Beverley Baxter's LONDON LETTER

The Price of Public Service

February 1 1938
Beverley Baxter's LONDON LETTER

The Price of Public Service

February 1 1938

Beverley Baxter's LONDON LETTER

The Price of Public Service

GENERAL ARTICLES

ONE SUNDAY recently I drove in from the country to the Foreign Office to attend a conference with Anthony Eden. Downing Street, which not only houses the Premier but supplies the entrance to the

Foreign Office, is impressive enough at any time, but on a misty winter late afternoon its sombre quiet suggests that, deep in the frozen earth, strange and incalculable forces are moving.

It was a huge room in which we saw the Foreign Secretary. There was one painting, a fireplace, a table and chairs, while the walls were decorated with Turkish stars. That may not be the correct description, but there was a suggestion of the Bosjx>rus about the stars, and I know no other way to describe them.

As usual Europe was in a state of crisis, although, just for a change, the Far Eastern situation was more urgent.

Eden shook hands and then sat down at the table facing us. He wore an ordinary lounge suit with a soft collar, and one missed the immaculate fashion-plate appearance of his early days. His brain was as clear as ever and his manner as unassuming. What is more, lie showed splendid judgment in the extent to which he was perfectly frank and then carefully reticent according to the exigencies of the conversation. But this was a different Eden from the one

who less than two years ago took on the job of “the man with a load of mischief.”

His eyes were deep in shadows. Where once It is movements expressed unbounded vitality, now they seemed the result of restlessness and fatigue.

For days he had been balancing the chances of an understanding among France, Germany, Italy and Britain, and for days there had been a whispering campaign against him. It was loud enough to lx: heard in every political drawing-room.

He had had a cold which necessitated his absence from the Foreign Office for a day. “Anthony’s cold will get worse,” said the wise ones cryptically. They even prophesied the course of events.

“You see. Italy won’t have anything to do with Eden, and Germany is bored with him. Chamberlain does not want to fire him because Eden still has a following in the cotlntry. But when his cold reaches his chest, he will reluctantly be forced to resign and become a political martyr.

This is not the kind of a cold which the doctors can cure.”

But after a day the young Foreign Secretary came back to work and got on with his heartbreak task.

And what a task it is!

No Respite for Eden

A CABINET Minister said to me the other day: “If instead of Eden they had offered mo the choice of the Foreign Secretaryship or a knife with which to cut my throat, I would not have hesitated. I would have taken the knife. When Eden succeeded Samuel Hoare in foreign affairs, he must have known that he did not have a gambler’s chance of success but merely the choice between degrees of failure.” I do not know what the future holds for Eden. For months on end he has had no respite by day or night, no holiday, no Sundays that are different from Mondays, no chance to sit back and survey the world with any sense of detachment.

In the War he was a front-line soldier. Periodically his battalion was relieved, and the young subaltern could loaf the hours away until it was time to go back again. In the war of foreign affairs, he is in the front line all the time.

When we were leaving the conference, someone asked him about a certain point of policy. “I am seeing the Prime Minister tonight,” he said, “to discuss that very thing.” That was Eden’s Sunday. While others golfed or went to church or played bridge by their firesides, he was a prisoner with the two sides of Downing Street as his prison walls.

A few days before all this, Michael Arlen and I were lunching at the House of Commons. Michael was in grand form as befits the author of “The Green Hat,” and I am afraid our laughter was not totally in keeping with the decorum of the surroundings.

There was a stir of interest behind us. Eden, his Parliamentary private secretary, and Viscount Cranbome, the Under Secretary for Foreign Affairs, had come into luncheon. Cranborne and the P. P. S. spread napkins over their knees.. Eden spread a red dispatch box. He used one hand for eating and the other for documents. So engrossed was he that it would not have startled us if he had eaten a document and put a piece of toast into the dispatch box.

Three hours later I saw him flushed with excitement as he stood in his place in the House of Commons and hurled these words to deafening cheers:

“We shall co-operale with every nation, but we shall accept dictation from none."

What is to be the end of the story? I do not know. All that we can see is that somewhere along the road which Eden has traversed these last two terrible years, he has left his youth.

The Forgotten Statesman

I WAS thinking of all this when I went to Westminster Abbey for the memor-

ial service for Ramsay MacDonald. Does democracy realize the price that it exacts from its leaders? Does it care? We rightly demand a free Parliament and an unfettered press. Such things are the very pillars of democracy.

How simple by comparison is the task of a dictator, with newspapers muzzled and Parliament abolished ! Freedom can be a more cruel master than tyranny.

Just before Mr. Ramsay MacDonald sailed on his last voyage from which he was not to return alive, he said to a friend of mine: “I am nearing the end. These” (touching his head and his heart) “are tired and weary. Sleep makes no difference. This is a weariness which can only end one way.” i

It may have been a subconscious realization of this that prompted Stanley Baldwin (the title of Earl is a poor thing to attach to so great a man) to send a note to MacDonald

three weeks before his embarkation.

“We have not met for so many months,” wrote that great English gentleman. “When you come to London, can we not have an hour together?”

So they lunched at Ramsay’s modest house at Hampstead, where the pictures and books are so numerous that the ordinary furniture is hard put to it to find breathing space. For a whole afternoon the former Conservative and Labor leaders, these two men who had formed the National Government, who had saved Britain from disaster, and who had resigned from the Cabinet on the same day, lived again for an afternoon the history which they had written for England.

A day or so after Ramsay had sailed, Baldwin went to the Guildhall to receive the freedom of the City of London. Compliments and tributes were heaped upon him in language which outblushed the rose. Baldwin listened, but his thoughts were straying.

“There is another ex-Premier,” he said abruptly, “who is literally worn out through public service. Mr. Ramsay MacDonald has had far less than his share of the gratitude which is due him. I am in the best position to judge, for I served under him. He never spared himself.”

The public was touched by Baldwin’s generosity, and was also rendered more than a little uncomfortable by the suggestion of ingratitude toward the “forgotten statesman.”

One or two newspapers made a halfhearted attempt to pay tribute to the man who had gone abroad. But a murder or a wedding or a Japanese incident stole the headlines, and he was once more allowed to relapse into obscurity.

Then out of the blue came the message from the ship: “Mr. Ramsay MacDonald died this evening.”

It shocked the whole community. In Parliament men looked at each other as if something rather shameful had

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happened. I wondered as to the thoughts of a certain Socialist M. P. who, during MacDonald’s last faltering speech in the House, had shouted: “Sit down, man, you are making a fool of yourself.” The Socialist faces were grim. They had hounded their former leader until his power of concentration had gone and only the supreme gentleness of his spirit remained. At Seaham Harbor, where he had gone down to ignominious defeat in 1935 (the ignominy belongs to the electorate, and not to him), the Socialists had jeered and mocked him until he could not be heard on any platform.

Memories . . . and not too pleasant.

On the last day of Baldwin’s regime in the House, Ramsay sat as a private Member. No one noticed him except to comment that it seemed queer to find him away from the front bench. The hatred of the Socialists and the indifference of the Conservatives were complete.

Conscience, however, is stronger than memory. Ramsay had put to sea on his last voyage, a forgotten man. He came back from it on one of His Majesty’s ships of war with guards of honor waiting to receive his body. In Westminster Abbey the people and the princes came, the priests and politicians, the villagers of Scotland and the highest officers of state, the King’s ministers and the King’s brother, the Speaker of the House of Commons, and MacDonald’s own simple family circle.

Brahms’ music soared to the rafters as they carried his ashes through the Abbey, and the heart of Britain wept for this lonely servant who had risen from obscurity to greatness—only to find that the crown he had earned was one of ingratitude and scorn.

It is not the noblest chapter in our political history. I agree that the MacDonald controversy will go on for years, but he was bigger than his enemies, bigger than those who ignored him, bigger than his own mistakes.

For the moment, however, we must leave him—another statesman worn out by public service, free at last from the storms and the winds of controversy.

YET EVEN as one surveys the human wreckage of political life there comes the inevitable exception. Mr. Lloyd George was at the memorial service. The father of the House of Commons now in his seventy-fifth year.

His snow-white hair is like a lion’s mane. His movements are dynamic. The energy from his batteries galvanizes the air about him. His eyes turn quickly from side to side, like a duellist holding a dozen assailants at bay.

He would take office tomorrow if he could get it. He would willingly combine the posts of Prime Minister. Foreign Secretary and Minister for Agriculture. For half a crown or less, he would abolish the whole Cabinet and do the job himself.

Yet he took such a strain in the War years as would have killed any normal man. As second in command. Bonar Law emerged from the same ordeal a broken man whose fine spirit would have been unequal to a long period of premiership even if his body had not failed him.

Mr. Lloyd George’s enemies say that the little Welshman had the callousness of the dictator in his blood, and that the losses on the battlefield were never more than vital statistics to him. Others argue that he had a gaiety of heart which was really a form of timidity—a dread of facing reality. Others attribute his iron nerve to his ability to sleep at any time, as if sleep could build character.

I shall not attempt to add to these excursions any explanation. Here is a man on whom crisis, discouragement and intolerable strain left no visible mark. Is it pos-

sible that he possessed a courage beyond the normal limits of man? Was he perhaps less human in his emotions and, therefore, less vulnerable to heartbreak and collapse? It might well be contended that Lloyd George is a living proof that those who pay too heavy a price for public service do so because of their own inherent defects in body and character.

If there are those of such mind, I would ask them to turn to one of the six pallbearers who walked in the Abbey beside MacDonald’s coffin.

r‘PWO YEARS ago Stanley Baldwin would come into the House of Commons with a rolling countryman’s gait as if he were completing a ten-mile walk along one of his beloved lanes of Worcester. He had endured for years a merciless newspaper attack of ridicule and condemnation. Twice he had been defeated at the polls, and each time he had to face the anger and distrust of many of his supporters.

Throughout the post-War years that spelled violence and revolution in almost every other country, his essential decency and strength of purpose kept Britain straight.

It seemed as the years went on that here was another man that nothing could mark. Then one day he was not at his place. Those newspapers who always kept their wreaths ready for him said he was going to resign. For five days they repeated that he was finished and would be succeeded by “a stronger man.”

Then Baldwin issued a statement that he had been suffering from insomnia for some time but would be in his place the next Thursday.

Here again was another case where the nation was shocked and rendered acutely uncomfortable. It did not like the picture of Squire Baldwin lying awake in the grizzly hours of the night. It did not fit in with the popular conception of the country Englishman who was as indifferent to criticism as he was to the wind of his native heath.

Now we know that Mr. Baldwin’s doctors urged him at that time to retire. They warned him of the consequences of going on.

“I cannot resign now,” said Baldwin. “There are one or two situations that I must not leave to my successor.”

One of those situations came to a head. The abdication crisis was upon the nation. Calmly, justly, but indomitably, Baldwin changed the history of Britain and left the Empire stronger than it had been before.

Then and not till then he laid down his heavy load. “I shall be able to rest now and read,” he said.

But at the Abbey we saw with a shock an old man limping with such pain that he had to use a stick even for those few yards. The months since he had left the House might almost have been years.

The books that he had longed to read have failed to prove the companions which they would have been in former years. His nerves refuse to accept them as substitutes for the clash of events. Long walks that he had planned with the healing balm of sun and wind and the sting of rain upon the cheeks are ruled out by the pain of walking.

He stayed in office two years too long, but men called to such position cannot time their exits like an actor.

Democracy . . .

The lure of public life, the love of power which is inherent in all men, the desire to serve one’s generation—these things will always draw men into politics.

Sometimes, though, when we speak contemptuously of national leaders, denying to them the virtues which we so unhesitatingly attribute to ourselves, charging them with selfishness or worse, we might do well to think for a moment of the price they pay.