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Stanley Baldwin

Prime Minister 1923, 1924 - 29, and 1935 - 37

Stanley Baldwin was born 3rd August 1867, son of Alfred Baldwin, an iron master. After Harrow and Trinity College, Cambridge, Stanley joined the family business and did not become an MP until he was 41. Once in government his business experience was put to work as financial secretary to the Treasury in 1916, and then president of the Board of Trade in 1921. At the Board of Trade he got on with things like extending the use of statistical information, and the organisation of merchandising marks. It was quiet work, done while Lloyd George was governing in his more heroic style. Prime Ministers in the heroic crusading mould did not naturally warm to Baldwin. Winston Churchill called pawns on a chessboard "Baldwins".

 

The idea of dramatic individual leadership was rather alien to Baldwin. Unlikely as it may seem he was similar in outlook to the flamboyant Disraeli, another non-crusader, who had to deal with crusaders all around him. What Disraeli said of Robert Peel, Baldwin could have said of Lloyd George: "He is so vain that he wants to figure in history as the settler of all the great questions; but a parliamentary constitution is not favourable for such ambitions; things must be done by parties, not by persons using parties as tools" (quoted by Robert Blake in Disraeli P223). During the First World War, and its immediate aftermath, the war itself gave unity, and Lloyd George could rule without any particular party support. He was a virtual individual dictator ruling over a coalition government. But by 1922 the situation had changed. A peacetime prime minister had to work for unity. First Andrew Bonar Law did this as prime minister for a few months after the resignation of Lloyd George in 1922. But Bonar Law succumbed to illness, and it was Baldwin who took over in 1923 for an initial short period in office. The general election of 1924 saw the Liberal and Labour parties with more seats combined than the Conservative Party. This led briefly to the first Labour government under Ramsay Macdonald, which soon fell victim to anti-Russian sentiment. Baldwin then returned as prime minister, with a huge majority, and remained in office 1924 - 1929.

 

Baldwin now presided over a cabinet with many impressive names - Winston Churchill, Lord Curzon, Arthur Balfour, Austen and Neville Chamberlain amongst them. In a very real sense Baldwin acted as a figurehead for this strong willed and potentially turbulent group of men. The apparently heroic leadership of Lloyd George was a thing of the past. Lord Eustace Parry, minister for education, wrote that Baldwin's style of government was to create a supportive environment for others to work in. This support "contributed more to their very solid achievement than any attempt he could have made to alloy their policies with bright ideas of his own in the Lloyd George manner" (Lord Eustace Perry Some Memories P128). Baldwin accepted the limitations of his role. In a thoughtful speech to artists at the Royal Academy he said: "Your instruments, by which you work, are dumb - pencils and paints. Ours are neither dumb nor inert. I often think we rather resemble Alice in Wonderland, who tried to play croquet with a flamingo instead of a mallet" (quoted by Keith Middlemas in The Prime Ministers P256).

 

Hurricane, Chapel le Ferne

A Hurricane at the Battle of Britain Memorial - the RAF that won the Battle of Britain was largely the work of Baldwin's government

Baldwin's government faced considerable economic problems through the 1920s. Many heavy industries employing thousands of people were in decline. Baldwin hoped that these industries could be streamlined, made more efficient, and so raise wages for those who worked in them. But there was much pain along the way, with a crisis coming in 1926 with the General Strike. Exhaustion, particularly in the wake of the General Strike was followed by defeat for the Conservative Party in the 1929 election. But this wasn't the end of Baldwin's career. He agreed to serve in Macdonald's coalition "national government" of 1931, and became prime minister for a third time 1935 - 1937. He took the question of Indian independence as his personal issue, and in promoting the idea he came closer to crusading fervour than at any other time in his career. Rebels against plans for Indian independence led by Churchill were fought with determined energy. Baldwin was also determined in his insistence that Germany was an emerging threat, and that Britain should rearm to face it. Scheme F, adopted in January 1936 resulted in the RAF receiving 8000 new aircraft of the latest types, including Spitfires and Hurricanes. Little of this was remembered in the war years, when the idea of Churchill personally coming to save Britain was required. As in the First World War it was necessary to have the impression of strong leadership. A huge cult of personality built up around Churchill. A consequence of this was the neglect of Baldwin's contribution. The RAF that won the Battle of Britain was largely the result of the work done by Baldwin's government.

 

Baldwin reached the end of his energy in 1936, and if it had not been for the crisis of Edward VIII's abdication, retirement would probably have been gratefully accepted that year. But with a new king causing all kinds of difficulties, stepping down was deferred until 1937. Stanley Baldwin then retreated into a sad retirement where he became a scapegoat for Britain's weakness in relation to Germany at the beginning of World War Two. He took this injustice quietly. As prime minister he had accepted his limited role, and now in his retirement years he accepted that in wartime leaders had to appear larger than life. Quiet peacetime politicians like him had no place. Stanley Baldwin died in December 1947.

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