Stanley Baldwin, unfairly vilified pragmatist

A leader of great personal qualities

In Praise of Sacred Cows

This article is taken from the February 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

A few years after he had retired, Stanley Baldwin was travelling on a packed train. He was in his seventies, lame and arthritic, but forced to stand because nobody would give up their seat for him. Enoch Powell famously observed that all political lives end in failure, but “Honest Stanley” suffered more than his fair share of ignominy and disgrace. 

He was the dominant political figure of the 1920s and 30s. He led the Conservative party for fourteen years, and fought five general elections. In each of those elections, the Conservatives won the largest share of votes, even when they could not form a government. He was prime minister on three separate occasions.  

He proved remarkably popular through troubled times, and yet in retirement was vilified for Britain’s failure to rearm against the rising threat of the Nazis.

He did not deserve this fate. For a start, this was a man who as Financial Secretary to the Treasury in 1919 privately donated a fifth of his personal fortune to help the government pay off war debts. That figure, £120,000, would now be worth nearly £5 million. And his subsequent career shows a remarkable record of achievement under difficult circumstances. 

Perhaps his greatest service to the nation was engineering Edward VIII’s eviction from the throne and replacing him with George VI. Given Edward’s attitude to the Nazis, you might call this a preparation for war. 

Baldwin’s personal qualities made him ideally suited to the Abdication crisis. He was tactful and emollient with the King, but also kept a close eye on public opinion. Faced with support for Edward in the Commons, he told MPs to spend a weekend visiting pubs and clubs in their constituencies. By the following Monday, opposition had largely evaporated. 

These personal qualities were both a strength and a weakness. He was a manager rather than a charismatic leader in the style of Lloyd George or Churchill. He picked the right people, and then largely told them to get on with it, intervening only occasionally when disputes arose. 

Yet it worked. The flamboyant and unpredictable lawyer Lord Birkenhead, not a natural ally of Baldwin, praised this quality. On retiring as India Secretary in 1928, he wrote: “Your own personality has converted a cabinet, which assembled on the crater of some bitter and recent memories, into a band of brothers”. 

Baldwin could also be decisive when necessary. His rise to power really began when in 1922 he helped to outmanoeuvre Lloyd George, itself no mean feat. 

He was President of the Board of Trade in Lloyd George’s cabinet, but resigned in disgust at the Prime Minister’s corruption. Later he made what has been described as the decisive speech at the famous Carlton Club meeting in which Conservative MPs ended the wartime coalition. Andrew Bonar Law became prime minister, and appointed Baldwin as his chancellor. A year later, Bonar Law’s poor health forced him into retirement and Baldwin got the top job. 

Prime Minister Baldwin suited the times. He offered reassurance after the suffering of the First World War. While there was political turmoil across Europe, he offered the message of safety first. 

In fact, safety first might well have been his only clear policy

In fact, safety first might well have been his only clear policy. He was not an idealogue but a pragmatist. On trade policy, he wavered between acceptance of for free trade and support for protection. 

He didn’t appear to be deeply interested in foreign policy, which he left largely to his ministers. It is a fair criticism that his main interest in Europe was a six-week annual walking holiday in the French town of Aix-les-Bains. 

His main achievements were domestic. He should be given credit for ending the General Strike after just nine days. It was his government which in 1928 finally gave women the vote on the same terms as men, by lowering the female voting age from 30 to 21.

Thanks to Baldwin’s government, divorced women were also allowed for the first time to have custody of their children. 

Reforms to housing and welfare — pushed through by Neville Chamberlain, another figure whose reputation did not survive the war — lead to reductions in absolute poverty and inequality. 

It is perhaps little wonder that the Conservatives enjoyed great working class support during this period, despite the rise of the Labour party. 

Modern historians are more sympathetic to Baldwin, even on disarmament. Political opinion in the 1930s was against rearmament. During a 1933 by-election at East Fulham, Labour’s leader, George Lansbury, sent this extraordinary message to voters: “I would close every recruiting station, disband the Army and disarm the Air Force. I would abolish the whole dreadful equipment of war.” Labour won by nearly 5,000 votes, overturning a Tory majority of 14,531.

Bill Deedes, a former Tory minister and later editor of the Daily Telegraph, was a reporter on the Morning Post at the time. He recalled: “There was not a cat in hell’s chance of persuading this country to enter an arms race with Germany.” 

And yet Baldwin still found a way to expand the RAF. Plans for further rearmament were announced in a defence white paper in March 1935. 

In November of that year, there was a general election in which Labour accused Baldwin – now leading the Conservatives in a National Government alongside two groups of breakaway “National Labour” and Liberal politicians —of war-mongering. But the country’s mood seemed to have changed, and the government won a 247 majority. 

One of the secrets of Baldwin’s success was his flair for presentation. He was the age of radio’s first prime minister, and made great use of the medium, inventing the “fireside chat” style of delivery that was used to such great effect later by FDR and Ronald Reagan. 

Like Harold Wilson, he used his pipe as a prop while making speeches. He thought this so important that he used to practise in front of the mirror to ensure that he was holding the pipe at the most reassuring angle.  

Despite this gift for public relations, there were still parts of the country that remained untouched by his message. 

He was in his second term as Prime Minister when he was tapped on the knee by a fellow train passenger. “You are Baldwin, aren’t you?” the stranger said. “You were at Harrow in ’84.” 

The prime minister admitted as much, and the two men resumed the journey in respectful silence until the stranger tapped him on the knee again. 

“Tell me,” he said. “What are you doing these days?”

At least Stanley could be sure of a seat back then.

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