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In which I continue to seek part time employment as the ruler of the world.

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Saturday March 05 2016

I enjoy books that consist of quite a lot of short biographies.  I feel that I learn a lot from such books, very quickly.  Which is why, when I recently, in a charity shop, came upon Brief Lives by W. F. Deedes, I snapped it up.  I particularly enjoyed this bit, where he describes the rise to prominence of Stanley Baldwin, my enjoyment being caused by having previously known nothing about how this had happened.

The turning point in his career came in April 1921 when at the age of fifty-four he was promoted to President of the Board of Trade in the coalition government under Lloyd George.  There were no great expectations of him among senior ministers but the House of Commons took a liking to his patience and good humour and felt they could trust him.  That element of trust counted, for in the autumn of 1922 strained relations within Lloyd George’s coalition came to breaking point.  The Liberal party was in tatters while the Conservatives were increasingly restless under Lloyd George, and divided about his value to them.  Baldwin had been tramping round Aix-les- Bains, his favourite holiday resort, brooding over his party’s future.  He decided that the Tories must detach themselves from Lloyd George and his wily ways, and return to responsible parliamentary government.  Behind this decision lay profound anxiety about the future of his party rather than promotion of himself.

Baldwin prepared his ground by consulting Conservative colleagues, though up to the last moment he did not know how some of them would respond.  As G. M. Young has observed, what Baldwin’s speech to Conservative backbenchers at the Carlton Club in 1922 did disclose, though not everyone realized it at the time, ‘was that this countrified business man, who seemed to have reached the Cabinet by accident, was the master, and the unequalled master, of a new eloquence: direct, conversational, monosyllabic: rising and falling without strain or effort, between the homeliest humour and the moving appeal.’ Baldwin’s simple earnestness carried the day.  The coalition broke up. Lloyd George resigned. The Conservatives won the 1922 election and Bonar Law, though a sick man, became Prime Minister and appointed Baldwin as his Chancellor of the Exchequer. However, any sense of triumph was soon dimmed by the task of negotiating settlement of the American debt. But Baldwin took a stride forward with his speech on the Address which closed with these words:

The English language is the richest in the world in mono-syllables.  Four words of one syllable each ... contain salvation for this country and the whole world, and they are Faith, Hope, Love and Work.  No Government in this country today which has not faith in the people, hope in the future, love for its fellow-men, and will not work and work, and work, will ever bring this country through into better days and better times, or will ever bring Europe through or the world through.

The House of Commons had not heard language like that for a long time. Baldwin followed this up with a Budget speech which was sound, entertaining and, some thought, brilliant.  He used his mastery of plain English as a key to the hearts of Members of Parliament - and many outside Parliament.

Baldwin spent a long time thinking over what he proposed to say, though speeches were usually delivered from rough notes, never a script.  I can remember watching him from the press gallery as he sat on the government front bench apparently idly browsing through the Order Paper while the House was engaged in business outside his area.  He did this to escape from his office, the telephone, the private secretaries, colleagues and visitors and thus earned a reputation for indolence.  But these spells in the Commons gave him a sensitive ear for other Members’ feelings, which is why some of his speeches caught their imagination.  They also gave him the chance to think things over quietly. These days the Prime Minister is expected to be perpetually in motion and action; he has no time to ruminate.  ‘My mind moves slowly,’ Baldwin sometimes remarked. What he then had to say was all the better for it.

He understood his countrymen, not merely those he associated with in business and politics, but the working man and woman; and, as many of his speeches showed, he had insight into their thoughts and aspirations. I once heard him speak at Ashridge, which was then a Conservative college.  The Morning Post had sent me there disguised as a student to report on whether the teaching was true blue.  Baldwin’s contribution was a bit of a ramble, but his earnest tone of voice drew you into what he was saying. I do not think I ever heard him utter a cliche.

So when ill health compelled Bonar Law to retire Baldwin was a serious contender for the premiership. His main rival was Lord Curzon, who, though Baldwin’s senior, was a controversial choice as it would mean a Prime Minister sitting in the House of Lords.  Baldwin also had his drawbacks: he was not well versed in foreign affairs nor greatly interested in them and he was not well known, partly because he disliked publicity.  Baldwin himself had doubts.  To a journalist who congratulated him on the steps of No. 10, the new Prime Minister replied, ‘I need your prayers rather.’ He took to a cherrywood pipe, wore the incongruous mix of a wing collar with a tweed jacket and waistcoat and took over a nation in a delicate state of health.

The war had played havoc with our overseas trade. Britain had not become, as Lloyd George had promised, a ‘land fit for heroes’; on the contrary, many of the heroes were out of work.  Baldwin took the plunge, dissolved Parliament and sought a mandate for protection. His miscalculation meant that the Tories lost but neither the Liberal nor Labour parties won outright.  Baldwin favoured giving Labour a chance to experience the trials of office and this came to pass. Today, his head would be on a charger for losing an election so soon after entering No. 10, but Baldwin had made his mark on his party and the country.  Even as a rather indifferent Leader of the Opposition he survived, and in little more than a year the Conservatives were back in office with a big majority and a mandate to govern from 1924 to 1929.