Allan Massie: comparing Thatcher and Baldwin

Margaret Thatcher. Picture: Getty
Margaret Thatcher. Picture: Getty
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THE Conservative Party had three great leaders in the 20th century: Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher.

Churchill is “hors concours”, but a comparison between Baldwin and Thatcher is interesting.

Each led the party for a long time, Baldwin from 1922 to 1937, Thatcher from 1974 to 1990. Thatcher had a longer uninterrupted run as prime minister, 1979-90. Baldwin was prime minster three times: 1922-3, 1924-9, and 1935-7. This however somewhat understates his dominance.

When the National Government was formed in 1931, he was content to take second place, as Lord President of the Council, to the Labour leader, Ramsay MacDonald, who remained prime minister until 1935, even though after the 1931 election, which followed the creation of the National (Coalition) Government, the Conservative Party was by far the largest in the Commons and National Labour itself was reduced to having only a handful of MPs, most of whom were in the government.

That Baldwin was content to play second fiddle to MacDonald – even though he was actually the man making the music – says something about him. One certainly can’t imagine Margaret Thatcher taking such a subsidiary role. But then they were very different people: Baldwin was a conciliator, Thatcher a combatant. One thing they did have in common was a provincial background.

Baldwin’s however was more privileged. He was the son of a Midlands ironmaster, rather than a shopkeeper, and himself ran the family business for some years. Like other industrialists they did well out of the First World War. Baldwin felt guilty about this, and in a post-war letter to The Times, signed FST (he being Financial Secretary to the Treasury in the Lloyd George Coalition), he announced that he had given part of his wartime profits to the Treasury, and urged others to make a similar donation. I don’t know that many did so.

Baldwin was a countryman and very English. Like many who seem typically English, his heredity was mixed, his mother being an Ulster MacDonald. In speeches over the years he often dwelled on his Scots-Irish ancestry and insisted that the United Kingdom was a partnership between the four constituent nations. His mother’s sister married Joseph Kipling; so Baldwin and Rudyard Kipling were first cousins. They liked each other, but Kipling might have approved more of Margaret Thatcher than of “Cousin Stan”, who was, he said, “a Socialist at heart”.

This was an exaggeration, but contained a grain of truth. Baldwin, in the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, recognised the need to dampen down left-wing extremism and to facilitate the inclusion of Labour within the parliamentary process. He said his ambition was to prevent the class war from becoming a reality in Britain. He really did believe we were all in it together, and would never have approved of Margaret Thatcher’s talk of “Them and Us” or “the Enemy within”. Social and industrial peace was his aim, and he managed the General Strike of 1926 and its resolution with consummate skill.

Margaret Thatcher was an apostle for free market economics. Baldwin wasn’t; he recognised that there might be a need for state intervention. Bob Boothby remembered travelling with him by train through the North of England in the early 1920s, and, as they passed through town after town and saw factory chimneys with no smoke issuing from them, heard him say, “we must have protection” – an end to the 19th century Liberal doctrine of free trade. The suggestion would have horrified Maggie.

Both were in power at a time of economic crisis. Mrs Thatcher addressed it boldly, decisively, many would say brutally. Baldwin, it might be argued, scarcely addressed it at all. He let things take their course, seeking only to alleviate distress. If Britain came through the Great Depression without the political upheavals that European states – and indeed the US – experienced, this owed much to Baldwin’s emollient approach. When war with Nazi Germany came in 1939, Britain was a united country, and this was surely a consequence of Baldwin’s determination to maintain industrial peace. He was a unifier, Thatcher a divider.

On the other hand, Baldwin’s disinclination to face up to Nazi Germany, and his endorsement of the policy of appeasement has been generally condemned. Margaret Thatcher would surely have behaved very differently. On the other hand, appeasement was popular at the time. In 1936, when Hitler was preparing to re-occupy the Rhineland, the French Foreign Minister, Pierre Flandin, came to London and told Baldwin France would intervene militarily to stop him, if Britain backed them up. Baldwin said the British public would never wear it, their mood was pacifist. Maggie would surely have leaped at the chance, and offered to send in the Brigade of Guards or a couple of Scottish regiments like the Gordons, Black Watch or the HLI to put the fear of God into Hitler. The response of the Iron Lady would have been very different from that of the Midlands ironmaster. She would have been as determined, even as strident, in her condemnation of Hitler and Nazi Germany as she was in her own time of the Soviet Union. She was as keen for a fight as Baldwin was averse to one.

Baldwin and Thatcher represented two very different strains in the Tory party. He was a One-Nation Conservative; she wasn’t. He recognised that trade unions properly had a role to play; before, during and after the General Strike he was much more critical of the mine-owners than of the NUM. Margaret Thatcher saw the unions as an enemy to be defeated and corralled. Of course the times and the situation were different. Nevertheless Baldwin was right in his understanding of what the Tory Party should be, and Lady Thatcher, for all her many admirable qualities and achievements, was wrong in hers. Despite the efforts of her successors, the Tory party has come to represent, and be seen to represent, sectional interests. It needs a new Stanley Baldwin if it is ever to be a national party again.