Baldwin was essentially a One Nation Conservative. Upon his retirement in 1937, he had indeed received a great deal of praise; the onset of the Second World War would change his public image for the worse. Rightly or wrongly, Baldwin, along with Chamberlain and MacDonald, was held responsible for the United Kingdom's military unpreparedness on the eve of war in 1939.
Peter Howard, writing in the Sunday Express (3 September 1939), accused Baldwin of deceiving the country of the dangers that faced it in order not to re-arm and so win the 1935 general election. Howard would later have a reconciliation with Baldwin and tried to get Baldwin to support Moral Re-Armament. During the ill-fated Battle of France, in May 1940, Lloyd George in conversation with Winston Churchill and General Ironside railed against Baldwin and said "he ought to be hanged". In July 1940, the famous book Guilty Men appeared, which blamed Baldwin for failing to re-arm enough. In May 1941 Hamilton Fyfe wrote an article ("Leadership and Democracy") for Nineteenth Century and After which also laid these charges against Baldwin. In 1941, A. L. Rowse criticised Baldwin for lulling the people into a false sense of security; as a practitioner in "the art of taking the people in":
...what can this man think in the still watches of the night, when he contemplates the ordeal his country is going through as the result of the years, the locust years, in which he held power?
Churchill firmly believed that Baldwin's conciliatory stance toward Hitler gave the German dictator the impression that Britain would not fight if attacked. Though known for his magnanimity toward political opponents such as Chamberlain, Churchill had none to spare for Baldwin. "I wish Stanley Baldwin no ill," Churchill said when declining to send him 80th birthday greetings in 1947, "but it would have been much better had he never lived." Churchill also believed that Baldwin, rather than Chamberlain, would be most blamed by subsequent generations for the policies that led to "the most unnecessary war in history". An index entry in the first volume of Churchill's "History of the Second World War" (The Gathering Storm) records Baldwin "admitting to putting party before country" for his alleged admission that he would not have won the 1935 election if he had pursued a more aggressive policy of rearmament. Churchill selectively quoted a speech in the Commons by Baldwin that gave the false impression that Baldwin was speaking of the general election when he was speaking of the Fulham by-election in 1933, and omits Baldwin's actual comments about the 1935 election: "We got from the country, a mandate for doing a thing that no one, twelve months before, would have believed possible". In his speech on Baldwin's death, Churchill paid him a double-edged yet respectful tribute: "He was the most formidable politician I ever encountered".
In 1948, Reginald Bassett published an essay disputing the claim that Baldwin "confessed" to putting party before country, and claimed that Baldwin was referring to 1933/34 when a general election on rearmament would have been lost.
In 1952, G. M. Young published a biography of Baldwin, which Baldwin had asked him to write. He asserted that Baldwin united the nation and helped moderate the policies of the Labour Party. However he accepted the criticism of Baldwin; that he failed to re-arm early enough and that he put party before country. Young contends that Baldwin should have retired in 1935. Both Churchill and Beaverbrook threatened to sue if certain passages in the biography were not removed or altered. With the help of lawyer Arnold Goodman an agreement was reached to replace the offending sentences, and the publisher Rupert Hart-Davis had the hideously expensive job of removing and replacing seven leaves from 7,580 copies.
In response to Young's biography, D. C. Somervell published Stanley Baldwin: An examination of some features of Mr. G. M. Young's biography in 1953 with a foreword by Ernest Brown. This attempted to defend Baldwin against the charges made by Young. Both Young and Somervell were criticised by C. L. Mowat in 1955, who claimed they both failed to rehabilitate Baldwin's reputation.
In 1956, Baldwin's son A. W. Baldwin published a biography entitled My Father: The True Story. It has been written that his son "evidently could not decide whether he was answering the charge of inanition and deceit which grew out of the war, or the radical "dissenters" of the early 1930s who thought the Conservatives were warmongers and denounced them for rearming at all".
In an article written to commemorate the centenary of Baldwin's birth, in The Spectator ("Don't Let's Be Beastly to Baldwin", 14 July 1967) Rab Butler defended Baldwin's moderate policies which, he claimed, helped heal social divisions. In 1969 the first major biography of Baldwin appeared, of over 1,000 pages, written by Keith Middlemas and John Barnes, both Conservatives who wished to defend Baldwin.
In 1999, Philip Williamson published a collection of essays on Baldwin which attempted to explain his beliefs and defended his policies as Prime Minister. Williamson asserted that Baldwin had helped create "a moral basis for rearmament in the mid 1930s" that contributed greatly to "the national spirit of defiance after Munich". His defenders counter that the moderate Baldwin felt he could not start a programme of aggressive re-armament without a national consensus on the matter. Certainly, pacifist appeasement was the dominant mainstream political view of the time in Britain, France, and the United States. Williamson admits that there was a clear postwar consensus that repudiated and denigrated all interwar governments. Baldwin was targeted with the accusation that he had failed to rearm Britain in the 1930s despite Hitler's threat. Williamson says the negative reputation was chiefly the product of partisan politics, the bandwagon of praise for Churchill, selective recollections, and the need for scapegoats to blame for Britain's very close call in 1940. Only during the 1960s did political distance and then the opening of government records lead to more balanced historical assessments; yet the myth had become so central to larger myths about the 1930s and 1940s that it persists as conventional wisdom about the period.
By 2004 Ball could report that among historians, "The pendulum has swung almost completely towards a positive view." He says "Baldwin is now seen as having done more than most and perhaps as much as was possible in the context, but the fact remains that it was not enough to deter the aggressors or ensure their defeat. Less equivocal was his rediscovery as a moderate and inclusive Conservative for the modern age, part of a 'one nation tradition."
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