Greasy Pole: How Do You Like Your Leaders?
It was a crowd scene which absorbed half an inner page of that popular national newspaper. A split-second record of the Wilderness Festival, a musical event near the Oxfordshire village of Charlbury. And whose was that particular face, shimmering and unsmiling and well groomed among the hair and the beards, gazing across to his left at a woman dressed expensively and fashionably absorbed in the performers?
He is resident locally in a grandly assertive house (Wilderness is unusual for being an expensive event in the world of pop music). And he is David Cameron, so recently the ex-Etonian Honourable Member of Parliament for the local constituency of Witney and then Her Majesty’s Prime Minister and First Lord of the Treasury. His presence that day at the Wilderness was an example of his attempts to justify his assurances that he is one of us so that we would all share in the prosperity which he would bring into our lives. For example immediately after his victory in the 2015 election, which swept away that cumbersome Coalition with Nick Clegg and his LibDems, Cameron spoke to us all from the open air in Downing Street ‘I truly believe we are on the brink of something special in our country; we can make Britain a place where a good life is in reach for everyone who is willing to work and do the right thing…As we conduct this vital work we must ensure that we bring our country together…we will govern as a party of one nation, one United Kingdom. That means ensuring this recovery reaches all parts of our country, from north to south, from east to west’. These brave words did not act as one of those historic pledges because soon afterwards Cameron was swept from his post as Prime Minister by the power-ravenous Theresa May taking full advantage of the result of the EU referendum which in many cases persuaded voters in the more impoverished constituencies to express their anxieties and frustration by opting for Brexit.
For example a report from the Child Poverty Action Group gave an idea of what had actually happened to child poverty, which Cameron was promising to eliminate, during his time as Prime Minister: In the UK in 2014-5 there were 3.9 million children – 28 percent – living in poverty. Work does not provide a guaranteed route out of poverty in the UK. Two-thirds (66 per cent} of children growing up in poverty live in a family where at least one member works…Child poverty blights childhoods. In addition the Institute of Fiscal Studies has stated that child poverty will rise by 400,000 overall during 2020: ‘Ministers have to face up to the reality that we’re on course for the biggest rise in child poverty in a generation’.
In the event Cameron did not have to face up to whether this forecast was accurate — and what he might offer as a remedy for the problem — by the simple ruse of reacting to the result of the EU referendum by throwing up his much-prized job as Prime Minister. Pretty soon afterwards he also resigned from being an MP, which left him even more freedom from chasing through any promises about solving some social problems while making an appearance at events like the Wilderness.
His successor had run a lengthy, subtle campaign to win the top job herself so that when the day came she could reflect on the procession of defeated opponents with her own version of the same style of promises we had grown to expect from Cameron. She could even spell out her thoughts in the open, on that very same doorstep before that same shiny black door: ‘The government I lead will be driven not by the interests of the privileged few, but by yours. We will do everything we can to give you more control over your lives. When we take the big calls we will think not of the powerful but of you. When we pass new laws we will listen not to the mighty but to you’.
Those words can be interpreted as May’s salute to one of her predecessors who came into Ten Downing Street in the nineteen twenties. Stanley Baldwin was the Conservative MP for Bewdley in Worcestershire from 1908 until May 1937. During that time he was three times Prime Minster, from 1923 until 1937. He came from a wealthy family who owned Baldwins Ltd – a huge complexity of coal, iron and steel work in Bewdley. His time in government was marked by some crises in national and international events, such as the General Strike, the abdication of Edward VIII and the widespread unemployment during the slump of the Thirties. Abroad there was the rise of dictatorships in Italy and Germany and the outbreak of war in 1939. During all this time Baldwin displayed a ruthless manipulative style in managing British capitalism and its appendages, which earned him a varying reputation. He originated some enduring descriptions of some of the people he dealt with; for example there were the press barons Lords Rothermere and Beaverbrook and their enjoyment of ‘power without responsibility, the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages’ and his sketch of his party in 1918 as ‘a lot of hard-faced men who look as if they have done very well out of the war’. On the other side there was Winston Churchill telling us that ‘I wish Baldwin no ill but it would have been much better had he never lived’. The mixed feelings about Baldwin were expressed in the delay to raise a typical monument to him after his death in 1947, apart from a blue plaque in Westminster and a stone seat beside a minor road at The Burf Worcestershire. But recently there has been a successful scheme to produce a life size bronze statue for display in Bewdley Guildhall. A keen supporter of this was Theresa May who declared to the organisers ‘Stanley Baldwin should be recognised as one of the most significant figures of twentieth-century British politics. It was he who coined the phrase ‘One Nation’ to describe that fundamental aspect of the Conservative approach to politics’. So the statue was made and stands now for everyone to see and admire. Perhaps at the same time they will also reflect on the extravagant wealth personified by Baldwin and his class.