December 20, 2009

Stanley Baldwin and the Rise of "one nation" Conservatism

We have thus seen that not only is it very dubious seeing Disreali as the founder of one nation conservatism but that it’s dubious whether there was a distinctive “moderate” faction or tradition in the party at all-the differences in the Conservative part before World War I being rather different in nature.

By “one nation” I mean not in a generic or nationalist sense but as a force and faction on the leftwing of the conservative party with an emphasis on such ideas as the desire to stand in the middle ground, an emphasis on the virtues of consensus and the use of government to help the poor.

I would see the inter-war era as being the one where such a distinctive tradition and faction can be seen as having developed some kind of coherence. One nation” even in such a relatively specific sense is probably best thought of as a tendency rather than necessarily a distinct faction.

It had strong roots in the coalition government of 1916-1922 particularly during it’s peace time era (with the "Llyod George liberals". This government made massive concessions from Conservative positions on a huge number of issues. Government spending and taxes stayed very high-much higher than the levels which had been regarded as dangerous by Conservatives before the war-it was not until the end of the coalition that large scale spending cuts in peacetime expenditure were engendered in large measure a response to electoral pressure and there was no increase in tariffs- the measure Conservatives had supported before World War I as a source of revenue. A large system of economic controls was retained (this was mostly dropped towards the end of the war under large scale electoral pressure) and there was actually some substantial measures to Social Reform. Not only was home rule conceded for Southern Ireland (with an Ulster exception) a compromise achieved during World War I but so was actual independence or “Free Statehood” for Southern Ireland. Tight new restrictions on the alcohol industry were introduced.

The “conservatism” of the coalition and the betrayal of supposedly widespread hopes for much greater social reform are often emphasised in the history but these were far from Conservative policies! These all represented big concessions for Conservative given their pre war ideology. Now of course this was in a coalition –but it was one where Conservatives actually had a narrow majority in Parliament after 1918. Even the partial acceptance of such policies represented at least a willingness to a accept leftwing status quo and even reform- if only as the painfull preferable to a more radical coalition. There was also a group (including the young Edward Wood latter a key moderate himself as Lord Irwin and Lord Halifax) of tory mp’s that made a great deal of their moderation and support for more lefitsh policies– for example sympathy for the control of alcohol and new welfare provisions.

It’s an irony that the second coalition of this period the “national” government of the 1930’s (very much a coalition in more htan a nominal sense at least before 1935) was run by figures like Baldwin who had loathed the first one- given the remarkable similarities between the two (though the National one arguably had a less leftwing record).

Baldwin was indeed one of the figures who brought the coalition down in 1922. He was to become tory leader from 1923-1937, holding the premiership from 1922-1923, 1924-1929 and 1935-1937. From 1931 to 1935 he held cabinet office (lord President0 and combined this with being the leader of a party that held a majority-indeed the largest of any party in the twentieth century! This represented enormous electoral dominance for the Conservative party-Baldwin was in the interwar era the dominant figure of the dominant party. Baldwin is often associated rather simplistically with the policy of “appeasement” and this has cast something of a cloud over the seminal role of his leadership- for a start it alienated a figures who were to become the most successful post war “one nation” tory Harold Macmillan . Though he certainly had his faults (a certain lethargy when he did not consider a great clash of principle was at stake) he combined great personal integrity with shrewd political instincts. Many of the leading one nation Conservatives of the post war era-for example Anthony Eden and “RAB” Butler were massively inspired by him and regarded themselves in the in interwar era as very much “Baldwin men”. Indeed Baldwin was to have continuous clashes with leading Conservatives who wanted to take a “harder line” further removed from Labour party.

IT is thus worth examining what was distinctive in Baldwin’s positions and that of other moderates in this era and to what degree they can be seen as prefiguring post wawr "one nation" Conservatism.

One was what might be called electoralism-the belief that the Conservatives could only win generally on a moderate version of their policies and needed to win by moving to the center. Now it’s unclear how much this was true of Baldwin (though he tended to believe that only if an election had been won on a new policy could it be introduced) and it’s scarcely a unique feature of the twentiet century Conservative party. However it does seem to have been unusually strong in this era – even the first leader Andrew Bonar Law was convinced the post war era would see very formidable socialism –one reason why he long supported an alliance with Llyod George A classic case was Protectionism in the 1929-1930 era . Then the leadership resisted strongly efforts to run on it despite enormous pressure in the “Empire Free Trade” candidates who actually beat official conservative candidates in some by-elections though they did more or less conceded . And yet very few Tories were anything but strongly protectionist- and the few who were not (notably Salisbury and Churchill) were not particularly moderate on other issues.
Un surprinsgly those who argued the Tories needed to moderate to win and probably those who were most concerned with the tory party winning at all costs tended to be on Baldwin’s side in internal struggles.

In fact one reason why the biggest challenge to Baldwin’s leadership was in the 1929-1931 period was that a disproportionate number of moderate pro Baldwin mp’s represented marginal seats- so anti-Baldwin “diehards” were stronger in the 1929-1931 era. It’s probably unnecessary to underline the continuity with post war one nation Conservatims- indeed the belief that electoral victory was imperative and won ground could arguably be said to be its most definitive belief.

This was closely linked to linked strategies of “killing Socialism with kindness” and “social reform”. This did not just take the form of concern for the poor which is scarcely the preserve of any part of the tory party or political spectrum. This was a belief in positive (that is coercive and t) government action to help the interest of the poor and for that matter the non poor-for example by expanding old age pensions and regulating the health insurance market to make it harder to drop applicants for insurance-both policies of the tory party of this era.

Neville Chamberlain was perhaps the most important supporter and advocate of such policies n the Tory Party in this era Innded even while Prime Minister he had a series of importatn measures understandably neglected by historians. Chamberlain was in part motivated by a desire to stem the tide of Socialism which he concluded nearly . But he sincerely believed in extensive social reform as did other party moderates such as Lord Halifax. The belief in postive welfare and regulatory programmes to benefit the poor was again to be a distinctive aspect of post-war “one nation” Conservatism from the expansions of the NHS by the Tories in the 1950’s to Michael Heseltine’s attempts to set up zones to revive the inner cities in the 1980’s and beyond. At the same time one nation conservatives both in the inter-war and post war era had very limited belief in redistribunary motivated welfare-that is arguments for and policies that about redistricting income rather than the subtly but importantly different “alleviating the condition of the people”. Again this was to continue after World War II (though arguably in the inter-war era Conservatives placed more emphasis on the “contributory principle”).

A third emphasis was on what might be called flexibility on Constitutional and Imperialist matters. This was partly based on a rejection of a clear cut British Imperalist Nationalism (not the same as embracing a version of internationalism like the Labour party). Partly it was based on drawing a particular lesson from the failure to keep most of Ireland in the Union-that the parties needed to prevent disaster to keep a consensus on matters of imperial issues (and to some degree foreign policy as a whole- it was a factor in moving cautiously on reanarment as well). ]

In the Baldwin era perhaps the most important such issue was India-which strained party unity a great deal with many years of conflict untill the passage of the India act in 1935. Yet Baldwin was able to defend unprecedented moves towards self government and the weaking of British control of India and administer that policy- a policy moreover that was t a large degree the work of another Conservative Lord Irwin latter Lord Halifax (describe) . The ability to pass the policy owed a lot loyalty to party leadership-in fact it’d almost certainaly have been a lot easier for Baldwin to take a policy on this position the “diehard” position was probably actually more popular in the conservative party and possibly the country. But the very willingness to take such risks represented a principled position . IN the post-war era the “one nation” tradition was to be identified with a greater willingness to reduce and end the British empire and (more ambiguously) a greater sympathy for the European Union and other transnational organisations. In the willingness to moderate the more straightforward nationalism of Conservatives before World War I this can very easily be seen as reflecting the tradition of Baldwin and his allies over the India bill. IN that can be seen the distinct but recognisable ancestry of Margaret Thatcher’s gibe that too often a better term would be "no nation Conservatives".

This obsession with consensus on imperial and constitutional matters can be seen as part of a wider preoccupation with concord in politics including economics a desire not to “divide” the nation. For example Baldwin was very wary of aggressive moves away from “socialist” economics for example tough trade union reform. After the 1929 election a group of pro Baldwin young mp’s including hte young Anthony Eden blamed the industrial relations act of the previous goverment for the Conservative loss of a majority-probably with some justice. Again a wariness about polarising economic policies (though not necessarily so much rof estrictions of trade union power0 was to be a defining feature of post war Conservativism . Indeed the popularity of the term “one nation” probably reflects this very use!

Finally Baldwin himself was also keen on one nation in another sense- he went out of his way to be respectful to the Labour party to treat them as a legitimate part of the political system. Indeed the sacrifices he made to keep the tiny “national labour” party fraction in the coalition in the 1930’s are remarkable- after all McDonald the leader of a party splinter with 14 mp’s was Prime Minster while Baldwin was not with his over 500 (admittedly this may partly have represented a lack of deep personal interest in the premiership). . McDonald as “national Labour” had more control of the government’s agenda not least in blocking moves to the right as supporting international disarmament than is generally realised.

I think this kind of bi-partisanship is dubiously part of “one nation toryism” – Michael Heseltine for example was a famously partisan orator. Even in the inter-war era another moderate model is available- probably the second most important figure Neville chamberlain. The great architect of social reform was one of the most partisan figures of the age. At one poiont Baldwin suggested to him he stop treating the Labour party like dirt to his sisters he stated the problemwas “intellectually..“ they mostly were! . Understandly he was not much loved by the Labour party in return.

So there was a distinctive moderate tradition which was extremely important and arguably dominated the Conservative party in this era. It’s important to realize this did not mean the likes of Chamberlain and Baldwin merely supported a more moderate version of Labour party ideology- they had very little time for the core ideas of the Labour party whether economic equality , collective ownership or radical internationalism. At the same time they had enormous support the conseration of existing institutions values from the Church of England to property. This meant there were sharp differences with the Labour party whether on defence spending or nationalisation of privately owned companies . Harold Macmillan as a minor tory mp in this era ( when he was much more leftwing than he was as Prime Minister) is that rare case an exception that proves the rule. He in his “third way” did argue for comprehensive government planning of the economy- but was regarded as a marginal figure on the extreme left of the conservative party not a mainstream moderate like Eden or Halifax.

However there were still a broad range of issues where they took a genuine moderate stance.It’s perhaps no coincidence that the strands of moderation identified above can also be seen as rooted in an ideology of defence.

Having discussed the origin of one nation supporters in the broadly moderate faction and tendencies of the pre war Conservative party it remains only to look at the other side- the Diehards.
The picture of course is appropriately of Stanley Baldwin.


Vino S said...

Baldwin does seem an interesting character and one that I would like to read a biography of. Have you got any suggestions?

The central paradox of Baldwin does seem to have been that he opposed the continuation of the coalition in 1922 but was so keen to have one from 1931 onwards. As you say, after 1935 in particular, National Labour and the National Liberals were tiny and had a disproportionate no of Cabinet places (Malcolm McDonald, Simon, Belisha etc).

My guess to explain this is that he had a dislike of Lloyd George and so didn't want to be in coalition with him and, in contrast, got on well with Ramsey McDonald and so was happy to be in coalition with him. Also, to take a more cynical explanation, you could argue that he used the discontent of Tory MPs with the coalition in 1922 as a platform on which to make himself more prominent and thus a natural future leader. Once he was leader, he had no need to 'bash' coalitions in the way that he would have had in 1919-22.

In terms of Baldwin's views on the national question, I think - perhaps - he drew the lesson from the Anglo-Irish violence of 1918-21 that trying to delay the acknowledgement of people's desire for autonomy and sovereignty only makes the transition more fraught and violent. That, to my mind, explains his liberal stance on India and willingness to stand up to the die-hards on this issue.

The one decision of Baldwin's that puzzles me was his decision to call an election on protection in 1923. He had only been PM for a few months after Bonar Law stood down and, I would have thought that his leadership would have been in danger given that he had immediately called an election where they lost their overall majority. Perhaps it was because he was genuinely committed to protection and genuinely felt he needed a fresh mandate for it. Or, he wanted to kill off the issue for a generation by showing it was unpopular.

Baldwin also, in my view, behaved extremely well in trying to give Labour a fair go. He saw them as a legitimate opposition party while the diehards tended to speak of them as if they were somehow revolutionary bolsheviks. It perhaps goes back to what I said earlier, that he got on well with McDonald. Also, his son (Oliver Baldwin) was a Labour MP from 1929-31, so he had a family connection with them.

Baldwin's advice to the King to send for McDonald to form a government in 1924 shows that he was more comfortable with a Labour government than many other Tories were. Also, perhaps he had a particular dislike of the Liberals, since he didn't make any deals with them in 1923-4. To what degree this was dislike of Lloyd George rather than the Liberals in general, though, I don't know.

Sulla said...

Thanks for your comments Vilno as usual.

On the biography i've not read one for about 15-20 years but this I think is supposed to be quite a good one (techial not a biogrphay but a collectoin of essays but they're often better )

her'es a review of it by the leading historian of the early twentieth century Conservative party (recently deceased)

in fact Ramsdam's own Age of Baldwin and Balfour which is a history of the conservative party between the Boer war and World War II might be of even more interest!110545~!0&profile=cls

I think dislike of Lloyd George

Sulla said...

on the substance of your comments

dislike of Lloyd George is indeed the reason generally given. I think in a way this is general- a colition is a bit like religious ecumenicalism in that the leaders form a modus operadi and become colleagues even friends-but not the led.H clearly regarded LG as sexually immoral, unprincipled etc and certianly it's harder to make Lloyd Gerge's government seem consistent in it's policies than the National one. At the same time it was in practice free trade and fiscally not very responsible- and changed the constituion including the reliogus elemetns ( independent Irish Free state and disestablishemtn of the Church of Wales) issues where Baldwin's Conservatism was strong. I don't think there's anything quite comparable in the moderate sides of the National Government.

In the 1930's though I do think though a key factor is that beyond spending cuts and Protectionsim Baldwin did not want to push that much in a "rightwing" direct in the 1930's-and was even sympathetic to carefull expansion of Welfare. "diehards" on the other hand might want quick rearnament, an elected house of Lords, long term changes in policy on the dole, etc -and they could be just as willing in principle to be in a coalition as Baldwin and in practice less keen.

I used to incline to a cynical view of his actoins no longer- i think there's evidence that if anything he thought 1922 break wiht Lloyd Geroge would finish him.

Interesting point on Ireland (Irwin latter Halifax who thought up the policy more than Baldwin the same could be said). I think you have a point-though i should not underrate the degree to which moderate Conservaitves blamed the loss of Ireland on elite divisions. But i think it's carefull to be clear about what such "automony" would mean- the idea was to give automoany to keep India in the empire- in a sense a decentralised version of Home Rule (obvously it was even more an unambiguous failure than Irish policy). Even Labour and liberals were not solidly for INdian indepdence- virtualy no Tories supported it (in fact I can't think of any)>

On protecion in 1923 i think he belived it was a good very important policy was keen to introduce it and very keen to have any such policy approved by the public rather than imposed contrary to previous indicaqtions and assurances. I think he also like many tories thoht the public was much more protectionist than it was- the rude shock helpes explain-in fact I think overwhelmingly explains his foot dragging on trade 1929-1931.

Very good point on Baldwin's son-i'd forgetten about that.

I take your point on his approach to Labour. I think it's also partly a question on how to make Labour non-revolutionary and the Tories win. Baldwin tended to thinkj that treating them as legitimate ( i think electoral considerations were less central) they would more likely to renouced the extreme left ( this arguably is quite perceptive on the Labour party in this era- the period where they were most coldshouldered by the establishment-1918-1922 and argbuaboly the 1930's was when they were friendieslit to the radical left). Dierhards also arguably rightly thought that it was harrmering on such issues as communist infiltration that LOabour could be beaten and forced to renoucned it's radical side-again arguably perceptive the 1924 election being a case in point.

I think hatred of Lloyd George was a huge party of his mistrust. IT's worth also bearing in mind he liked the Simonite "National" liberals- Lloyg Geroge's embrace of deficits and defence of free trade was probably an additional cause of hostility from Baldwin.