In the decades before World War II, Stanley Baldwin was one of the most powerful politicians in the United Kingdom.
He was the leader of Britain’s Conservative Party from 1923 to 1937 and served as Prime Minister three times during those years.
However, in 1931, Baldwin’s control of the Conservative Party was threatened by attacks from the newspapers owned by two wealthy press barons who wanted him ousted, Lord Beaverbrook and Lord Rothermere.
His ability to maintain majority support hinged on whether the March 20th election for the St. George’s Westminster seat in Parliament was won by his supporter, Duff Cooper, or by Beaverbrook and Rothermere’s man, Sir Ernest Petter.
In the weeks leading up to the vote, the Beaverbrook and Rothermere newspapers turned up the heat on Baldwin, hoping to throw the election to Petter.
Among other things, they accused Baldwin of running an “insolent plutocracy” and of being clueless on how to improve the country’s faltering economy.
Three days before the election, on March 17, 1931, Baldwin counterattacked in a public address he gave to voters in St. George’s.
“The newspapers attacking me are not newspapers in the ordinary sense,” Baldwin said. “They are engines of propaganda for the constantly changing policies, desires, personal vices, personal likes and dislikes of the two men. What are their methods? Their methods are direct falsehoods, misrepresentation, half-truths, the alteration of the speaker’s meaning by publishing a sentence apart from the context…What the proprietorship of these papers is aiming at is power, and power without responsibility – the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages.”
Baldwin’s speech was widely reported by British newspapers that weren’t owned by Beaverbrook and Rothermere on the following day. That’s apparently why some books of quotations use March 18, 1931 as the date for his “power without responsibility” quote.
The scathing verbal counterattack on the rich press barons resonated with voters and turned the tide in the local election. Cooper won and Baldwin held on to control of the Conservative Party.
His memorable harlot zinger also became a famous quotation. However, Baldwin didn’t coin it himself.
Ironically, the origin of the quip was a conversation between Kipling and Beaverbrook, who was Kipling’s friend when he was still known by his original name, Max Aitken, and not yet a British Lord.
Baldwin’s son Oliver recounted the story in 1971, in an address to members of the Kipling Society:
“As told me by my father…Kipling was attracted by the charm and enthusiasm of a rich young Canadian imperialist whose name was Max Aitken, later to become Lord Beaverbrook. They became friends. When Aitken acquired the Daily Express his political views seemed to Kipling to become more and more inconsistent, and one day Kipling asked him what he was really up to. Aitken is supposed to have replied: ‘What I want is power. Kiss ‘em one day and kick ‘em the next’ and so on. ‘I see’, said Kipling, ‘Power without responsibility – the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages.’ So, many years later, when [Stanley] Baldwin deemed it necessary to deal sharply with such lords of the press, he obtained leave of his cousin to borrow that telling phrase.”
Kipling’s famed definition of power without responsibility is still cited and repurposed today. To read some witty modern uses, see this post on the QUOTECOUNTERQUOTE.com blog.
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