Stanley Baldwin Toast: ‘secret curiosity’

By Chris McCarthy

Long may it be before the rich gift of our people for vivid word-making is sterilised by what for the want of a better word we call today, education.

Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, 6 June 1928

The art of oratory has been a powerful skill since man first learnt to speak. It has mobilised armies, launched wars, reconciled divided peoples, established statehood, and shaken religions. Demand for this valued craft will never diminish, though the quality of its supply will remain variable. When we think of gifted twentieth century speakers, figures such as British wartime leader, Winston Churchill, and U.S. President, John F. Kennedy, are commonly cited. The circumstances of their times was one of the major reasons their speeches were so well received. But both also understood and valued the importance of language and would frequently devote hours, days, and weeks, refining, redrafting and developing their speeches.

For other public figures the skill of oratory has not been their finest asset, despite their sometimes earnest efforts to acquire or improve it. Others have been suspicious, almost contemptuous of rhetoric: a Trojan horse that flatters to deceive. Britain’s dominant inter-war politician and three-time Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, was candid about his deficiencies as a speaker. Addressing the Cambridge Union in March 1924, he acknowledged he was neither a rhetorician nor an orator despite enjoying reading speeches. His reservations about oratory* arose from his believe that “to tell the truth needs no art at all”.

There is a difference, however, between a reluctant speaker and an incapable one. In an address at the Goldsmiths’ Hall in London in June 1928, then-Prime Minister Baldwin was tasked with a toast to William Craigie, the foremost lexicographer of his day. At the time he was working on a four-volume supplement to the immense Oxford English Dictionary. Some of the country’s finest literary scholars were assembled to hear Baldwin give a humourous, warm and playful speech that demonstrated a masterly command of words and syntax.

The opening set the tone for the speech – jocular, flattering, and deferential:

I have spoken at many dinners – I have never been allowed to dine without speaking – but I have never risen under such a feeling of oppression and depression as I do tonight, partly by the weight of learning in this room and partly by the weight of the toast which I have to propose.

Occasionally during the speech the words feel strained as Baldwin endeavours to ensure the address was commensurate with the vast knowledge and skilled minds of the assembled guests: “Unrivalled in completeness and unapproachable in authority is the Oxford Dictionary; as near infallibility, indeed, as we can hope to get this side of Rome.”Mostly, however, his language is appropriate, and once into his stride he allows himself the opportunity to show-off, albeit in the self-deprecating style that would endear him to the audience:

Sir, not even Gladstone in the plenitude of his power and with the pomp of his polysyllables could have done justice to that subject [paying tribute to Professor Craigie] in anything less than a rectorial address; my task is to put what I have to say on one of his postcards, and with all my well-known love of monosyllables I cannot do it.

In this next extract he pays tribute to the great intellectuals who have worked either directly on the Oxford English Dictionary or in the general field of literary scholasticism. It’s also worth recognising that while the language can appear archaic and grand, in its contemporary setting, with the British Empire at its territorial zenith albeit under strain, it was perfectly judged:

They have uncovered their origins; they have dissolved their metaphors; they have unwrapped and exposed mummies; and they have laid bare in their work the soul of England and the mind of our people for a score of generations.

The themes of recognition and appreciation emerge, quite appropriately, several times in the toast. The most elegant illustration contains a couple of memorable and wonderfully-crafted phrases: “I wonder if you realise, living in a haunt of learning, how much secret curiosity, in the work of dictionaries exists among those whom some would call our common people.”

He reinforces his point with a recent anecdotal exchange with a taxi driver. Enquiring as to when a dictionary of “marine slang” Baldwin eluded to a couple of days earlier would be published, the Prime Minister replied he was unsure – the idea of a mariners dictionary was a throwaway idea rather than firm announcement – but told the driver he didn’t suppose it could teach him anything anyway. “Well I don’t know,” he replied, “but I should like to see it.” And there, Baldwin concluded, spoke the “love of learning.”

A great speech does not have to launch an armada or abolish apartheid. The context in which it is delivered will determine to a large degree how successful the address is but it is a craft like any other. It can be developed or neglected, there are a multitude of techniques or tricks, and as with any skill it can be perpetually refined. Baldwin was not renowned for his oratory and he would soon be eclipsed anyway by the bombastic rhetoric of Churchill. But he appreciated the power of words, so much so that he worried about their pernicious effects. In this speech, however, he demonstrated a consummate command of an enduring craft. His closing remarks encapsulate nearly all the attributes that made this toast so successful:

They have laboured so well that, so far from lowering the high standard with which the work began, they have sought to raise it as the work advanced. They have given us of their best. There can be no worldly recompense.

____

 *Later in his address to the union he describes rhetoric as “one of the greatest dangers of modern civilization” responsible for launching the French and Russian revolutions.

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