An average MP; Oliver Baldwin: a life of dissent Christopher J Walke

New Statesman
March 29, 2004

An average MP; Oliver Baldwin: a life of dissent Christopher J Walker

Arcadia Books, 355pp, GBP12.99 ISBN 1900850869

by Andrew Lycett

Photographed in flowing Coronation robes in 1953, Oliver Baldwin
looked like a portly grandee in one of his favourite Gilbert and
Sullivan operettas. His Ruritanian features masked the sad, decent,
homosexual son of the inter-war Conservative prime minister.

For six decades Baldwin fils laboured at soldiering, journalism and
politics, and for a short, hilarious time he became governor general
of the Leeward Islands. But his troubled, rebellious temperament
ensured that he never enjoyed the glittering prizes for which he
seemed destined.

His difficulties surfaced at Eton, which he loathed for its cruel
snobberies. He could not wait to leave school and sign up for the
First World War. But his experience of the trenches confirmed his
independent streak. He returned with the belief that humanity should
live in harmony. Perhaps suffering from shell shock, he dropped out,
joining the Comrades of the Great War (a forerunner of the British
Legion) in the forlorn hope that the group might initiate social

He found liberation in the sunshine and Arab culture of North Africa.
A chance meeting in Alexandria inspired him to accept a job as an
infantry instructor in beleaguered Armenia, which had gained
independence from the Turks in May 1918. No sooner had he arrived in
Yerevan in late 1920 than the weak social democrat government
crumpled and Baldwin was imprisoned by pro-Bolshevik putschists.

He was freed in a counter-revolution a few months later, but while
travelling home he was arrested again by the Turks who, angry at his
espousal of the Armenian cause, accused him of spying for the
Soviets. The jail conditions were, if anything, worse, and execution
a daily threat.

Despite a brief, unconvincing engagement, he opted after his release
to live with Johnnie Boyle, a charming ne’er-do-well who had run a
tea shop. The couple set up home in Oxfordshire, where they raised
turkeys, welcomed guests such as Beverley Nichols, and referred
devotedly to each other as ‘koot’ – apparently after the phrase
‘queer as a coot’. Walker describes their domestic life as ‘one of
gentle, amicable, animal-loving primitive homosexual socialism’.

Baldwin began taking socialism seriously. He joined the Labour Party
and, after a false start, won seats at Dudley and later Paisley. An
average MP, he was better known for his journalism, incongruously
using the Rothermere press to propagate an anti-fascist message. He
also wrote books about Armenia, politics and a curious novel called
The Coming of Aissa, which emphasised the socialistic leanings of
Jesus within an agnostic, Asian, neoplatonic context.

Baldwin’s service in the Second World War is best skimmed over. He
found a berth in the Middle East in a propaganda job that Walker
insists had intelligence links. His claim to fame was (shades of the
Americans in Panama) to run a loudspeaker unit that tried to win over
enemy waverers by blasting out broadcasts on the battlefield in

Returning to politics, he was made a peer – for no better reason, one
suspects, than that the Labour Party needed bodies in the Lords. But
before he could take his seat (uniquely, he would have sat opposite
his father in both houses of parliament), the old man died and Oliver
was elevated as the 2nd Earl Baldwin.

When he went to the Leeward Islands in 1948 he took two male friends
(one as private secretary, the other as butler) and ran an
egregiously camp governor’s household. The plantocracy was soon
complaining about foibles such as skinny-dipping with visiting
sailors. One woman alerted the Colonial Office to his enthusiasm for
steel bands with such butch-sounding names as Brute Force. She feared
that Baldwin might turn these into paramilitary units to overthrow
the constitution.

But Baldwin’s real sin, epitomised in a speech in which he quoted
from the Mahabharata, was to foster a sense of multiracial
inclusiveness. After a politi- cal storm, he was recalled to London
to explain. The colonial secretary decided to defuse matters by
sending the governor back. But his career was finished.

Walker is alert to the comedy and pathos of this intriguing slice of
alternative history. He writes crisply and sympathetically, although
a sense of his ennui occasionally intrudes. He has access to good
primary material, including letters that show his father and mother
affectionately and rather nobly coping with his ‘dissidence’ (the
author’s own word). Walker might however have made more effort to
flesh out his account from other sources, such as Turkish archives.

Ultimately, one must weigh up whether this biography of a lightweight
is worth reading as a political or even as a human-interest tale. It
scores on both counts.

Andrew Lycett’s most recent book is Dylan Thomas: a new life
(Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

Emil Lazarian

“I should like to see any power of the world destroy this race, this small tribe of unimportant people, whose wars have all been fought and lost, whose structures have crumbled, literature is unread, music is unheard, and prayers are no more answered. Go ahead, destroy Armenia . See if you can do it. Send them into the desert without bread or water. Burn their homes and churches. Then see if they will not laugh, sing and pray again. For when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a New Armenia.” - WS