Commenting at the Westminster Abbey funeral in November 1923 of Andrew Bonar Law, who until May that year had been the UK’s prime minister, another ex-PM, the Liberal leader H H Asquith remarked ‘It is fitting that we should have buried the Unknown Prime Minister by the side of the Unknown Soldier‘. Mr Bonar Law had served for just over 200 days before terminal throat cancer led him to quit. At the very least, he had not had nearly enough time to prove himself as a national leader, and is better known today as the Conservative leader who virtually incited a civil war in his country over the Irish Home Rule Crisis of 1912-14. Small wonder, then, that he might also be termed the Unknown Prime Minister, but the epithet might just as easily apply to Bonar Law’s successor, Stanley Baldwin.
Some leaders of different countries are more memorable than others, of course, and Britain is no exception to that rule. Stanley Baldwin’s relative obscurity in terms of 21st-century popular knowledge of British history is surprising, though, given that he was the utterly dominant figure in British politics between the two World Wars. What’s more, after a horrific four-year-long global conflict that cast a long shadow over the country, and amid a precarious international environment characterized by depression, hardship, dictatorship and civil strife, Baldwin was perhaps just the kind of leader his country needed at the time. He wasn’t flamboyant or bombastic like Lloyd George or Churchill, but then he arguably didn’t need to be; he certainly didn’t want to be.
Born in Bewdley, Worcestershire, on 3 August 1867, to a businessman in metallurgy, Baldwin was educated at three different schools, including Harrow, and then went on to Trinity College, Cambridge, but he was never the academic type, and was once disciplined by his schoolmaster for smutty writing. After graduating from Cambridge with a Third in history, he returned to his home town and began working immediately for his father in the family business. In the process he became very rich, and on his father’s death in 1908 he was elected to Parliament as Conservative MP for Bewdley. It was only in the years after the First World War that he really made his mark, and became a determined critic of the Coalition government’s prime minister, David Lloyd George: indeed, it was Baldwin’s fateful speech at the Carlton Club on 19 October 1922 that proved the tipping point for Lloyd George’s departure from No 10. Against the backdrop of a looming possible war with Turkey, and in a year in which the government had been rocked by a scandal in which the Prime Minister had been openly flogging peerages and knighthoods for serious cash, Baldwin gave the speech that would change everything in Britain for the years to come:
The Prime Minister was described this morning in The Times, in the words of a distinguished aristocrat, as a live wire. He was described to me, and to others, in more steady language, by the Lord Chancellor, as a dynamic force, and I accept those words. He is a dynamic force, and it is from that very fact that our troubles, in our opinion, arise. A dynamic force is a very terrible thing: it may crush you, but it is not necessarily right. It is owing to that dynamic force, and that remarkable personality, that the Liberal Party, to which he formerly belonged, had been smashed to pieces; and it is my firm conviction that, in time, the same thing will happen to our party.
The Conservative MPs in the Club duly voted, by 187 to 87, to end their Coalition with the Liberals, Lloyd George resigned, and at the next General Election the Tories were elected with a large majority. Bonar Law became the new PM, Baldwin his Chancellor of the Exchequer. When the PM had to quit on health grounds in May 1923, it was no surprise when Baldwin succeeded him.
The new premier’s term at No 10 turned out to be the first of three non-consecutive terms there – the only British prime minister in the 20th Century to do this. Despite his twice-broken time at the helm, Baldwin was a popular PM: in all but one of the seven general elections held in the UK in the interwar period his party topped the poll – even in the 1929 election, in which Labour won the most seats in the House of Commons.
What was the secret of Baldwin’s popularity? It was probably down to his image: he projected the sheen of an even-tempered man you can trust – a theme he was keen to build on in contrast to Lloyd George’s scandal-ridden reputation. It was just this kind of leadership, rather than the bombast of Churchill (whom Baldwin appointed as his Chancellor in his 1924-29 government) or the Home Secretary, William Joynson-Hicks, that proved to be vital when steering the nation through the General Strike of 1926, as can be discerned in this radio broadcast:
I am a man of peace. I am longing and working and praying for peace, but I will not surrender the safety and security of the British constitution. You placed me in power eighteen months ago by the largest majority accorded to any party for many, many years. Have I done anything to forfeit that confidence? Can you not trust me to ensure a square deal to secure even justice between man and man?
The facts that the Strike collapsed after nine days, and the miners, whose cause the TUC had championed in calling the stoppage, ultimately had to return to work on their employers’ terms, suggest that at least most of the nation could trust Baldwin. Strikes in plenty of other countries at around the same time had led to far worse outcomes, after all. It wasn’t that Baldwin didn’t sympathize with the country’s workers, many of whom struggled to make ends meet in the interwar years. As an industrialist at his Worcestershire family firm, he was in regular contact with his employees, and soon acquired a reputation for being a conscientious and fair-minded employers. As a Conservative he was sceptical about how much the state should get involved when it came to improving industrial and agricultural workers’ conditions. This didn’t mean that Conservatism on his watch would “the status quo or bust”: his governments could claim considerable achievements in social reform, including widows’ contributory pensions, the abolition of workhouses, and the establishment of the BBC. Like Churchill and the Chamberlain family, Baldwin was a Conservative who understood that (get this for a paradox) things in Britain had to change in order for them to stay the same: he said so himself:
In the past we [in the Conservative Party] have been accused, and often rightly, of being too closely identified with vested interests … We must put our house in order and remove many of the abuses whose existence is food for socialistic argument.
Indeed, Baldwin’s fair-minded reputation and dislike of political bombast meant that in Parliament he quite often got on much better with Labour politicians than with his own backbenchers. It was partly because of this reputation that Ramsay MacDonald and some (at least) of his Labour ministers had no trouble in 1931 forming a National Government with the Tories and Liberals.
Another feather in Honest Stanley’s cap was his preparedness to take on the Fourth Estate, and not only confront the media moguls of his day but also prevail over them. Smarting from the Conservatives’ defeat in the 1929 election, Lords Rothermere and Beaverbrook, the Tory-supporting respective proprietors of the Daily Mail and Daily Express, turned on the party leader with fury, enraged at his failure (as they saw it) to crush socialism. Responding to the press barons’ transparent attempts to jemmy him out of power in the run-up to the Westminster-St George’s by-election, he responded on 17 March 1931 with a thunderous speech in the Queen’s Hall theatre:
The newspapers attacking me are not newspapers in the ordinary sense… 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.
Impressive stuff – whatever you think of Baldwin, it’s simply impossible to think of any of Britain’s current political crop saying the same things about the likes of Murdoch, Desmond, or the Barclay brothers… Then again, for all his reputation as an outsider, even among the confines of his own party, Baldwin was more of a national performer than a party leader. Intensely patriotic (though it’s curious how often he used the word “England” in his speeches, in stark contrast to “Britain” or “The UK”), he also tapped into the nation’s growing fascination about its past and its relevance to the present, as this classic speech shows:
Well I can recall how once, in the chancel of Tewkesbury Abbey, I alit on a plain stone that must have been re-carved over and over again, to one of those barons who had signed Magna Carta, and on it, cut in deep stone letters, words that must have been carved by himself – Magna Carta est Lex, deinde caveat Rex – Magna Carta is the Law, and let the King look out – and so it has always been with tyrants, with our people. When the King was a tyrant, let him look out! And it has always been the same, and will the same: whether the tyrant be barons, whether the tyrant be the Church, whether he be demagogues or whether he be dictators, let them look out!
Such a passion and appreciation for the British constitution and its heritage goes some way to explaining Baldwin’s hard line over the General Strike, and his determination in 1936 to lay down the law to the new king, Edward VIII, as he skilfully used Edward’s affair with Mrs Simpson as a way of getting rid of a monarch who was far too close to the Nazi regime for comfort (see previous Harold Rex article on the Abdication here). Nonetheless, Baldwin’s faith in laying down the law to demagogues and dictators can’t easily disguise his governments’ failure properly to re-arm the country in the face of the Nazi threat – though he was far from the only “Guilty Man” as so accused in the famous (or infamous) 1940 pamphlet. Most people in 1920s’ and ’30s’ Britain, whether political or not, had a dread of war, which was completely understandable when considering the destructiveness of the 1914-18 conflict, and so were prepared to do almost anything to avoid it. Baldwin understood the sentiment, and shared it:
If these armaments continue, I don’t say they mean war, but they make war more likely, and there is no-one in Europe today – and I don’t care who he is – that doesn’t know what war in the long run means. It means war over Europe, the degradation of the life of the people. It means misery untold, compared to which the misery of the last War was happiness.
When he finally retired from the premiership and politics in May 1937 (having, incidentally, led the Conservative Party for longer than anyone else in the 20th Century, apart from Margaret Thatcher), Baldwin sailed off into the sunset on a wave of considerable public appreciation, though he wasn’t allowed to enjoy it for long. As his successor, Neville Chamberlain, grappled with an increasingly volatile international climate and the Munich Crisis approached, the extent to which Britain’s defences had been neglected in the face of the Nazi threat gradually came home, as the war that he and his ministers had striven so hard to avoid finally broke out in 1939. Long-simmering resentment about how unprepared the country was for war finally bubbled over with the Guilty Men pamphlet of 1940. Baldwin wasn’t the only target – the pamphlet’s authors also named MacDonald and Chamberlain – but MacDonald had passed away in 1937, and Chamberlain would die before the year was out, so he would be the only one to survive the War. As a symbolic illustration of how far his personal star had sunk, the iron gates of his home at Astley House in Worcestershire were unceremoniously seized for the war effort.
It’s fair to say that Stanley Baldwin wouldn’t last long in today’s political climate: his frequent invocations of Englishness and its past would be mocked mercilessly, both inside and outside Parliament. He had undoubtedly failed to prepare the country he loved from war, but he wasn’t the only one to do so: he was perhaps unlucky not only to be the last Guilty Man standing, but also to fail to get his memoirs out early. Winston Churchill made good on his promise (or was it a threat?) that History would treat him well because he would write it, as in his memoirs he coolly accused his predecessors in No 10 of almost losing the war by failing to confront the dictators early on – without mentioning, of course, his role as Baldwin’s Chancellor in 1924-29 in cutting defence spending…. Churchill even went so far as to declare, quite shockingly, that ‘I mean Stanley Baldwin no ill, but it would have been much better if he had never lived‘ – though there may have been some jealousy behind that remark, as he was also heard to wonder out loud ‘What was is it that enabled Stanley Baldwin to win elections, while I always lose them?‘
Despite his many faults, Baldwin was a huge hit in his country, and was right the times. He steered Britain through two major crises, oversaw useful, far-reaching reforms, confronted his critics admirably, and helped to calm the country down after a terrible war. The Unknown Prime Minister? Perhaps a better title for him would the Under-Appreciate Prime Minister…