Power Without Responsibility — The Prerogative of the Harlot Throughout the Ages

Stanley Baldwin? Rudyard Kipling? Arthur W. Baldwin? Benjamin Disraeli? Tom Stoppard? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: In the 1930s British politician Stanley Baldwin reacted with anger when he read a claim that he considered defamatory in the pages of a popular newspaper. Shortly afterward he delivered a speech accusing the U.K. press barons of wielding power without responsibility, and he employed a mordant analogy that compared his antagonists to harlots.

Some claim that the famous English author Rudyard Kipling supplied this analogy to Stanley Baldwin who was his cousin. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: Stanley Baldwin delivered a speech to a full house of supporters at Queen’s Hall, London on March 17, 1931. Several newspapers reported on the event including the “The Lancashire Daily Post” of Preston, 1 the “Liverpool Echo” of Liverpool, 2 and “The Times” of London. The start of Baldwin’s oration included some praise for U.K. newspapers: 3

Let me begin by saying that the Press of Great Britain is the admiration of the world for its fairness, the ability with which it is conducted, and the high principles of journalism to which it adheres.

Yet, Baldwin’s plaudits were not universal. He criticized the newspapers of two powerful press barons:

The papers conducted by Lord Rothermere and Lord Beaverbrook are not newspapers in the ordinary acceptance of the term. (Cheers.) They are engines of propaganda for the constantly changing policies, desires, personal wishes, personal likes and dislikes of two men. (Loud cheers.)

Baldwin admitted that he had used the stinging description “insolent plutocracy”. He then presented the recent harsh response to his words that was printed in the “Daily Mail”:

“These expressions come ill from Mr. Baldwin, since his father left him an immense fortune, which, so far as may be learned from his own speeches, has almost disappeared. It is difficult to see how the leader of a party who has lost his own fortune can hope to restore that of anyone else or of his country.”

Baldwin said that the claims in the “Daily Mail” were false:

The first part of that statement is a lie, and the second part of that statement by its implication is untrue. The paragraph itself could only have been written by a cad.

Baldwin employed the quotation under examination while condemning the press barons. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:

What the proprietorship of these papers is aiming at is power, and power without responsibility—the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages.

The most detailed evidence that Rudyard Kipling supplied the statement about prerogatives to Stanley Baldwin was provided by his son Arthur W. Baldwin in 1971. See the citation presented further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

The expression “power without responsibility” has a very long history. For example, Benjamin Disraeli, another prominent British politician, included the phrase in his 1880 novel “Endymion”: 4

He was delighted with his office; it was much the most important in the government, and more important because it was not in the cabinet. Well managed, it was power without responsibility.

In 1931 Stanley Baldwin delivered a speech containing the quotation as mentioned previously.

In 1955 Arthur W. Baldwin published a biography titled “My Father: The True Story”, and Arthur suggested that the remark about prerogatives was given to his father by Rudyard Kipling: 5

‘What the proprietorship of these papers is aiming at is power without responsibility—the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages.’

I am told that those last eleven words were expressly lent to his cousin for the occasion by Kipling, who had once used them in private himself to one who was explaining his dominating wish to wield power by means of his newspapers.

In 1964 political writer Leon Harris of Dallas, Texas published a piece about speechwriting in the journal “Southwest Review”. Harris also ascribed the remark under scrutiny to Kipling: 6

There are also earlier examples of Tory usage of speechwriters, such as Stanley Baldwin’s famous attack on the press lords: “What the proprietorship of these papers is aiming at is power without responsibility—the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages.” This was written for him by Rudyard Kipling.

In 1969 a columnist in the “Chicago Tribune” attributed the saying to Kipling: 7

“What the proprietorship of these papers is aiming at is power, but power without responsibility—the prerogative of the harlot thruout the ages.”

No cry of censorship was raised against Baldwin. The press lords chose to ignore his attack, especially when the public demonstrated its support of Baldwin by electing Duff Cooper. It is believed the line was given to Baldwin by his cousin, Rudyard Kipling.

In 1971 Arthur W. Baldwin delivered an address to “The Kipling Society” during which he discussed the provenance of the quotation: 8

I have been asked to comment on the suggestion that one of my father’s most pungent phrases from a political speech originated with his cousin; and it may be that some have even searched Kipling’s works for evidence. The phrase I’m referring to is “power without responsibility”, et cetera. This, unlike many an attribution of authorship, happens to be true, and I merely amplify it, if only (as they say) for the record, as told me by my father.

Arthur said that Kipling became friends with Max Aitken who later became Lord Beaverbrook.

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 Baldwin deemed it necessary to deal sharply with such lords of the press, he obtained leave of his cousin to borrow that telling phrase . . .

In 1977 an article in the Chicago Tribune credited Kipling: 9

Henry Fairlie, a noted British journalist and longtime observer of American politics, recently recalled Rudyard Kipling’s comment in an earlier day about excesses of his own journalistic establishment. The British press, Kipling said, was claiming “power without responsibility, the prerogative of the harlot through the ages.”

In 2006 researcher and editor Elizabeth Knowles published “What They Didn’t Say: A Book of Misquotations”. Her entry on this topic pointed to the important 1971 citation. She also mentioned a variant statement by a well-known playwright: 10

Responsibility without power

In Tom Stoppard’s 1966 play Lord Malquist and Mr Moon, the House of Lords is described as representing ‘Responsibility without power, the prerogative of the eunuch throughout the ages’. Stoppard was reworking a phrase, ‘power without responsibility’, coined by an earlier writer, Rudyard Kipling, in relation to the newspaper proprietor Max Aitken, Lord Beaverbrook. It was later borrowed by Kipling’s cousin, Stanley Baldwin.

In conclusion, Stanley Baldwin employed this quotation in 1931, but QI believes Rudyard Kipling should receive credit for the statement about prerogatives based on the testimony of Arthur W. Baldwin in 1955 and 1971.

(Great thanks to researcher Professor W. Joseph Campbell whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Campbell supplied a helpful citation from “The New York Times” dated March 18, 1931 describing Baldwin’s speech together with valuable citations dated November 26, 1969; and July 17, 1977 showing the attribution to Rudyard Kipling.)

Notes:

  1. 1931 March 17, The Lancashire Daily Post, Mr. Baldwin Fearlessly Hits Out At His Critics, Quote Page 5, Column 1, Lancashire, England. (British Newspaper Archive)
  2. 1931 March 17, Liverpool Echo, Mr. Baldwin’s Sensational Speech: Blunt Reply To Peer Critics, Quote Page 12, Column 1 and 2, Liverpool, England. (British Newspaper Archive)
  3. 1931 March 18, The Times, A Vigorous Speech: Mr. Baldwin On Press Interference, Quote Page 18, Column 1 and 2, London, England. (Gale – The Times Digital Archive)
  4. 1880, Endymion by Benjamin Disraeli (Earl of Beaconsfield), Volume 3 of 3, Chapter 6, Quote Page 56, Longmans, Green, and Company, London. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  5. 1955, My Father: The True Story by A. W. Baldwin (Arthur Windham Baldwin), Chapter 10: A Motley of Enemies 1923-1937, Quote Page 161, George Allen & Unwon, London. (Verified with scans)
  6. 1964 Autumn, Southwest Review, Volume 49, Number 4, Speechwriting: British and American by Leon Harris, Start Page 301, Quote Page 305, Published by Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas. (JSTOR) link
  7. 1969 November 26, Chicago Tribune, Washington Report: Agnew’s Views Hardly New by Walter Trohan, Quote Page 20, Column 3, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest)
  8. 1971 December, The Kipling Journal, Volume 38, Number 180, The Unfading Genius of Rudyard Kipling by The Rt. Hon. The Earl Baldwin of Bewdley, (Address delivered at the Kipling Society Luncheon, 5 October 1971), Start Page 4, Quote Page 6, Published by The Kipling Society, London. (Accessed kiplingjournal.com on June 5, 2021) link
  9. 1977 July 17, Chicago Tribune, Congress slips on Korea scandals—and so does the press by Rep. John B. Anderson, Quote Page A4, Column 3 and 5, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest)
  10. 2006, What They Didn’t Say: A Book of Misquotations, Edited by Elizabeth Knowles, Quote Page 96, Oxford University Press, New York. (Verified on paper)