Finest Hour

Stanley Baldwin and Winston Churchill

Stanley Baldwin (1867–1947) was one of the most successful and important political leaders of twentieth-century Britain. In October 1935, Winston Churchill described him as “a statesman who has gathered to himself a greater volume of confidence and goodwill than any other man I recollect in my long political career”—and Churchill had been familiar with the greatest figures in British public life during the previous forty years. When Baldwin retired in 1937, he was in Churchill’s words “loaded with honours and enshrined in public esteem,”1 receiving tributes not just from members of his Conservative party and its partners in the National coalition government, but also from leading figures in the Labour and Liberal opposition parties. Yet his reputation declined precipitously after the outbreak of the Second World War. For various periods Baldwin and Churchill had been colleagues and opponents: Baldwin revived Churchill’s political career in 1924, but at other times he had a large part in excluding him from government office. They differed on many of the great issues of the 1930s, and Churchill’s later memoirs for these years, The Gathering Storm, entrenched a persistently harsh historical verdict on Baldwin’s leadership.

Party Leader and Prime Minister

Baldwin was Conservative party leader for fourteen years, from 1923 to 1937, and prime minister three times: 1923–24, 1924–29, and again—after four years from 1931 as deputy prime minister in the National government—from 1935 to 1937. Impressive as this career at the top of British politics was in duration, his greater significance is as a dominating political figure during the beginnings of modern British politics and a long pattern of Conservative party success. Baldwin was the first long-serving Conservative leader within full British parliamentary democracy, after

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