Stanley Baldwin has an unassailable claim to be Britain’s greatest peacetime prime minister. A man of the West Midlands, he had an instinctive grasp of the hopes and anxieties of ordinary people, enabling him to dominate the political scene between the two world wars.
As prime minister three times in the 1920s and 1930s (1923–24, 1924–29 and 1935–37), Baldwin projected an image of unflappable calm. He was the figurehead of a new aspirational Conservatism, embodied in the suburban estates springing up across the south and Midlands. He was also an unrivalled master of public relations: at once thoroughly modern, with his friendly radio broadcasts, and unrepentantly nostalgic, with his lyrical evocations of the English countryside.
To gauge Baldwin’s achievement, just look at what was happening elsewhere. In the decades between the wars, the world was a deeply unhappy place: Germany scarred by the rise of Nazism, France and Spain torn apart by bitter ideological tension, the United States suffering the agonies of racial tension and mass unemployment. But Baldwin’s Britain was a relatively happy, united and peaceful place.
He encouraged his fellow Conservatives to treat the new Labour Party as a worthy opponent, and urged reconciliation after the General Strike of 1926. He scorned the histrionics of the dictators, recognised the menace of Nazism and planned a rearmament drive as early as 1934. And thanks to his patience and calm, Britain entered the war in a spirit of national unity. It was Baldwin, in other words, who did the heavy lifting for Winston Churchill’s victory.
If that is not enough, he also donated a fifth of his personal fortune to help pay off Britain’s debts after the First World War. It was typical of this moderate, decent and thoroughly admirable man that he did it anonymously, and never sought to get the credit.
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Dominic Sandbrook is a historian and author. He also co-presents the weekly podcast The Rest Is History with fellow historian Tom Holland