July 2, 1939 – Stanley Baldwin: Democracy At Work – Past Daily Reference Room
Stanley Baldwin, 1st Earl Baldwin of Bewdley, KG, PC, PC (Can), JP, FRS(3 August 1867 – 14 December 1947) was a British statesman of the Conservative Party who dominated the government in his country between the world wars. Three times Prime Minister, he is the only British premier to have served under three monarchs (George V, Edward VIII and George VI).
He first entered the House of Commons in 1908 as the Member of Parliament for Bewdley, succeeding his father Alfred Baldwin. He held government office in the coalition ministry of David Lloyd George. In 1922, Baldwin was one of the prime movers in the withdrawal of Conservative support from Lloyd George; he subsequently became Chancellor of the Exchequer in Bonar Law’s Conservative ministry. Upon Bonar Law’s resignation due to health reasons in May 1923, he became Prime Minister and Leader of the Conservative Party. He called an election on the issue of tariffs and lost the Conservatives’ parliamentary majority, after which Ramsay MacDonald formed a minority Labour government.
After winning the 1924 general election Baldwin formed his second government, which saw important tenures of office by Sir Austen Chamberlain (Foreign Secretary), Winston Churchill (at the Exchequer) and Neville Chamberlain (Health). The latter two ministers strengthened Conservative appeal by reforms in areas formerly associated with the Liberal Party. They included industrial conciliation, unemployment insurance, a more extensive old-age pension system, slum clearance, more private housing, and expansion of maternal and childcare. However, continuing sluggish economic growth and declines in mining and heavy industry weakened his base of support and, although Baldwin was supportive of Labour politicians forming minority governments at Westminster, his government also saw the General Strike in 1926 and the 1927 Trades Disputes Act to curb the powers of trade unions.
After the coronation of George VI, Baldwin announced on 27 May 1937 that he would resign the premiership the next day. His last act as Prime Minister was to raise the salaries of MPs from £400 a year to £600 and to give the Leader of the Opposition a salary. This was the first rise in MPs’ wages since their introduction in 1911 and it particularly benefited Labour MPs. Harold Nicolson wrote in his diary that it “was done with Baldwin’s usual consummate taste. No man has ever left in such a blaze of affection”. Baldwin was knighted as a Knight of the Garter (KG) on 28 May and ennobled as Earl Baldwin of Bewdley and Viscount Corvedale, of Corvedale in the County of Salop on 8 June.
Baldwin supported the Munich Agreement and said to Chamberlain on 26 September 1938: “If you can secure peace, you may be cursed by a lot of hotheads but my word you will be blessed in Europe and by future generations”. He made a rare speech in the House of Lords on 4 October where he said he could not have gone to Munich but praised Chamberlain’s courage and said the responsibility of a Prime Minister was not to commit the country to war until he was sure that it was ready to fight. If there was a 95% chance of war in the future, he would still choose peace. He also said he would put industry on a war footing tomorrow as the opposition to such a move had disappeared. Churchill said in a speech: “He says he would mobilize tomorrow. I think it would have been much better if Earl Baldwin had said that two and a half years ago when everyone demanded a Ministry of Supply”.
Two weeks after Munich, Baldwin said (prophetically) 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. After Chamberlain’s death in 1940, 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, he 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.
This address, given on July 2, 1939, was given during one of Baldwin’s post-Premier trips to the United States.