Perhaps because it so fitted the image of the country squire looking after his people so well, and in part in contrast with Lloyd George, Stanley Baldwin has been stuck with the ill-fated slogan ‘safety first’. That is, I would contend, fundamentally misleading. Lucy Baldwin’s nickname for him, ‘Tiger’, gives us an intriguing hint of another side to the man. But in truth, even a quick overview of the politics of 1922-24, the years that above all else give us the modern Conservative party, should take us somewhere else. Where? To Stanley Baldwin, the political gambler.
In the days preceding the famous meeting of Conservative back benchers at the Carlton Club, Baldwin was hardly inactive, especially when talk arose of Lloyd George and Chamberlain bouncing the Conservative party into fighting a snap election on a coalition ticket. At the time, Baldwin was hardly a major figure. Indeed, he had only entered the cabinet the previous year, in the reshuffle following Bonar Law’s retirement, as President of the Board of Trade. Furthermore, in speaking against Chamberlain at the Carlton Club, Baldwin only had the support of one other cabinet member (and I have certainly never heard of Sir Arthur Griffith-Boscawen either). Earlier in the month, Baldwin had decided to resign from the cabinet if a snap election was called.
If it was a gamble, it was a well-chosen one. The defeat of a couponed Coalition Liberal by a maverick Tory at Newport the day before the Carlton Club meeting certainly helped. He might even have judged that Curzon would turn against Lloyd George. He knew Bonar Law had criticised Lloyd George over Chanak, and may have hoped for his intervention, though Bonar Law’s decision to intervene was a last minute one. Baldwin, not always recognised as an orator, also chose his words to very telling effect. He famously turned Chamberlain’s praise of Lloyd George as a ‘dynamic force’ on its head: ‘A dynamic force is a very terrible thing’. Lloyd George was gone.
Baldwin’s short stint as Chancellor was not a happy one. His negotiation of Britain’s repayment of her American loans, along with an unguarded remark to a reporter which forced Bonar Law to accept a deal to which he was opposed, badly damaged Baldwin. Characteristically, it was damage he swiftly undid, once more in a speech in the House the following month. Given the fact that Bonar Law had little time left, it was well timed.
Baldwin was a surprising choice as prime minister to many. In fact, in the circumstances, and on large part because the old coalitionist Tory leaders had refused to serve in Bonar Law’s government (hence the nickname of the 2nd XI), he was the only viable alternative to Curzon. He was fortunate in his rival too: the party had thrown off one dynamic force, did it now want another, and a peer to boot (in a House of Lords where the official opposition, Labour, had no presence). In the circumstances, Baldwin seemed the safer pair of hands in the new democratic age.
Instead, the party got Baldwin the gambler. In a speech to the Conservative Conference on 23rd October 1923, Baldwin declared himself for a policy of tariffs. In the 1922 general election, Bonar Law declared that the government would not abandon free trade without a going to the country first. Thus, in effect, Baldwin had called a general election.
In 1922, the Conservatives had won a handsome majority. The government still had four years to run. So, why take the gamble? Perhaps the most convincing argument is that Baldwin believed in tariffs, at a time when economic growth was sluggish, staple industries were struggling and unemployment was high. And, Baldwin believed he could get away with it, given the disarray of a divided Liberal party and a still young Labour. There were perhaps political considerations too.
Baldwin had come to prominence as Lloyd George’s opponent in chief. It was, in truth, both political and personal for him. He was reputed to have defaced a picture of his rival, though Philip Williamson believes it was actually done by his children many years before. He certainly did invent his famous Afghan proverb, directed at the man they nicknamed the goat: ‘He who lives in the bosom of the goat spends his remaining years plucking out the fleas.’ Rumour had it thatr Lloyd George, on a speaking tour of the United States, was about to declare his support for tariffs, and perhaps thus bid to reconfigure another coalition (the Tory coalitionists were mostly pro-tariffs). Baldwin could thus forestall the Goat and keep the coalitionists on board. So, Baldwin went to the country.
The election was a bad defeat. The Conservatives lost 88 seats and, with them, their majority. Furthermore, a hastily reunited Liberal party had won 30% of the popular vote and 159 seats: was the life in the Liberal dog yet?
There is an argument for saying that Baldwin was best in a crisis, and that this was a crisis. He was certainly a very good tactician. By not resigning immediately (as the leader of largest single party he was fully entitled to do this) he, in effect, forced Asquith and the Liberals to vote against the Tories and give Labour power. He also forced his opponents in his own party to publicly back him.
Tactically, this was astute. When Labour were moderate and did well, the Liberals suffered in comparison: Labour established themselves as the credible alternative party of government. If Labour were too left-wing, then the Tories would get the benefit. Both turned out to be true. Meanwhile, Baldwin’s position in his own party was strengthened, not weakened. In the first place, the odds were that Labour were not likely to stay in office for long, so another election was likely soon. Furthermore, despite his misjudgement in calling the election, in what was a campaign the party had been ill-prepared for, he had campaigned very effectively. Most of all though, there were no clear alternatives to Baldwin as leader.
He also took the opportunity to both secure his position as party leader and the position of the Conservatives. The tariffs issue was fudged by safeguarding. Clearly, to fight another election on tariffs was to risk another defeat. It also patched up the divisions in his own party, a process helped by the fact that the old coalitionists entered the shadow cabinet. The party machine now had notice, and was able to prepare properly for a future election. A series of policy committees met, and their deliberations published as Looking Ahead on 20th June 1924. Baldwin made a series of speeches across the country outlining his view of Conservatism, ones calculated to appeal to Liberal voters.
Most of all, the Conservatives played on fear of socialism. The issue of Soviet Russia served them well. When the Campbell Case came, Baldwin’s Tories were ready; an election campaign was fought on a stridently anti-socialist ticket, best symbolised by the Zinoviev Letter. However, the 1924 landslide was not won by beating Labour, whose popular vote went up. Instead, it was a massacre of the Liberals.
In essence, Baldwin was lucky. He gambled in 1922, and won. He gambled again in 1923 and came badly unstuck. But his luck held: the Liberals were done for, and Baldwin’s majority was secure with 48% of the popular vote and 412 seats. Two party politics had returned, and the Conservatives held an inbuilt advantage for the rest of the inter-war era.