Magazine article The Spectator

Normality in Power

Magazine article The Spectator

Normality in Power

Article excerpt

OF ALL the 51 prime ministers - 50 men and one woman - who, beginning with Sir Robert Walpole, have occupied No. 10 Downing Street, the two with whom I find it most natural to compare with Stanley Baldwin are Asquith, his predecessor but two, and Attlee, his successor also but two. Of course neither of them was of his party, but this was not inappropriate, for an essential part of Baldwin's leadership skill was that it transcended party and reached out to a wider national audience. All his most notable House of Commons speeches were in this category.

Neither Baldwin nor Asquith was obsessed by politics. Baldwin's mind was nonetheless always playing around the crucial political issues of the day, sniffing the atmosphere, nudging his way to what would and what would not work, and formulating in his mind one of those ruminative, persuasive speeches which were such important political instruments for him. One could almost say that he governed more by mood-creating speeches than by hard decisions. He spent an awful lot of time thinking about speeches, and not only about political ones. He could seldom resist an invitation to address a learned society, a university, a county or regional association, a professional body, indeed any gathering of public-spirited people brought together for non-commercial purposes. And those speeches had to be rich in literary allusion and evocative phrases.

He was more imaginative than Asquith who, under his polished Balliol classicism and sophisticated conversation, had a good deal of Yorkshire phlegm. Baldwin, paradoxically in view of the image he acquired, and did not discourage, of the quintessential solid Englishman rooted in the soil of the rural West Midlands, was more Celtic (his mother was half Highland Scots and half Welsh) and more highly strung. He was full of minor nervous habits, an eyetwitch, a frequent snapping of the thumbs and fingers when reading or in conversation, a flicking of the tongue before starting a speech, and a curious habit of putting objects, particularly books, to his nostrils and audibly sniffing at them. More importantly, he had a metabolism which reacted well to crisis. His power of decision-making improved, and his gift of calming, persuasive oratory rose to its heights. But after such a period he was left exhausted, sometimes near to nervous prostration. As examples, he dealt skilfully with the eight days of the General Strike in 1926, but was then supine in dealing with the coal strike, which dragged on for another six months. `Leave it alone; we are all so tired,' he said to Churchill at the end of the summer. But Churchill wasn't at all tired. Again, after his Abdication speech triumph, his main desire was to coast downhill to the already fixed date of this retirement.

His intellectual equipment was less formidable than that of Asquith. He had quite wide but somewhat imprecise knowledge and interests. There is a story, possibly apocryphal but of the sort that Baldwin engagingly liked to encourage about himself, of his being asked in conversation which English thinker had most influenced him. `Sir Henry Maine,' he firmly replied. When asked what particular aspect of Maine's thought had most seized his mind, he said Maine's view that all human history should be seen in terms of the advance from status to contrast. He then paused, looked apprehensively at his interlocutor and said, `Or was it the other way round?' That was totally un-Asquithian. Asquith may not have had many original thoughts, fewer probably than Baldwin, but he could summarise the broad doctrines of every well-known philosopher or historian, as well as giving you their dates, at the drop of a hat.

Baldwin considerably admired Asquith. What he thought of Attlee, the other prime minister with whom I venture to compare him, I do not know. What we do know is that, in general, Baldwin believed in treating the Labour party with high consideration. This is well illustrated by a rebuke, massive in substance although gently delivered in form, which he gave to Neville Chamberlain in 1927, when the latter was perhaps the most successful of his departmental ministers. …

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