The Chancellors (7): Stanley Baldwin


Stanley Baldwin, 1922-23

Conservative (under Bonar Law, then briefly as prime minister)

As Conservative leader, and as prime minister or lord president of the council (nominally under MacDonald in the National Government), Baldwin deserves to be remembered as one of the great figures in Conservative history and as the key figure in the history of Britain between the wars. His rather less successful stint as chancellor might even have ensured that he never had the opportunity.

The Baldwins were from the iron business. Baldwin was an undistinguished pupil at Harrow, and gained an inert third in History at Cambridge. He entered the family business, and then when his father died he succeeded him as MP for Bewdley. He then became Bonar Law’s PPS in 1916, and was later financial secretary to the Treasury. As such, he became close to Bonar Law. In 1921, when Bonar Law retired, he went to the Board of Trade, at Bonar Law’s request, in part to reassure backbench Conservatives increasingly unhappy with coalition. His disillusionment with Lloyd George, and his aspiration to see the re-foundation of an independent Conservative Party, saw him take a leading role in the ousting of Lloyd George, and Austen Chamberlain, at the Carlton Club (see the article below).

He was promoted to the Treasury in Bonar Law’s 2nd XI (as the cabinet of 1922-23 was nicknamed); in large part as a reward for his role in bringing down Lloyd George, and thanks to his experience at the Treasury and the Board of Trade. When offered it, he at first suggested the return of McKenna (an idea he pursued again on becoming prime minister). Relations with Bonar Law were badly strained by an American loan that Baldwin had negotiated and which the prime minister thought was too harsh; a crisis loomed, but both stepped back from the brink. Thus, Baldwin was able to make his mark in his one budget and in a speech in the February. This undoubtedly helped smooth his path to number ten when Bonar Law’s ill health forced him to resign.

Like Macmillan and Major, a brief stint in number 11 led directly to number ten. He stayed on as chancellor while trying to woo McKenna, until he appointed Chamberlain. Baldwin is one of ten Chancellors since 1900 to have gone on to be prime minister (one of twelve to go on to be party leader), and one of six to go direct from number 11 to number ten (seven went on directly to party leadership).

A previous article looks at Baldwin in these years: Tiger: Stanley Baldwin the Gambler

There is also an article on Baldwin’s role in the abdication crisis, here: The Abdication Crisis: Stanley, David & Democracy


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The Home Secretaries (9): Henderson


Arthur Henderson

Labour, 1924, under Ramsay MacDonald.

As home secretary, Arthur Henderson was undistinguished. However, the fact that there was a Labour government, and that the Labour Party became the second party of British politics owed as much to him as anyone.

There were three formative elements to Henderson’s politics: Liberalism, trade unionism and nonconformist Christianity. Until his union affiliated with the Labour Representation Committee (as the Labour Party was known in those days) Henderson had been a Liberal. He had been a Lib-Lab councillor in Newcastle and Darlington, and was agent to the Liberal MP for Barnard Castle, Sir Joseph Pease. When Pease died in 1903, Henderson was put forward as a Labour candidate and won the seat in a three-cornered fight. As such, Henderson embodied what Henry Pelling called the ‘undogmatic Labourism’ that was at the heart of the early Labour movement.

Henderson also had formidable organisational skills. Over the next 30 years he would use them to help turn the rather ramshackle party of 1903 into the party machine that won 37% of the vote and 288 seats as the largest party in the House of Commons. He would also be Labour’s first cabinet minister, when he entered Asquith’s coalition government. Though he was at the Board of Education, ironically replacing Sir Joseph Pease’s son in that post, his key role was actually as a de facto minister of labour. When Lloyd George formed his national government, Henderson continued in that role, now as a member of the war cabinet.

The war split Labour, but the split didn’t last. Henderson had been opposed to entering the war, and had been a member of the anti-war umbrella group, the Union of Democratic Control, until taking office. Once war was declared, he was fully committed to its prosecution. When the February Revolution came, Henderson became an impassioned supporter of Kerensky. In part as a gesture of support for Kerensky, in August 1917 the Labour conference voted to send Henderson as a delegate to an international socialist conference in Stockholm. That conference would have had German socialist delegates. This would, in Lloyd George’s view, have been tantamount to consorting with the enemy. Henderson, excluded from a war cabinet meeting, either resigned of was sacked, depending on which order of events.

Henderson was replaced by George Barnes, but his spat with Lloyd George was an important moment in the history of the Labour Party. In the first place, it publicly illustrated Labour’s independence form the Liberal Party it had been so dependent on before the war. That independence, after the war, would be the essential precondition of Labour’s rise. No less important was Henderson’s role as party secretary, which he took on full time after he resigned as party chairman in the autumn of 1917. In the months that followed Henderson devoted his formidable energies to reconfiguring his party, creating individual constituency parties, redrafting its constitution and thereby creating a National Executive with a trade union majority. Already, in August 1917, Henderson and Sidney Webb had carved out a distinctive foreign policy position in Labour’s War Aims; now, they did the same in domestic policy, in Labour and the New Social Order.

Henderson had built a party capable of becoming a national force. In 1918, however, he was swept away by the patriotic tide that saw so many of those who had crossed Lloyd George crushed. In 1919, he won a by-election in Widnes. Those years saw Labour further carve out a distinctive positions on Ireland, unemployment and the League of Nations: Labour’s opposition to Lloyd George helped establish it as what it would become: the second party of British politics. Ironically, Henderson lost his seat in 1922, the very general electron that saw Labour reap the harvest of what Henderson had sown. Labour polled just shy of 30%, and secured 142 seats. It also saw Ramsay MacDonald return as leader.

Henderson won the Newcastle East by-election, in early 1923, only to lose the seat in the general election. When Baldwin lost a vote of confidence in the Commons, Labour formed their first government. MacDonald hesitated, but Henderson was parachuted into a Burnley seat and given the Home Office. In truth, his ten months as home secretary looked rather like the governments as a whole: not much happened, but the horses and bishops weren’t much scared either. Henderson was the personification of caution and respectability, even being willing to countenance the use of emergency powers against strikers.

Henderson is one of seven home secretaries since 1906 to have also held the Foreign Office; he is also one of only three to have gone on to lead their parties (four, if you count Asquith). He was also the first Labour politician to hold a cabinet post. If Henderson was not to be a distinguished home secretary, it was the fact that a working class (and quite possibly illegitimate) son of an illiterate mother could be home secretary in the first place. That, above all, was Henderson’s crowning achievement.

There is an article on the early Labour leaders and their intellectual world, here.

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The Home Secretaries (8): Bridgeman

NPG x162741; William Clive Bridgeman, 1st Viscount Bridgeman of Leigh by Walter StonemanWilliam Bridgeman

Conservative, under Bonar Law and Baldwin, 1922-24

Wiliam Bridgeman came from a conventional enough background for a Tory politician in the first half of the twentieth century. He was the grandson of an earl (and descended from Clive of India), who distinguished himself at both Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge. He was also a very good cricketer, winning a blue, playing for two minor counties and for the MCC.

Conservative politics ran in the family, and he eventually won a Shropshire seat in 1906. By then, he was already a supporter of tariffs, and an opponent of Balfour. In 1911, he was made an opposition whip. Thus, with the creation of the coalition in 1915, he became a government whip. He then held junior posts under Lloyd George.

What won Bridgeman his very substantial promotion was the fact that he was one of the junior ministers who turned against Austen Chamberlain and Lloyd George at the Carlton Club. When the defeated coalitionists refused to serve under Bonar Law, the way lay open for the plotters to get the plum jobs. Curzon, who had turned late, kept the Foreign Office and Baldwin, as the senior plotter, got the Treasury. That Bridgeman got the Home Office was testament to his reputation as a safe pair of hands and, perhaps more, to the role he had played in the run up to the Carlton Club.

His time as home secretary was uneventful and, in truth undistinguished. In that regard, he fitted in well with an undistinguished government. His role in the history of the Conservative party was more significant. He was close to Baldwin, they shared a similar avowed Christian faith. When Bonar Law retired, Bridgeman pressed Baldwin’s case and helped Baldwin get number ten. When Baldwin went to the country in 1923 over tariffs, Bridgeman backed him. When he lost, he encouraged Baldwin to stay on as party leader.

Similarly, Bridgeman backed Baldwin after the 1929 defeat and was perhaps primarily responsible for persuading Baldwin not to resign in May 1931. By then, Bridgeman, who had been first lord of the admiralty in the 1924-29 government, had left the Commons. Though he remained in public life until his death in 1935, he had done his last major service. Characteristically, it was to Baldwin, and the Conservative Party.

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