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…