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Baldwin, Stanley, first Earl Baldwin of Bewdleylocked

  • Stuart Ball

Stanley Baldwin, first Earl Baldwin of Bewdley (1867–1947)

by Vandyk, 1927

Baldwin, Stanley, first Earl Baldwin of Bewdley (1867–1947), prime minister, was born at Lower Park House, Bewdley, Worcestershire, on 3 August 1867, the only child of Alfred Baldwin (1841–1908) and his wife, Louisa Macdonald (1845–1925) [see Baldwin, Louisa], under [Macdonald sisters].

The Baldwin family

The Baldwin family had been yeomen and tenant farmers in Corvedale, Shropshire, since at least the early sixteenth century. They made no mark beyond local affairs, apart from one ancestor implicated in a plot to free Mary, queen of Scots, in 1585 and imprisoned in the Tower until he escaped four years later. In the second half of the seventeenth century a branch of the family developed iron forges, and in 1788 the descendant of one of these moved from Shrewsbury down the River Severn to Stourport in Worcestershire, a more promising location on the emerging canal system. This was Thomas Baldwin (1751–1823), Stanley's great-grandfather, and the successful iron foundry which he established there was expanded by his sons George Pearce Baldwin (1789–1840) and Enoch Baldwin (1793–1857). The former had a large family; his second wife was Sarah, daughter of the Revd Jacob Stanley, a Methodist minister in Northumberland, and president of the Methodist conference in 1845, and their youngest son, born after his death, was Alfred Baldwin.

After George Pearce's death his brother Enoch formed E. P. and W. Baldwin in partnership with his two eldest nephews, Pearce (1813–1851) and William (1817–1863). The business came to concentrate on the wrought iron and tin plate works at nearby Wilden, which they acquired in 1854. Following the founders' deaths the company passed to the control of Alfred Baldwin and his two surviving older brothers, George (1826–1881) and Stanley (1828–1907). However, the latter's bad management and drinking, combined with a trade depression, brought the firm close to bankruptcy in the late 1860s. Matters improved only after 1870, when Alfred Baldwin raised £20,000 and bought out his brothers to take sole control of the business. He moved into Wilden House, opposite the works, with his wife and young son, who had been born at the family's previous residence. The child was baptized Stanley, probably after his grandmother's maiden name; within the family this was always shortened to Stan.

Baldwin's mother's family was originally from Skye but settled in Ulster at Enniskillen after the Jacobite rising of 1745, and later converted to Methodism. The Revd James Macdonald (1761–1833) was ordained by John Wesley, and moved to England to preach. His son the Revd George Browne Macdonald (1805–1868) was Methodist minister in Wolverhampton, where he became friendly with Alfred Baldwin's elder brothers. His five daughters were a remarkable group of engaging and artistically gifted women who moved in the high-minded circles of William Morris and Rossetti; one was the mother of Rudyard Kipling, and two others married the artists Edward Burne-Jones and Edward Poynter. The latter occasion was a double wedding with Louisa's marriage to Alfred Baldwin, in Wolverhampton on 9 August 1866. Their relationship was close and loving: so much so that the parents feared that their son might feel excluded. Stanley was their only child. Not long after his birth Louisa developed a recurrent illness which made walking difficult and required long periods of rest in darkened rooms, and which lasted until a sudden recovery when Stanley was aged sixteen. She published poetry, children's books, and four novels, and encouraged Stanley's love of English language and literature.

The making of a politician, 1867–1916

Stanley's childhood was not lonely as there were nearby relatives and frequent visits to and from his cousins. However, he had to entertain himself for much of the time at Wilden, and so developed his two lifelong recreations of country walks and reading. He spent much time in his father's library and became absorbed in history and literature, his favourite authors being Scott and Dickens. The ironworks at Wilden were in a rural setting, and as the young Stanley roamed the surrounding district he acquired an abiding love of the English countryside. These two activities came together in his vision of England, its history and the virtues of its people: fairness, moderation, civility, and common sense.

At ten Baldwin went in May 1878 to Hawtrey's Preparatory School at Slough, where he was active in sports and won eighteen prizes, coming top of the school. However, he tended not to do himself justice in examinations, and when thirteen he failed to win a scholarship to Harrow. He went there instead as an ordinary pupil in September 1881, and during his first four years won form prizes for history and mathematics, and competed in football, cricket, and squash. In June 1883 his father was summoned by a telegram from the headmaster, Dr Montagu Butler, owing to an item of juvenile pornography which Stanley had written and—compounding the offence—sent to his cousin Ambrose Poynter at Eton. Alfred Baldwin told his wife that the affair was 'much exaggerated and far more folly than anything else' (A. W. Baldwin, 44), but the incident soured Stanley's relationship with the headmaster. He felt that it was held against him when he was not made a prefect, and in the sixth form his work deteriorated as he assumed an attitude of detachment and laziness. In the autumn of 1885 he went up to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he read for the historical tripos and graduated with a third class in 1888. Baldwin later felt that he had not made the most of his opportunities at Cambridge. However, he does not seem to have disappointed his parents, and his father's letter a few weeks later on his twenty-first birthday was one of loving encouragement and confidence. One sentence in it, 'You ought to be a first-class man, and it is entirely in your own hands' (ibid. , 53), may have been mistakenly recalled in Baldwin's comment of 1935 that his father had written, 'I hope you won't have a “Third” in life' (Jones, Diary with Letters, 155).

At Cambridge, Stanley was influenced by the works of J. R. Seeley and Sir Henry Maine—although in later life he humorously suggested otherwise—and was in close contact with the economic historian and college chaplain William Cunningham. He spent one Easter holiday at the Trinity College mission in the London slums and considered entering the Anglican ministry, but after graduating he returned home and joined his father's business in July 1888. Alfred Baldwin's ability and effort had not only saved the firm but led to substantial growth despite the economic difficulties of the period, and he played an increasingly prominent role in the London trade from the 1880s. Responsive to new techniques, he expanded his activities to south Wales, founding Alfred Baldwin & Co. as sheet metal manufacturers in Monmouthshire in 1886. The various companies were amalgamated into Baldwins Ltd in 1902, together with other steelworks and collieries in south Wales. This created an efficient and integrated business with assets of £1 million, employing about 4000 workers in several regions, and quoted on the London stock exchange. Stanley spent a quarter of a century in these concerns, and made his own contribution to their progress. After the first few months he adapted to the demands of business life; it engaged his interest, and he worked both hard and effectively. He took a metallurgy course, and was aware of technical developments. He made business tours of the United States and Canada in 1890, and of Germany and Austria–Hungary in 1897–8. After 1892 his father lived mainly in London and Stanley managed the several works; he had become a partner in 1890 and in 1902 became a managing director of Baldwins Ltd. He had sole responsibility for its midland division, which accounted for about a quarter of the company. The patriarchal relationship which his father had established with the Wilden workforce shaped his views and style of management. Stanley knew his workers and was at ease with them; his record of good labour relations was a source of pride and a model on which he later drew.

By 1906 Stanley had established himself as an experienced and capable businessman. On his father's death in 1908 he was invited to succeed him on the boards of the Great Western Railway and Metropolitan Bank, and he became vice-chairman of Baldwins Ltd. He remained engaged in business until appointed to ministerial office in 1917, and continued into the mid-1920s to talk of returning to commerce. The years in business had several important effects. They gave him self-confidence, the patience to wait for the timely moment, breadth of outlook, and experience of the wider world; he was never restricted to a narrow party view. Baldwin did not regard himself as a professional politician, but rather as a practical businessman 'called to special work' at a time when his experience of industry and labour was providentially valuable (S. Baldwin, On England, 1926, 19). Nor did he see himself as rich, although he inherited nearly £200,000 from his father and became wealthier before and during the First World War. His repeated assertions that he was an ‘ordinary’ or ‘plain’ man were sincere, and derived from his unostentatious upbringing across the road from the Wilden forges. After 1920 the economic problems of the iron and steel industries dramatically reduced his income; in common with similar businesses the value of Baldwins Ltd's shares collapsed and for many years they paid no dividend. Baldwin had to run down his capital and sell his London house, becoming more reliant on his ministerial salary and official residences.

This was in the future, and it was as a young businessman rising in the family firm that Baldwin married and began a family in the 1890s. While he was staying with his Burne-Jones cousins at Rottingdean, near Brighton, his eye was caught by Lucy Ridsdale [seeBaldwin, Lucy, Countess Baldwin of Bewdley (1869-1945)]. Previously rather shy with young women, Baldwin was attracted by her 'absolute innocence and unworldliness' (Baldwin to his mother, April 1892, Hyde, 27). They were married on 12 September 1892 in Rottingdean parish church, and had seven children. Their first was a still-born son in January 1894; the six surviving children were Diana (1895–1982), Leonora, known as Lorna (1896–1989), (Pamela) Margaret, known as Margot (1897–1976), Oliver (1899–1958), Esther, known as Betty (1902–1981), and (Arthur) Windham (1904–1976). Baldwin's chosen biographer, G. M. Young, later gave deep offence to the family by asserting that 'there was not much passion in their mating' (G. M. Young, 23). He misread their comfortable partnership, for as well as the many children there was enduring love, mutual confidence, and almost uncritical support, despite some differences in their temperaments and interests. Their elder son, Oliver, was affected by his experiences when serving in Armenia after the end of the First World War and became estranged from his parents in the 1920s, although there was some reconciliation after his election as a Labour MP in 1929. The family lived at Dunley Hall, 2 miles from Stourport, from 1892 to 1902, when Baldwin rented Astley Hall, which was more suitable for his growing family and status, but still not far from the Wilden works. He bought Astley in 1912 and it remained his home thereafter, although between 1923 and 1937 he was there only briefly at Christmas and in the summer. His London address was 27 Queen's Gate, South Kensington, from 1908 to 1912, when he acquired the lease of 93 Eaton Square. This was sold in 1925, and when out of office in 1929–31 it was only through the generosity of the duke of Westminster that Baldwin found an affordable London residence, at 10 Upper Brook Street, and so was able to remain in politics.

Baldwin's involvement in public life began in support of his father, who sat as Conservative MP for Bewdley (West Worcestershire) from 1892 to 1908. Although it was a safe seat, regular speaking and canvassing were expected, and Stanley became known throughout the division; he also took part in local government and societies, and became a magistrate in 1897. Like his father and many other Conservative industrialists, he supported Joseph Chamberlain's ‘tariff reform’ policy after 1903. He began to seek a constituency in the area, and in 1906 stood unsuccessfully at Kidderminster. He was more disheartened not to be selected as candidate for the Worcester City by-election in 1907, and considered that his chance had passed. However, the sudden death of his father from a heart attack on 13 February 1908 created a vacancy at Bewdley. He was unanimously invited to stand as Conservative candidate for his late father's seat, and after an unopposed return was introduced into the House of Commons on 3 March 1908. His maiden speech was delivered on 22 June 1908 in opposition to a Liberal measure for an eight-hour day in the coal industry. Quietly delivered to a largely empty House, and making little impact at the time, it demonstrates that key features of Baldwin's approach were present from the start. It was already well judged in tone, with self-deprecatory touches of humour which enhanced rather than obscured his message. It exposed his opponents' inconsistencies in a gently reproving manner, but was strikingly non-partisan and ascribed honesty of purpose to those on both sides of the issue. Most of all, it was related directly to his own expertise and model of good industrial relations.

After this Baldwin kept a low profile, but the handful of similar short speeches which he made before 1914 were well received for their moderation and sincerity. He was one of twelve Conservative MPs who voted for the second reading of the Old Age Pensions Act in 1908, and he approved the principle of the National Insurance Act. He played a minor part in the Unionist Social Reform Committee, an unofficial body devising a more active social agenda. He said little during the bitter struggle over Irish home rule, and favoured a moderate compromise. When war broke out he found little that he could do, although from June 1915 he worked many hours on a judicial committee reviewing the cases of internees. He was a member of the Unionist Business Committee, a back-bench ‘ginger group’, and hosted meetings of Conservative MPs concerned over Lloyd George's move to the War Office in July 1916. By the end of 1916 he had lost confidence in Asquith and became convinced that a change was needed, a conclusion which he found shared by his cousin Rudyard Kipling. Frustrated that he was contributing little to the war effort at Westminster, he considered giving up his seat to concentrate on local work but was persuaded by Lucy to remain. By December 1916 he was an inconspicuous but respected back-bencher who would have been on nobody's list of possible future prime ministers, least of all his own.

The rise to the premiership, 1916–1923

The First World War had a crucial impact on Baldwin's outlook and political career. Too old to fight himself, his feelings of duty and service were powerfully engaged. He felt humble in comparison to those risking their lives, and convinced that political leadership after the war must live up to the sacrifice of the dead. The wartime atmosphere of national unity and class co-operation reinforced his values and beliefs, and his focus moved from business to government and politics. At the same time the absence of many Conservative MPs on war service opened the way to his advance.

In December 1916 the leader of the Conservative Party, Andrew Bonar Law, who had joined Lloyd George's coalition as chancellor of the exchequer, needed a parliamentary private secretary. The post was at the most junior level, but discretion and reliability were vital. Baldwin's name was suggested by the chief whip, Lord Edmund Talbot, and endorsed by Law's youthful private secretary, J. C. C. Davidson, and he was offered the unpaid position. Its lowly status appealed to Baldwin, and his appointment was announced on 22 December 1916. Baldwin would also answer questions in the Commons on behalf of the new financial secretary to the treasury, (Samuel) Hardman Lever, who was not an MP and would be working in the United States. On 29 January 1917 Baldwin was appointed a junior lord of the Treasury; as this was normally a whip's position, it was stated that he was assisting the chancellor of the exchequer. His success in this role led to a close working relationship and friendship with Law, and on 18 June 1917 the position was regularized when he became financial secretary jointly with Lever; when the latter retired in May 1919, the post reverted to Baldwin alone.

This was the most prominent of all of the junior ministerships; in prestige it was equalled by the under-secretary at the Foreign Office, but the responsibilities of the Treasury were wider and involved more work in the House. In addition, Law's position as second figure in the government and a member of the five-man war cabinet meant that Baldwin's responsibilities were much greater than normal. There was a heavy workload, particularly in answering questions and speaking in the Commons, where he sometimes also deputized for Law as leader of the House. Baldwin continued to work well with Austen Chamberlain when the latter became chancellor after the general election of 1918, although the personal relationship was not as close. As financial secretary, Baldwin acquired a wide range of administrative experience and made many contacts among the junior ministers and back-benchers. His competent handling of the post enhanced his reputation, without marking him out as a rising star. In May 1920 Law offered him the governor-generalships of South Africa or Australia, which were customarily drawn from solid and dependable middle-rank figures, but was not surprised when he declined. Baldwin's courteous manner in the House and the high regard in which he was widely held also led to his being mentioned as a possible speaker at this time, but he remained where he was and in June 1920 was made a privy councillor.

In March 1921 Law retired owing to illness, and Austen Chamberlain became Conservative leader. In the ensuing reshuffle Baldwin was promoted to Lloyd George's cabinet as president of the Board of Trade on 1 April. He was recommended for the post by Law, and his appointment was intended to reassure opinion on the Conservative benches, where doubts about the coalition were beginning to emerge. It was also important to retain an orthodox Conservative in this key economic post, especially as it had charge of the most controversial measure of the session. The Safeguarding of Industries Bill gave tariff protection to specific industries, but there were many pitfalls and sensitivities along the way. Baldwin handled them effectively, although he was exhausted by the time of its third reading on 12 August 1921. In the following session he was responsible for another significant measure with protectionist aspects, the Merchandise Marks Act, which required a product to show its country of origin. His steady reputation with back-bench Conservative MPs led Austen Chamberlain to ask him to take a leading part in securing the passage of the Anglo-Irish treaty in December 1921.

Throughout this period Baldwin was a mainly silent observer in Lloyd George's cabinet, becoming increasingly alienated by the combination of expediency and manoeuvre with which matters were tackled. Invited by the prime minister to comment on a financial issue at one meeting, he responded that he felt like 'the director of a fraudulent company engaged in cooking the balance sheet' (G. M. Young, 29). He was in sympathy with Conservative Party opposition to the possibility of an early and rushed renewal of the coalition's mandate in the general election scare of January 1922, and commented privately on the atmosphere of intrigue that pervaded the government. His unhappiness was crystallized by the Chanak crisis in September 1922, which led to a breach with Lloyd George and the senior Conservative ministers who supported him. Holidaying at Aix-les-Bains in the French Alps, Baldwin became aware from the newspapers that the government was risking a war in Turkey. On returning on 1 October, he found that the crisis was being used to precipitate an election and continue the coalition in its present form. He was almost alone in the cabinet in objecting to this, and decided that he would resign. With all the party's senior figures ranged against him, he expected to be on the losing side and that it would be the end of his political career. Instead, and unexpectedly, the political convulsion of October 1922 swept away the existing Conservative leadership and catapulted Baldwin to the political heights.

Although supported by only one even less prominent cabinet minister (Sir Arthur Griffith-Boscawen), Baldwin's hostility to the coalition was shared by key figures among Conservative Party managers, many of the junior ministers, and a large majority of back-benchers, and constituency opinion. He also played a part in persuading Law to come out of retirement and provide the vital element of a credible alternative leader. This was the crucial factor in the fall of the coalition, but Baldwin also spoke to telling effect in the decisive meeting of Conservative MPs at the Carlton Club on 19 October. He articulated the fear that Lloyd George would divide and destroy the Conservative Party as he had the Liberals, and underlined the danger of his methods: 'A dynamic force is a very terrible thing; it may crush you, but it is not necessarily right' (Carlton Club speech, Middlemas and Barnes, 123). Deep hostility to Lloyd George and rumours that his allies among the Conservative leadership were plotting to restore the coalition particularly influenced Baldwin and his inner circle during the next ten years. There were several instances of this antagonism, including Baldwin's invented ‘Afghan’ proverb, alluding to Lloyd George's nickname: 'He who lives in the bosom of the goat spends his remaining years plucking out the fleas.' However, the defaced picture of Lloyd George which Thomas Jones found at Astley Hall has been given exaggerated significance; it was in a scrapbook prepared some years earlier by Baldwin's mother for his children, and was most likely the result of some juvenile scribbling by one of them from before 1914.

After the Carlton Club vote overwhelmingly rejected the coalition, Law became Conservative Party leader and prime minister. He offered the Treasury to Baldwin, the most senior and experienced anti-coalitionist in the Commons. At first Baldwin demurred and suggested Reginald McKenna, the former Liberal chancellor, but when the latter declined Baldwin accepted the post on 24 October 1922. In January 1923 Baldwin visited the United States and negotiated terms for the repayment of Britain's war debt which were stiff but in his view the best available. This opinion became public when he spoke unguardedly to reporters on his return on 29 January, precipitating a cabinet crisis. Law was vehemently opposed to the terms and almost resigned, but was persuaded by the cabinet to accept them; after this his relations with Baldwin were strained. On 16 February 1923 Baldwin's speech on the address displayed a power of language, sincerity, and idealism which made a deep impression on both the Commons and the country, closing with the affirmation that 'salvation for this country and the whole world' was to be found in four simple words: 'Faith, Hope, Love, and Work.' He presented only one budget as chancellor, and on 16 April 1923 in a comparatively short and lively speech used the unexpected revenue surplus of £100 million mainly to redeem debt, and also reduced income tax by 6d. and beer duty by a penny.

First term as prime minister 1923–1924

In May 1923 Law's illness forced his retirement, and a new prime minister had to be found from within the present cabinet. The choice lay between Baldwin, the novice chancellor, and Lord Curzon, who was an experienced foreign secretary but a difficult colleague. Law declined to advise the king, who chose Baldwin for several reasons: he had the support of key figures in the cabinet, and was thought more likely to be able to reunite the Conservative Party and thereby strengthen the government. Above all, a prime minister in the House of Lords, where the Labour Party—now the official opposition—had no official representation, would have been a constitutional problem and have emphasized divisive issues of class privilege. Baldwin seemed more suited to the new democratic age, and so these twists of fortune brought him unexpectedly to the premiership on 22 May 1923. He was elected leader of the Conservative Party on 28 May, and also continued as chancellor until 27 August 1923, when—McKenna having again declined—he appointed Neville Chamberlain. The new prime minister felt the office had come too soon and that he lacked experience; naïvety certainly appeared to many to be the hallmark of his brief first government. He mishandled an approach to Austen Chamberlain, and the leading Conservative former coalitionists remained aloof and critical. On 19 September Baldwin met Poincaré in Paris and assumed too readily that he had resolved the Ruhr crisis, although the meeting began the process which led to the Dawes plan of 1924.

Defects of judgement seemed even more evident during the following weeks, as Baldwin propelled his party into an unnecessary general election. In fact, although the parliament still had four and a half years to run, the problems facing the government were mounting. Unemployment was rising and the Labour Party advancing, but the government seemed to be drifting. Agriculture was in crisis and, still disunited, Conservative morale was slipping. However, Baldwin's attempt to break this downward spiral led to disarray and defeat, and nearly ended his career. Like most Conservatives he believed that protectionist tariffs would revive industry and employment; this was his primary motive, rather than tactical concerns of reuniting his party or pre-empting Lloyd George. After mulling over the problem while holidaying at Aix and then hosting the Imperial Economic Conference on his return in October, he resolved to declare his belief in protection. However, Law had pledged in 1922 that there would be no move to tariffs in the present parliament. For this reason, as soon as Baldwin declared his hand at the Conservative conference at Plymouth on 25 October 1923, a pre-election atmosphere was created. Baldwin succeeded in keeping his cabinet together and in avoiding the resignation of its anti-tariff minority, even though he decided that the election could not be delayed and secured a dissolution from the king on 12 November.

The election campaign raised Baldwin's standing, and he was recognized as his party's best electoral asset, but the Conservatives were unprepared, and their proposals were vague and contradictory. Although Central Office projected victory, the outcome in December 1923 was a net loss of eighty-eight seats; the Conservatives had lost their majority, although they remained the largest single party in the House of Commons. Baldwin's first reaction was that he should resign as prime minister immediately, but after reflecting at Chequers over the weekend of 8–9 December he decided to stay in office and meet parliament. Resignation would open the way to revived coalitionism and efforts to deny Labour the chance of office, while there were tactical advantages in making the Liberals side openly with Labour. After the Christmas recess the government was defeated on 21 January 1924; Baldwin resigned the next day and the first Labour government was formed. Despite the election defeat Baldwin survived as Conservative leader because the alternative was a humiliating return to coalitionism, which most of the party disliked even more. After a period of fruitless intrigue during the recess, the Conservative former coalitionists accepted that no alternative leader would win sufficient support. The outcome was the reunion of the party under Baldwin's continued leadership, which was confirmed by a party meeting on 11 February 1924. The recovery of unity was welcome, but it was not the motive for Baldwin's misguided tariff venture; there had been no hidden plan, and certainly no riding for a fall.

Character, outlook, and image

By 1924 Baldwin had established his position as a national figure with a distinctive message shaped by his character and beliefs. Among Conservative leaders only Disraeli and Margaret Thatcher have conveyed their own personal vision with similar impact and influence. Baldwin often attributed his imagination and gift with words to his mother's Celtic background, although his personality and mannerisms had many similarities with his father's temperament. According to one of his ministers, Baldwin was 'emotional, impulsive, secretive, and intensely personal in [his] likes, dislikes, and moral judgements' (Amery, My Political Life, 505). Baldwin's outwardly stolid manner concealed a nervous disposition. One of his daughters recalled that he 'abhorred noise and shouting' and 'had a horror of being asked questions'. He was uncomfortable at larger social events 'and always tried to keep near the wall in case the floor gave way!' (Margaret Huntington-Whiteley, in Hyde, 43). He had a number of distracting nervous mannerisms and facial twitches, was prone to fidgeting, and had a habit when sitting in the Commons of sniffing or licking at the edges of his order papers. In times of stress he would compulsively pace up and down the room, pouring out a flow of conversation as he rehearsed events or debated a decision. He often felt sick with tension before delivering a speech and drained afterwards, although once under way was steadier and at times uplifted.

Baldwin was of medium height, and his fairly slim figure of 1923 became considerably more rounded during the 1930s. He had blue eyes and his bushy eyebrows and hair, which was parted in the centre and smoothed back, were originally a sandy colour. He was a regular smoker, and the pipe which he used from the First World War onwards became a public hallmark; it gave him something to occupy his hands, and he would spend much time on the rituals of cleaning and lighting it. Baldwin had a robust sense of humour and could both charm and fascinate, but there were also times when he seemed self-absorbed and unappreciative. He was sometimes awkward in personal relations with colleagues, but managed his cabinets in a relaxed style. He sought consensus, and was proud of the fact that only one, relatively minor, figure had resigned from his 1924–9 cabinet because of disagreement on policy. Baldwin was not an interventionist by nature: 'he never moves of his own motion' was the jaundiced view of Austen Chamberlain (Austen Chamberlain to Ida Chamberlain, 2 July 1931, Birmingham University Library, Austen Chamberlain MSS, AC/5/1/545). He had learned the merits of delegation during his business career, and this was his customary style of management. In his view the prime minister should give advice and support, rather than meddle or dictate. He preferred to trust his chosen colleagues to tackle the problems in their domains, with inter-departmental frictions resolved in informal meetings and difficult decisions debated in cabinet under his adjudicatory chairmanship. However, the willingness to wait for consensus could give the impression that Baldwin had no clear agenda and tended to drift, following opinion rather than leading it. He could take some time before reaching a decision, a process which he called 'rumination'. This could appear to be procrastination, but once he had formed a conclusion he usually adhered to it and acted with firmness, and he could be dogged and stubborn once convinced that his course was right. He did not always reveal his inner thoughts or explain his actions fully to his colleagues, and the result could be incomprehension and the assumption that he was acting impulsively. Baldwin's concerns and timing were not primarily shaped by considerations of parliamentary tactics or partisan opportunities, and this further tended to confuse his colleagues and disappoint his supporters.

Baldwin was sometimes criticized for focusing too much on generalities, and detail had no fascination for him. While there was a suggestion of intellectual laziness, he was not—despite some self-deprecatory remarks—an indolent man. His periods of nervous and physical exhaustion were the product of responsibility combined with consistent hard work. When parliament was sitting he regularly worked up to fourteen hours on weekdays, and felt himself to be 'at the beck and call of everyone' (letter to his mother, 1923, in Hyde, 163). He spent much of this time in the Palace of Westminster, sitting on the front bench or working in his room near the chamber. He was not very fond of 10 Downing Street, but loved the country estate of Chequers and stayed there every available weekend during his periods of office. Here he could quietly read and walk, relaxing in the company of the family and a few friends. Baldwin had a lifelong enjoyment of reading, and often turned a conversation towards books. He loved music and played the piano, visited the theatre, and regularly attended cricket matches; in May 1938 he was elected president of the MCC. His main form of exercise and physical relaxation was walking in the countryside, rambling for miles. This was also his restorative during his summer holiday, which usually lasted for at least a month; from 1921 this was taken at Aix-les-Bains. The countryside was a haven, a source of peace and tranquillity: 'life in the country makes you see things whole', Baldwin remarked in 1935 (Butler, Art of the Possible, 30).

Baldwin greatly preferred oral to written communication: 'my tongue, not my pen, is my instrument' (Jones, Diary with Letters, 540). His private correspondence was mainly personal, and he was the master of the short friendly note of congratulations or condolence. To spread the burden of crafting the many speeches which he gave, Baldwin innovated in using his aides and advisers as speech-writers. He drew on several people, but most of all on Thomas Jones, who served Baldwin as deputy secretary of the cabinet in his first two ministries and continued to assist after retiring from the civil service in 1930. Even so, their drafts reflected Baldwin's guidance and views, and many of the most important passages or entire speeches were entirely his own. Baldwin relied for support and an audience on an inner circle in which the most important figures were the Davidsons, Jones, and Geoffrey Dawson, the editor of The Times. The close bond with J. C. C. Davidson was forged when Baldwin first assisted Law at the Treasury, and continued when Davidson transferred to work for Baldwin during Law's first retirement. Baldwin appointed him chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster in 1923–4 and in the 1930s (a non-departmental post in which he effectively acted as chief of staff) and—with less success—as Conservative Party chairman in 1926–30. Equally important was Baldwin's avuncular relationship with Davidson's wife, Joan (known as Mimi), a friend of one of Baldwin's daughters. She was both bracing and supportive to him, and his favourite companion on long country walks.

Baldwin's sincere religious faith was based on the certainty of divine judgment and providence, and belief in a purpose in life. The concepts of service and duty were central to his personality and conduct: Thomas Jones considered that 'he felt things deeply, and his conscience was more active than his intellect' (Jones, Diary with Letters, xxx). Baldwin's religion was practical, concerned with good works and Christian conduct, and derived from the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer. His outlook was a simple and implicitly democratic protestantism, believing 'from my heart the words of Browning, “All service ranks the same with God”' (S. Baldwin, On England, 1926, 19). He was comfortable with a low-church and evangelical frame of mind, and proud of the nonconformist elements in his ancestry. As prime minister, he was invited to address the most important nonconformist bodies, and spoke in a moral language which resonated with them. Baldwin and his wife began each day by kneeling together in prayer, a routine which did not change when he was prime minister. They believed that they were working 'for the country and for God's sake' (Jones, Diary with Letters, xxxiv).

Baldwin considered that 'the political career properly viewed is really a kind of ministry' (S. Baldwin, On England, 1926, 197), and spoke with sincere conviction of offering the 'service of our lives' (S. Baldwin, Service of our Lives, 1937, 144). He wrote privately after the defeat of 1923 that his motive for continuing in politics was 'the longing to help the bewildered multitude of common folk' which 'only comes from love and pity' (Baldwin to Joan Davidson, 24 Dec 1923, Memoirs of a Conservative, 193). He put much emphasis on the responsibility of those in more fortunate positions to raise not only the standard of living but also the 'standard of ideals' (speech to the Primrose League, The Times, 3 May 1924). Duties rather than rights were the path to progress; betterment could not be imposed by law but grew from the moral sense of society. This in turn was shaped by the conduct of leading men, a belief which sustained Baldwin's antipathy towards Lloyd George and the press barons. He saw his mission as cleaning up public life after it had been tainted during the coalition, which had come to represent every negative force. When under pressure Baldwin would raise these moral boundaries, and tended to portray himself as a lone crusader—'every crook in the country is out for my scalp', he wrote at the height of the party crisis in 1930 (Baldwin to Irwin, 16 Oct 1930, BL OIOC, Halifax MSS, Eur. C.152/19/1/147).

The sacrifice of the First World War deepened Baldwin's sense of duty and obligation, and he tried to set an example by anonymously giving up much of his fortune to reduce the national debt. His conscience was troubled by the large profits which Baldwins Ltd had made, and he sought to return these. Calculating his wealth at £580,000, he realized one-fifth of this and presented £120,000 of war loan stock to the Treasury for cancellation. In the hope that others would follow, he explained his action in an anonymous letter in The Times on 24 June 1919 (this was signed ‘F. S. T.’, which stood for 'financial secretary to the Treasury'). The story became known after he became prime minister, further adding to his reputation for integrity and modesty. It was important to him that the service he gave required sacrifices, and hence his comments about the unpleasantness of political life and his desire to retire to country life and obscurity. He discerned the working of providence in his unexpected elevation: 'I knew that I had been chosen as God's instrument for the work of the healing of the nation' (A. W. Baldwin, 328).

The early years at Wilden shaped Baldwin's outlook; the local roots, framework of stability and tradition, and communal feeling between employer and worker were the inspirations and examples on which he later drew, although he was aware that it was a world which was passing. He recognized the disruptions which had taken place because of the war, and considered the post-war world to be unstable and in need of careful handling. Baldwin shared the general Conservative apprehension about the vast new electorate created in 1918, and saw it as a race against time to educate 'democracy', which 'can rise to great heights [but] can also sink to great depths' (S. Baldwin, On England, 1926, 71). Baldwin refused to believe that there was anything to fear as far as the British working class was concerned, provided it was treated fairly and with respect. His focus on industrial relations directly addressed the social and economic concerns of the day, and placed responsibilities on owners and managers as much as unions and workers. Baldwin wanted a stable capitalist system with a human heart, economic freedom with social duty. He believed in individual responsibility and moral choice, and opposed the soulless uniformity of state control or dictatorship. For these reasons Baldwin was always more concerned with the general atmosphere than with the details of policy and legislation. His concern was with public attitudes, and it was these which he sought to reach and shape.

Baldwin's principal means of doing so was through his speeches. He paid particular attention to non-political bodies and neutral audiences, and these provided the venues for many of his most influential speeches. Together with their content, this elevated Baldwin to a unique position of appearing to be almost 'above politics'. His hallmarks were a positive message and an emphasis on honesty rather than party dogma. He was noted for his generous treatment of opponents and avoided making personal attacks. Baldwin evoked simple images which interlocked with the values and traditions of British political culture: the rural heritage, the Christian virtues of charity and patience, tolerance based upon mutual respect, a generosity of spirit which accepted elements of merit in other points of view, an appeal to co-operation based upon goodwill, and a desire to seek common ground. Baldwin used the rhetoric of the missionary rather than the politician, talking of 'preaching' a 'gospel' and evoking prayer in phrases such as 'give peace in our time, O Lord'. His language transcended party boundaries, and he could convincingly claim that 'the twin ideals of social justice and individual freedom' were Conservative aims (S. Baldwin, An Interpreter of England, 1939, 111–12). His style of Conservatism was inclusive, moderate, and based on a moral agenda—a positive creed of civic values and virtue. Delivered in this way, it had a powerful appeal to three key electoral groups of the inter-war era: former Liberals (contributing further to that party's disintegration), women (who were often repelled by tones of harshness and confrontation), and the uncommitted new generation of voters (who were frequently impatient with pre-war controversies).

Baldwin was convinced that the Labour Party's idealistic appeal could be countered only from the moral high ground. He presented an open attitude and generous tone, acknowledging the sincerity and idealism of Labour's 'best elements'. He feared that more dangerous forces lay beneath the Labour Party: direct-action syndicalism, Bolshevism, confiscatory socialism, class hatred, and envy. To contain these, he sought to encourage Labour towards constitutionalism. He treated Labour as a conventional political party; he was not frightened by its aspirations to government, but welcomed them as a move towards responsibility. He was determined to show 'fair play' to Labour after his defeats in the general elections of 1923 and 1929, and he encouraged Conservative MPs and ministers to avoid provocative styles or shows of superiority. Baldwin's strategy combined encouraging the moderate and parliamentary sides of the labour movement with firm resistance to extremism and unconstitutional pressure. At the same time Conservative electoral success was partly based on arousing fear of socialism. In election campaigns Baldwin would raise concerns that Labour's moderates were not really in control, thus mobilizing support to contain Labour without having to condemn or alienate it. He suggested that a gulf existed between the common sense of the British worker and the foreign influences of 'German Socialism and Russian Communism and French Syndicalism' (S. Baldwin, On England, 1926, 153), to which Italian Fascism was added later. Baldwin disliked arrogance and dogma, remarking that 'intelligentsia' was 'a very ugly word for a very ugly thing' (S. Baldwin, Our Inheritance, 1928, 123–4). As dictatorships challenged democracy in the 1930s, Baldwin saw Britain as a beacon to other countries, keeping alive the 'torch of freedom'.

The image of Baldwin as a 'countryman' was an important part of his appeal, especially in establishing his identity in 1923–4. His appearance reinforced this: the baggy suits and pipe-smoking which were fixed upon by cartoonists were not contrived, but they synchronized with the popular view of an ordinary and trustworthy man. Although rural England was not a constant theme, it was the subject of some of Baldwin's most vivid and affecting passages. Later criticism of this as inappropriate to the problems of an urban and industrial society misses the point that these images were the means and not the ends. Baldwin was not trying to turn the clock back, but to graft the rootless modern experience on to the solid oak of the past: 'the country represents the eternal values and the eternal traditions from which we must never allow ourselves to be separated' (S. Baldwin, This Torch of Freedom, 1935, 120). His language resonated with the urban masses and suburban classes, many of whom shared the view that 'England is the country, and the country is England' (S. Baldwin, On England, 1926, 6). Even so, perhaps the most central of Baldwin's speeches was not the 'On England' speech of 1924 but those on 'Service' in March 1925 and his Glasgow University rectorial address 'Freedom and discipline' in January 1930.

Baldwin's rapport with the public was founded on his personality and message, which sprang from the heart. His religious faith and gift of language—his cousin Kipling described him as the true poet in the family—enabled him to put his finger on the national pulse. Baldwin made a powerful appeal to the public mood of inter-war Britain, crossing class and party boundaries, and his sincerity and goodwill earned the respect of many opponents. The time and attention that he gave to the House of Commons established a fund of benevolence that enabled him to surmount some blunders with little damage. His experience and sensitivity to the mood of the House were the basis for his most effective speeches, and he was acknowledged even by his critics to possess the power to raise a debate to a higher level. However, there were also uninspired orations which fell flat and periods when he did not speak much in the House or seem to offer the lead that his colleagues and party were looking for. These partly coincided with periods of uncertainty and the absence of a theme of principle and importance—in 1928 and 1936—or periods in opposition, when he did not want to commit himself too soon or specifically. The pressure of work, the need to keep some distance, and the changed and greatly increased parliamentary Conservative Party made him a more remote figure to many MPs after 1931.

Baldwin was not technically skilled as an orator, and it was sincerity and clarity which made his best speeches effective. His usual stance was to hold his jacket lapels or thrust his hands deep into the pockets, from which they emerged at intervals to smooth back his hair. A member of his first cabinet described his speaking as 'not in the least oratorical, but intensely human', with a delivery that was 'slow, steady, uneloquent but convincing' (Real Old Tory Politics, 18 March 1925). He had a sense of timing, catching the moment and the mood. The tone was low-key, taking the audience into his confidence and going to the heart of the issue. There were no distracting rhetorical flourishes, as the use of plain language was his great skill. There was concern, not confrontation; responsiveness, not dismissal; reasonableness, not prejudice; explanation, not invective; and humour, without humiliation or sarcasm. Through it all ran the ‘human touch’ and an empathy with the ‘ordinary man’: middle-class, middle-aged, middle-brow in culture, middle of the road in politics. Baldwin reached a mass audience far beyond any previous politician. His speeches were collected in books which sold thousands of copies, and the only figure to have exceeded him in this was Winston Churchill. He exploited the cinema newsreels and made masterly use of the new medium of radio, employing a conversational style as if addressing each listener individually. His public image of the pipe-smoking Englishman, honest but not clever, was both reassuring and popular. He became a trusted figure, familiar to the public at large in a way in which no previous prime minister had ever been.

The first Labour government, 1924

Baldwin's public identity became firmly established between 1924 and 1926, as his influence and authority grew. In February 1924, at the Conservative Party meeting which confirmed his leadership and the dropping of the tariff policy, he spoke of the 'perfectly genuine and altruistic feeling' of wanting to improve society which inspired Labour's supporters, and declared, 'it is a spirit which can only be beaten by a similar spirit in our Party' (The Times, 12 Feb 1924, 17). In a series of major public speeches during the following months Baldwin set out what came to be termed the 'new conservatism'. This did not change the party's fundamental principles, but expressed them through an ethos and language which was Baldwin's own. Principled, distinctive, moderate, and unprovocative, it helped the Conservative Party to capture the inter-war middle ground. The period in opposition also saw improvements in party organization and work on future policy. Baldwin established a series of parliamentary policy committees, each chaired by the relevant former minister, and their conclusions were published in the pamphlet Looking Ahead on 20 June 1924. Another innovation was a secretariat to support these committees and the shadow cabinet; although this lapsed when the party returned to office, the parliamentary committees continued under back-bench chairmanship and became a permanent and important feature of the Conservative parliamentary party.

Baldwin made two other striking public statements during these months. He gave one of his most admired non-political addresses, 'On England', to the Royal Society of St George on 6 May. The other was typical in a different way, and more controversial. An interview published in The People on 18 May 1924 concluded with unexpectedly sharp attacks on some of his critics, including Churchill and Birkenhead, while Rothermere and Beaverbrook were dismissed as 'men I would not have in my house' (Hyde, 211). Whether Baldwin expected this part of the conversation to be published is unclear, but in embarrassment he had to retreat behind denials and apologies. This incident, and the problems caused by Churchill's candidature in the Westminster Abbey by-election, revealed that tensions over coalitionism were still strong. However, these were echoes of the past rather than portents of the future. During the period of the first Labour government, the Conservative Party united behind Baldwin's political strategy. This looked to a realignment around the main parties of Conservative and Labour, and the disappearance of the Liberal Party, which would no longer have a role. With the minority Labour government getting into difficulties and the Liberals in disarray, Conservative confidence increased and the party looked forward to an election.

When the MacDonald ministry was defeated on 8 October 1924, Baldwin ruled out any arrangement with the Liberals and supported Labour's claim for a dissolution. The Conservatives were strongly placed for the election, and their mobilization of an anti-socialist vote was helped by Liberal disorganization and financial weakness. Baldwin maintained a restrained and moderate tone which was particularly effective in his radio broadcast, a new feature in this election. Aware that the radio audience listened at home, he spoke as if he was chatting by the fireside; this was far more effective than the speeches at mass meetings which the other party leaders used. Speaking of the left-wing dogma of class hostility, he affirmed that 'no gospel founded on hate will ever be the gospel of our people' (Middlemas and Barnes, 275). The ‘Zinoviev letter’, which appeared in confused circumstances near the end of the campaign, was not the cause of Conservative victory but reinforced some of their themes. Baldwin's moral tone and message of harmony made a particular appeal to former Liberal voters, and thus the Liberal collapse resulted in unexpectedly large Conservative gains. The 412 MPs returned were more than the totals of the Liberals in 1906 or Labour in 1945, and gave Baldwin a huge overall majority.

The search for stability: second term as prime minister, 1924–1929

Now truly prime minister in his own right, Baldwin began his second term on 4 November 1924. He was fifty-seven, at the height of his powers, acknowledged to possess a unique rapport with the public, and securely in control of his party. Baldwin used the strength of his position to reunite the Conservative leadership with appointments which were generous, but clearly of his own making. Curzon was displaced from the Foreign Office to make way for Austen Chamberlain and Birkenhead was given the India Office, but Baldwin adroitly excluded Horne, whom he disliked. The boldest and most unexpected move was the offer of the Treasury to Winston Churchill, who had recently been making his way back to the Conservative Party. These appointments put the most influential and effective former coalitionists in prestigious posts, but ones where they would be fully occupied by their departmental responsibilities. The choice of Churchill as chancellor took everyone by surprise, but his presence there underlined Baldwin's pledge not to move to protectionism, while the need for economies in public spending would give full scope to his ingenuity. Neville Chamberlain, who had the strongest claim on the exchequer, preferred instead to go to the Ministry of Health, where he embarked on a major programme of reform in local government, factory legislation, housing, and the poor law. With other posts filled by the most successful ministers of the 1922–4 government, the result was a powerful and balanced cabinet team. Baldwin allowed wide-ranging discussion and chaired the cabinet in a relaxed and adjudicatory style, but where his views were definite his interventions were decisive. Although there was some friction at the start, it became a cohesive team. The cabinet was notable for the continuity of its membership; even in its later period, when several ministers were ill or ineffectual, Baldwin decided against reshuffling his pack.

Baldwin avoided any appearance of triumphalism after his victory, which he presented as an opportunity for service, with much hard work ahead. His aim was to restore stability and good government, which would lead to the recovery of confidence, revival of trade, and reduction of unemployment. The return to the gold standard in Churchill's first budget of April 1925 was part of this; most financial and economic opinion endorsed it, but the pound was over-valued and it compounded Britain's trade problems. Baldwin's government had solid achievements on several fronts, although most of these were in its first eighteen months in office. At home there was the granting of pensions to widows and orphans, local government and poor-law reform, measures for transport and education, and the creation of a national electricity generating authority, something which Baldwin particularly supported. The vexed issue of the Northern Ireland boundary was laid to rest in December 1925, with Baldwin's relaxed personal style during a weekend meeting at Chequers playing an important part. In foreign affairs the Locarno treaty seemed to herald a new era of peace and the government sought further disarmament, although by the end of its life this had led to friction with the United States over the differing needs of their navies. The government encouraged rationalization in the cotton and steel industries, but gave only limited extensions of the safeguarding duties and refused to include major sectors of the economy.

Industrial peace was Baldwin's key theme from 1923 to 1927, as he sought to bring both employers and workers to embrace a spirit of 'partnership in industry'. He wished to discourage reliance on the state to solve industrial problems, which he regarded as a dangerous legacy of the Lloyd George era. He wanted a more self-reliant approach in which industries worked out their own problems, with the government aiding as adjudicator. Baldwin personally shaped and controlled his government's policy in this key area, and imposed a moderate course on the more hardline and anti-trade union elements in the cabinet and party. The first instance arose over a bill introduced by a Conservative back-bencher, F. A. Macquisten, on the contentious issue of the trade union political levy. Union members had to take the awkward step of 'contracting out' of the levy, and changing the law to make those who wished to pay 'contract in' had widespread Conservative support. However, Baldwin considered that this would be seen as a provocative and partisan use of the government's majority, and told a stunned cabinet that he would intervene against passing the bill. Baldwin's speech on 6 March 1925 established him as the most powerful parliamentary speaker of the era, and was perhaps his greatest triumph. He acknowledged that the principle of the bill was right, but asked his party to hold their hand as a gesture towards creating 'a new atmosphere in a new parliament for a new age, in which people can come together'. Speaking with quiet sincerity in a packed and hushed chamber, he evoked a spirit of goodwill and closed with the moving affirmation that 'there are many in all ranks and all parties who will re-echo my prayer, “Give peace in our time, O Lord”' (Hansard 5C, 181, 6 March 1925, 840–41). The speech elevated the debate to a different moral plane, and had a tremendous impact. The bill was dropped, and Baldwin's authority over his cabinet and party was complete. He also touched a chord with many of the public; when the speech was printed in the booklet Peace and Goodwill in Industry, half a million copies were sold in three months.

Baldwin's second conciliatory gesture averted a potential general strike by granting a subsidy to the troubled coal industry on 30 July 1925. The trade unions celebrated ‘Red Friday’ as a victory and many Conservatives were uneasy, but Baldwin was aware that both the government's emergency organization and public opinion were not ready to face a general strike. He appointed a royal commission under Sir Herbert Samuel to produce a plan acceptable to both owners and miners, but stubbornness on both sides of the coal dispute thwarted this hope and the government's many other attempts to find a negotiated solution. No common ground had been found when the nine-month subsidy expired on 30 April 1926, and the owners sought to impose their terms with a lock-out from 1 May. The government's negotiations with the TUC failed to avert a national stoppage in support of the miners, which began on 3 May. Baldwin showed his greatest strengths in handling the unprecedented dangers of the general strike, and the combination of calmness and firmness which he displayed created a reassuring atmosphere and avoided reactions of provocation or panic. The government was now prepared and able to keep essential supplies moving; this was important at the outset, as the TUC leadership had no desire for a long struggle. Baldwin's most important move was to shift the issue from an industrial dispute to a threat to the constitution, in which the TUC were the anti-democratic force seeking to dictate to the legitimate government. This was the line which he took in his first speech in the Commons on 3 May, in the message to the public printed in the British Gazette on 6 May, and in the crucial broadcasts which he made on 8 and 12 May (the day the strike was called off). His tone throughout was one of sorrow not anger, and the strikers were depicted as misled rather than dangerous. Baldwin appealed for calm and fortitude, for support for the elected government, and for trust in himself. When the strike was abandoned he maintained the same conciliatory tone, calling for no reprisals and offering further government negotiations and help in the coal dispute. However, despite many hours of wearisome effort, the latter dragged on for another nine months.

Baldwin's public standing was at its height in the wake of the general strike, but he did not use this for any immediate purpose. Long hours of work and stress had left him physically and mentally drained, and he was also suffering from lumbago in the summer of 1926. He recovered during his holiday at Aix in September, but returned to a heavy workload and by April 1927 was again exhausted. His illness and tiredness, and the tiredness of some of his ministers, contributed to the sense that the government was drifting and lacked a strong lead. The middle and later phases of the ministry were preoccupied with a range of problems, for most of which there were no clear or immediate solutions. The hope for a new atmosphere in industry bore little fruit owing to the continuing economic stagnation and the bitterness of the coal strike. Legislation on trade union matters was inevitable in the wake of the general strike, and the Trade Disputes and Trade Union Act of 1927 was a generally moderate response. However, it included ‘contracting in’ for the political levy and aroused bitter opposition from the labour movement in parliament and the country, further souring the mood and denting Baldwin's conciliatory image. In August 1927 he became the first serving prime minister to visit an overseas dominion when he accompanied the prince of Wales on a nineteen-day tour across Canada, during which he delivered twenty-six speeches.

Baldwin maintained a moderate course to the end of the government. In keeping with the spirit of confidence in the good sense of democracy, in 1928 the franchise was equalized for both sexes at the age of twenty-one, and proposals to strengthen the powers of the House of Lords were dropped. In these and other areas Baldwin disappointed not only the right wing of the Conservative Party but also much of its mainstream. There were mutterings on the back benches and in the constituencies that the government was 'semi-socialist', and a spread of apathy and discontent. With unemployment stuck around the 1 million mark, there was strong pressure for the extension of safeguarding duties, especially to the depressed iron and steel industry. However, in 1928 Baldwin ruled this out owing to the pledge against protection which had been made at the 1924 election. Agriculture was in an even worse condition, and here again the government could offer little assistance without reopening the dangerous tariff issue. The House of Commons had a steady diet of worthy but dull measures, and it is this which explains the gap between the solid record of legislation on the one hand and the widespread impression of drift and lack of inspiration on the other. The government's last major measure, the Derating Bill, was too late to affect employment and too complex to be an effective election platform. After its passage Baldwin decided to hold the election in the spring and polling was fixed for 30 May 1929. The Conservatives entered the campaign with few positive cards other than the appeal of Baldwin himself, and their strategy was founded upon this. The slogans of 'Safety first' and 'Trust in Baldwin' were intended to contrast with the poor reputation of Lloyd George, whose effort to revitalize the Liberal Party posed the greatest danger to the seats that the Conservatives had won in 1924. Baldwin toured the country and was considered to have performed well, but his and Central Office's expectations of victory were dashed. Almost all the gains of 1924 were swept away, and only 260 Conservative MPs remained. Labour was for the first time the largest party in the Commons, although still lacking an overall majority. To show that he accepted the electoral verdict with good grace and preclude any coalitionist intrigues with Lloyd George, who held the parliamentary balance, Baldwin decided against meeting parliament and resigned as prime minister on 4 June.

Leader of the opposition, 1929–1931

The period in opposition during the second Labour government of 1929–31 was difficult for Baldwin. His moderate line had failed to keep the Conservatives in office, and the results had shifted the balance in the parliamentary party towards the safer and southern constituencies. Soon after the defeat pressures began to build for a change in policy—at least a major extension of the safeguarding duties, and preferably a full tariff programme, including duties on food imports. This left Baldwin in a difficult position, attempting to straddle the divide as party and public opinion diverged. His strategy during 1929–30 was based on the need to recover the lost seats in the urban midlands and north, which were essential if the Conservatives were to regain a majority. Any suggestion of ‘food taxes’ was still an electoral liability in these areas, and so Baldwin resisted the pressure for tariffs. This ran counter to the mood in the party's strongholds, and led to the internal crisis which seriously threatened his position in the summer and autumn of 1930. The balancing act on which Baldwin was engaged made it difficult to sound a strong lead, and this further disappointed his followers. Labour still seemed to be popular during 1929–30, and Baldwin did not want to precipitate an election too soon. This dictated a mild and cautious approach in parliament which combined with some lacklustre Commons performances to erode confidence in his leadership.

The main danger which Baldwin faced was the rising discontent of his followers, but extra pressure was added by the campaign of the press lords, led by Beaverbrook with Rothermere's support. The ‘empire crusade’ sought to push the Conservative Party towards a full tariff reform programme, including food taxes, and was dangerous because its vigour and policy had a powerful appeal in the tory heartlands. It was this which enabled it to apply pressure to back-bench MPs and to secure a worrying share of Conservative votes when it ran candidates in by-elections. Baldwin intensely disliked the idea of compromise with the press lords, but the support which they were mobilizing could not be ignored. From November 1929 to March 1931 there were periods of negotiation and uneasy co-operation, as well as open conflict. Baldwin was pushed into advances in party policy, but these seemed reluctant and minimal. Tensions rose in the summer of 1930, and Baldwin had to accept the departure of the unpopular Davidson from the party chairmanship. He was replaced by Neville Chamberlain, and tactical mistakes by the press lords enabled Baldwin to counter-attack. He summoned a party meeting at Caxton Hall on 24 June 1930, and swung the audience behind him in outrage at dictatorial demands made by Rothermere. Changing the issue from policy to the constitutional threat of dictation by the press was Baldwin's trump card throughout the crisis, and was played again in October 1930 and March 1931. The most serious phase of the party crisis came in September 1930, and Baldwin's colleagues began to consider his position hopeless. However, the impact of the slump and rising unemployment was changing the mood in the industrial regions, and on 9 October Baldwin announced that he would ask for a 'free hand' to introduce tariffs at the next election. Almost all of the party now rallied behind him, and his leadership was endorsed by a large margin at a second party meeting on 30 October 1930.

Renewed attacks by Beaverbrook in February and March 1931 were less dangerous, but they coincided with unease over Baldwin's moderate policy on India and a decline in confidence among his front-bench colleagues. Neville Chamberlain presented him with a critical memo written by the senior official at Central Office, Robert Topping, on 1 March 1931, and Baldwin decided to retire. This low mood lasted for only a few hours and, rallied by his friends and wife, he decided to fight back. His position was actually much stronger than in the previous year, and a powerful and effective speech in the House on India on 12 March and a frank discussion with the shadow cabinet restored his authority. Beaverbrook gave up after his last throw in the Westminster St George's by-election was defeated, during which Baldwin made his most famous denunciation of the press lords as seeking 'power without responsibility—the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages' (Middlemas and Barnes, 600) in a speech at Queen's Hall on 17 March.

From the spring of 1931 the Conservative Party was united behind Baldwin, and by-elections pointed to them winning a large majority at the next election. As the depression worsened, Baldwin concentrated on attacking the tottering Labour government. The costs of unemployment payments had unbalanced the budget, and Conservatives were determined that this must be dealt with by reductions in spending and not increases in taxation. The need for 'economy' and preserving the 'free hand' on tariffs were Baldwin's priorities in the financial crisis which overwhelmed the Labour government in August 1931. He wanted Labour to meet its responsibilities and produce effective proposals to balance the budget or, failing that, to leave office having exposed its unfitness for government. Baldwin sought to avoid saving Labour from unpopularity or becoming entangled in a coalition, and tried to preserve a distance and continue his holiday in France. However, the collapse of the pound and the paralysis of the government forced him to return to London on 22 August, and two days later he reluctantly agreed to join an all-party ‘national’ emergency cabinet. The severity of the crisis and pressure of time left no better option, and at least this outcome avoided the greater danger of a purely Conservative government implementing spending and welfare cuts that might be very unpopular. Neville Chamberlain had represented the Conservatives in meetings with the other parties' leaders during Baldwin's absence, and also had some influence in pressing this solution on him. Even so, when Baldwin went to Buckingham Palace for the crucial meeting on 24 August he expected to become the prime minister of a mainly Conservative ministry with some Liberal support. Instead, the king pressed him that it was his patriotic duty to sacrifice personal and party claims and serve under MacDonald, who had agreed to remain as prime minister until the crisis was resolved. Baldwin could hardly refuse, but he insisted that it was a temporary and emergency arrangement, and that once the currency had been stabilized there would be an election in which the Conservatives would seek a mandate for the 'free hand'. In fact, the temporary National Government went on to win two elections and hold power from 1931 to 1940. Having made his name in the downfall of one coalition, Baldwin spent the rest of his political career as the central figure in another.

Although it was forced to abandon the gold standard on 21 September 1931, the National Government's very existence became a key factor in restoring stability and maintaining foreign confidence. The need to secure a mandate became imperative, and Baldwin and his party were willing to support a national appeal under MacDonald, provided that this did not restrict them from seeking the 'free hand' on tariffs. After a struggle with the free-traders in the cabinet, Baldwin secured the best position for the Conservatives under the circumstances: each party would campaign under its own manifesto, and the government as a whole would simply ask for 'a doctor's mandate' to implement whatever remedies it felt necessary. In fact, as the Conservatives provided most of its parliamentary support, this effectively meant the introduction of tariffs. The election which swiftly followed at the end of October was an unprecedented landslide; the government won 554 seats, of which 470 were Conservative. With the unity of the government preserved by an agreement that ministers could vote as they wished on this issue, the Import Duties Bill was passed in January 1932. Baldwin led the British delegation to the Imperial Conference at Ottawa in July and August, and successfully negotiated preferential arrangements with the dominions. While implementing these caused Snowden and the Samuelite Liberals to leave the government in September 1932, sufficient Labour and Liberal elements remained for its national status to be credible and there was greater harmony in the cabinet. Baldwin had reversed his defeat of 1923, and secured the abandonment of free trade which the bulk of his party had been seeking for nearly three decades. This was a significant achievement, although in the circumstances there was no triumphalism and it was not to bring the hoped-for prosperity or closer unity of the empire.

The National Government: lord president of the council, 1931–1935

From 25 August 1931 to 7 June 1935 Baldwin was the second figure in the National Government, occupying the prestigious non-departmental post of lord president of the council (he was also lord privy seal from 29 September 1932 to 31 December 1933). This was symbolized by his move into 11 Downing Street after the general election of 1931, which helped his strained personal finances. He chaired the cabinet in MacDonald's absences and deputized for him in the Commons, acting effectively as leader of the House. Baldwin was kept very busy and worked long hours, having a heavy load of committee work and giving much time and attention to the House of Commons. The position suited his strengths of co-ordination and communication, and the lesser responsibility meant that he did not suffer nervous exhaustion similar to that of 1926–7 and 1936. Baldwin had a good personal relationship with MacDonald and saw the value in retaining him as prime minister. He did much to hold the government together, supporting MacDonald and assuaging his fears of being seen as a Conservative puppet. Baldwin had the trust of the other non-Conservative ministers, and his non-partisan image made it easier for them to serve without loss of dignity; he was willing to allow them a generous share of cabinet posts and to follow policies that had clearly bipartisan aspects, as in agriculture, housing, education, and India. He was the guarantee that the right-wing Conservatives would not call the tune, while at the same time soothing his followers' fears that too many concessions were being made.

It is hard to assess Baldwin's contribution, other than in the National Government's overall performance. Its cohesion was good, with friendly co-operation in cabinet and little faction or dissent in parliament, apart from on the issue of India. It achieved consensus on domestic and overseas policy, surmounted the crises which it faced, and saw a slow recovery in the economy and employment. There were periods of anxiety, but it was never seriously in danger. Baldwin worked in effective partnership with the other key Conservative figure of Neville Chamberlain, the chancellor of the exchequer, and provided the atmosphere and public appeal which complemented Chamberlain's administrative drive and command of policy. There were two key areas where Baldwin had a particularly significant role. The first of these was India, over which he had been in conflict with the ‘die-hards’ of the Conservative right since his endorsement of the Irwin declaration's promise of eventual dominion status in October 1929. Baldwin wanted to maintain Britain's role in India, but accepted that a partnership with elements of Indian opinion would be required. He recognized the commitments which previous governments had given, and—in similar vein to his view of democracy at home—concluded that the only stable way forward was constructive progress in a generous spirit, which would encourage moderation. He was strongly influenced by the precedent of the Irish question, and was determined to maintain a bipartisan line and prevent India from becoming a party issue. Although placing emphasis on the safeguards to reassure Conservative opinion, he regarded Churchill's vehement opposition as dangerously negative. Baldwin risked his leadership over India late in 1929 and early in 1931, and had to exert his authority at key moments during Churchill's campaign to capture the Conservative rank and file in 1933–4. India took up much of Baldwin's time at the House of Commons; it was the subject of some of his most impressive speeches, and the Government of India Act was passed successfully in 1935.

The second and most controversial area was rearmament, and especially the key aspect of air policy. With the air minister in the Lords, Baldwin made the significant statements in the Commons, including the pledge of 8 March 1934 that Britain would not be inferior to any country within striking distance. Baldwin did not lack experience in foreign and defence matters, having been prime minister and chairman of the committee of imperial defence, and he chaired the cabinet disarmament committee during the Geneva conference of 1932–4. He understood the impact of new technology, and his warning in the Commons on 10 November 1932 that 'the bomber will always get through' (Hansard 5C, 270, 10 Nov 1932, 632) was strategically correct at the time. Another striking speech on 30 July 1934 warned that Britain's defensive frontier was no longer the white cliffs of Dover, but lay on the Rhine (ibid., 292, 30 July 1934, 2339). This led to the problem of how to gauge and respond to the threat from Germany, as Hitler's new regime offered a kaleidoscope of promises and threats after 1933. There were some more helpful developments, principally the conclusion of the Anglo-German naval agreement in June 1935, which severely limited the size of the German fleet and avoided the fear of another naval race. Baldwin bore much of the blame after 1939 for supposed failures of judgement on appeasement and rearmament, especially in the early stages of 1933–6. He was certainly concerned about the economic strain and aware of public hopes for disarmament and fear of another war, but German moves led him to press for increased spending on air defence in 1933–4. On 19 July 1934 he announced a substantial expansion of the RAF, which was followed by further increases to keep pace with Germany in May 1935, February 1936, and, in one of Baldwin's last acts, February 1937. However, German propaganda boasts of having reached air parity misled Baldwin into apologizing to the House on 22 May 1935 for having failed to maintain the margin promised in March 1934. This damaged Baldwin's reputation, and contributed to the later view that he and the government had been negligent and dilatory. In fact, between 1933 and 1935 the international dangers were less apparent than the benefit of hindsight later made them, and the government's measures seemed to be prudent and sufficient. During this time Baldwin's speeches contributed to the development of public opinion from the negative atmosphere of 1933 to a general acceptance of the need for more substantial rearmament.

Final term as prime minister, 1935–1937

On 7 June 1935 Baldwin exchanged posts with MacDonald, and at sixty-seven began his third and final term as prime minister. There was a cabinet reshuffle, including the promotion of Samuel Hoare as foreign secretary, but the character of the National Government was unchanged. Baldwin was now comfortable with the arrangement, considering that it provided valuable stability in troubled times. He was conscious of problems in Europe and the spread of totalitarian regimes, and sought to strengthen Britain morally as well as militarily, so that it would continue to uphold the ‘torch of freedom’ and the heritage of toleration and constitutional government. Baldwin was not a mirror simply reflecting public opinion; he sought to shape it, but by working with the grain rather than sounding sudden alarms. He used the general election to secure a mandate for increased rearmament, presenting this as doing 'what is necessary to repair the gaps in our defences' (Middlemas and Barnes, 866). Although this and the promise that 'there will be no great armaments' (Hyde, 398) were designed to underline the defensive nature of the government's intentions, Baldwin was firm about the need for action. In his first election broadcast, on 25 October 1935, he stated, 'I will not be responsible for the conduct of any Government in this country at the present time, if I am not given power to remedy the deficiencies which have accrued in our defences since the War' (The Times, 26 Oct 1935, 17), having used almost identical words in the House of Commons two days earlier (Hansard 5C, 305, 24 Oct 1935, 152). Given the fall in unemployment, the recent problems of the Labour leadership, and the unsettled international situation, it was unlikely that this would cause the rejection of the National Government. However, even if Baldwin was not risking everything, it was certainly far from the 'putting party before country' of the later crude Churchillian condemnation of his conduct in 1933–5. The economic picture had continued to improve, and the general election which Baldwin called in November 1935 returned the National Government with a comfortable majority, having 429 MPs (of whom 387 were Conservatives) to Labour's 154.

Baldwin's final ministry had achievements in domestic reform, including raising the school-leaving age to fifteen in 1936 and major programmes of slum clearance, but this has been overshadowed by criticism of its foreign and defence policies. The first international crisis was Italy's attack on Abyssinia in 1935, to which Baldwin's response was constrained by awareness that British public opinion and the French government were unwilling to risk war. A plan to buy off Italy was devised by Hoare in conjunction with the French foreign minister, Laval, but it was leaked to the press before it could be put to either the cabinet or Mussolini. The generous reward which it offered to the aggressor aroused a storm of criticism in Britain, shaking the National Government and damaging Baldwin's reputation. In particular, the plan seemed a cynical betrayal of the commitment to the League of Nations which the government had strongly emphasized in the election campaign only a few weeks before. Hoare was forced to resign, and Baldwin's speech in the debate on 10 December 1935 was unconvincing, taking refuge behind the suggestion that he could not disclose the full facts—'my lips are not yet unsealed' (Hansard 5C, 307, 10 Dec 1935, 856)—and appealing for trust. The government's supporters did not want it to founder, and rallied behind Baldwin after a misjudged attack on his honour by the Labour leader, Clement Attlee. This traumatic experience damaged confidence in Baldwin, although his moving broadcast tribute on the death of the king on 20 January 1936 partly restored his public position. Baldwin appointed the untarnished and youthful Anthony Eden as foreign secretary, but was aware that Hoare had been treated poorly and felt an obligation to bring him back to the cabinet as soon as possible.

The next crisis was caused by Hitler's remilitarization of the Rhineland in March 1936. Baldwin recognized that this aspect of the discredited Versailles treaty no longer enjoyed public support, and told the cabinet that a military response would be out of proportion. When the new French foreign minister, Flandin, came to London and proposed full sanctions against Germany, Baldwin was concerned that the crisis would escalate and rejected the plan on the ground that Britain was militarily unready for war. The government had been considering remilitarization as part of a general arms limitation agreement, and although Hitler had acted unilaterally in the reoccupation, he also now offered to enter such negotiations. Baldwin chaired the cabinet foreign policy committee, but left the execution of policy to Eden. He gave only general guidance, urging the improvement of relations with Germany and expressing concern over the French alliance with Russia, which could drag the Western powers into a Nazi–Communist struggle. The strains of the foreign situation and the responsibilities and workload of the premiership overcame Baldwin in the middle of 1936, and he suffered his most severe period of nervous exhaustion. He was required to rest, and during these months the government seemed to lose direction. In the uncertain period following the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War Baldwin decided against holidaying at Aix and stayed at a series of English country houses, before returning reinvigorated to Downing Street on 12 October 1936. On 12 November, replying to Churchill's criticism of the pace of air rearmament, Baldwin declared with 'appalling frankness' (Hansard 5C, 317, 12 Nov 1936, 1144) that no public mandate for rearmament could have been secured in 1933. This was misunderstood or misrepresented by his critics, especially in Churchill's war memoirs, to refer to the general election of 1935, and was taken as an admission that Baldwin had put party concerns before national security.

The major event of Baldwin's final months as prime minister was the crisis over the new king's wish to marry Mrs Simpson, an American whose second divorce was impending. The problem was not the monarch's private morality but his public role, for a divorcee would not be acceptable as queen. Controversy over this divided the nation in a dangerous international period and potentially threatened the unity of the empire, for since the Statute of Westminster the monarch was the symbolic link with the dominions. At first Baldwin was reluctant to broach the subject, but in a strained conversation on 20 October 1936 he warned the king that the public reaction would be hostile. Baldwin tried to dissuade Edward, but the monarch was determined upon the marriage and at their next meeting on 16 November raised the possibility of abdication. The king's proposal of a morganatic marriage was rejected by the dominions and the cabinet, and Australia and Canada warned that they would not recognize Mrs Simpson as queen. When the British press broke their silence on 2 December, Baldwin informed the king that the only options remaining were renunciation of Mrs Simpson or abdication, still hoping that he would choose the former. The crisis assumed a political dimension when Beaverbrook and Churchill tried to rally support for the king, but the mood in the Commons was strongly against them and the Labour opposition indicated that they would refuse to form a ministry if Baldwin had to resign. Once again Baldwin successfully neutralized a political crisis by presenting it as a constitutional issue, thus discounting any party implications.

Although sometimes stilted, Baldwin's meetings with the king were conducted politely, showing goodwill and a fatherly concern. However, he was firm in rejecting on 4 December the king's wish to put his case before the public in a radio broadcast; the nation would be divided into opposing camps, and it would be unconstitutional if the monarch acted independently of the advice of his ministers. Baldwin sought to appeal to Edward's sense of duty, but was appalled at the king's lack of responsibility or moral struggle. On the final visit to Fort Belvedere on the evening of 7 December Baldwin was prepared to strive all night with the king's conscience but found that Edward had resolved to abdicate, and the instrument was signed on 10 December. Baldwin conducted the abdication crisis with discretion, informing only a few close colleagues and consulting the full cabinet only when necessary. He was praised on all sides for the tact, patience, and sympathy with which he had resolved a potentially corrosive situation, and was restored to the height of public esteem. His success was capped by masterly performances in his broadcast to the nation and speech in the Commons after the abdication; the latter was a moment of great theatre in a packed House, in which Baldwin's plain statement was all the more effective. In the lobby afterwards he confided to a back-bench MP: 'I had a success, my dear Nicolson, at the moment I most needed it. Now is the time to go' (Harold Nicolson: Diaries and Letters, 107–8).

In fact, Baldwin had decided during his period of breakdown earlier in 1936 that he would retire at the time of the coronation in May 1937. The premiership was passed to Neville Chamberlain, who had been waiting with some impatience. Baldwin's last ministerial action was to announce the first increase in MPs' salaries since their introduction in 1912 and the establishment of a salary for the leader of the opposition. This was a typical gesture, for the changes were of most value to Labour MPs, and 'was done with Baldwin's usual consummate good taste. No man has ever left in such a blaze of affection' (Harold Nicolson: Diaries and Letters, 113). He resigned the next day, 28 May 1937, and was created a knight of the Garter.

Peerage and last years

Baldwin underlined his withdrawal from active politics by leaving the House of Commons, but he accepted a peerage and on 8 June was created Earl Baldwin of Bewdley. He was much interested in his family's pedigree and their roots in Corvedale in Shropshire, and chose Viscount Corvedale as accompanying junior title. During his political career he had received many honours: fourteen universities conferred honorary doctorates upon him; he was lord rector of the universities of Edinburgh (1923–6) and Glasgow (1928–31) and was chancellor of the universities of St Andrews, from 1929, and Cambridge, from 1930, until his death.

Retirement was followed by a nervous collapse in July 1937, and arthritis prevented Baldwin's usual walks at Aix. In 1937 he founded the Imperial Relations Trust to improve contacts among the dominions. He was also chairman of the Rhodes Trust and, from 1930, the Pilgrim Trust. Baldwin was concerned by the resignation of Eden in February 1938 and had reservations about Chamberlain's conduct of affairs but, on 4 October 1938, in his only speech in the House of Lords, gave general support to the Munich settlement. He was also concerned about the victims of oppression, and in December 1938 an appeal broadcast in Britain and North America raised £500,000 for the Lord Baldwin Fund for Refugees. He delivered a series of lectures on his familiar themes of the English character and democracy in Canada in April 1939, and in August 1939 he spoke in New York; these events attracted much attention and were broadcast across the continent. However, the outbreak of war reduced his activities, and the Baldwins retired to live quietly at Astley.

Baldwin's last years were saddened by his own and his wife's declining strength, by financial worries which left them with almost no staff to assist them, and by the cold blast of public disapproval after Dunkirk. He was condemned as principal among the ‘guilty men’ responsible for the misjudgments of appeasement and the inadequacies of rearmament, and even local tradesmen showed hostility. There were hurtful attacks in the press, particularly when the wrought-iron gates at Astley, which had been presented on his retirement, were requisitioned for salvage. He visited London regularly in 1941–3 and was cheered by a friendly lunch with Churchill in February 1943, but his physical decline continued in the later years of the war. After the shock of Lucy's sudden death in 1945, he was often depressed and suffered increasing lameness and deafness. He died quietly in his sleep at Astley Hall on 13 December 1947; his remains were cremated in Birmingham on 17 December, and he and Lucy were interred together in Worcester Cathedral. His son Oliver succeeded him as second Earl Baldwin; on Oliver's death in 1958 the title passed to his younger brother, Windham.

Assessments and significance

Baldwin was one of the few prime ministers to retire at the time of his own choosing, and almost unique in departing at the height of his popularity and prestige. However, the outbreak and problems of the war led to a rapid reversal, and his reputation slumped to the lowest depths within his own lifetime. Baldwin refused to write his memoirs, but agreed that the Oxford historian G. M. Young be commissioned to write a biography. Unfortunately Young was influenced by the hostile view of Baldwin which was pervasive by the late 1940s, and became so disenchanted with his subject that he sought to be excused from his contract. When the publishers insisted, the slim volume which appeared in 1952 further damaged Baldwin's reputation, giving authority to the charges against him and explaining them in relation to weaknesses in his character and capacity. It confirmed the prevailing view of Baldwin as lazy and indecisive, a second-rate figure who took the line of least resistance. Young's tone and methods upset the family and moved Baldwin's younger son Windham to publish a reply, My Father: the True Story, in 1955. This drew on family papers for Baldwin's early years, and made effective use of Hansard and published official sources to counter the criticism of his conduct in the 1930s. This was the first step in restoring Baldwin's reputation, although the hostile Churchillian view was dominant until the 1970s and remained influential thereafter.

The opening of state and private archives produced the first historical assessment, a lengthy biography by Keith Middlemas and John Barnes, in 1969. This was a revisionist work which sought to rehabilitate Baldwin, and particularly tackle the question of rearmament. During the remainder of the century a fuller and more sophisticated understanding was developed by a range of works from H. M. Hyde's narrative life in 1973 to the analytical study by Philip Williamson in 1999. The latter took a distinctive approach, focusing on Baldwin's background, purposes, and methods, and in particular his public speeches. From this Baldwin emerged as a more complex and subtle figure in character and political conduct, with concerns and methods which reflected his era. Since the 1970s there has been greater emphasis on Baldwin's domestic statecraft, and in particular his role in the dominance of the Conservatives between the wars and the related aspects of his public image and use of new media. The pendulum has swung almost completely towards a positive view, although the problems which Britain faced in economic strength and military readiness in the 1930s still leave some awkwardness. Baldwin is now seen as having done more than most and perhaps as much as was possible in the context, but the fact remains that it was not enough to deter the aggressors or ensure their defeat. Less equivocal was his rediscovery as a moderate and inclusive Conservative for the modern age, part of a ‘one nation’ tradition. Baldwin was little mentioned by the Conservative Party in the early post-war decades, when he was still an embarrassment. During the Thatcher years his brand of Conservatism was derided as 'wet' and based on weakness and concession. However, by the early 1990s it had become acceptable to cite Baldwin as an inspiration or model, and John Major deliberately echoed him when seeking to project a unifying style of Conservatism.

Whether critical or favourable, assessments of Baldwin have agreed on his importance and influence in the inter-war years, and he is often seen as the defining figure of the age. He was its outstanding public speaker, and his radio broadcasts and parliamentary speeches frequently combined to great effect his command of language, sensitivity to atmosphere and unifying moral purpose. His political role was that of a mediator and his aim was to create a spirit of harmony and unity, not just in the government but in the nation as a whole. Baldwin's effectiveness and his legacy need to be judged in this light, rather than by legislative achievements. His priorities were restoring standards in public life, educating democracy, encouraging moderation within the labour movement, promoting national unity across class divisions, and maintaining the constitution as the guarantor of both liberty and property. Baldwin's major battles related to these themes, from rejecting the cynicism of the Lloyd George coalition to the abdication crisis. 'Safety first' is the least appropriate slogan for his career: Baldwin did not play safe over the coalition in 1922, tariffs in 1923, the political levy and coal subsidy in 1925, the general strike threat in 1926, the press lords in 1929–30, India from 1929 to 1935, or in joining the National Government in 1931. He combined goodwill and firmness in preserving a popular constitutional monarchy in 1936 and in seeking a stable and developing India at the heart of the empire.

Baldwin's promotion of social harmony and industrial reconciliation played a significant role in soothing tensions in the 1920s. In 1926 the challenge of direct action was defeated in an atmosphere of calmness and confidence, and fears of social upheaval faded. Other possible Conservative leaders would not have been able to match Baldwin's remarkable ability to project an idealistic appeal to the new democracy, suffused with 'a breadth of outlook, a tolerance and a warm humanity' (Amery, My Political Life, 398). His relations with the Labour Party were cordial and constructive, and he refused to consider manoeuvres to prevent them from taking office in 1924 or 1929. The tone set by Baldwin in the 1920s enabled leading figures from the three parties to work together in the national governments of the 1930s with remarkably little friction. Baldwin's co-ordinating role in 1931–5 contributed much to the cohesion and stability of the National Government. With the tariff secured, most Conservatives were comfortable with this cautiously reformist ministry, especially as its cross-party appeal brought public support and large electoral majorities. By the time of his retirement in 1937 prosperity had returned to much of the country, and new initiatives were being developed in the areas still gripped by depression.

Baldwin's leadership was an essential factor in the electoral success which the Conservative Party won between the wars. He enjoyed widespread popularity with uncommitted, Liberal and even Labour voters, and was acknowledged to be the Conservatives' greatest electoral asset. However, his most significant achievement was to ensure the security and confidence of the Conservative elements in British society as they adjusted to the coming of democracy. In 1922–4 Baldwin preserved the independence of the Conservative Party and provided it with a distinct and attractive identity at a time of political confusion and uncertainty. At the same time, he left no fertile opening to the right and was principally responsible for confining fascism to the margins of British politics. Apart from the miscalculation of the general election in 1923 he successfully aligned his party with the outlook and aspirations of much of the British people. Rather than allowing it to be seen as a class-defined, reactionary, and divisive force, Baldwin projected a democratic and inclusive Conservatism which combined preservation of continuity with the past with acceptance of modern economic and imperial realities. The openness and adaptability of his approach contributed to Conservative resilience and recovery after the defeat of 1945, even if its originator was too unpopular to acknowledge. By the time of his retirement he had recast the party in his own image and shaped the outlook of the next generation of Conservative leaders, in particular Eden, Butler, and Macmillan.

Against these achievements can be set Baldwin's weaknesses and failures. He was not absorbed or engaged in some areas, and could delegate too much or hold back from intervening when more direction and urgency was needed. At the same time the stress of work and responsibility built up to periods of nervous exhaustion, during which there was a lack of control. His parliamentary performances could sometimes be poor, and he tended to personalize political issues—particularly in his hostility to Lloyd George and the press lords. He made a number of less than successful cabinet appointments, such as Steel-Maitland and Joynson-Hicks in 1924 and Inskip in 1936. It can be argued that he accepted too readily the limitations imposed by public opinion, particularly over tariffs in the 1920s and foreign policy in the 1930s. Criticism of Baldwin's record focuses most on the area which he left mainly to others: foreign affairs. The failure to check the ambitions of the dictators is a complex matter, but without the support of other powers Britain was over-stretched in meeting challenges from Japan, Italy, and Germany. In the aftermath of the horrors of the western front and with fear of destruction from the air, it was commonly accepted that a new basis of peace and understanding was required. The Anglo-German naval agreement of 1935 was intended as a first step and can be claimed as a partial success, for during the Second World War the German surface fleet was never a serious danger. Baldwin's approach was more limited and sceptical than that of his successor; rightly or wrongly, he would not have flown to Munich. Rearmament was certainly constrained by financial and political anxieties, but a programme was initiated in 1934—when the threat was far from definite—and had grown massively by the time Baldwin retired in 1937. The initial expansion of the RAF in 1934–5 was concentrated upon a deterrent bomber force, and much of the military equipment had to be abandoned in France in 1940. The state of the country's defences as it faced invasion after Dunkirk did not fully reflect the National Government's rearmament efforts, but this was the image which sank into popular mythology. Even so, in unexpectedly adverse and isolated circumstances, Britain had sufficient naval and air resources—in particular through the development of radar and modern fighter aircraft—to make invasion too hazardous to risk.

It can never be known if another approach or another prime minister would have achieved more in deterring the aggressive powers or carrying the country for earlier and larger rearmament. In the political and economic circumstances of 1930s Britain it is likely that they would not, and they might have left a divided country no more able to withstand adversity than was France in 1940. It would take time for Britain to match the rearmament of Nazi Germany, and Baldwin can be criticized for the vulnerabilities and deficiencies that were exposed from the Rhineland crisis to Dunkirk. At the same time, his constructive legacy must also be acknowledged: the consensus built around the non-provocative defence and foreign policy of the 1930s was what sustained public unity and the will to victory after 1940. Churchill may have provided the words and been an unsullied symbol, but all that he built rested on the strong and enduring foundations laid down by Baldwin.


  • P. Williamson, Stanley Baldwin (1999)
  • H. M. Hyde, Baldwin (1973)
  • A. W. Baldwin, My father: the true story (1955)
  • K. Middlemas and J. Barnes, Baldwin (1969)
  • T. Jones, A diary with letters, 1931–1950 (1954)
  • Memoirs of a Conservative: J. C. C. Davidson's memoirs and papers, 1910–37, ed. R. R. James (1969)
  • T. Jones, Whitehall diary, ed. K. Middlemas, 1–2 (1969)
  • J. Ramsden, The age of Balfour and Baldwin, 1902–1940 (1978)
  • S. Ball, Baldwin and the Conservative Party: the crisis of 1929–1931 (1988)
  • Baldwin MSS, CUL
  • U. Birm. L., Austen and Neville Chamberlain MSS
  • BL OIOC, Halifax MSS
  • Parl. Arch., Davidson papers
  • Trinity Cam., Butler MSS
  • Lpool RO, Derby papers
  • A. S. Williams, Ladies of influence: women of the élite in interwar Britain (2000)
  • G. M. Young, Stanley Baldwin (1952)
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  • Lord Butler, The art of the possible (1971)
  • Harold Nicolson: diaries and letters, 1930–1964, ed. S. Olson (1980)
  • The Leo Amery diaries, ed. J. Barnes and D. Nicholson, 1 (1980)
  • The modernisation of conservative politics: the diaries and letters of William Bridgeman, 1904–1935, ed. P. Williamson (1988)
  • Parliament and politics in the age of Baldwin and MacDonald: the Headlam diaries, 1923–1935, ed. S. Ball (1992)
  • Real old tory politics: the political diaries of Robert Sanders, Lord Bayford, 1910–35, ed. J. Ramsden (1984)
  • The Reith diaries, ed. C. Stuart (1975)
  • M. Gilbert, ed., Winston S. Churchill, companion vol. 5 (1979–82)
  • Lord Templewood, Nine troubled years (1954)
  • Lord Percy of Newcastle, Some memories (1958)
  • Stanley Baldwin, British Universities Film and Video Council, [VHS video]
  • D. Cannadine, ‘Politics, propaganda and art: the case of two “Worcestershire lads”’, Midland History, 4 (1977), 97–122
  • J. Ramsden, ‘Baldwin and film’, Politics, propaganda and film, 1918–1945, ed. N. Pronay and D. W. Spring (1982), 126–43
  • S. Nicholas, ‘The construction of a national identity: Stanley Baldwin, “Englishness” and the mass media in inter-war Britain’, The Conservatives and British society, 1880–1990, ed. M. Francis and I. Zweiniger-Bargielowska (1996), 127–46
  • R. Self, ‘Conservative reunion and the general election of 1923’, 20th-Century British History, 3 (1992), 249–73
  • P. Williamson, ‘“Safety first”: Baldwin, the Conservative Party, and the 1929 general election’, HJ, 25 (1982), 385–409
  • J. Campbell, ‘Stanley Baldwin’, British prime ministers in the twentieth century, ed. J. P. Mackintosh, 1: Balfour to Chamberlain (1977), 188–218
  • R. Blake, ‘Baldwin and the right’, The Baldwin age, ed. J. T. Raymond (1960), 25–65
  • K. Young, Baldwin (1976)
  • d. cert.




  • BL NSA, ‘The announcement in parliament of the abdication’, T8840R
  • ‘Man with the pipe’, M894WC1


  • B. Stone, photograph, 1909, NPG
  • W. Stoneman, two photographs, 1920–38, NPG
  • M. Beerbohm, chalk caricature, 1924 (The old and young self), Athenaeum Club, London
  • photographs, 1924, Hult. Arch.
  • Lady Kennet, bust, 1925, Bewdley town hall, Worcestershire
  • O. Birley, oils, 1926, Goldsmiths' Hall, London
  • G. Philpot, oils, 1926, Carlton Club, London
  • N. Trent, bronze bust, 1927, Harrow School, Middlesex
  • Vandyk, two photographs, 1927, NPG [see illus.]
  • W. Rothenstein, chalk sketch, 1928, NPG
  • statuette, 1928, priv. coll.
  • W. C. Dongworth, miniature, 1930, NPG
  • H. Coster, photographs, 1930–39, NPG
  • R. G. Eves, oils, 1933, NPG
  • W. T. Monnington, oils, 1933, Trinity Cam.
  • O. Birley, oils, 1938, Carlton Club, London
  • bust, 1940, Stourport Library, Worcestershire
  • F. Dodd, oils, 1943, Bodl. RH; chalk study sketch, 1942, NPG
  • T. Cottrell, cigarette card, NPG
  • F. Dodd, pencil drawing, NPG
  • D. Low, caricature, sketch (Mister Baldwin), repro. in New Statesman (Nov 1933)
  • B. Partridge, ink caricature, NPG; repro. in Punch (7 Nov 1923)
  • B. Partridge, ink caricature, NPG; repro. in Punch (19 Nov 1924)
  • B. Partridge, ink caricature, NPG; repro. in Punch (1 Nov 1926)
  • A. P. F. Ritchie, cigarette card, NPG
  • cigarette card, NPG
  • photograph (after drawing by F. Dodd), NPG

Wealth at Death

£280,971 3s. 1d.: probate, 18 March 1948, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

British Library, London
Centre for Kentish Studies, Maidstone, Kent
Cambridge University Library
Hulton|Archive, Getty Images, London
Historical Manuscripts Commission, National Register of Archives
Shropshire Records and Research Centre, Shrewsbury
Devon Record Office, Exeter
British Library, Oriental and India Office Collections
Historical Journal
University of Birmingham Library
Liverpool Record Office and Local Studies Service
National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth
University of Warwick, Modern Records Centre, Coventry
British Film Institute, London, National Archive
Worcestershire Record Office, Worcester
Bodleian Library of Commonwealth and African Studies at Rhodes House, Oxford
Parliamentary Archives of the United Kingdom
Bodleian Library, Oxford
National Archives of Scotland, Edinburgh
Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, Belfast
Imperial War Museum, Film and Video Archive
University of Glasgow, Archives and Business Records Centre
National Portrait Gallery, London
private collection
Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies, Hertford
National Library of Australia
Trinity College, Cambridge
University of Newcastle upon Tyne, Robinson Library
British Library, National Sound Archive
Churchill College, Churchill Archives Centre, Cambridge