by Bodwyn Wook
Now that many Americans in the mood of evangelical political repentance are dwelling on the gloomy topic of who may have been their ‘worst’ President, it is timely perhaps to revise a number of our wrong opinions of past leaders in the World. Indeed, and now that here in the pp of Bodwyn Wook we have taken part for good and all in beholding anew the singular moral power and integrity of America’s 30th President, Calvin Coolidge, it is time to look with renewed respect and, I daresay, love, at the figure of English Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin. For too long he has been done down by popularising historians, as the man who let Hitler rise in Europe unchallenged. As the following words of Baldwin’s reveal, however, his was perhaps the most humane of characters of any twentieth century English Prime Minister. Although Stanley Baldwin may well not have been the man of international affairs, the following homely words are his, and the perceptive reader may be interested to note the inspiration that Winston Churchill, himself, took for a later, terser, oration:
Though I do not think that in the life of a busy man there could be placed into his hands a more difficult toast than this, yet the first thought that comes into my mind as a public man is a feeling of satisfaction and profound thankfulness that I may use the word ‘England’ without some fellow at the back of the room shouting out ‘Britain’. I have often thought how many of the most beautiful passages in the English language would be ruined by that substitution which is so popular to-day. I read in your Dinner-book, ‘When God wants a hard thing done, He tells it’, not to His Britons, but to His Englishman….
To me, England is the country, and the country is England. And when I ask myself what I mean by England, when I think of England when I am abroad, England comes to me through my various senses – through the ear, through the eye, and through certain imperishable scents. I will tell you what they are, and there may be those among you who feel as I do.
The sounds of England, the tinkle of hammer on anvil in the country smithy, the corncrake on a dewey morning, the sound of the scythe against the whetstone, and the sight of a plough team coming over the brow of a hill, the sight that has been in England since England was a land, and may be seen in England long after the Empire has perished and every works in England has ceased to function, for centuries the one eternal sight of England. The wild anenomies in the woods of April, the last load at night of hay being drawn down a lane as the twilight comes on, when you can scarcely distinguish the figures on the horses as they take it home to the farm, and above all, most subtle, most penetrating and most moving, the smell of wood smoke coming in an autumn evening, or the smell of the scutch fires: that wood smoke that our ancestors, tens of thousands of years ago, must have caught on the air when they were still nomads, and when they were still roaming the forests and the plains of the continent of Europe. These things strike down into the very depths of our nature, and touch chords that go back to the beginning of time and the human race, but they are chords that with every year of our life sound a deeper note in our innermost being. These are things that make England, and I grieve for it that they are not the childish inheritance of the majority of people to-day in our country. They ought to be the inheritance of every child born into this country, but nothing can be more touching than to see how the working man and woman after generations in the towns will have their tiny bit of garden if they can, will go to gardens if they can, to look at something they they have never seen as children, but which their ancestors knew and loved. The love of these things is innate and inherent in our people. It makes for that love of home, one of the strongest features of our race, and it that that makes our race seek its home in the Dominions over seas, where they have room to see things like this that they can no more see at home. It is that power of making homes, almost peculiar to our people, and it is one of the sources of their greatness. They go overseas, and they take with them what they learned at home: love of justice, love of truth, and the broad humanity that are so characteristic of English people. It may well be that these traits on which we pride ourselves, which we hope to show and try to show in our lives, may survive – survive among our people so long as they are a people – and I hope and believe this, that just as to-day more than fifteen centuries since the last of those great Roman legionaries left England, we still speak of the Roman character, so perhaps in the ten thousandth century, long after the Empires of this world as we know them have fallen and others have risen and fallen again, the men who are then on this earth may yet speak of those characteristics which we prize as the characteristics of the English, and that long after, maybe, the name of the country has passed away, wherever men are honourable and upright and perservering, lovers of home, of their bretheren, of justice and of humanity, the men in the world of that day may say, ‘We still have among us the gifts of that great English race.’
The above words are from the speech made by Stanley Baldwin, then Lord President of the Council in the coalition government of Ramsey MacDonald, to the Royal Society of St George, on 6 May 1924. There is about it of course, and inescapably, a deal of late-modernistic nationalising persiflage and mythopoesis. But what a far wider, patient and above all calm, inner vision of England it all is! And — dare one say it? — than that of the always self-demonstrative Churchill’s. The balance of Stanley Baldwin’s home thoughts may be read at:
[Emmett R Smith all commentary rights reserved 24 February 2009]