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Nigel Jones: How the Tory leadership could emulate Stanley Baldwin in sugaring the austerity pill

Picture 1 Nigel Jones is a historian, biographer and journalist.

There are two things that are absolutely certain about this election: whoever wins it is going to have to make swingeing, nay savage, spending cuts to bring down Britain's ruinous, and ever-ballooning debt levels. And an increasingly desperate Labour will again play the class war card to smear David Cameron and George Osborne as comfortable, privileged upper-class chaps insulated by their wealth from the pain produced by the cuts that the rest of us will feel.

I propose a cunning plan that would, at a stroke, defuse this potentially toxic issue, and set a shining example of rectitude and self-sacrifice to the nation at a time when we are already feeling bruised by the economic pinch before the real blows have even begun to rain down. How would it be if David Cameron and George Osborne donated a fifth of their income accrued over the course of this discredited Parliament towards reducing Britain's debt?

I hear your mocking laughter already. But before you start rolling about on the floor, listen up. There is a good Tory historical precedent for the sacrificial act that I am suggesting. In June 1919, then as now,  Britain was on the ropes. We had just emerged from the bloodiest and most costly war in history - the Great War - which had not only taken the lives of almost a million of the British Empire's finest young men, but had left the nation floundering in deep debt.

The Financial Secretary of the Treasury in Lloyd George's coalition government at the time was an obscure and relatively recently elected Tory, one Stanley Baldwin, a moderately wealthy Worcestershire ironmaster. Acutely conscious both of the nation's sacrifice in blood and treasure; and that he himself had been a tad too old to fight, Baldwin resolved to set an example to other politicians. He had a low opinion of his fellow MPs anyway, famously describing the post-war House of Commons as "A lot of hard-faced men who look as if they had done very well out of the war".

Baldwin, after complaining that 'Everybody is out for what they can get. It makes me sick' - decided to do something about the prevailing climate of grab and greed. So he wrote to The Times under the transparent pseudonym 'F.S.T.' saying that he had decided to unburden himself of a large chunk of the profits that his family firm had made - largely from Government war contracts - during the four years that the conflict had lasted. He calculated the sum at £580,000 - which is more than £14 million in today's values. As a 'thanksgiving offering' for the arrival of peace, he concluded, he was donating a fifth of this sum - £120,000 or nearly £3 million today - towards paying off Britain's War Debt. By doing so, he added, he was showing how the 'wealthy classes' could revive the spirit of 'unity and fellowship' that had carried the nation to victory in the war, thus placing 'Love of country before love of money'.

Baldwin's selfless gesture did his political career a power of good. Four years later, in 1923, Conservative Central Office discreetly leaked the fact that the philanthropist 'FST' and the new Tory Prime Minister were one and the same person.  Baldwin's public image became that of an unselfish man who had set his face against the gross inequalities in class and wealth that disfigured inter-war Britain. It was this image that helped Baldwin to serve three stints as Prime Minister between the wars, successfully negotiating such crises as the General Strike of 1926, the Great Depression of 1931 and King Edward VIII's Abdication of 1936.

Nor was Baldwin's sacrifice an empty PR gesture. Shares in his family firm subsequently fell in value by a fifth; he was forced to sell his London home, and he was only able to remain in politics thanks to the financial support of his family and friends. As much of the nation queued for the Dole, their Prime Minister knew how it felt to be (relatively) poor - and won huge respect for it.

We can measure how far we have travelled in the ninety years since Baldwin's gesture by the fact that such an unselfish sacrifice - especially from a politician - would be almost unthinkable in our materialist, consumerist and deeply cynical society today. But think what an impact would be made if the unthinkable actually happened. A similar act on the part of David Cameron and George Osborne would electrify Britain and mortify Labour at one and the same time.

It would show Britain that their potential leaders - like Baldwin - were conscious both of their own privileges and of the parlous state of the nation and were ready to put 'love of country above love of money'. It would say to us: "Times are tough, but we are - we really are - all in this together. We won't ask you to do what we won't do ourselves." It would be a dramatic, even courageous, act - but it would do much to purge voters' resentment at the corrupt, money-grubbing of this rotten Parliament exposed by the expenses scandal. So, David and George - why not put your money where your mouths are?


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