only a handful can ‘impose themselves sufficiently and for long enough to affect the course and character of a political system, so only a few deserve more biographical attention than can be supplied by a good Dictionary of National Biography entry’.

Baldwin is one of the few. He does not get his certificate of validated achievement by virtue of executive activity, though Williamson defends him against the charge of indolence and inertia in government: as a Conservative strongly opposed to state intervention, there was little that he wanted to do or could have done. His claims rest on the style of party and national leadership which he adopted and on the Conservative doctrine which he (literally) preached. In focusing on these things, to the exclusion of detailed narrative of the ‘life’ (though there is necessarily a chronological resumé of the career to provide a handrope for the inexpert reader), Williamson sets out to exhibit ‘a method for creating new understandings of British political leaders, by directing attention towards their widest public functions – not just to their particular party and ministerial roles, but to their relationships with the electorate, opposing parties and the media, and to their interaction with “political culture”’.

The emphasis is thus on the persona, not the person, the public purpose rather than the private need. The teasing out of the relationship between them which animates much political biography is not something that concerns Williamson greatly, partly because he is sceptical of the prospects and the profit of doing it. One of Baldwin’s earliest biographers, G.M. Young, is told off (nearly all previous writers on Baldwin are told off for talking nonsense of one kind or another) for initiating a strand of interpretation ‘where psychological or temperamental supposition replaces adequate historical explanation’.

Historians are right to be wary of psychological speculation. The relevant evidence is often skimpy and ambiguous, and historians are not trained to recognise and interpret it (if training helps). But unless you suppose that no even remotely discernible psychological endowment influences the adoption of one party or policy or personality to be projected rather than another, that political and public activity takes place in a sterile zone uncontaminated by the behavioural patterns of those who engage in it, it is hard to ignore ‘psychological or temperamental supposition’ (or, if not supposition, then reasoned hypothesis) as one component of ‘adequate historical explanation’. Its propositions may not be susceptible of proof; but if we talked only about what we could prove, our commentaries on the past, and on the present, would be too jejune to retain attention.

Williamson distances himself from the problem by collapsing the distinction between the public and the private. The ‘imperative task of political persuasion and the weight of party and electoral expectations mean that political leaders partly create for themselves, and partly have imposed upon them, a public personality’ which ‘becomes a force in itself’, which ‘in some sense he’ – the leader – ‘becomes’. The private person is absorbed into the public figure: in the limelight, he or she no more possesses a private personality than an actor does while on stage. This does not mean that Williamson thinks that Baldwin’s background, the formation of his nature, is irrelevant to his political practice. He has two valuable chapters on early influences on Baldwin, which briskly dispel the notion of a simple son of the Worcestershire soil with a mind circumscribed by the pious paternalism of an old-fashioned family firm. The clutch of businesses incorporated in 1902 as Baldwins Ltd was a major manufacturing enterprise which gave Stanley Baldwin, like his father, a substantial metropolitan as well as provincial presence. The young Baldwin, however, grew up among books almost as much as balance sheets. His mother, who wrote poetry, novels and children’s stories, was a sister-in-law of Burne-Jones and aunt of Rudyard Kipling. From Burne-Jones and William Morris, a family friend, her husband commissioned work; from Kipling her son derived a touch of literary inspiration and even an occasional helping hand with his style. Cambridge added to the mix the sense of Britain’s manifest destiny entertained by Sir John Seeley and his followers and William Cunningham’s brand of Christian Conservatism. The discussion of Baldwin’s youth is professedly intended by Williamson to exhibit a ‘model of how examination of an interwar politician’s early life can genuinely and effectively illuminate his career’. This is a matter less of defining a matrix which inexorably determined Baldwin’s political stance than of making an inventory of presuppositions and predilections on which he was able to draw when fashioning that stance in the post-1918 political world.

It is in his first-rate analysis of the ‘doctrine’ which Baldwin evolved to cope with that world, and the way he expounded it, that Williamson fulfils his intention to demonstrate a more productive method of studying a politician’s career than is usually supplied by the standard Life. This is simply to pay much more precise attention to what the subject said than has been common in studies of major politicians. Williamson acknowledges that the ‘linguistic turn’ to the explication of political ideology through the scrutiny of political language is not as novel as some of its recent practitioners like to think (he mentions as precursors Maurice Cowling and Michael Bentley), but he gives one of the most impressive proofs to date of its potential to open up understanding of ideological messaging, the importance of which in British politics has seldom been adequately recognised, and has sometimes been virtually denied, by studies of parties as well as of politicians.

Baldwin’s political craft, and craftiness, emerge with fresh clarity in this account. Standing for Parliament for the first time at the age of 40, for the seat his father had just vacated, he offered himself simply as his father’s son, and was soon telling an aunt that elections would be ‘unbearable if it wasn’t one’s rather obvious duty’. His claim not to be a ‘professional Parliamentarian’ was honest enough. He was pursuing a family ethic of service, not a career. All the same, once events had unpredictably propelled him into the premiership, he was quick to seize the advantages of a stance seemingly above the rough-and-tumble of party politics. He brought to perhaps its highest point the ‘nationalisation’ of Conservatism which Peel had foreshadowed, Disraeli assiduously contrived, and Salisbury carefully nurtured. The essential feature of this was the constant insinuation that Conservatism was not ‘politics’, which connoted division and conflict enfeebling to the nation, but merely the expression of the common feeling and common interest of a free and patriotic people. Baldwin carried this line so far as almost to suggest that party politics were an aberration even in the shape of the Conservative Party, when he said in a 1935 broadcast: ‘I sometimes think that, if I were not the Leader of the Conservative Party, I should like to be leader of the people who do not belong to any party’ (the implication that he was leader of these people was a typical specimen of his art).

Just how the Conservative Party managed to ride so successfully on the national ticket when its claims to represent a geographical, social and occupational cross-section of the nation were most of the time inferior to those of the Liberals (before 1914) and of Labour, is one of the major interpretative problems of modern British history, and one to which Williamson’s work makes a significant contribution. Their wider impersonation of the nation’s diversity and incorporation of its sectional (notably non-English, non-Anglican and organised labour) interests gave the Liberals and Labour substantial electoral assets, but at the same time made it relatively simple to insinuate that they (or at least their left wings) were the underminers of the cohesion and stability which the intensifying economic and imperialistic competition of the post-1870 era seemed to render essential to the nation’s survival. Disraeli and Salisbury had been able to exploit unease about what a full democratic electorate might do without having to face one. Baldwin, facing one in the aftermath of the First World War and the Russian Revolution, saw his task as being ‘to try and educate a new democracy in a new world and to try and make them realise their responsibilities in their possession of power, and to keep the eternal verities before them’.

Their primary responsibility was that enjoined on the new voters of 1867 by Disraeli (whom Baldwin often cited): to remember that they had been ‘invested’ with ‘popular privileges’, not ‘democratic rights’, and should use them to support established institutions. Baldwin offered a Conservative definition of responsible behaviour on the part of a democracy as though there could be none other. Faced with, or sometimes assiduously conjuring up, the threat of Bolshevism, socialism or trade-union militancy, the Conservative Party’s tactic for controlling the situation was, as Williamson puts it, to ‘define the nature of acceptable opposition to itself’, constituting democratic politics in the British constitutionalist tradition as a sphere safely regulated by Conservative values, with ‘extremists’ of whatever description forced out onto a lunatic fringe. That meant fierce partisan opposition to ‘socialism’ and to industrial action allegedly for political ends, but it was Baldwin’s vital contribution to the effectiveness of the approach to insist that it must mean also, if divisive class politics were to be contained, the incorporation of moderate Labour as a respectable partner, or tolerable foil, in a formally adversarial Parliamentary system.

Incorporation was not very difficult. The Left’s own traditions were constitutionalist, and, despite his colleagues’ doubts about wearing court dress when they came into office in 1924, Ramsay MacDonald’s assurance to a relieved George V that he would wean them off singing the ‘Red Flag’ sufficiently indicated the first Labour government’s distance from the barricades. Baldwin was, however, much helped by his ability to strike chords to which many Labour people instinctively responded. His outlook had been touched enough by the Christian Socialism of F.D. Maurice and Charles Kingsley which had influenced his father, to speak to the ethical, Fellowship-of-the-New-Life strand prominent in the thinking of men like MacDonald. When he spoke of society in terms of Christian brotherhood as against class conflict, he easily appeared to be operating within the same frame of moral reference as Sidney Webb, who told the 1923 Labour Party Conference that the founder of British socialism was not Karl Marx but Robert Owen, who ‘preached not “class war”, but the ancient doctrine of human brotherhood’.

Baldwin’s consistent rhetorical subordination of politics to religion and ethics was a particular asset in winning over the traditionally Liberal forces of nonconformity. By 1925, their papers were comparing him to Gladstone. It was in that year, Williamson notes, that ‘his address to the National Free Church Council left its members “spellbound”, until its members felt moved to rise “as one man to sing the National Anthem”.’ The choice of hymn emphasises Baldwin’s capacity to play on the popular Protestant providentialism which was still a significant component of the British sense of identity. His, and his party’s, principal legacy from Disraeli was not the social reform tradition which he found it convenient to invoke as demonstrating Conservative commitment to social solidarity. It was rather the vision of the British as a people chosen for the mission of spreading Christianity and freedom to the world. Just as Baldwin, privately, ‘knew that I had been chosen as God’s instrument for the work of the healing of the nation’, so, publicly, he invited his (in this case Congregationalist) audience to think of the British Empire ‘less as a human achievement than as an instrument of Divine Providence for the promotion of the progress of mankind’.

Baldwin’s technique of national leadership had its limitations, not least its tendency to substitute conflict denial for the search for any strategy of conflict resolution in British society. The paternalistic employer’s notion of good industrial relations could not be generalised with entire success to cover the promotion of social harmony and imperial endeavour. But Williamson admirably shows how Baldwin’s way of reaching into ‘the shared cultural substratum underlying party differences’ enabled him to elaborate a doctrine which offered the Conservative Party chances of universalising its ideology and appeal to the point where the possibility of moral and patriotic opposition to it could be excluded almost by definition. It is more difficult to gauge exactly how much difference that made to the fortunes of the Party and the course of national politics. The study of the formation and promulgation of political doctrine can make its full impact only when the reception of that doctrine receives equally extensive and nuanced investigation. Williamson has analysed superbly what Baldwin put over; it would take another book to tell us how it went down.

Without that dimension of reception and influence, a certificate of ‘properly validated achievement’ cannot finally be issued; but Williamson has ensured that Baldwin gets at least a provisional pass. Or perhaps, Baldwin and friends. Studies of personae and doctrines face the problem of how far these things, rather than being projections of individual personality and belief, are the manufactured and packaged products of a circle, a party, a public relations and communications industry. Williamson does not conceal the question whether Honest Stan’s homespun homilies might sometimes be better entitled ‘The Wit and Wisdom of Tom Jones’, the Welsh civil servant (and Liberal) who wrote a substantial amount of Baldwin’s material – others also contributed, between them providing ‘many specific ideas and large quantities of prose’. Yet his contention that it was always in the last resort the genuine Baldwin Geist that got ghosted carries conviction. Baldwin’s belief-to-baloney ratio was higher than that of most politicians. The Conservative Party’s Ethics and Integrity Committee will not be troubled by his shade, though his shade may well be troubled by the need for such a tribunal. So far as possible, he liked to deal with that department of the Party’s housekeeping himself. As he put it, holding the press lords Beaverbrook and Rothermere at arms length from Downing Street, ‘we have got this place swabbed out, and I am not going to have it infected again.’