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Thursday, December 18, 1997 Published at 15:55 GMT

Special Report

General Strike and "Safety First"

Elevation to the highest office

Andrew Bonar Law became Conservative Prime Minister in 1922 and Baldwin was his Chancellor of the Exchequer.

[ image: Chancellor of the Exchequer]
Chancellor of the Exchequer
Bonar Law, however, was a sick man and in 1923 he resigned.

There were no elections for Conservative leaders in those days, it was all done behind the scenes.

The apparent favourite was Lord Curzon, the Foreign Secretary, but his seat in the Lords and his arrogant manner and sometimes erratic behaviour counted against him.

[ image: Accepting the leadership of government]
Accepting the leadership of government
Despite being thought to have mishandled the repayment of war debts to the US, it was Baldwin who was summoned to the Palace.

Typically, perhaps, he wrote to his mother on taking up the post that "I am not a bit excited."

It was perhaps a good thing that Baldwin had not become too worked up at the prospect of governing Britain, because he was out of office very shortly. The December 1923 general election left the Conservatives as the largest party but with only 257 seats, compared to 191 for Labour and 158 for the Liberals.

For the first time, Labour formed a government with James Ramsay MacDonald as Prime Minister. It did not last, however, and Baldwin was back in Number Ten by October 1924 with a majority of more than 200 seats.

"Trust me"

In foreign affairs, the main achievement of Baldwin's second government was the signing of the Locarno Treaties in 1926. These settled - for a time - the thorny question of Germany's western border and also lightened the reparations paid by that country following the First World War.

At home, Baldwin's main challenge was the General Strike. With regard to industrial relations, Baldwin's instinct was compromise, based upon his time at the family firm.

When in 1925 a backbencher brought in a Bill which would have forced trade unionists to "contract in" to the political levy paid to Labour, Baldwin crushed it. He thought that the idea was correct, but that it would be too harmful to industrial relations.

[ image: The General Strike saw mass protests]
The General Strike saw mass protests
Later that year, however, there was a skirmish with the miners and mine-owners over wage cuts and longer hours.

Baldwin bought a truce with a cash subsidy but it lasted only until 1926 when the Trades Union Congress called a General Strike.

[ image:
"Trust me.."
Baldwin did not want the strike but his government had prepared for it and won. Baldwin's particular contribution was in his personal radio broadcasts to the nation.

In his first, he appealed to the people to trust him: "I am a man of peace. I am longing, and looking and praying for peace. But I will not surrender the safety and the security of the British Constitution ... Cannot you trust me to ensure a square deal and to ensure even justice between man and man?"

The strike won, however, Baldwin's government passed the 1927 Trades Disputes Act, which brought in virtually the same anti-Labour laws that he had opposed in 1925.

It was not just a time of conflict, however. There was substantial improvement, for example, in housing conditions throughout the country - largely as a result of the work of Health Minister Neville Chamberlain.

It was typica, however,l of Baldwin's approach to give ministers the freedom to act while he maintained a general overview.

Some saw this as laziness and pointed to Baldwin's insistence on taking long holidays even if matters of state were pressing. Others saw it as cunning and the only way he could maintain control over a party with significant internal divisions.

"Safety First"

Baldwin fought the 1929 general election on a "Safety First" ticket. It was a very personal campaign, with thousands of posters portraying him as "The Man you can Trust". In his final speech of the campaign, Baldwin told the voters: "You trusted me before and I ask you to trust me again."

Not enough did.

The Conservative share of the vote fell by 10 percentage points and the number of MPs from over 400 to 260. Labour, although it received fewer votes than the Conservatives, won more seats and took power for the second time as a minority government.

Many thought that Baldwin would resign or be ousted, so closely was he identified with the defeated campaign. That did not happen, though Baldwin came close to quitting in 1930, and he spent much of the next two years fighting elements of his party.

One of the battlegrounds was India, which was fighting for greater independence - something Baldwin favoured though other Conservatives such as Churchill did not.

The other main issue was free trade and protectionism. On this, Baldwin came up against the great press barons Beaverbrook and Rothermere, who favoured the protection of goods within the British Empire.

The turning point in this civil war came in a by-election in 1931 which was won by Baldwin's candidate. Baldwin's key speech in that campaign has been repeated often, particularly that part of it which he borrowed from his cousin, Rudyard Kipling.

He attacked the press lords for using "direct falsehood, misrepresentation, half-truths, the alteration of the speaker's meaning ... What the proprietorship of these papers is aiming at is power, but power without responsibility - the prerogative of the harlot through the ages."

Overview: Stanley Baldwin, a little-known Prime Minister

Part 1: Formative Years, Into Parliament, the Ousting of Lloyd George

Part 3: National Government, Abdication Crisis and the Failure to Re-arm

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