We should think more carefully about politicians and their reputationsby Anne Perkins / September 27, 2018 / Leave a comment
Political reputation is a slippery thing. It is shaped as much by contemporary rivalries and the preoccupations of later times as by any impartial calculation of conduct and capacity. So while there is a faint sense of overdue adjustment as today a statue is unveiled in the small Worcestershire town of Bewdley to Stanley Baldwin, it is not going to restore the reputation of its most famous son.
It is 71 years since the death of the man whose name in the first half of 20th century British politics defined an era, and apart from a stone in Westminster Abbey, there is no other public memorial. He has been airbrushed from history.
Three times prime minister between 1923 and 1937, Baldwin finally retired, garlanded with honours, at a time of his own choosing. Far from ending in failure, his political career was crowned in public eulogy. According to the Spectator’s editor Wilson Harris, he went “at a moment when he has a firmer hold over both the House of Commons and the country than ever before, and we shall only discover gradually what the nation has lost.” A thousand words of measured praise later, Harris concluded that “so long as he survives he will retain a unique hold on the public ear and the public regard.”
As predictions go, that can only be classed a wild misjudgement. A decade later this national hero died unmourned. “Embalm, cremate, and bury” instructed his former minister and long-time enemy, Winston Churchill. “Take no chances.” Churchill was one reason why Baldwin’s reputation crashed so precipitously. For years the two men, sometime cabinet colleagues, had clashed in public and private over the need for rearmament (and also over India’s future). The future Labour leader Michael Foot and his co-authors who wrote Guilty Menin 1940, blaming Baldwin and Chamberlain for failing to stop Hitler, was another.
For the generations who grew up in wartime, or the nuclear-armed peace that followed it, there was no reason to admire a politician whose apparent inertia had contributed to the rise of the Third Reich and the division of Europe into hostile camps. For domestic reasons too, he has come to be seen as an inglorious leader in an inglorious era, the age of depression, injustice and unrest. Perhaps in a new age when democracy itself feels newly fragile, the man who successfully managed the advent of universal suffrage in Britain will be remembered more kindly.
It is striking that, Churchill apart, Britain has no national political heroes, and even Churchill is not really a political hero, but beyond politics. He is esteemed not as the maverick imperialist stoned by East End voters when he was campaigning in the 1945 election but as the war leader who mysteriously embodies the birth of modern Britain.
Defending Baldwin’s record is a niche interest. But there is a wider point. Framing the past and the characters who were its heroes or villains is not just a fleeting glance in the rear view mirror, it is a way of imparting the values of the present. By their heroes you will know them. Corbynistas rediscover Attlee as the proof that transformative redistribution can be enacted by a mild-mannered middle class bloke, even in a country on its economic knees. Theresa May lauds Joseph Chamberlain, not—obviously—as a serial splitter and ruthless demagogue, but as Radical Joe, the reforming mayor of Birmingham.
One lesson of Baldwin’s hero-to-zero reputation is that there is no nuance in the national narrative. The single epic failure cannot be mitigated by the memory of the hundred small successes. It is almost impossible to imagine that Tony Blair will one day be remembered as Labour’s most successful election winner, and that Iraq and his retirement to the fleshpots of global consultancy will be somehow contextualised with Sure Start and investment in schools.
Yet not to reflect on why those now decried as sinners and scoundrels were once legends limits one’s understanding of the present. In the 1920s and 1930s, Baldwin was a popular hero because voters saw him as one of their own, or at least as a familiar type, a steady, cautious man who made them feel good about themselves. In another period of uncertainty and doubt, it is useful to remember that for all the qualities Theresa May lacks and for which history will surely judge her harshly, many voters still admire her resilience and sympathise with her, a woman seemingly beset by bullying men. A national narrative built around the lives of great men and women values star quality, but that’s not necessarily where true value lies.
Anne Perkins wrote a biography of Baldwin for a British Prime Ministers series, published by Haus