Accounts from Harold Wilson, Stanley Baldwin and the men who knew themby Ian Irvine / December 14, 2017 / Leave a comment
In his diary on 10th December 1936, the Labour MP Harold Nicolson described Stanley Baldwin’s announcement to the Commons of Edward VIII’s abdication, which soon set in train Baldwin’s exit:
“The prime minister rises. He tells the whole story… The ‘Hear, Hears!’ echo solemnly like Amens. There is no moment when he… indulges in oratory. There is an intense silence broken only by the reporters in the gallery scuttling away to telephone the speech paragraph by paragraph. I suppose in after-centuries men will read over the words… and exclaim, ‘What an opportunity wasted!’ They will never know the tragic force of its simplicity. ‘I said to the King…’ ‘The King told me…’ It was Sophoclean and almost unbearable. We file out broken in body and soul, conscious that it was the best speech that we shall ever hear… There was no question of applause. It was the silence of Gettysburg.
“I went off to the library to sign some letters… I bumped straight into Baldwin in a corridor. It was impossible not to say something. I murmured a few kind words. He took me by the arm. ‘You are very kind,’ he said, ‘but what did you really think of it?’ I detected in him that intoxication that comes to a man… after a triumphant success. ‘It was superb,’ I answered. ‘I regretted only that Hitler, Mussolini and Lord Beaverbrook had not been in the Peers’ Gallery.’ ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘it was a success. I know it. It was almost wholly unprepared. I had a success, my dear Nicolson, at the moment I most needed it. Now is the time to go.’”
How others responded
Baldwin had already decided to resign during the summer after a bout of nervous exhaustion. In April 1937 he announced that he would retire following the coronation of George VI.
Winston Churchill, a strong critic of Baldwin for his seeming blindness to the German threat, wrote to a friend:
“I am glad Baldwin is going. I think we shall come to some real and straightforward politics now that he is out of the way.”
Nicolson observed of Baldwin’s final appearance in the Commons:
“I arrive… to hear Baldwin make his last statement amid loud applause. With characteristic subtlety, he does it in the form of an answer to a question on parliamentary salaries, so that his final words are to give us all £200 a year more. This means a lot to the Labour members and was done with Baldwin’s usual consummate taste. No man has ever left in such a blaze of affection.”
Beaverbrook, the press baron, who loathed Baldwin, wrote to a friend:
“We are now going to lose Baldwin from the Premiership. In the Coronation procession on Wednesday he had a great reception from the crowds. He had been given a closed carriage to ride in, but leaned out of the window and generally conducted himself so as to win the public applause. And this he got in immense measure.”
Shortly before the election in June 1970 which Harold Wilson, the Labour PM was expected to win, Cecil King, a magnate who had been publisher of the Daily Mirror, recorded in his diary:
“Wilson [then 54] wants to be PM longer than any recent PM and then talks of retiring… and writing the definitive book on the British government. This would mean retiring after two years if he wins the election. Anyway Mary Wilson hates the life and is anxious for Wilson to get out of politics.”
The Conservatives won the election and Wilson led the Opposition. He became PM again in February 1974 and increased his majority in the second election in October. Two years into his fourth administration, he resigned.
On 16th March 1976, Tony Benn, then Energy Secretary, recorded in his diary:
“I went to Cabinet at 11. Harold said, ‘Before we come to the business I want to make a statement.’ Then he read us eight pages, in which he said that he had irrevocably decided that he was going to resign… People were stunned but, in a curious way, without emotion. Harold is not a man who arouses affection… Nobody knew it was coming [but] there was still a remarkable lack of reaction. Jim Callaghan [Wilson’s eventual successor], who found it hard to conceal his excitement, said, ‘Harold, we shall never be able to thank you for your services to the Movement.’ I left Downing Street about 1. By then there was a huge crowd of people, hundreds of television cameras.”
However Roy Jenkins, the Home Secretary, recalled that:
“Callaghan had been informed beforehand, but I had not, which was a clear indication of the way that Wilson’s preference had shifted. It was not exactly like the ‘blubbering cabinet’ in Gladstone’s famous and dismissive description of the proceedings in 1894, when he had been forced to resign and when William Harcourt pulled out of his pocket a crumpled manuscript from which he proceeded to read an embarrassed tribute. Callaghan did avail himself of his prior notice to the extent of having a prepared little encomium ready, but unlike Harcourt he had chosen the words well. Most people were genuinely moved. It came as a shock and marked the end of an era, and the combination of these feelings naturally releases human emotion… There were one or two cloying statements around the table, which Wilson rather elegantly brought to an end by withdrawing to prepare some necessary statements.”
On 27th June 2007, Tony Benn observed in his diary:
“Tony Blair’s last Prime Minister’s Questions: I found it a bit revolting. He’s as competent as ever—the lawyer with his brief —but it was less controversial because everybody paid tribute to him; and, at the end, as he left the House, everybody stood and clapped and gave him a standing ovation, which I’ve never seen before in parliament. But still, that’s that.”