He proved to be very adept at the family business of iron manufacturing, and acquired a reputation as a modernising industrialist. Later he inherited £200,000 and a directorship of the Great Western Railway upon the death of his father Alfred Baldwin in 1908.
In late 1922 dissatisfaction was steadily growing within the Conservative Party over its coalition with the Liberal David Lloyd George. At a meeting of Conservative MPs at the Carlton Club in October Baldwin announced that he would no longer support the coalition and famously condemned Lloyd George for being a "dynamic force" that was bringing destruction across politics. The meeting chose to leave the coalition, against the wishes of most of the party leadership. As a result Bonar Law, the new Conservative leader, was forced to search for new ministers for his Cabinet and so promoted Baldwin to the position of Chancellor of the Exchequer. In the November 1922 general election the Conservatives were returned with a majority in their own right.
In May 1923 Bonar Law was diagnosed with terminal cancer and retired immediately. With many of the party's senior leading figures standing aloof and outside of the government, there were only two candidates to succeed him: Lord Curzon, the Foreign Secretary, and Baldwin. The choice formally fell to King George V acting on the advice of senior ministers and officials. It is not entirely clear what factors proved most crucial, but some Conservative politicians felt that Curzon was unsuitable for the role of Prime Minister because he was a member of the House of Lords (though this did not stop other lords being seriously considered for the premiership on subsequent occasions). Curzon's lack of experience in domestic affairs, his personal character (found objectionable), and his aristocratic background at a time when the Conservative Party was seeking to shed its patrician image were all deemed impediments. Much weight at the time was given to the intervention of Arthur Balfour.
The King turned to Baldwin to become Prime Minister. Initially Baldwin was also Chancellor of the Exchequer whilst he sought to recruit the former Liberal Chancellor Reginald McKenna to join the government. When this failed he appointed Neville Chamberlain.
The Conservatives now had a clear majority in the House of Commons and could govern for five years before holding a general election, but Baldwin felt bound by Bonar Law's pledge at the previous election that there would be no introduction of tariffs without a further election. With the country facing growing unemployment in the wake of free-trade imports driving down prices and profits, Baldwin decided to call an early general election in December 1923 to seek a mandate to introduce protectionist tariffs and thus drive down unemployment. Protection was not universally popular in the Conservative Party: "one must speak of the election being fought by a divided party. The election outcome was inconclusive: the Conservatives had 258 MPs, Labour 191 and the reunited Liberals 159. Whilst the Conservatives retained a plurality in the House of Commons, they had been clearly defeated on the central election issue of tariffs. Baldwin remained Prime Minister until the opening session of the new Parliament in January 1924, at which time the government was defeated in a motion of confidence vote. He resigned immediately.
The Labour government were negotiating with the Soviet government over what was called the Russian Treaties: a commercial treaty with most favoured nation privileges and diplomatic status for their trade delegation; and a treaty that would settle the claims of pre-revolutionary British bondholders and holders of confiscated property, after which the British government would guarantee a loan to the Soviet Union. Baldwin decided to vote against the government over the Russian Treaties, which brought the government down on 8 October.
The general election held in October 1924 brought a landslide majority of 223 for the Conservative party, primarily at the expense of the now terminally declining Liberals. Baldwin campaigned on the "impracticability" of socialism, the Campbell Case, the Zinoviev Letter (which Baldwin thought was genuine) and the Russian Treaties. In a speech during the campaign Baldwin said:
It makes my blood boil to read of the way which Mr. Zinoviev is speaking of the Prime Minister today. Though one time there went up a cry, "Hands off Russia", I think it's time somebody said to Russia, "Hands off England".
Baldwin's new Cabinet now included many former political associates of Lloyd George: former Coalition Conservatives Austen Chamberlain (as Foreign Secretary), Lord Birkenhead (Secretary for India) and Arthur Balfour (Lord President after 1925), and the former Liberal Winston Churchill as Chancellor of the Exchequer. This period included the General Strike of 1926, a crisis that the government managed to weather, despite the havoc it caused throughout the UK. Baldwin created the Organisation for the Maintenance of Supplies, a volunteer body of those opposed to the strike which was intended to complete essential work.
At Baldwin's instigation Lord Weir headed a committee to "review the national problem of electrical energy". It published its report on 14 May 1925 and in it Weir recommended the setting up of a Central Electricity Board, a state monopoly half-financed by the Government and half by local undertakings. Baldwin accepted Weir's recommendations and they became law by the end of 1926. The Board was a success. By 1939 electrical output was up fourfold and generating costs had fallen. Consumers of electricity rose from three-quarters of a million in 1920 to nine million in 1938, with annual growth of 7–800,000 a year (the fastest rate of growth in the world).
I think it is well also for the man in the street to realise that there is no power on earth that can protect him from being bombed. Whatever people may tell him, the bomber will always get through, The only defence is in offence, which means that you have to kill more women and children more quickly than the enemy if you want to save yourselves...If the conscience of the young men should ever come to feel, with regard to this one instrument [bombing] that it is evil and should go, the thing will be done; but if they do not feel like that – well, as I say, the future is in their hands. But when the next war comes, and European civilisation is wiped out, as it will be, and by no force more than that force, then do not let them lay blame on the old men. Let them remember that they, principally, or they alone, are responsible for the terrors that have fallen upon the earth.
This speech was often used against Baldwin as allegedly demonstrating the futility of rearmament or disarmament, depending on the critic.
With the second part of the Disarmament Conference starting in January 1933, Baldwin attempted to see through his hope of air disarmament. However he became alarmed at Britain's lack of defence against air raids and German rearmament, saying it "would be a terrible thing, in fact, the beginning of the end". In April 1933 the Cabinet agreed to follow through with the construction of the Singapore military base. On 15 September 1933 the German delegate at the Disarmament Conference refused to return to the Conference and Germany left altogether in October. On 6 October Baldwin, in a speech to the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham, pleaded for a Disarmament Convention and then said:
...when I speak of a Disarmament Convention I do not mean disarmament on the part of this country and not on the part of any other. I mean the limitation of armaments as a real limitation...and if we find ourselves on some lower rating and that some other country has higher figures, that country has to come down and we have to go up until we meet.
On 14 October Germany left the League of Nations. The Cabinet decided on 23 October that Britain should still attempt to cooperate with other states, including Germany, in international disarmament. However between mid-September 1933 and the beginning of 1934 Baldwin's mind changed from hoping for disarmament to favouring rearmament, including parity in aircraft. In late 1933 and early 1934 he rejected an invitation from Hitler to meet him, believing that visits to foreign capitals were the job of Foreign Secretaries. On 8 March 1934 Baldwin defended the creation of four new squadrons for the Royal Air Force against Labour criticisms and said of international disarmament:
If all our efforts for an agreement fail, and if it is not possible to obtain this equality in such matters as I have indicated, then any Government of this country—a National Government more than any, and this Government—will see to it that in air strength and air power this country shall no longer be in a position inferior to any country within striking distance of our shores.
On 29 March 1934 Germany published its defence estimates' which showed a total increase of one-third and an increase of 250% in its air force.
A series of by-elections with massive swings against government candidates—most famous was Fulham East with a 26.5% swing—in late 1933 and early 1934 convinced Baldwin that the British public was profoundly pacifist. Baldwin also rejected the "belligerent" views of those like Churchill and Robert Vansittart because he believed that the Nazis were rational men who would appreciate the logic of mutual and equal deterrence. He also believed war to be "the most fearful terror and prostitution of man's knowledge that ever was known".
On 31 July 1934 the Cabinet approved a report that called for expansion of the Royal Air Force to the 1923 standard by creating 40 new squadrons over the following five years. Six days after receiving the news that the German air force would be as large as the RAF within one year the Cabinet decided on 26 November 1934 to speed up air rearmament from four years to two. In April 1935 the Air Secretary reported that although Britain's strength in the air would be ahead of Germany for at least three years, air rearmament needed to be increased so the Cabinet agreed to the creation of an extra 39 squadrons for home defence by 1937. However, on 8 May 1935 the Cabinet heard that it was estimated that the RAF was inferior to the Luftwaffe by 370 aircraft and that in order to reach parity the RAF must have 3,800 aircraft by April 1937—an extra 1,400 on the existing air programme. It was learnt that Germany was easily able to outbuild this revised programme as well. On 21 May 1935 the Cabinet agreed to expanding the home defence force of the RAF to 1,512 aircraft (840 bombers and 420 fighters).
On 25 February 1936 the Cabinet approved a report calling for expansion of the Royal Navy and the re-equipment of the British Army (though not its expansion), along with the creation of "shadow factories" built by public money and managed by industrial companies. These factories came into operation in 1937. In February 1937 the Chiefs of Staff reported that by May 1937 the Luftwaffe would have 800 bombers compared to the RAF's 48.
On 28 November 1934 Churchill moved an amendment to the vote of thanks for the King's Speech, which read: "...the strength of our national defences, and especially our air defences, is no longer adequate". His motion was known eight days before it was moved and a special Cabinet meeting decided how to deal with this motion and it dominated two other Cabinet meetings. Churchill said Germany was rearming; requested that the money spent on air armaments be doubled or trebled in order to deter an attack; and that the Luftwaffe was nearing equality with the RAF. Baldwin responded by denying that the Luftwaffe was approaching equality and that it was "not 50 per cent" of the RAF. He added that by the end of 1935 the RAF would still have "a margin of nearly 50 per cent" in Europe. After Baldwin said the government would ensure the RAF had parity with the future German air force Churchill withdrew his amendment. On 22 May 1935 Baldwin confessed in the Commons: "I was wrong was in my estimate of the future. There I was completely wrong.
In the debate in the Commons on 12 November 1936 Churchill attacked the government on rearmament as being "decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift, solid for fluidity, all-powerful to be impotent. So we go on, preparing more months and years – precious, perhaps vital, to the greatness of Britain – for the locusts to eat". Baldwin replied:
I put before the whole House my own views with an appalling frankness. From 1933, I and my friends were all very worried about what was happening in Europe. You will remember at that time the Disarmament Conference was sitting in Geneva. You will remember at that time there was probably a stronger pacifist feeling running through the country than at any time since the War. I am speaking of 1933 and 1934. You will remember the election at Fulham in the autumn of 1933...That was the feeling of the country in 1933. My position as a leader of a great party was not altogether a comfortable one. I asked myself what chance was there...within the next year or two of that feeling being so changed that the country would give a mandate for rearmament? Supposing I had gone to the country and said that Germany was rearming and we must rearm, does anybody think that this pacific democracy would have rallied to that cry at that moment! I cannot think of anything that would have made the loss of the election from my point of view more certain...We got from the country – with a large majority – a mandate for doing a thing that no one, twelve months before, would have believed possible.
Churchill wrote to a friend: "I have never heard such a squalid confession from a public man as Baldwin offered us yesterday". In 1935 Baldwin wrote to J. C. C. Davidson (now lost) saying of Churchill: "If there is going to be a war – and no one can say that there is not – we must keep him fresh to be our war Prime Minister". Thomas Dugdale also claimed Baldwin said to him: "If we do have a war, Winston must be Prime Minister. If he is in [the Cabinet] now we shan't be able to engage in that war as a united nation". The General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress, Walter Citrine, recalled on 5 April 1943 a conversation he had had with Baldwin: "Baldwin thought his [Churchill's] political recovery was marvellous. He, personally, had always thought that if war came Winston would be the right man for the job".
The Labour Party strongly opposed the rearmament programme. Clement Attlee said on 21 December 1933: "For our part, we are unalterably opposed to anything in the nature of rearmament". On 8 March 1934 Attlee said, after Baldwin defended the Air Estimates, "we on our side are out for total disarmament". On 30 July 1934 Labour moved a motion of censure against the government because of its planned expansion of the RAF. Attlee spoke for it: "We deny the need for increased air arms...and we reject altogether the claim of parity". Sir Stafford Cripps also said on this occasion that it was fallacy that Britain could achieve security through increasing air armaments. On 22 May 1935, the day after Hitler had made a speech claiming that German rearmament offered no threat to peace, Attlee asserted that Hitler's speech gave "a chance to call a halt in the armaments race". Attlee also denounced the Defence White Paper of 1937: "I do not believe the Government are going to get any safety through these armaments".
He faced the abdication crisis of King Edward VIII. It was he who told the King that he could not marry Wallis Simpson, as he wished, and remain on the throne. In this he claimed to represent the views, not only of the nation, but of the Empire, whose principal political leaders Baldwin consulted. The King (as stated in his autobiography when Duke of Windsor) did not wish to provoke the political and constitutional crisis that would follow if he were to reject the advice of his Prime Minister, and abdicated in favour of his brother. With the abdication successfully weathered, Baldwin retired after the coronation of King George VI and was created Earl Baldwin of Bewdley.
Two weeks after Munich Baldwin said in a conversation with Lord Hinchingbrooke: "Can't we turn Hitler East? Napoleon broke himself against the Russians. Hitler might do the same".
Baldwin's years in retirement were quiet. With Chamberlain dead, Baldwin's perceived part in pre-war appeasement made him an unpopular figure during and after World War II. With a succession of British military failures in 1940 Baldwin started to receive critical letters: "insidious to begin with, then increasingly violent and abusive; then the newspapers; finally the polemicists who, with time and wit at their disposal, could debate at leisure how to wound the deepest." He did not have a secretary and so was not shielded from the often unpleasant letters sent to him. After a bitterly critical letter was sent to him by a member of the public Baldwin wrote: "I can understand his bitterness. He wants a scapegoat and the men provided him with one". His biographers Middlemas and Barnes claim that "the men" almost certainly meant the authors of Guilty Men.
In September 1941 Baldwin's old enemy Lord Beaverbrook asked all local authorities to survey their area's iron and steel railings and gates that could be used for the war effort. Owners of such materials could appeal for an exemption on grounds of artistic or historic merit, which would be decided by a panel set up by local authorities. Baldwin applied for exemption for the iron gates of his country home on artistic grounds and his local council sent an architect to assess them. In December the architect advised that they be exempt, but in February 1942 the Ministry of Supply overruled this and said all his gates must go, except the ones at the main entrance. A newspaper campaign hounded him for not donating the gates to war production. The Daily Mirror columnist Cassandra denounced Baldwin:
Here was the country in deadly peril with half the Empire swinging in the wind like a busted barn door hanging on one hinge. Here was Old England half smothered in a shroud crying for steel to cut her way out, and right in the heart of beautiful Worcestershire was a one-time Prime Minister, refusing to give up the gates of his estate to make guns for our defence – and his. Here was an old stupid politician who had tricked the nation into complacency about rearmament for fear of losing an election. ...Here is the very shrine of stupidity...This National Park of Failure...
There were fears that if the gates were not taken by the proper authorities, "others without authority might". So months before any other collections were made, Baldwin's gates were removed except for those at the main entrance. Two of Beaverbrook's friends after the war claimed that this was Beaverbrook's decision, despite Churchill saying "Lay off Baldwin's gates". At Question Time in the House of Commons the Conservative MP Captain Alan Graham said: "Is the honourable Member aware that it is very necessary to leave Lord Baldwin his gates in order to protect him from the just indignation of the mob?
During the war Winston Churchill consulted him only once, in February 1943, on the advisability of his speaking out strongly against the continued neutrality of Éamon de Valera's Ireland. Baldwin saw the draft of Churchill's speech and advised against it, which advice Churchill followed.
In private Baldwin defended his conduct in the 1930s:
...the critics have no historical sense. I have no Cabinet papers by me and do not want to trust my memory. But recall the Fulham election, the peace ballot, Singapore, sanctions, Malta. The English will only learn by example. When I first heard of Hitler, when Ribbentrop came to see me, I thought they were all crazy. I think I brought Ramsay and Simon to meet Ribbentrop. Remember that Ramsay's health was breaking up in the last two years. He had lost his nerve in the House in the last year. I had to take all the important speeches. The moment he went, I prepared for a general election and got a bigger majority for rearmament. No power on earth could have got rearmament without a general election except by a big split. Simon was inefficient. I had to lead the House, keep the machine together with those Labour fellows.
In December 1944, strongly advised by friends, Baldwin decided to respond to criticisms of him through a biographer. He asked G. M. Young, who accepted, and asked Churchill to grant permission to Young to see Cabinet papers. Baldwin wrote:
I am the last person to complain of fair criticism, but when one book after another appears and I am compared, for example, to Laval, my gorge rises; but I am crippled and cannot go and examine the files of the Cabinet Office. Could G. M. Young go on my behalf?
In June 1945 Baldwin's wife Lucy died. Baldwin himself by now suffered with arthritis and needed a stick to walk. When he made his final public appearance in London in October 1947 at the unveiling of a statue of King George V a crowd of people recognized and cheered him, but by this time he was deaf and asked: "Are they booing me? Having been made Chancellor of Cambridge University in 1930, he continued in this capacity until his death in his sleep at Astley Hall, near Stourport-on-Severn, Worcestershire, on 14 December 1947. He was cremated at Golders Green Crematorium and his ashes buried in Worcester Cathedral.
His estate was probated at £280,971.
Baldwin was essentially a One Nation Conservative. Upon his retirement in 1937 he had indeed received a great deal of praise; the onset of the Second World War would change his public image for the worse. Rightly or wrongly, Baldwin, along with Chamberlain and MacDonald, was held responsible for the United Kingdom's military unpreparedness on the eve of war in 1939.
Peter Howard, writing in the Sunday Express (3 September 1939), accused Baldwin of deceiving the country of the dangers that faced it in order not to re-arm and so win the 1935 general election. Howard would late have a reconciliation with Baldwin and tried to get Baldwin to support Moral Re-Armament. During the ill-fated Battle of France, in May 1940, Lloyd George in conversation with Winston Churchill and General Ironside railed against Baldwin and said "he ought to be hanged". In July 1940 the famous book Guilty Men appeared, which blamed Baldwin for failing to re-arm enough. In May 1941 Hamilton Fyfe wrote an article ("Leadership and Democracy") for Nineteenth Century and After which also laid these charges against Baldwin. In 1941 A. L. Rowse criticised Baldwin for lulling the people into a false sense of security; as a practitioner in "the art of taking the people in":
...what can this man think in the still watches of the night, when he contemplates the ordeal his country is going through as the result of the years, the locust years, in which he held power?
Churchill firmly believed that Baldwin's conciliatory stance toward Hitler gave the German dictator the impression that Britain would not fight if attacked. Though known for his magnanimity toward political opponents such as Chamberlain, Churchill had none to spare for Baldwin. "I wish Stanley Baldwin no ill," Churchill said when declining to send him 80th birthday greetings in 1947, "but it would have been much better had he never lived." Churchill also believed that Baldwin, rather than Chamberlain, would be most blamed by subsequent generations for the policies that led to "the most unnecessary war in history". An index entry in the first volume of Churchill's "History of the Second World War" (The Gathering Storm) records Baldwin "admitting to putting party before country" for his alleged admission that he would not have won the 1935 election if he had pursued a more aggressive policy of rearmament. Churchill selectively quoted a speech in the Commons by Baldwin that gave the false impression that Baldwin was speaking of the general election when he was speaking of the Fulham by-election in 1933, and omits Baldwin's actual comments about the 1935 election: "We got from the country, a mandate for doing a thing [a substantial rearmament programme] that no one, twelve months before, would have believed possible". In his speech on Baldwin's death, Churchill paid him a double-edged yet respectful tribute: "He was the most formidable politician I ever encountered".
In 1948 Reginald Bassett published an essay disputing the claim that Baldwin "confessed" to putting party before country, and claimed that Baldwin was referring to 1933/34 when a general election on rearmament would have been lost.
In 1952 G. M. Young published a biography of Baldwin, which Baldwin had asked him to write. He asserted that Baldwin united the nation and helped moderate the policies of the Labour Party. However he accepted the criticism of Baldwin; that he failed to re-arm early enough and that he put party before country. Young contends that Baldwin should have retired in 1935. In response to this biography, D. C. Somervell published Stanley Baldwin: An examination of some features of Mr. G. M. Young's biography in 1953 with a foreword by Ernest Brown. This attempted to defend Baldwin against the charges made by Young. Both Young and Somervell were criticised by C. L. Mowat in 1955, who claimed they both failed to rehabilitate Baldwin's reputation.
In 1956 Baldwin's son A. W. Baldwin published a biography entitled My Father: The True Story. It has been written that his son "evidently could not decide whether he was answering the charge of inanition and deceit which grew out of the war, or the radical "dissenters" of the early 1930s who thought the Conservatives were warmongers and denounced them for rearming at all".
In an article written to commemorate the centenary of Baldwin's birth, in The Spectator ("Don't Let's Be Beastly to Baldwin", 14 July 1967) Rab Butler defended Baldwin's moderate policies which, he claimed, helped heal social divisions. In 1969 the first major biography of Baldwin appeared, of over 1,000 pages, written by Keith Middlemas and John Barnes, both Conservatives who wished to defend Baldwin.
In 1999 Philip Williamson published a collection of essays on Baldwin which attempted to explain his beliefs and defended his policies as Prime Minister. Williamson asserted that Baldwin had helped create "a moral basis for rearmament in the mid 1930s" that contributed greatly to "the national spirit of defiance after Munich".
His defenders counter that the moderate Baldwin felt he could not start a programme of aggressive re-armament without a national consensus on the matter. Certainly, pacifist appeasement was the dominant mainstream political view of the time in Britain, France, and the United States.
Baldwin has been portrayed in the following film and television productions:
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