On 27 September, Alistair Lexden, historian of the Conservative Party, recalled the character and the achievements of Stanley Baldwin, three times Prime Minister and Conservative Party leader for fourteen years from 1923 to 1937.
His address followed the unveiling of a statue of Baldwin in Bewdley, Worcestershire, the first to be erected in his memory, by His Royal Highness The Duke of Gloucester, KG, GCVO. The text of the address follows.
Stanley Baldwin loved his native county of Worcestershire, a constant source of inspiration to him, and he loved his country. Large numbers of his contemporaries, sensing his profound, yet gentle patriotism, which threatened no other nation, came quite quickly to regard him with affection after he emerged suddenly at the forefront of public life in the early 1920s. Politicians have to expect mocking or derogatory nicknames. Baldwin escaped them: he was known kindly, and accurately, as Honest Stan.
People thought of him almost as a personal friend: for he spoke to them frequently in clear, straightforward language in their homes, through the newly established BBC. He was a brilliant broadcaster, far surpassing all his fellow politicians. It was the start of a new era of mass communications: and he dominated it.
The ranks of his admirers extended far beyond those who belonged to, or voted for, the Conservative Party, which he led to the three greatest election victories in its history during his fourteen years at its head . He had the ability, given to few political leaders, especially in peace-time, to address the nation in language—some of the most moving and beautiful language it had ever heard—that avoided partisan rancour and bitterness.
He had friends in places where most Tory leaders attract only opponents. He enjoyed the company of trade union leaders and gained their trust, which helped bring the General Strike of 1926, one of the most formidable challenges he faced, to a swift conclusion in ten days, and minimised the damage to industrial relations and the economy. The editor of The Times wrote that ‘Toryism, as expounded by him, lost many of its repellent features.’
His objective, from which he never wavered, was to diminish the class divisions, which scarred his country so deeply, and draw people together irrespective of their backgrounds in the service—one of his favourite words—of their country. It was a mission which he told his own Party to pursue with vigour. Addressing a great election victory rally at the Royal Albert Hall in December 1924, he said that Conservatives must dedicate themselves to creating ‘union among our own people to make one nation of own people which, if secured, nothing else matters in the world.’
In this way he introduced into political life that famous phrase, ‘one nation’, which is heard again and again today on the lips of some Labour, as well as of Tory, politicians. Few have worked as hard as he did to make it a reality. Yet he is too frequently denied the credit for devising it. Whenever I come across its misattribution in the media, I write in to correct it.
It was Stanley Baldwin who made Britain a fully democratic state. In 1928 he brought all women over 21 within it by giving them the vote, finishing what had been begun ten years earlier when the franchise had been conferred on women with property over the age of 30. He said in 1927 that ‘a democracy is incomplete and lop-sided until it is representative of the whole people, and the responsibility rests alike on men and women’. This year has brought events commemorating the centenary of the limited enfranchisement of women in 1918. But it was Baldwin who did women as a whole the greatest service ten years later. Fittingly, he was asked to unveil the lovely statue of Mrs Pankhurst erected beside Parliament in 1930.
By the 1930s many had come to regard Baldwin as the third most famous person in the realm, after their revered monarch, King George V, and the charming Prince of Wales. The gruff, good-hearted sovereign occasionally found it necessary to chide his longest-serving prime minister, who spent nearly eight years in all at Number 10. In a letter to the King in 1925, Baldwin described an all-night sitting in the Commons as resembling ‘St James’s Park at midday with members lying about the benches in recumbent positions.’ Royal displeasure was communicated to him. ‘Members of Parliament now include ladies and such a state of things as you describe seems to His Majesty hardly decorous’.
It was fortunate that other less than decorous remarks made by Baldwin did not reach the royal ears. ‘Never stand between a dog and a lamp-post’, he once advised his Downing Street staff-- sensibly enough. He invented proverbs. One which he said was of Afghan origin would certainly have bemused the sovereign, and many others besides: ‘He who lies in the bosom of the goat, spends his remaining days plucking out the fleas’. He was deluged with letters from retired colonial officials authenticating this bogus proverb, but insisting that it originated in Burma, or Malaya, or Singapore, or some other place where they had served.
Baldwin saw the monarchy as the utterly indispensable constitutional linchpin of the nation whose unity and cohesion he sought throughout his career to strengthen. Of the straitlaced George V, he said: ‘we are fortunate indeed to have as our King a man with such a sense of duty’. He looked in vain for similar virtue in his successor, Edward VIII. He believed that the interests of the country compelled him to ask the King to choose between the throne and a hard, greedy woman, uninterested in public service, with two former husbands living.
His masterly handling of the abdication crisis in 1936, saving the Crown from any lasting damage, brought his career to a triumphant conclusion. His detailed explanation of the crisis in the House of Commons was described by Harold Nicolson as ‘the best speech we will ever hear in our lives’. He retired a few months later. Hensley Henson, the Bishop of Durham, said: he is ‘really a very great man, and a genuine member of the “goodly fellowship of the prophets”’.
Not all the country’s historic institutions gained his full-hearted praise. He went reluctantly to the House of Lords on his retirement, saying disarmingly ‘there is perhaps a certain retributive justice in it as I have sent so many others there, hoping I should never see their faces again’.
This, then, was the much- praised, utterly down to earth, deeply humane statesman—no lesser term would be appropriate— now to be commemorated for ever by this magnificent statue in a place which he knew so well and cared for so deeply as boy and man, sentiments that were amply reciprocated by its people during his long years of association with it, nearly thirty of them as its Member of Parliament.
How frequently in the hundreds of speeches he delivered outside Parliament— more than any other modern prime minister—he referred to vivid memories of Worcestershire which abided with him and to which he gave eloquent expression. Here is an extract from one of them, recalling Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887 when he was twenty years old:
‘I was walking slowly across a wide common in Worcestershire, waiting for the warning light of the great beacon on Malvern which was to give the signal for the chain of beacons running north to carry the glad news of the jubilee of Queen Victoria’s reign. How often in our history had these same hills sent out their fiery message, to Briton and Roman, to Saxon and Dane. But this night it was a message of rejoicing and thanksgiving and pride…at the appointed hour the first flame shot up on Malvern, and one by one each hill took up the tale, until I stood in the middle of a vast illuminated circle, the nearer fires showing the people attending them, and the remoter dwindling in size until they merely blazed as stars on the horizon’.
Apart from the power of the language, note the historical resonance which is a recurrent feature of his speeches. A country is impoverished when it lacks leaders with a sense of the past, as we do today.
Baldwin’s total lack of self-importance, that besetting sin of politicians, is well illustrated by a famous anecdote. On a train journey during the second of his three premierships, he noticed that another occupant of the compartment was looking at him with some puzzlement. After a time this man leant forward and tapped Baldwin on the knee. ‘You are Baldwin, aren’t you?’, he said. ‘You were at Harrow in ‘84’. Baldwin nodded assent to both propositions. His former school-fellow appeared satisfied. But after a few more minutes he again became puzzled and tapped once more. ‘Tell me’, he said, ‘what are you doing now?’ I had long imagined this story to be apocryphal, but I was heartened to see it in the lovely speech made by his great-granddaughter Bea Grant at Hagley Hall during the fund-raising campaign for the statue.
It is well-known that Baldwin’s reputation plunged precipitously from the astonishingly high point at which it stood when he retired in 1937. The cause is equally well-known: the charge that he failed to rearm Britain in the face of the growing menace of the fascist dictators. How proud he would have been that this wholly spurious accusation, which he himself was too old and infirm to rebut, should have been countered so powerfully, first by his son, Windham, and then by Edward, his grandson. They have been vindicated. Detailed research by modern historians has removed the tarnish from Stanley Baldwin’s reputation—spectacularly so in Professor Philip Williamson’s brilliant book, Stanley Baldwin: Conservative leadership and national values, published in 1999, which was followed by a fascinating collection of extracts fromBaldwin’s personal papers, which he produced jointly with Edward Baldwin.
What did Baldwin think about Nazi Germany? He detested it. Appalled by the Kristallnacht attack on Jews and their property towards the end of 1938, he launched The Lord Baldwin’s Fund for Refugees. In eight months it raised £ 522,000, slightly over £34 million in today’s values. It helped fund the Kindertransport, and is regarded as the most successful British public appeal of the inter-war years, as Baldwin’s great- grandson, Simon Russell, Lord Russell of Liverpool, himself a great fund-raiser for the statue appeal, recently told the House of Lords.
Baldwin made his last speech as Prime Minister on 18 May 1937 to a packed Albert Hall, filled with
representatives of the youth of the Empire and Commonwealth. Much to Baldwin’s pleasure, they were joined unexpectedly by Your Royal Highness’s father, bearing a message from his brother, the recently crowned King George VI. What, asked Baldwin, had made Britain so successful? His answer: ‘Freedom, ordered freedom within the law, with force in the background and not in the foreground; a society in which freedom and authority are blended in due proportion’. He told his young audience: ‘It may well be that you will have to save democracy’—as a number of them would indeed do a few years later. And he added: ‘live for the brotherhood of man’.
These were the ideals of the great man now commemorated here in Bewdley by the glorious statue that Martin Jennings has created. Ideals like these need to be enunciated once again today, with Baldwin’s eloquent persuasiveness, in our deeply troubled times when his great aim, ‘One Nation’, seems especially elusive.
Finally, on this important day, should we not remind ourselves of perhaps the best known words spoken by this formidable figure, deeply imbued with Christian faith, who cared so strongly about the unity of his country? Tears stood in the eyes of MPs throughout the House of Commons as he concluded his famous speech on industrial relations on 6th March 1925: ‘There are many in all ranks and in all parties who will re-echo my prayer: “Give peace in our time, O Lord”’.