Baldwin, Stanley (1867–1947)

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BALDWIN, STANLEY (1867–1947)

BIBLIOGRAPHY

British politician and the dominant political figure of the interwar British political scene.

The Conservative Party leader from 1923 to 1937, Baldwin served as British prime minister in 1923, from 1924 to 1929, and from 1935 to 1937. In very marked contrast to the popular support he received upon his retirement as prime minister in May 1937, at the time of his death Baldwin's reputation had been severely tarnished by the "Guilty Men" slur attached to those involved in the "appeasement" of the European dictators in the 1930s.

Baldwin was one of the first British politicians who became a recognizable household figure, both visually and audibly, to the new masselectorate. He skillfully utilized the fledgling media of radio and cinema newsreels to communicate with the increasingly urban electorate. As a consequence, during his fourteen years as Conservative leader he always sustained better relations with the wider electorate than he did with his own party. Baldwin successfully created an illusion of himself among the voters by communicating a sense of "Englishness," provincialism and ordinariness that appealed beyond partisan political lines. Sometimes his appeal for ordinariness backfired, as with the 1929 general election when the campaign slogan of "Safety First" failed to inspire electoral support. As prime minister, Baldwin responded to many of the key crises of the interwar era: the General Strike of 1926 and the abdication crisis of 1936–1937. Although he led his party for fourteen years, his relations with it were strained and he failed to impose his authority and vision upon it. The reason he remained leader for so long was because he chose to, not because his party desired it. At this time there existed no formal rules for disposing of a Conservative Party leader.

After an early period in local Worcestershire politics and involvement with the family business, Baldwin inherited his father's Bewdley House of Commons seat when he ran unopposed in 1908. His early Westminster career suggested little of his potential, but the support of the party leader, Andrew Bonar Law (1858–1923), saw Baldwin climb through the ministerial ranks from 1916 onward. His political break came when he opposed the continuation of the Liberal-Conservative coalition of David Lloyd George (1863–1945) in 1922. His reward was the chancellorship of the exchequer, which gave him vital political exposure.

May 1923, ill health obliged Law to retire as Conservative leader and prime minister and Baldwin was asked to succeed. He foolishly decided to call an unnecessary election over tariff reform that resulted in a short-lived minority Labour government. Baldwin's next administration in 1924–1929 saw the return to the gold standard (April 1925), the Pact of Locarno (December 1925), the General Strike (May 1926), and extensive reforms to local government and social service provision. The General Strike was his high point. He successfully rallied party and middle-class opinion against the strike and forced the collapse of the action within a matter of days. He then encountered difficulties restraining the anti–trade union backlash that many in his party favored, which resulted in the 1927 Trade Disputes Act.

Returned to the opposition position in 1929, Baldwin found his leadership under attack from those who favored tariff reform and who were opposed to self-government for India. Stirring the attacks were the newspaper empires of William Maxwell Aitken, 1st Baron Beaverbrook (1879–1964), and Viscount Edmund Cecil Harmsworth Rothermere (1898–1978). The political-economic crisis of 1931 led to the creation of the National Government. Baldwin sensed it provided an opportunity to exclude Lloyd George and might offer a vehicle for more centrist politics. Willingly he took a subordinate position as lord president under the prime ministership of ex-Labour leader James Ramsay MacDonald (1866–1937).

Baldwin once more became prime minister in June 1935, but virtual civil war among the Conservative Party members over the 1935 India bill again threatened his leadership. The turmoil was initially quelled by the November 1935 general election that enabled Baldwin to secure a mandate for the National Government to commence rearmament. Foreign policy, though, largely dominated this period as various crises—such as the German remilitarization of the Rhineland (March 1936)—again questioned his abilities as leader. Baldwin would most likely have chosen to retire in late 1936 had not the abdication crisis, over the desire of Edward VIII (1894–1972) to marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson (1896–1986), delayed his decision. Many considered Baldwin's handling of this crisis to be his greatest political achievement. He retired to the House of Lords as Lord Bewdley in May 1937. Neville Chamberlain (1869–1940) replaced him as prime minister. Baldwin was a political enigma, who successfully engaged with the middle class but who failed to win the devotion of his political party.

See alsoAppeasement; Chamberlain, Neville.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Ball, Stuart. Baldwin and the Conservative Party: The Crisis of 1929–1931. New Haven, Conn., 1988.

Middlemas, Keith, and John Barnes. Baldwin: A Biography. London, 1969.

Williamson, Phillip. Stanley Baldwin: Conservative Leadership and National Values. Cambridge, U.K., 1999.

Nick Crowson