THE MIEN WHO SAVED ENGLAND
AN ADDRESS BY VALENTINE WILLIAMS, M.C.
15th October, 1931
MR. WILLIAMS was introduced by PRESIDENT STAPELLS. He spoke as follows: It is a great pleasure to face an audience after my experience over the radio in the United States, where I was employed by the National Broadcasting Company of America for the purpose of explaining Britain to America" with the object of bringing these two peoples closer together. I have always been a little ashamed to find how much better Canadians seem to know England than Englishmen know Canada. There are threads of parentage and friendship stretching from all parts of this great country to the remotest places in the British Isles. The radio and the motion pictures offer mediums for spreading to the humblest home in Britain knowledge of Canada's industrial and agricultural life. Thousands of people in England do not know what a grain elevator is, and would be thrilled with the marvels of Canadian transportation methods. I look for the day when the wonderful scenes in Canada will form one of the most interesting features of the movie and radio. My subject is word-pictures of the men who saved England. I start with King George not only because he is our monarch, but because he took the lead in forming the National ministry. I do not have to tell you about the King's appearance, or that even when not in uniform he is a very distinguished-looking man. He comes from one of the oldest lines of kings in the world, and I understand that he can trace his ancestry to Alfred the Great. He is often seen in uniform because the English like to keep up old traditions, wishing him to drive to Parliament in the gold coach, surrounded by beefeaters. When we think of the King at home we do not picture him in ermine robes, wearing a crown; we think of him as one of ourselves, as a man who might have been just a king, but who prefers to be an Englishman. The King has always put the interests of his nation first, and his own interests second. He could not help being born royal, but it takes real character to overcome that handicap. (Laughter). I wonder whether you ever considered the desperately lonely life a king leads. I have been traveling around for thirty years, and have met various monarchs, and they all seemed to have an air of aloofness. Do you realize what it must mean to be always surrounded by smiling submissive faces; never to have any real friends? The King seems to have deliberately set out to overcome all these handicaps.
The English constitution has gradually shorn the Crown of nearly all its power. At the present time the Prime Minister advises the King as to the foreign policy, and the King is bound to accept his advice; the Premier, not the Crown, is responsible to Parliament for the acts of the Government, while the King remains above rough-and-tumble politics, and is never dragged into controversial .debate. But King George, while remaining a strictly constitutional sovereign, has never been willing to be a mere puppet. He is king, but he likes to be the first and the best Englishman in the land. He has never said to any of his prime ministers, as he might so very well have, "I wash my hands of the whole business; it is your job; now,, go away and settle it among yourselves." He has taken the stand that the Crown is an integral part of the constitution. Again and again he has used the immense prestige of his position, and his unique situation outside of the parties, to intervene when dangerous political crises threatened. He did this at the time of the fight over the House of Lords; again on the eve of war, when civil war threatened in Ireland; and again the other day when he hurried back from his holiday in Scotland by special train to help the political parties meet the financial crisis. (Applause).
That rather terrifying old lady, Queen Victoria, resisted every attempt to deprive her of personal power. King Edward was no more successful in resisting the progressive shearing away of the prerogatives of the Crown. The King, while remaining strictly within the framework of the monarch's office, as it is now laid down, has succeeded in finding a new position for the Crown-that of Umpire. A man of less character, a king of the constitutional stamp, trying for what he and his family could get out of it, would not do this; but the King" as I keep on saying, is an Englishman first and king second. In the army an officer must look after his men before attending to his own comfort; that rule has been followed by King George; he has made his whole life subservient to the welfare of his people. (Applause). The war, as you know, cut right across his personal relationships; the Kaiser is his cousin, and other relatives were in the lists of the enemy, but King George cut the painter, and was the staunchest Briton of us all. Throughout the war he gave the nation the lead in the matter of rationing, and I may tell you that the King was eating margarine when the butlers and maidens of Mayfair were insisting on butter. He never lost faith, though politicians were wobbling and asking, behind their hands, "What if the Germans won?" The King never doubted ultimate victory. Sir Henry Wilson, that great Irishman, now dead" used to tell about Mr. Asquith in the early days of the war asking him, "What do you think would happen if' we lost the war?" Sir Henry turned around, tapped the old gentleman genially on the knee, and said, "They would hang you!" (Laughter).
There is no nonsense about King George. He is a simple man, and talks like a sailor. You have all heard him on the air. He has been called the ordinary man, which is perfectly true. One thing life has taught him is infinite capacity for pity. He seems to understand the man in the street in all the stormy times he and his people have seen together-the great war, the general strike, widespread labour troubles, and now unemployment. His sympathies have gone out to the voiceless mass, to the man in the trenches" and today to the unemployed. I would like to tell you, with great deference, a story of what happened to myself, because it illustrates a trait in King George that endears him to any who meet him. During the war I had to go to the palace for investiture, with some 500 or 600 officers of all ranks and colors. When I was stepping backward after the ceremony, to my astonishment the King turned and asked me about a young officer in my regiment who had been killed three days before. It seems he was the son of a personal friend of the King's, and His Majesty held me for three or four minutes--while this immense mass of people were waiting-to ask about this boy, how he had been killed, what was the latest news, where he was buried, and some things about his elder brother,, who was still at the front and who was destined to be killed two months later. I thought it an extraordinary thing that a man in the King's position, with his enormous responsibilities, merely at the sight of the uniform of the regiment of his friend's son, should have found time to stop, irrespective of the inconvenience to everybody else, to ask the latest news of this fatality. (Applause).
There is a lot of nonsense and rubbish talked about the King being afraid to have his own way as husband and father. The King is like a captain on the bridge of a ship, and if everything is not ship-shape and done in the regular way, even John Bull or Margery Daw would have nothing to learn from the vigour of the royal language. (Laughter). When I was in London in 1918 a certain peeress gave a dinner-party followed by a dance, two days after the great German offensive, about the time Haig issued his famous command, "with our backs to the wall." The King heard of this dance, and I can tell you I never heard such a row as broke out in the brigade of Guards. The husband, who was serving in the brigade, was summoned, and what his General told him-as the saying goes-is nobody's business. (Laughter). Many people may think this an old-fashioned point of view, but the King regards himself as head of the nation, and the peerage as one of the orders of the nation, preserving the constitution as it exists today. He expects peers to behave, and to act in accordance with the responsibilities their rank confers, one of which is a seat in the House of Lords. By his insistence on this principle he has made his house and the Court a model for the whole Empire. (Applause). London society today may be mixed; all kinds of people may get into it, through money or through influence, but they do not get into the Court. The Lord Chamberlain is pitiless in barring those who have infringed the laws which make people eligible for presentation; and in that way the King, aided zealously by his beloved Queen Mary, has made the Court of London the purest and finest home circle that exists almost anywhere in the world. (Applause).
Now, I come to Mr. Ramsay MacDonald, and I shall begin with a story. One of the most ancient buildings in the city of London is Guildhall, where young people of both sexes often go at the luncheon hour to read and find a little culture in their leisure. If you had gone there in 1885 you would have found, seated at one of the desks, a raw-boned, rather shabby, dark-haired young man. He had come from a distant village in Scotland where he had been brought up -in the direst poverty. He was getting ten shillings a week, addressing envelopes for a cycle touring club. If you ask me how it was possible for any young man to live on ten shillings a week fifty years ago I will answer that it was possible, because Ramsay MacDonald did it. A friend gave him a bed. He ate one square meal a day, costing five cents. For the rest, he had hot water, and oatmeal which his mother sent him every week from Scotland, for which he scrupulously paid her. He tells us how nourishing hot water can be when you get used to it. Ramsay MacDonald was forty before he was elected to Parliament and emerged from comparative obscurity as Secretary of the Labour Party. Eight years later the war intervened and brought one of those tests of a man's character. He was then a candidate, more or less assured, for a government office with the Liberal government. However, when the war broke out he could not persuade himself that the Liberal government had exhausted its efforts to maintain peace. He could not help feeling that behind the spectacle of Belgium's failure was the glint of the Prussian bayonet; also, German and Austrian socialists were plucking at his sleeve. When Mr. Asquith asked him what his attitude would be toward the declaration of war, he replied, "I will have nothing to do with it"-and he walked out into the wilderness. Mind you, I think he was wrong; the time to protest was not in 1914, but in the years before. If any part of the nation had followed Mr. MacDonald's lead we should have had the Germans in London by Christmas, and the cause of pace would have been put back a century; but the man insisted" and though he was hounded and persecuted during the war he never betrayed himself; he bears today the traces of that ordeal.
MacDonald made the impression on me of being a man with a seared soul. The ignominious poverty of his youth and his early struggles in London seem to have filled him with a sort of curious indignation toward the whole order of things in Britain. You can imagine the Gethsemane he must have gone through, seeing all the patient labour of years swept away at the blast of the bugle of war. See him in the House of Commons-not now, but before the Coalition-when a Tory jibe would bring him to his feet, his dark eyes burning, his whole body trembling with emotion, his voice scathing. Ramsay MacDonald, as a Celt, has all the proud touchiness of the Highlanders. As a speaker he is more impressive than eloquent. You have heard his sonorous voice; you know its whir-r-r. Whenever I hear him I am always reminded of the Scotch drill sergeant who told his Scotch soldiers, "When ye hear the wor-r-d 'Tur-r-r-n' ye'll tur-r-r-n". (Laughter). When you talk to Ramsay MacDonald, as I often have, he is courteous, charming,, full of magnetism, attentive; but you realize at once that the man is unapproachable. He looks like a romantic, but he has the analytic mind of the scientist. He seems to move on a different plane from other men. His enemies say that he is insincere, a trifler with truth; his own party call him arrogant; but I think Ramsay MacDonald is so overwhelmed by the goal he has set himself that at times he is inconsistent without knowing it. He has been both injudicious and inconsistent on many occasions, but I do not think you can say that he is insincere. (Applause). It has always seemed to me that but for the accident of his birth Ramsay MacDonald might have been of great prominence in the Gladstone tradition. He was born in a cottage, and that is why he espoused the cause of the under-dog. If his cradle had stood in a palace, or a manse, I think he would have assumed a more bourgeois form of politics. The whole coloring of the man is bourgeois. Not Marx and Lenin, but the heroes of the English Revolution are his ideal. The Carlyle portrait is the most prominent feature of his drawing room, and when visitors go to Chequers for the week-end he always takes them through the church where John Hampden lies buried, or to William Penn's cottage, both of which are in the neighborhood.
They say MacDonald is a rebel; he is nothing of the kind; he is a leader; he is of the stuff that leaders are made of. Power is to him as the breath of his nostrils.
He is a man who must always be on top. In whatever position he has found himself he has risen immediately. The fact that he cannot stand criticism, and that interference wounds him, has made him many enemies among his own party; also his inability to suffer fools gladly. Now Ramsay MacDonald, for the second time in his career, has gone out into the wilderness. He has found freedom at last. You must realize the extent to which he is hated by the Conservatives in order to appreciate the courage of his position in leading a Nationalist Ministry. The Tory is a good hater-I am a Tory myself, so I know (laughter)-and they have never forgiven or forgotten his attitude in the war. The Liberals have no use for him, either; they fear him. To use a political simile, Labour caught the Liberals bathing and ran away with their clothes. In other words, the Labour platform contains everything the Liberals have to offer the working man. Therefore, Ramsay MacDonald must of necessity try to find his way among his former enemies and present friends by whom he is surrounded. At sixty-five he is facing a new career. I would like to read you a sentence of a radio address he made: "I have given my life to building up the Labour party. I was present at its birth. I was its nurse when it emerged from infancy and attained adult years. At this moment I have changed none of my beliefs and ideals. It is said I have no Labour Party credentials for what I am doing. I do not have them but I am certain that, in the interest of the working class, I ought to. But I do have credentials of even higher authority. My credentials are those of National duty. I obey them irrespective of the consequences." (Applause).
Now, gentlemen, I want to tell you, in a few words, about Stanley Baldwin. The point to be constantly remembered is that he is English of the English; the reason he makes so many blunders is that he is English (Laughter); they say of him that he is the only man in England who knows that Baldwin is always right. (Laughter). He is one of those men to whom the camera does no justice, for he is a redheaded man gone white. His firm is Baldwin & Sons, with the father at its head. For the greater part of his life he was unknown to the British public. He was too old to fight in the war, and too valuable as an employer in the making of munitions, to be spared. It irked him to be making money out of the Empire, and he handed one-sixth of his income as a gift to the nation. (Applause). The mistakes Mr. Baldwin makes are of the heart rather than of the head. His friends say that he is honest; his enemies say he is pig-headed; the truth lies somewhere between those two extremes. He has been amazingly lucky in stepping into a dead man's shoes. When poor Bonar Law-that great Canadian-took office as the Premier of Britain in 1922, he was destined to lay down the office within a few months because he was dying of cancer. The choice of a successor lay between Neville Chamberlain and Walter Long. Neither could be agreed on, and the choice came to Baldwin. He was chosen because of his honesty, and because he had no axe to grind. He is the kind of man who seems to act from conscience rather than from expediency; therefore his critics say he is not nearly enough of a partisan. One instance of this is his quarrel with the great press lords--your Lord Beaverbrook and my Lord Rothermere. Mr. Baldwin says he will not permit press dictatorship, but I think a shrewder man would have realized that the man who quarrels with a newspaper has the wrong end of the stick. (Laughter). They say he is in the grip of the party machine; that the old gang and those who sit in the back, whom nobody hears about, get all the best jobs and the easiest seats, and that the young men who should be in the Conservative Party are driven to Labour as offering a better chance of a political career. One of those young men is Mr. Baldwin's own son, who was with me in the Irish Guards; the last time I saw him was in the House of Commons when his father called him away, and I was treated to the spectacle of the ex-Prime Minister of the Conservative Party and his son Oliver, the Socialist, walking away together.
Mr. Baldwin, as you know" is Rudyard Kipling's first cousin. He has all Kipling's intense love of literature. His speeches show a rich, well-cultivated mind. He is a godsend to writers, because reading is his great occupation. On one occasion I was at the Travelers' Club in London, and Mr. Baldwin, who was about to take office for the second time, was there. Somebody started talking about the war, and I was airing my opinion that in the future war would be one of the things about which people would fight as they did in the old days about religion. Mr. Baldwin listened, and then took me by the shoulder and said, "Why do you bother you head about politics? Go away and write another thriller, and let us take our minds off this unpleasant topic." (Laughter).
Well, gentlemen" there you have the figures of the three men who are endeavouring to save England at the present time-The King, the present Prime Minister, and the Conservative Leader. Each of them in his own way has shown his willingness to subordinate his own interests to those of the country. The thought of these men at the helm brings to mind the words of our English poet, however hackneyed; they are truer today than they ever were:-
Nought shall make us rue
If England to herself do rest but true. (Loud applause).
President Stapells voiced the thanks of the audience for the inspiring address.