Sometimes Scandal Can Improve a Prospective PM, as Shown by Stanley Baldwin's School-Time Porn Drama

By Joseph Hayes on at

Stanley Baldwin might not be a name that comes to mind when you think of prime ministers, not like Churchill or Disraeli anyway. Yet Baldwin helped define the interwar period of the 1920s and ‘30s, and proved himself to be one of the most powerful figures in British politics. Baldwin led his party to victory three times, and was even powerful enough to cause Churchill to hesitate to take him on politically. 

Despite this success Baldwin was continually haunted by a scandal throughout his life, one of which involved porn of all things. Baldwin’s porn problem would disturb him all his life, though it would eventually drive him on to become Prime Minister. The pornographic episode seems to have shaped Baldwin’s character in what ended in some quite constructive ways for what now seems like an absurd and silly event.

The drama began when Baldwin was relatively young. Baldwin attended Harrow school where he created some pornographuc material that he then sent onto his cousin at Eton. It was the latter thing that got him in hot water, and he was beaten for it by the head of the school. All accounts of this incident agree that Baldwin was caught sending porn, however the extent and scale are varied and rather colourful. As is the question of whether Baldwin was a repeat offender. 

One account has that it was a “pornographic letter”, while a 1980’s BBC publication claims that it was “letters” in the plural. Some say it was only a “piece of pornography”, while at the other end the fantastically titled Unauthorised Autobiography of Lancelot Hogben asserts that Baldwin had sent a whole book. Some meanwhile have alluded to ridiculous concerns Baldwin might somehow cause the whole country to turn pornographic. 

The most extreme account is perhaps that it was a “cache” of porn which makes it sound like Baldwin was storing up an industrial supply of the stuff.  Stanley Baldwin’s son Arthur Baldwin later had the awkward task of writing about his dad’s porn stash and states that not only was the naughty material only a “piece” but that it was supposedly supplied by a friend. 

The response of the headmaster, one Dr Montagu Butler, has been seen as massively over the top by historian Roy Jenkins.  Ordinarily this wouldn’t have been a life wrecking ordeal, and Baldwin’s dad certainly thought the headmaster made too much of a fuss. As historian Peter Neville comments lots of people like Baldwin had bad school days. Unfortunately for Baldwin, Butler then followed him to Cambridge to upset his university days as well, although as Jeremy Dobson notes this might not have been the main cause of Baldwin’s misery. 

Montagu Butler seems to have been somewhat of a hypocrite, for all of his self-righteousness over Baldwin he did a rather scandalous thing himself - marrying a former student during his tenure as master of Trinity College. A former student who was half his age, and could count as breach of duty of care to say the very least. Nonetheless, Baldwin perhaps understandably wasn’t thrilled when he encountered Butler at Cambridge and it caused his grades to plummet

Baldwin was not a saint and neither were his peers, this is reflected in the Baldwin Papers collated letters and documents. These are replete with passages containing insults about other politicians describing one Arthur Henderson as an “ass” who was a “stupid conceited man”. There are also observations of the drunkenness of one of the chancellors of the exchequer, the describing of the Greeks as “bastards” and accounts of the sordid mind of previous Prime Minister David Lloyd George referred to in the Papers as “the Goat” who was a notorious womaniser

Baldwin would however become a highly effective and innovative politician, he used every medium technologically available to him to reach a wide audience and win elections.  Anne Perkins notes that Baldwin skilfully put on a wholesome country image to help navigate along the corridors of power. Baldwin would go onto be selected as Conservative party leader in 1923 and then win a thunderous majority in 1924.

Yet, Baldwin’s earlier porn drama would continue to shape him and, bizarre as it might sound, contributed to some of his achievements. Historian Peter Neville highlights the humiliating experience left Baldwin with strong feelings against authoritarianism. This would stand him in good stead against the fascism and right wing extremism that was creeping into Britain at the time.

Baldwin had no time for Oswald Mosley, the fascist figure of the time, referring to him as a “cad and a wrong un”. Baldwin’s party would see off the dangerous extremism of Mosley keeping him out of Parliament in 1924. Indeed,  Baldwin would help stop Mosley’s extremism and bigotry consistently stopping Mosley from getting a foothold into power. In a sense then, Britain has porn to thank for helping to curb the hatred that Mosley embodied. 

On the matter of pornography itself however, Baldwin was seemingly a hypocrite. He had enabled his home secretary in the confiscation of books that were deemed “obscene” such as Radclyffe Hall’s, The Well of Loneliness. Maybe this was out of a sense of guilt from his early pornographic escapade, or maybe Baldwin was just a nosy spoil sport. Either way, the initiative was a long-term failure and, as expected, just made the demand for such “obscene literature” increase.

Baldwin had increasing problems in his personal life however, including an increased fatigue and feelings he was unworthy of the position he held. Baldwin has long been subject to mental health problems such as generalised anxiety disorder as well as a “tic disorder”. As Professor Jonathan Davidson, an expert on the mental health of historical prime ministers, notes in an email about Baldwin, “I doubt the pornographic literature episode was too damaging in the long term. However, the fallout and parental disapproval may have been fuel for his innate anxiety”.

It seems that to some extent Baldwin’s porn problem had hung over him socially, although it might not have been the soul destroying experience that some early authors on Baldwin claimed the ordeal to be.

Despite his own problems, Baldwin managed to continue to serve at the top of government and also to tackle the country’s problems. This was seen in perhaps one of the biggest dramas of the time, over the abdication of King Edward VIII and ensuring that the changeover to George VI went as smoothly as possible. It was after this that Baldwin achieved what perhaps all prime ministers want but few get: a happy ending.

Professor Davidson comments that while the country might have been facing an increasing crisis, especially in foreign policy, Baldwin was still able to depart from the prime ministerial position in a blaze of glory. After all he had got Britain through a constitutional crisis involving the British Royal Family itself, surely everything was coming up roses?

But Baldwin’s reputation could not last, especially once the Second World War began. This was seen with the publication of the damning book Guilty Men during the war by CATO a group that included later Labour leader Michael Foot. 

The book charged that the incompetence of the now Lord Baldwin, along with others, had left Britain ill prepared for the war. It meant that Baldwin wouldn’t now be remembered as someone who had peddled in porn but far worse - someone who had failed Britain as a whole. However, rather suitably the book Guilty Men was likened to a pornographic classic in how readers snatched it up.

Overall, Baldwin’s porn drama might seem petty and silly, but it always seemed to be in the back of his mind to try to live up to, and regain a standard he had broken when caught with it. Baldwin did eventually get his own back on the headmaster,  having risen to a social position above him, though he encountered the master later and handled this with grace.  Nonetheless, no overall mention of prime minister Stanley Baldwin’s legacy is complete without mentioning porn.