Wednesday, March 06, 2013
“A Practitioner Of The Art Of Taking People In”
Never complain and never explain.
Stanley Baldwin dominated British politics between World War I and World War II. Three times Prime Minister between 1923 and 1937, Baldwin achieved unprecedented electoral success—because he always told voters what they most wanted to hear. Historian A. L. Rowse, a contemporary of Baldwin, and not an admirer, described Baldwin as “a practitioner of the art of taking people in”.
Baldwin is not viewed kindly by historians. Baldwin’s failure to address the threat posed by a rising Germany in the 1930s caused Baldwin’s reputation to wither little more than two years after leaving office.
Baldwin retired from The House Of Commons in June 1937 at the height of his popularity; by September 1939, with the onset of war, he was viewed as the chief architect of Britain’s imperiled condition as the nation found itself once again at war.
Neither before nor since has a British Prime Minister’s reputation so swiftly and so completely collapsed. For more than two decades after the war, Baldwin’s reputation continued to deflate as Britain engaged in a prolonged series of internal debates, lasting well into the 1960s, examining the question: what had gone so wrong in the 1930s?
The answer, of course, was that Britain had failed to rearm, and thus to thwart a rising Germany before Germany became a legitimate threat to the entire continent.
Winston Churchill had made the correct diagnosis . . . in 1933 . . . and persistently had urged Baldwin’s government to take the necessary measures.
But Baldwin failed to accept Churchill’s advice, and firmly kept Churchill out of his cabinet—because, Baldwin believed, such Churchill-favored policies would prove costly to the Tories at the ballot box.
In Britain in recent years, there has been an attempt—not particularly successful—to rehabilitate the reputation of Baldwin.
American historians have—quite rightly—ignored such foolishness. American historians have always agreed with Lloyd George’s unvarnished assessment of Baldwin, an assessment Lloyd George made one year into the war: “He ought to be hanged.”
Muriel Spark, in her most famous novel, a portrait of Edinburgh in the 1930s, has her heroine repeatedly mock Baldwin for his supposed “reliability” and “safety”. In doing so, Spark plays an ironic, multi-level and delicious game.
Spark’s Jean Brodie is as oblivious to the threat of Fascism as the Prime Minister she holds in contempt—both are practitioners of the art of taking people in—and it is Fascism that proves to be the undoing both of the heroine from fiction as well as the politician from real life.
Imperious assurance, imperious misjudgment, with no thought of inevitable consequence: such are Spark’s themes.
The foolishness of the fictional Jean Brodie led to the death of the fictional Joyce Emily (renamed Mary McGregor in the stage and film versions of the novel).
The foolishness of Baldwin led to the deaths of untold millions of real persons.