Greasy Pole: Baldwin versus Blair
Intolerably squeezed by a hostile audience, Tony Blair was liable to try to escape by declaring that while he accepted their right to disagree with him he was unshaken in his confidence that he was doing the right thing and was happy to be judged on that by history. Which is what would be expected from such a kinda straight sorta guy; yeah. Except that some months before he had gone off into the sunset, or wherever it is that unmasked, exhausted prime ministers go, he had in a sense been put through a type of historical assessment, compared to a number of other occupants of Number Ten.
In the August 2006 issue of the BBC History Magazine an article by the historian Francis Beckett rated the prime ministers of the 20th century according to their effectiveness as “change managers”. Their place on the list was based on how clear they were about the change they aimed to bring about, how successful they were in this and how efficiently they “managed” the change. In joint first place were Clement Attlee and Margaret Thatcher; Attlee because his governments nationalised so much of industry while it introduced the National Health Service and the so-called Welfare State and Thatcher because her governments demolished so much of what the Attlee governments had built: “She broke the Attlee settlement, which had lasted more than 30 years, largely by force of will” was how Beckett put it. Blair may have been disappointed to learn that he only made it to third place, along with Harold Wilson, because although he “made a lot of progress in his chosen direction…The private sector has now been brought even into the running of schools and hospitals, and since the Conservatives agree with it, this will probably be a relatively permanent change” and there is the little matter of the war in Iraq, which “…undermined his ability to implement his vision”.
One place above Blair in the Beckett table of change management efficiency is Stanley Baldwin who, if he ever wanted to change things, did so by appearing to prefer this to be backwards, to a time when the fields were ploughed by pairs of heavy shire horses guided by a sweating farm hand and harvested by teams of locals wielding scythes – all presided over by wealthy, benevolent landowners like Baldwin. He had inherited his wealth, as well as his parliamentary seat in Worcestershire, from his father and he set himself to play the part, among the ravenously ambitious Tories in parliament, of the simple, honest countryman. But this was only part of the story, for Baldwin was fond of being photographed in tweeds and a soft hat, sucking tranquilly on a pipe. His rivals, angrily outbid by this appeal to a group of voters identified in the newly-sprung suburbs known as “villadom”, hit back with sneers about his posing for his appearances in the picture-hungry newspapers. They were blind to the fact that Baldwin was, dangerously, much more than a transparent, disengaged colleague – Churchill called him “a great turnip” – for he was a leading influence in the undermining of the apparently impregnable Lloyd George coalition in 1922 and then, when Bonar Law had to resign through ill health shortly after replacing Lloyd George, emerged as a strong candidate to succeed as prime minister.
Baldwin’s previous efforts to present himself as a plain and simple man did not match with his elevation to the premiership; in the past he had said that he would rather keep pigs and he had told a friend that a one-way ticket to Siberia would be more acceptable to him. He almost achieved his stated ambition to be a porcine carer in the snowy wastes when, in the 1923 general election, the country’s first ever Labour government emerged. That was not a happy introduction to power for the Labour Party and the following year Baldwin’s modesty was searchingly tested when he was propelled into Number Ten by his party winning a landslide victory. That government was quickly immersed in a financial crisis which, following from the coal mine owners’ efforts to protect their profits by imposing wage cuts, led eventually to the General Strike.
This was a time when Baldwin’s professed yearning for a unity of purpose between employers and workers was put to the test. In January 1925 he had unburdened himself: “There is only one thing which I feel is worth giving one’s whole strength to, and that is the binding together of all classes of our people in an effort to make life in this country better in every sense of the word”. This was in the course of discussions with the miners over the employers’ plans to cut wages and increase working hours. In May 1926 he was to declare “All the workers of this country have got to take reductions in wages to help put industry on its feet”. But in 1925 the government were not ready to carry this policy of Baldwin’s to the point of confrontation; instead they subsidised the mines. At the time this was seen as a capitulation but, as became obvious when the General Strike was called, it had been a manipulated pause to allow the government to prepare for a more serious conflict – an episode the implications of which may not have been lost on the Thatcher government in their dispute with the miners in 1981 and 1984.
It is all history now; the General Strike collapsed, leaving the miners to struggle on alone until starvation drove them back to work – at which time it became clear that being on strike, with all its pressures, was a healthier option than working down those pits. The Cabinet, exultant that what they saw as a serious threat to the constitutional basis of the relationship between employers and wage slaves had been defeated, passed a motion of thanks to Baldwin for his handling of the crisis and the Daily Mail trumpeted that he was “one of our greatest prime ministers”. It was not long before inexorable reality took hold and he was reviled for his association with that time of deep poverty and, eventually, the war. Over eighty years after, Blair has also wrestled with the pressures and the contradictions of trying to control – or rather to “manage” – the capitalist system, with problems perhaps superficially different from those which confronted Baldwin but which are completely alike in their urgency and their implacable power. Capitalism cannot be managed and so, in any real sense of the word, does not change.