Smoking the Pipe of Peace

By Ziegler, Philip | The Spectator, September 18, 2004 | Go to article overview

Smoking the Pipe of Peace


Ziegler, Philip, The Spectator


Smoking the pipe of peace BALDWIN PAPERS edited by Philip Williamson and Edward Baldwin CUP, £75, pp. 526 ISBN 0521580803 £70 (plus £2.25 p&p) 0870 800 4848

If shares in the reputations of defunct prime ministers were quoted on the Stock Exchange, Baldwin would be a sound longterm investment. When he resigned in 1937 he was among the most respected of statesmen and he continued to bask in popular esteem for another two years or so. Then came war, the search for a scapegoat to blame for Britain's failures, and the anonymous polemic Guilty Men, which indicted Baldwin as a cowardly and self-seeking politician who had shirked his manifest duty. Churchill's history of the second world war was more temperate in its judgments but, as the co-editor of these papers, Philip Williamson, has pointed out in another context, the references to Baldwin in Churchill's index - 'Baldwin, Rt Hon. Stanley . . . aversion to foreign problems', or, on rearmament, 'confesses to putting party before country' - suggest that the overall picture is hardly flattering. Still more damage was done when the biographer whom Baldwin had himself selected, G. M. Young, sickened of his task, tried to give it up, took Churchill's version of events as gospel, and ended up with a 'psychological study' which concentrated on Baldwin's supposed defects of character.

Over the last 30 years historians have been kinder to the memory of Baldwin. Churchill is still perceived as a heroic figure, but a hero with flaws who was not above distorting the facts to suit his vision of events. As more official and semiofficial papers have become available, so Baldwin's guilt has seemed less clear-cut and his behaviour more justifiable. In their majestic if somewhat indigestible biography, Middlemas and Barnes put many elements of the record straight. Williamson, in his admirably researched and balanced study of Baldwin, demonstrated convincingly that his subject was a far wiser and subtler statesman than his critics had allowed. This new compilation of Baldwin's papers, prepared by Williamson and the prime minister's grandson, Edward Baldwin, reinforces this assessment. Nothing is harder than to eradicate a legend once it has become embedded in the public consciousness. For most people the automatic reaction to the name of Baldwin will continue to be one of revulsion against a man who was guilty of cowardice, lethargy and a blinkered refusal to face the facts. There is now no excuse, however, for anyone with a serious interest in the subject to subscribe to such biased and simplistic conclusions.

There are no sensational revelations in these papers but plenty of material to help rehabilitate Baldwin's reputation. As the son of a rich manufacturer of sheet metal, a business which flourished during the first world war, Baldwin has often been denounced as the archetypical capitalist who profited by the miseries of the nation. Yet it was he who looked with dismay on the new intake of Conservative MPs after the Coupon election of 1918 and dismissed them as 'hard-faced men who look as if they have done very well out of the war', who referred to the 'wicked amount of money which could never have come to me except for the war', and who, more convincingly, anonymously presented to the government a substantial proportion of his fortune - something over £3 million at current values - 'as a thank offering, in the firm conviction that never again shall we have a chance of giving our country that form of help which is so vital at the present time'. In 1925 he visited Dundee and toured the poorest streets. Oddly enough I have never been in real slum houses,' he wrote, 'and I as near as two pins sat down and howled: the whole thing came to me with such force. Five and six in one room. Think of the children!' Perhaps he should not have been so taken by surprise, but his reaction is hardly that of the insensitive ogre of popular imagining.

The central charge against him - that he failed to push through a rearmament programme which he knew was essential for the nation's security because he believed that it would cost his party votes - is not so easily disposed of. …

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