Prime minister. Educated at Harrow and Cambridge, Baldwin entered the family ironmaster's business but on his father's death in 1908 succeeded him as Conservative MP for Bewdley (Worcs.). He served in the Lloyd George coalition governments from 1917 to 1922, but became increasingly alarmed at the adventurism associated with the later years of Lloyd George's premiership. Baldwin made the key speech at the Carlton Club meeting of Conservative backbenchers in 1922 that brought down Lloyd George, after which he served as chancellor of the Exchequer in the short‐lived Conservative administration of the dying Andrew Bonar Law, succeeding to the premiership in May 1923. Baldwin's industrial experience told him that free trade had had its day, and he determined on its abolition. He called a general election on the issue of protection but the Conservatives lost their overall majority, thus permitting the formation of the first Labour government.
But while Baldwin lacked Lloyd George's political cunning, he preserved in public life values of probity, charity, and conciliation. He was known to be a man of simple country pleasures who had, during the Great War, donated one‐fifth of his private fortune. Baldwin's conciliatory spirit seemed preferable to a Labour Party tinged with extremism and a Liberal Party in a state of civil war. Following the general election of 1924, which saw the Liberal Party reduced to 40 seats, the Conservatives emerged with a majority of over 200 in the Commons. Baldwin was once more prime minister.
The composition of the cabinet was not, however, conducive to the pursuit of the policy of national unity which Baldwin had preached. In order to make peace with the Conservative free traders, Baldwin gave the Exchequer to Winston Churchill. His one inspired appointment was to put Neville Chamberlain in charge of the Ministry of Health. Churchill's return to the gold standard (1925) had a predictable effect on employment, and the cabinet took an equally predictable line on the General Strike the following year. Baldwin brushed aside George V's advice to pursue a military solution and appealed instead to the quietist instincts of the British public and to the moderate elements within the Labour movement. This policy paid handsome dividends, since the Trades Union Congress abandoned the miners and called off the industrial action. However, in 1927, and against his own better judgement, the cabinet pushed through the vindictive Trade Disputes Act, by which the principle of ‘contracting out’ of the political levy collected by trade unions was replaced by ‘contracting in’. It was hoped that this provision would reduce Labour Party membership and income, which it did.
Between 1929 and 1931 Baldwin fought a bitter duel with the empire free traders, led by the press barons Lords Beaverbrook and Rothermere. The age of free trade was clearly drawing to a close, but Baldwin understood better than most the sensitivities this issue aroused within his party. On 17 March 1931 he made a dramatic appeal to the Conservative public to choose between him and ‘the engines of propaganda for the constantly changing policies, desires, personal wishes, personal likes and personal dislikes of two men…What the proprietorship of these papers is aiming at is power, but power without responsibility—the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages.’
Subjects: British history.