One day in the late 1920s, Stanley Baldwin, Britain’s then prime minister, got chatting to a stranger on a train. He had been, perhaps, lost in The Times crossword, says Dominic Sandbrook in UnHerd, when a man leaned over and tapped him on the knee: “You are Baldwin, aren’t you? You were at Harrow in ’84.” Stanley nodded. Then came a second tap. “Tell me, what are you doing now?” Even if the story isn’t true, it tells us something of the “modest man” who steered Britain through the 1926 general strike, the Depression, and Edward VIII’s abdication. That he is barely remembered today is deeply unjust. He has been accused, for example, of sending Britain defenceless into World War II – when in fact he commissioned almost 100 new RAF squadrons “in the teeth of fierce opposition from a near-pacifist Labour Party”.
To be fair, many of Baldwin’s contemporaries were dismissive of his success. When playing chess, Churchill would refer to his opponent’s pawns as “Baldwins”; George Orwell described him as “simply a hole in the air”. But Baldwin was really a “brilliantly canny operator” who “turned the Tories into the dominant party of government” – and did so despite graduating with a Third in history from Cambridge. (“I hope you won’t get a Third in life,” his father told him.) What’s more, he was a “deeply dutiful” man. When he was a government minister, he gave 20% of his fortune to help pay off the war debt – and kept the donation secret because he didn’t want any attention. Imagine Matt Hancock doing that. In almost every respect, Baldwin was a “walking rebuke” to his modern successors.