The New Prime Minister

I

WHEN Mr. Lloyd George fell and Mr. Bonar Law came back to take his place, it was common knowledge that the arrangement could not last very long. Mr. Bonar Law never had been a strong man; he had borne a heavy burden in the war as Leader of the House of Commons; two of his sons had fallen on the field of battle, and in 1921 ill health had forced him to retire. He had reached an age when health once lost is not easily recovered, and he returned only because he knew that he, and he alone, could save the Conservative Party from division and disaster.

The Conservative Party had then for a good many years been in the bondage of a Coalition. It might have been better for themselves and for the country they served if they had never entered it. England, by an ancient tradition, expects to be ruled in peace by Whigs and in war by Tories. But when the Great War burst over Europe the Conservative Party had been so long in Opposition that it had ceased almost to hope for office. Its leadership lacked nothing in patriotism but something in confidence. It persuaded itself, or was persuaded, that a united Parliament —for a united country already existed — was necessary to conduct the war. And so its leaders, Mr. Bonar Law then being the Chief, offered their serv - ices to Mr. Asquith with no conditions attached.

The arrangement did not prosper, and yet it continued. Mr. Asquith being thought too apathetic ever to achieve victory, Mr. Lloyd George accomplished the downfall of his old leader by what has been called a Palace Revolution, and reigned in his place. The new Prime Minister’s wonderful energy, his marvelous eloquence, and his overweening belief in himself overbore the doubts and scruples of his Conservative colleagues. He became a virtual dictator, and they were, in fact, his obedient subordinates. It is the chief part of Mr. Lloyd George’s power that he has a sort of mesmeric influence over those who immediately surround him. The parliamentary chiefs of the Conservative Party were like Tannhäuser in the Venusberg. They were under a spell. They came to forget that they owed a duty to their party and their principles. Yet the rank and file of the Conservatives in the country never altogether liked the arrangement, for they never could quite shake off their ancient distrust of the Wizard of Wales. During the war this feeling was smothered; but after the war it kindled again and grew steadily with the progress of events.

It is no part of this narrative to apportion the blame; let us use the discreet language of the divorce courts and call it incompatibility. If the American reader could imagine a Republican Party forced to accept its orders from Mr. Woodrow Wilson, he would get a fair understanding of the situation. As Mr. Woodrow Wilson always was, and always will be, a Democrat, so Mr. Lloyd George always was, and always will be, a Radical. But perhaps it is impossible to conceive of Mr. Woodrow Wilson pretending to be a Republican, and therefore the analogy can never be complete.

Mr. Lloyd George sought to please both parties at one time; to the Conservatives he offered his speeches, and to the Radicals his acts. It was a domestic situation that could continue to exist only by the deception of one side, and the Conservative Party and the country came to understand it before their leaders in the Government. Before the discovery brought about the crisis, Mr. Lloyd George, by the help of the Conservatives, had done a great many things that no Radical Government could have done with a Conservative Party in Opposition. He had made a trade-agreement with Moscow and allowed the Bolsheviki to establish themselves in London; he had applied the principle of self-determination to India and Egypt; he had surrendered to rebellion in Ireland; and had almost — although here he failed — effected a nationalization of our coal mines.

If these varied experiments had brought prosperity to a distracted country, the Conservatives would still have found them difficult to swallow. As it was, they led to open mutiny. A Conservative faction in the House, and the great mass of the Conservative Party outside, could no longer be forced to obey the crack of the party Whip. Mr. Bonar Law had retired before the great departure of the Irish settlement. In that settlement, however, Mr. Austen Chamberlain and Lord Birkenhead had acquiesced, and the results of that settlement, as much as the settlement itself, sealed the doom of the Coalition. In vain the Conservative leaders exhorted their followers to obedience; they were almost compelled to call the famous Carlton Club Meeting. It was at that meeting that Mr. Stanley Baldwin first showed himself the real leader of the Conservative Party.

True, Mr. Baldwin was not then a new or unknown man. He had an hereditary interest in our English politics and in English industry. His family firm, engineers and manufacturers of iron and steel, is one of the largest and oldest in the West. His father, from whom he inherited the business, had been Unionist member for the Bewdley division of Worcestershire, to which he succeeded. He had himself been in Parliament since 1908, had been Secretary to Mr. Bonar Law, and Financial Secretary to the Treasury. He was, then, already known to those who followed affairs, and his reputation, both as a man and a politician, stood high in the circle of this knowledge. But the wider public came to know him only when his Carlton Club speech freed them from the spell of a dictator.

II

It is the custom of the Conservative Party to rule their affairs from the Carlton Club. There they meet on all important occasions and decide the matter at issue by a general vote. The meeting of Thursday, 19 October 1922, would have made a scene in a drama of politics. Mr. Austen Chamberlain, more than usually pale, made a passionate appeal for the continuance of the Coalition. It was a speech well calculated for its purpose. He warned the Conservatives of the imminent danger of the Socialists capturing the Government of the country. They were faced, he said, by a challenge to the fundamentals of their national life. It was not a moment to break with old friends. Besides, he had good information that the Conservatives by themselves could not hope for a victory at the polls. They must keep their Liberal allies — and here Mr. Chamberlain admitted while he concealed the real weakness of his case: he did not even mention the name of the Prime Minister.

For resentment against the tactics of Mr. Lloyd George was the underlying sentiment of the meeting. He had decided on a General Election and had persuaded Mr. Chamberlain to agree without consulting the Conservative Party. It would have forced them into a continuance of the Coalition through the lifetime of the next Parliament. In fact, as everyone knew, it would have meant the end of the Conservative Party. And, indeed, it was part of the plan to form a new Centre Party out of the Liberals who would consent to follow Mr. Lloyd George, and the Conservatives who would agree to follow Mr. Chamberlain.

Then Mr. Stanley Baldwin rose, and his brief speech sounded the knell of the Coalition. For himself, he said, if these proposals went through he would stand as an Independent Conservative. Mr. Lloyd George has been described as a dynamic force. ‘A dynamic force is a very terrible thing; it may crush you, but it is not necessarily right. It is owing to that dynamic force, and that remarkable personality, that the Liberal Party, to which he formerly belonged, has been smashed to pieces; and it is my firm conviction that in time the same thing will happen to our party.’

He reminded the meeting how the ‘Die-hards’ of their party were already ‘hopelessly alienated.’ And so it must go on, ‘until the old Conservative Party is smashed to atoms and lost in ruins.’ He had esteem and, he might add, affection for Mr. Chamberlain; ‘ but the result of this dynamic force is that we stand here to-day — he prepared to go into the wilderness if he should be compelled to forsake the Prime Minister, and I prepared to go into the wilderness if I should be compelled to stay with him.’

It was this speech, by all accounts, and the support of Mr. Bonar Law, that decided the vote against Mr. Chamberlain and Mr. Balfour.

III

Events justified the decision. The Conservative Party came back with a working majority, and it was inevitable with Mr. Bonar Law as Prime Minister that Mr. Baldwin should be Chancellor of the Exchequer. I need say nothing of his visit to America for the funding of our debt. But there was one incident which suggests the quality of Mr. Baldwin that may not be known to you. On the day of his return he told the newspapers what he had done, and by that public act put an end to all debate. It was another indication of his courage and his power. Nor need I trouble you with an account of how he adjusted the load on the back of the camel without breaking, its back, though it was hailed in our city as a great achievement of finance. Let us come straight to the recent crisis.

The cause of that crisis was the ebbing health of Mr. Bonar Law. He had overtaxed his strength and, in particular, his throat, in his long service of the State, and after a vain pilgrimage in search of a cure he sent a letter to the King, being too ill to go himself, placing his Office in His Majesty’s hands. This was on Saturday 19 May, and some days of wild speculation and uncertainty followed. The newspapers were filled with names and rumors reflecting the interests and intrigues of the factions they represented. One proposed the return of Lord Balfour, hoping thereby to bring back Mr. Chamberlain and Lord Birkenhead. But, in reality, there were only two possible men, Lord Curzon and Mr. Baldwin. The former had all the claims of seniority. He had served the Conservative Government before he went to India in important offices. Since 1916 he had been Leader of the House of Lords, and a member of the Cabinet; and since 1919 Secretary for Foreign Affairs. He had twice acted as Prime Minister and thus had all the formal claims to the succession. But there was one great difficulty. He was a member of the House of Lords, and therefore could not speak in the House of Commons; and in England it is in the Lower House that the political battle is waged and the fate of Governments decided. This was the governing consideration, as much, no doubt, in the mind of Lord Curzon as in those of his colleagues. The King sent for Mr. Baldwin.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer was sent for to the Palace on the afternoon of Tuesday 22 May. When he came out the crowd of pressmen asked if they might congratulate him. ‘I need your prayers rather than your congratulations,’ he replied, as one who knew the weight of the load he had taken on his shoulders. This load became immediately apparent in the choice of ministers. Not that much rearrangement was required. Lord Curzon, who had magnanimously waived his claim to the Prime Minister’s office, was willing to continue to serve as Foreign Secretary. Although, according to custom, all the ministers surrendered their offices into the hands of their new Chief, most of them were reappointed as a matter of course. But Mr. Austen Chamberlain, and that small, but influential, section of the Unionists who had gone with him at the time of the split with Mr. Lloyd George, all saw in this change an opportunity for what they called reunion. They conveniently forgot that there was only one office to share between them, or perhaps they assumed that the new men in the new Government would gracefully resign in the interests of reconciliation. That they acted as a group and not as individual members of the Conservative Party became clear as the situation developed.

This group consisted of Lord Birkenhead, who was Lord Chancellor in the Coalition, Sir Laming Worthington Evans, who had been Secretary for War, and Sir Robert Horne, who had been Chancellor of the Exchequer. It was, besides, notorious that Mr. Lloyd George stood behind Lord Birkenhead, the most active, able, and strong-willed member of the faction. And there was besides a considerable number of members of Parliament more or less attached by interest or sentiment to the combination. With all these hungry mouths to feed it was obvious that the work of reunion would not be easy. Moreover, Mr. Baldwin, as appeared from the negotiations, refused to treat with these gentlemen as a combination, but took it for granted that they were, what most of them pretended to be, individual members of his party. It is said that he offered Sir Robert Horne the Chancellorship of the Exchequer, an Office which that gentleman had filled in the Coalition. If this offer was made it was refused. He offered no Cabinet post to Mr. Austen Chamberlain, but did make him a proposal no less flattering — that he should succeed Sir Auckland Geddes in your capital at Washington. This offer also was refused. It had been made on Saturday 26 May, when Mr. Chamberlain had paid a long visit to the Prime Minister’s country house of Chequers. That same night Lord Birkenhead entertained the group at dinner, and after dinner Mr. Chamberlain wrote an indignant letter to a constituent denouncing certain unspecified influences which had prevented Mr. Baldwin from carrying out the glorious work of reunion. This letter, it may be easily supposed, has not added to Mr. Chamberlain’s reputation.

The influence at which Mr. Austen Chamberlain hinted did not, in fact, exist. Mr. Baldwin is not the man to be browbeaten either by the ‘ Die-hard’ or any other faction of the Conservative Party. He saw plainly that Mr. Chamberlain was still under the dynamic force which he had described at the Carlton Club Meeting as likely to be fatal to his party. If he had surrendered to Mr. Chamberlain’s terms he would have surrendered to Mr. Lloyd George, and so far from effecting a reunion he would have opened a fissure which, in the end, must have burst his Government asunder.

IV

The new Chief looked elsewhere for additions to the strength of his Administration. He offered Mr. McKenna, one of the chief bankers in the City of London, the post of Chancellor of the Exchequer. Here he took a course somewhat unusual, for Mr. McKenna had been a follower of Mr. Asquith, and is still, no doubt, in many of his ideas a Liberal, although, as a matter of fact, he introduced a budget of Protectionist tinge during the war, and supported the Conservatives in the last General Election.

Mr. Baldwin did, however, offer an office of somewhat less importance, the Post Office, to Sir Laming Worthington Evans, a Conservative who had been Secretary for War in the Coalition. SirLaming, although he had adhered to Mr. Austen Chamberlain after the Carlton Club split, made no difficulty about accepting the post, the warmth of office being a solvent which works wonders on political attachments.

The only other change of consequence was the appointment of Lord Robert Cecil to the Privy Seal. Lord Robert, as you in America know very well, has taken up with the League of Nations, a cause which, in spite of all the propaganda, has not made very much headway with the people of this country. The notion of having our Foreign and Imperial affairs in the hands of a Council, mainly consisting of foreigners, perched upon the heights of Geneva, in the middle of Continental Europe, does not much appeal to the average Englishman. As for the precious word Internationalism, he suspects it, and with some reason. But the idea of anything to prevent another war, even if it be a quack remedy, is popular, and so it comes about that Lord Robert Cecil has a considerable following. Not however in his own party, for the truth is that Conservatism is founded on Nationalism, and Nationalism and Internationalism are antipathetic. These things being so there are some who fear trouble from the intrusion of Lord Robert Cecil into Mr. Baldwin’s Government.

However, these are distant and hypothetical questions. The immediate fact is that Mr. Baldwin formed his Cabinet with success, and that the reconstruction was followed by an enthusiastic endorsement by the Conservative Party in meeting assembled. Lord Curzon himself recommended Mr. Baldwin as the new Leader of the Conservative Party; Lord Balfour sent a letter of congratulation; and the only notable absentees were Lord Birkenhead and Mr. Austen Chamberlain. Thus Mr. Baldwin is now firm in the saddle with a united Government, and a working majority of firm adherents.

It is true that he has earned the animosity of Mr. Lloyd George, and the resentment of Mr. Austen Chamberlain and his group; but to make up for it he has the staunch support, not only of the bulk of the Conservative Party, but of the great mass of solid opinion in the country. It is curious and promising to note how far his influence goes, and in what unexpected quarters his admirers are to be found. Mr. Asquith is known to hold a high opinion of him; the City is enthusiastic; and as Mr. Baldwin belongs to a great manufacturing company the British industrial world has good hopes that he will support its long-neglected interests. It remembers the stalwart part he played in the Safeguarding of Industries Act. Even the Daily Herald, the organ of the Labor Party, testifies to his ‘reputation for soundness of judgment, and, what is better still, for kindliness, for honesty, for a real desire to secure both better conditions at home and peaceful, friendly relations abroad.’ Probably this high opinion was earned by what he did in his own business as an employer of Labor: —

As a business man [says the same paper], he had a strong sense of social responsibility. The idea of Disraeli, that the landed gentry of England owe it to themselves to improve the lot of their laborers, he tried to adapt to trade. When there was a lockout he continued to pay the wages of his employees. His aim, of introducing, by means of kindness and consideration, a new spirit of fellowship between employers and employed, may be impracticable, but there is no doubt of his sincerity in pursuing it.

There are other and no less varied reasons for his popularity. For example, an intimate friend writing of him in the Morning Post gives this illustration of his public spirit: —

During the war Mr. Baldwin was oppressed by the consciousness that he could not make the sacrifices for his country which the youth of the nation was so cheerfully rendering. He accordingly had his whole private fortune valued, and contributed one fourth part of the valuation to the Exchequer as a free-will offering.

Such things were done by stealth. But the human and kindly relations with his workmen could not be concealed. And an artisan, when he heard of the news of the appointment, exclaimed, ‘There is one thing to be said: we have now got a workingman’s Prime Minister.’

V

Mr. Baldwin is an Englishman on his father’s side, but of Scotch descent through his mother. His mother was one of the daughters of the Reverend G. B. MacDonald, whose other daughters married Sir Edward Burne-Jones, Sir Edward Poynter, and Mr. Lockwood Kipling. Thus the Prime Minister is first cousin to Mr. Rudyard Kipling. The two men, moreover, are intimate personal friends. They have literary tastes in common. There is a pleasant flavor of scholarship in Mr. Baldwin’s speeches, and he is never happier than in his well-stocked library.

Mr. Baldwin’s home is at Astley Hall, near Stourport in Worcestershire. There he follows country pursuits. As he has himself confessed, his main desire is to live in the country, to read the books he likes to read, to live a decent life, and to keep his pigs. The tradition of Cincinnatus dies hard in politics. Your great novelist, Henry James, once paid a very pleasant compliment to the Englishman. He said that there were two words which described him, one was ‘valiant’ and the other ‘decent.’ And so we may say of Mr. Baldwin. He is a normal Englishman. He went to school at Harrow; he went to college at Trinity, Cambridge. He spends his life, by preference, in his own countryside, with his own family, or such of them as remain in the home. Mr. Baldwin’s wife is a daughter of the late Mr. Ridsdale, formerly an AssayMaster at the Mint. Of his four daughters three are married. Of his two sons, the eldest — the second son being too young to join up — served with distinction in the war, his regiment being the Irish Guards. That regiment, by the way, has a family interest not altogether happy, for it was in that regiment also that Mr. Baldwin’s nephew, young Kipling, served and died, a circumstance which led Mr. Kipling to make of the history of the Irish Guards a noble and lasting memorial.

There are notable reactions in politics. For years England has been governed by a succession of lawyers — first Mr. Asquith, and then Mr. Lloyd George, astute politicians, experts in phrases and formulas. For years the electorate has been paid with words and has been deluged with eloquence, but has looked in vain for the simple common herbs of the national interest and the national character. We may suppose that they had a surfeit of idealisms and catchwords, and longed to have once more what they used to possess in the not yet forgotten days of Lord Salisbury, common sense and common honesty. Possibly it was for that reason that they turned to Mr. Bonar Law, a simple man of business, without any of the graces of the politician.

A succession of lawyers is thus succeeded by a succession of ironmasters. And as steel is better stuff than words, we shall probably gain by the change. Not that Mr. Baldwin is no orator, for upon occasions he can speak well and to the point; but his words have that, ring of sincerity which comes from a mind accustomed to deal with the strains and tests of solid material. They have, moreover, a simplicity which goes straighter to the heart than a more finished and subtle rhetoric. As, for example, in this very notable extract from a speech in the House of Commons last February, in which he replied to a violent tirade from Mr. Newbold, the Communist member: —

When the Labor Party [said Mr. Baldwin] sit on these benches we shall all wish them well in their efforts to govern the country; but I am quite certain, whether they succeed or fail, there will never be a Communist Government, and for this reason: that to our people no gospel founded on hate will ever seize their hearts. It is no good trying to cure the world by spreading out oceans of bloodshed and by repeating a pentasyllable French derivative — the proletariat. The English language is the richest in the world in monosyllables, and words of one syllable contain salvation for this country and the world. They are: Faith, Hope, Love, and Work. No Government without faith in the people, hope in the future, love of its fellow men, and without the will to work and work and work, will ever bring this country or Europe and the world through into better times and better days.

Here we feel is something better than fine phrases — the sincere speech of a good and brave Englishman.