Finest Hour 101, Winter 1998-99
By Richard M. Langworth
What could have impelled so magnanimous a man to say of his former chief, “it would have been much better had he never lived”?
How quickly a single thread leads us “In Search of Churchill,” to use Sir Martin Gilbert’s apt book title from a few years ago. Recently on our Internet forum we were asked for the source of Churchill’s famous recommendation about what to do with a certain famous corpse: “Embalm, cremate and bury,” WSC replied–“take no chances.” This led me through a long, instructive journey that defined the vast extent of Churchill’s generosity – and its limits.
I first heard the “embalm” remark cited (diplomatically, without identifying the corpse in question) by Anthony Montague Browne, Churchill’s private secretary (1952-65) in a marvelous speech to a Churchill Society dinner at London’s Savoy in 1985 (see FH 50). Searching for its origins, on our Internet forum, Stephen P. Johnson of the University of Washington tracked it to William Manchester’s The Last Lion, Vol. 2 “Alone” (Boston: Little Brown 1988), which stated in a footnote that it referred to former Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin. Manchester cited Kay Halle’s Irrepressible Churchill (Cleveland: World 1966), pages 131 and 133, and I was off. The result was a diverting two hours reading what Winston Churchill had to say about Stanley Baldwin.
Contrary to Manchester, Halle does not mention the “embalm” quote in her references to Baldwin, but she does offer a broad collection of her own. Taken chronologically, they show the development of Winston Churchill’s thought on his longtime Parliamentary colleague and sometime chief.
Winston Churchill’s collegiality, even friendship, toward those with whom he violently disagreed was one of his noblest characteristics. There are many evidences of it, in the Official Biography and elsewhere and only one case where it was not extended in its usual effusiveness. Churchill was not a hater and was quick to forgive; but toward one Parliamentary colleague he did not in the end grant grant forgiveness.
Stanley Baldwin was elected to Parliament in 1908 but remained a backbencher until 1921, when he rose to Cabinet rank under Andrew Bonar Law. After Law’s death in 1923 he became Prime Minister, only to be thrown out by Labour in January 1924. He returned to Downing Street following the December 1924 election and remained Prime Minister until Labour was returned in the Spring of 1929.
Churchill, who had come up the hard way in politics, and almost always on the wings of controversy, found Baldwin’s success difficult to fathom. Musing later on Baldwin’s rise in the 1920s, Churchill called him “a countrified businessman who seemed to have reached the Cabinet by accident.”1 But Churchill happily accepted the Chancellorship of the Exchequer in Baldwin’s government, probably offered to him, most historians agree, on the reasoning that it was better to have Winston fulminating from within the Cabinet than from without.
In 1931 as the Depression deepened, Baldwin brought the Conservatives into a coalition government with Labour Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald, Baldwin himself serving as Lord President of the Council. Churchill shared few political positions with either; he referred to them as “two nurses fit to keep silence around a darkened room.”2 Speaking before the Royal Academy in 1932, WSC referred to his fellow artist: “[Mr. Baldwin] is still quite a distinguished painter in our academy. If I were to criticise him at all I would say his work lacked a little in colour, and was also a little lacking in the precise definition of objects in the foreground. He too has changed not only his style but also his subjects…Making a fair criticism, I must admit there is something very reposeful about the half-tones of his twilight studies.”3
In the general election of 1935 the Conservatives won a huge majority and Baldwin became Prime Minister again. But no Cabinet post was offered to Churchill, who had parted from Baldwin in 1931 over the question of Dominion Status for India, and now began to differ on the question of British rearmament in the face of Hitler’s Germany. Baldwin took the view that Germany planned to strike east not west; that a showdown between the Nazis and Bolsheviks wouldn’t be a bad thing; that rearmament would only frighten a peace-loving nation and, perhaps, cause it to elect somebody else.
Churchill, whose political positions were based on principle, not polls or current public mood, seethed in frustration, though his early parries turned on humor. During one debate Churchill remarked of Baldwin, “The Lord President was wiser than he is now; he used frequently to take my advice.”4
By 1935 the German threat was nakedly apparent; yet Baldwin still resisted a vigorous response. Churchill’s consternation now gave rise to stronger words: “Occasionally he stumbled over the truth, but hastily picked himself up and hurried on as if nothing had happened”….”He is no better than an epileptic corpse.” In 1937, when Baldwin appeared in the House of Commons Smoking Room, having been succeeded as Premier by Neville Chamberlain, Churchill remarked, “Well, the light is at last out of that old turnip.”5
Compared to some exchanges we’ve heard more recently in Parliament or the House of Representatives, such remarks seem tame. The difference is that a collegial atmosphere prevailed in Churchill’s time, a friendship or kinship that prevailed after rancor and asperity had died away. And Churchill was more collegial than most. His tribute to Philip Snowden, the Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer with whom he disagreed violently on every conceivable subject, is a typical example.
After Churchill’s generous tribute to Snowden following the latter’s death,6 Lady Snowden, an active socialist and teetotaler, wrote to Churchill: “Your generosity to a political opponent marks you for ever in my eyes the ‘great gentleman’ I have always thought you. Had I been in trouble which I could not control myself, there is none to whom I should have felt I could come with more confidence that I should be gently treated.”
Sir Martin Gilbert, who reprinted this note in his In Search of Churchill, comments: “There are rather few of whom this can be said, even outside the political fray. It marks a quality which, by its very nature, would remain little known beyond those who were its beneficiaries. In all the venues of my search, finding this characteristic seemed to me the most rewarding.”7
Nor was Churchill’s generosity strictly a peacetime phenomenon. Once World War II was on, when we might have expected an embattled Prime Minister to demand uncritical support, Churchill at least publicly bore his critics with equanimity and humor. At the depths of the war in 1941 he responded to a particularly strong attack: “I do not think…any expression of scorn or severity which I have heard used by our critics has come anywhere near the language which I have been myself accustomed to use, not only orally, but in a stream of written minutes. In fact, I wonder that a great many of my colleagues are on speaking terms with me.”8
Stanley Baldwin had remarked in the 1930s that in the unlikely event of war, “we must save Winston to be our fighting Prime Minister.” Churchill never publicly repaid the compliment, if compliment it was. He held Baldwin responsible for Britain’s lack of preparedness when the crisis inevitably came. During the Blitz, when informed that a German bomb had fallen on Baldwin’s house, Churchill quipped, “What base ingratitude.”9 Yet a year later, the fair minded Prime Minister tried to prevent the churlish confiscation for scrap metal of the artistic iron gates around Baldwin’s country home. They were being requisitioned out of spite, for Baldwin had become preeminent among the “Guilty Men” whom the fickle public now believed had brought on the war. “Lay off Baldwin’s gates,” Churchill said without effect; the gates were confiscated.10
In 1943 they renewed personal contact, Churchill asking Baldwin’s views over a speech he was thinking of giving, condemning Irish neutrality. Baldwin read WSC’s notes while Churchill sipped brandy. Finally Baldwin opined, “I wouldn’t give that speech,” and Churchill didn’t.11
Some of his biographers believe that Stanley Baldwin had served to bring a nation united into war; that without his caution, Britain would have split over rearmament; and that even as one of the “Guilty Men,” he provided Britain with something it needed besides its hero Churchill: a scapegoat.12 There is much to be said against critics who are wise after the fact. If Stanley Baldwin had prevented Britain from rearming soon enough to forestall Hitler, he certainly had plenty of company. As Churchill once remarked of Chamberlain, the British public had no right to condemn him for the war, having backed his policies to the hilt almost up to the last days of peace.
What Churchill knew and Baldwin didn’t was that a Britain so anxious for peace would “never give in” once battle was joined. “Going back a long time to 27 March 1936,” WSC recalled in 1951, “[Mr. Baldwin] said, according to the Daily Herald, ‘We shall have to give up certain of our toys–one is Britannia rules the Waves”.…As has been often pointed out, it is Britannia rule the Waves–an invocation, not a declaration of fact. But if the idea Rule Britannia was a toy, it was certainly one for which many good men from time to time have been ready to die.”13
Churchill’s final view of Baldwin, who died in 1947, was atypical of his usual magnanimity. Indeed it was much more severe than the Parliamentary barbs Kay Halle recorded–severer, in fact, than biographer Martin Gilbert has noticed toward any other of Churchill’s contemporaries, including Samuel Hoare and Aneurin Bevan.
“Shortly after the war,” writes Gilbert, “when he was asked to send Baldwin, then aged eighty, a birthday letter, [Churchill] declined to do so, writing to an intermediary: ‘I wish Stanley Baldwin no ill, but it would have been much better had he never lived.’
“In my long search for Churchill,” Gilbert concluded, “few letters have struck a clearer note than this one. Churchill was almost always magnanimous: his tribute to Neville Chamberlain in 1940 was among the highpoints of his parliamentary genius. But he saw Baldwin as responsible for the ‘locust years’ when Britain, if differently led, could have easily rearmed, and kept well ahead of the German military and air expansion, which Hitler had begun in 1933 from a base of virtual disarmament. Churchill saw Baldwin’s policies, especially with regard to Royal Air Force expansion, as having given Hitler the impression, first, that Britain would not stand up to aggression beyond its borders, and second, that if war came Britain would not be in a position to act effectively even to defend its own cities.”14
In the end, that was enough to damn Stanley Baldwin perhaps as no other contemporary Briton in Churchill’s eyes.
1 Kay Halle, Irrepressible Churchill, Cleveland and New York: World Publishing Co. 1966, p. 181.
2 Ibid., p. 117.
3 Ibid., pp. 119-20.
4 Ibid., p. 129.
5 Ibid., pp. 133, 131, 134.
6 Winston Churchill, “Philip Snowden,” Sunday Pictorial, London, 12 August 1931 (Woods C170/II); reprinted in Great Contemporaries, London: Cassell 1937 et. seq.
7 Martin Gilbert, In Search of Churchill, London: Harper-Collins 1994, pp. 221-22.
8 Halle, op. cit., p. 181
9 Ibid., p. 131.
10 P. Howard, Beaverbrook, p. 120, quoted by Middlemas & Barnes, Baldwin: A Biography, NY: Macmillan 1969, p. 1021.
11 Middlemas & Barnes, Baldwin, op. cit. pp. 1065-66.
12 Ibid., p. 1067.
13 Hall, op. cit., p. 188.
14 Gilbert, op. cit., pp. 105-6.