Authors: Roy Jenkins
Tags: #Biography & Autobiography, #General
I wrote the first version of this biographical essay in the early seventies. It was conceived as a wing of a mansion which was to include portraits of American Presidents and of other British Prime Ministers. For reasons which I explained in the Preface to
that rather grandiose plan I subsequently abandoned.
I have however considerably altered and somewhat lengthened
Nonetheless it obviously remains an appraisal of his character and life rather than a detailed account of all their aspects. I have however kept to a chronological narrative, except for the substantial introduction, which attempts to set his career against the major issues of his age, whether or not he engaged with them. He was the dominant politician for fifteen of the twenty-one inter-war years. By any standards he must count, with Asquith, Attlee and Macmillan, as one of a quartet of major peacetime Prime Ministers (whose term of office is complete) of this century.
I have also added an appendix of potted biographies of many of the figures of the twenties and thirties who were associated with Baldwin. I thought of putting them as footnotes on the page, but decided that this would become oppressive. I suggest however that they are better read where the names are first flagged by a solid circle, rather than together at the end. I have not included Prime Ministers in the list of those of whom biographies are provided. I thought it otiose to explain who Churchill and Lloyd George were. As I needed a defensible
frontier, this meant also excluding, perhaps less obviously, Balfour, Bonar Law, Neville Chamberlain and Eden.
I am grateful to Patricia Smallbone and Monica Harkin for typing the manuscript, to Diana Fortescue for checking it, and to my Collins editors, first Roger Schlesinger and then Helen Fraser and Alison Wade, for turning it into a book. I am also grateful to those who critically read the typescript, most of all perhaps to Lord Bonham-Carter. I received help with reminiscence from Lady Lorna Howard (Baldwin’s second daughter), and with photographs from the 4th Earl Baldwin (Baldwin’s grandson). Neither saw nor asked to see the typescript, and therefore gave their help ‘blind’, which is particularly kind. Of those I talked to about Baldwin, I think that the late Lord Boothby, in the last year of his life, gave me the most vivid impression, illuminating particularly the period of Baldwin’s second and most important administration.
It is forty years since Baldwin’s death and fifty years since he last exercised power. During these decades his reputation has mostly been low, at best quiescent. It is difficult to imagine any of his successors in the leadership of the Conservative Party in the ‘fifties, ‘sixties, or ‘seventies seeking to stir the faithful or to persuade the nation by evoking the great tradition of Baldwin to which they were heir.
Yet he has been by no means neglected by biographers, if not particularly well served either. At the time of his death in 1947 there had been three short studies, all of them by writers of some quality: A. G. Whyte’s
Stanley Baldwin. A Biographical Character Study
(1928), Wickham Steed’s
The Real Stanley Baldwin
(1930), and Arthur Bryant’s commemorative
written for his retirement in 1937.
The first posthumous and only authorized biography was G. M. Young’s book of 1952, with the same simple title as Bryant’s. It has been fairly described by Lord Blake as ‘sketchy and inadequate’. It was also sufficiently unfriendly (see
) to provoke published
The first was by D. C. Somervell, another Oxford historian and the elder brother of Baldwin’s last Attorney-General (although this was little more than coincidental). It was of pamphlet length but lacked a true pamphleteer’s style: there was too much gentlemanly rebuke and not enough polemical conviction. The second was a much more substantial
in 1955 A. W. Baldwin (Baldwin’s second son, later the 3rd Earl) produced
My Father: the True Story.
This was a spirited and skilful filial defence, agreeably written and containing much (then)
new information of interest. Obviously, however, it was in neither intention nor result objective biography.
Then, in 1960, John Raymond, a pyrotechnic literary critic, collected a series of essays of uneven quality and disparate content, under the title
The Baldwin Age.
Some of them had practically nothing to do with Baldwin, but Robert Blake justified his strictures of Young by showing what could be done with 12,000 words of straight biographical narrative. His essay remains not only the most succinct but also one of the most perceptive accounts of Baldwin’s career.
Until the late 1960s however it remained the case that all the studies of Baldwin–A. W. Baldwin was on the margin of being the only exception—were notable more for their economy of scale than for the amplitude of the information they provided about their subject—perhaps as a sympathetic reaction to his own well-known economy of effort. (I am aware that in view of what I like to think of as the tautness of this book this comment may be regarded as an example of throwing stones out of glass houses.)
In 1969, any such paucity was superabundantly corrected. It was like a November opening of the heavens after a long summer of drought. Keith Middlemas and John Barnes assembled almost every possible fact about Baldwin and put them together in a volume (
) of 1100 pages and half a million words. The difficulty here is that, with so many facts present, trying to find one is like indulging in a lucky dip from a gigantic bran-tub. Like Churchill’s pudding, this book lacks theme.
In 1973 it was followed by H. Montgomery Hyde’s
Baldwin: the Unexpected Prime Minister.
Mr Montgomery Hyde was an Ulster Unionist MP in days when the representation of the province required less single-issue dedication than is the case today and is a professional biographer who has written on subjects from Oscar Wilde to Stalin. His book (250,000 words) was shorter than Middlemas and Barnes, but is nonetheless substantial. It is the best full-length study of Baldwin. It was
followed in 1976 by another biographical essay, this time by Kenneth Young, formerly editor of the
to a publishers’ series, edited by A. J. P. Taylor, which embraced seven or eight Prime Ministers.
Since then there has been biographical silence. This is in a way surprising, for during these ten years Baldwin has begun to swim back into fashion. In part this is a function of growing nostalgia for his period of power, even though Baldwin himself was not a very obvious
product. Rather more, however, it is because 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. When a new exponent of a different political style temporarily achieves notice–Mr Pym or Mr Hurd or Mr Biffen–it is now almost inevitably suggested that he might be a new Baldwin. That was emphatically not the case when Iain Macleod or Quintin Hogg illuminated the political sky. Nor even was R. A. Butler, who is now almost being amalgamated into a Baldwin/Butler tradition, much compared in his heyday with ‘honest Stanley’. That was as well, for although Baldwin gave Butler the start of his thirty-three years of ministerial office and Butler cherished Baldwin’s memory, it is difficult to think of two political careers of more contrasting shape, or two minds which worked more differently.
Baldwin’s re-emergence into the arena of political comparison, whether or not the comparisons be accurate, does however make this a reasonable time for another look, written from a non-Conservative although not personally unsympathetic standpoint, at his neatly shaped yet most unusual career and his attractive but not profound character.
Baldwin had three major long-term issues with which to contend during his fifteen years as the dominant figure (for such he undoubtedly was) of British politics. These do not comprise either the sterling crisis and the formation of the National Government in 1931 or the Abdication in 1936. Both of these were important to Baldwin’s life. The first determined
how he spent his last seven years of activity, the second created the prestige with which he retired, although it could not make it last for long. But they were neither of them central, ‘swell of the ocean’ issues for the nation. The three in this category were: first, the thrust to power of the organized working class, expressing itself, alternately rather than complementarily, in industrial challenge and the rise to government of the Labour Party; second, the impact, felt for the first time, of Britain’s relative industrial decline, which had begun as long previously as the 1890s, but which had been suppressed until our over-expanded and obsolescent basic industries ran into the export slump of the 1920s; and third, Mussolini’s threat to a rather flimsy world order, which quickly became subsumed in Hitler’s more massive threat to the independent existence of British (and French) democracy.
Brooding upon these issues certainly did not dominate Baldwin’s life, although he left himself more time for thought than has any other Prime Minister since Balfour, and the general habit of his mind was ruminative rather than executive. But if they did not dominate the life of Baldwin they dominated the age of Baldwin, and his reputation in history must inevitably depend upon the view taken of his handling of them. In the early autumn of 1936 he was able to tell his Foreign Secretary, almost with the relieved exhilaration of a man who is freed of humdrum tasks by an exciting emergency, that he must not expect him to have time to spare for the Spanish Civil War and other dismal problems until ‘the King’s matter’ was settled (
). It was difficult to sell such an order of priorities to Anthony Eden at the time and it would be impossible to sustain it today. Baldwin’s life must be described in terms of his own priorities, for they determined how he passed his time. But he must be judged in terms of the big issues of his epoch, independently of the extent to which he chose to engage with them.
He is strongest on the first issue, the handling of the thrust to power of organized labour. In his first year as leader of the
Conservative Party he had to roll with the punch of making way for the first Labour Government in British history–and one of the earliest in any bourgeois democracy. And in his third year he had to meet the unprecedented challenge of a full General Strike. The former was not in accordance with his immediate desires, for no Prime Minister could welcome giving up the office he had held for barely eight months in the wake of a severe setback at an ill-judged election. But it was in accordance with his longer term view of the desirable evolution of politics. He wanted a house-trained Labour Party to redress the balance of the party system which had been upset by the quarrels in the Liberal Party. No doubt he wanted the Labour Party to do it in a less self-confident and power-commanding way than either the Gladstonian or the Asquithian Liberal Party, but even more did he want them to do it in a way that blotted out the prospect of a centre party which could be a vehicle for the return to power of the evil genius of Lloyd George. Baldwin was as committed a two-party duopolist as Mrs Thatcher or Mr Kinnock.