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British Prime Ministers - 1922-1945

1922-3 Andrew Bonar LawConservative
1923 Stanley BaldwinConservative
1924 James Ramsay MacDonaldLabour
1924-9 Stanley BaldwinConservative
1929-35 James Ramsay MacDonaldLabour
1935-7 Stanley BaldwinConservative
1937-40 Arthur Neville ChamberlainConservative
1940-5 Winston ChurchillConservative

Andrew Bonar Law, Conservative Prime Minister from 1922-3, offered the government the support of the Conservatives in the coalition government at the outbreak of the Great War. Their coalition was re-elected by a landslide following the Armistice. Law persuaded the Conservatives to end the coalition, and work as an independent party. Conservative withdrawal forced Lloyd George to resign. The King then invited Law to form a new administration in 1922. Law's 'Tranquility Manifesto' was an attempt to allow Britain to recover from war damage. Though elected, he lasted just 209 days in office. He resigned in May 1923 due to ill health.

Stanley Baldwin, Conservative Prime Minister from 1923, 1924-9, 1935-7, played a leading part in a Conservative rebellion which overthrew the coalition government and the premiership of Lloyd George. In Bonar Law's Conservative government he became Chancellor of the Exchequer. When Bonar Law retired through illness in May 1923, Baldwin became prime minister. Determined to help reduce unemployment, in November he called a general election to seek support for a policy of trade protection. Failing to retain a majority, his government resigned in January 1924. Its replacement, the first Labour government also lacked an overall majority, and after it was defeated in another general election in October 1924, Baldwin returned as prime minister.

James Ramsay MacDonald, Labour Prime Minister from 1924 and 1929-35, became chairman of the parliamentary Labour group in 1911. As the Labour Party grew, however, he was criticised as being too moderate. His opposition to the Great War made him more unpopular still. In 1924 was asked by George V to form a government when Stanley Baldwin's small Conservative majority proved ungovernable. In his second minority government in 1929, the economic crises, including the doubling of unemployment levels, persuaded him to include the opposition leaders in a cross-party National Government.

During the 1931 financial and political crisis, Baldwin contributed to the formation of a 'National' coalition government, led by the former Labour prime minister, MacDonald. As Lord President of the Council, Baldwin at first sought to promote international disarmament, warning of the difficulty of defence against air attack: 'the bomber will always get through'. But as the threat from Nazi Germany became obvious, he accepted the need for rearmament and introduced new defence programmes each year from 1934 to 1937, against Labour and Liberal opposition.

Baldwin became prime minister of the National government in June 1935. In the autumn he won a general election, promising to continue to strengthen national defences. When seeking to avoid war with Mussolini's Italy over Abyssinia in order to focus effort against Hitler's Germany, his Cabinet was embarrassed by premature disclosure of a compromise settlement ('the Hore-Laval pact'). In retrospect the National Government's policy of combining armed deterrence with efforts to bind Hitler and Mussolini into a general European settlement seemed insufficient, and after the Second World War broke out in 1939 Baldwin became a leading target for those - especially Churchill - who thought more could have been done to accelerate rearmament and prevent war.

Neville Chamberlain, Conservative Prime Minister from 1937-40, succeeded Baldwin as Prime Minister in May 1937. War was brewing in Europe, and had already exploded in Spain. Chamberlain was unwilling to go down in history as responsible for an inevitably destructive war without doing everything possible to prevent it. Neville Chamberlain, as with many in Europe who had witnessed the horrors of the First World War and its aftermath, was committed to peace at almost any price. Chamberlain famously met German chancellor Adolf Hitler in Munich 1938 the result of which was an agreement that Britain and Germany would never again go to war. "I believe," he declared on his return to the UK, "it is peace for our time." However, the success of 'appeasement' was shortlived, as Hitler occupied Prague the following year. The subsequent invasion of Poland forced Chamberlain's hand, and he declared war on 3 September, 1939. He soon came under attack from all political sides after the disastrous first months of war when Germany look set for a rapid victory. Unable to form a national government himself, he resigned in May 1940 after the failure of the British efforts to liberate Norway.

Sir Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill, Conservative Prime Minister from 1940-5 and 1951-5, was a politician, radical, soldier, artist, and the twentieth century's most famous and celebrated Prime Minister. Churchill had shown enormous vigour, industry, imagination and patriotism; but insufficient judgment and discretion. Widely blamed and thoroughly disheartened, Churchill volunteered for six months as an infantry officer on the western front and endured the hardships and dangers of trench warfare. In July 1917, what he called his "chequered fortunes" changed, and Churchill was brought out of the "political wilderness" and made Minister for Munitions. Churchill took charge of Britain's armaments production and worked closely with his American counterparts until an armistice was concluded on November 11, 1918.

In 1924 Churchill returned to the Conservative Party. He soon reached the highest point in his career thus far -- appointment as Chancellor of the Exchequer, the British government's second-highest political post, but after five years again fell out with his party.

Churchill's warnings about the danger of the new Nazi regime in Germany initially fell on deaf ears. Unpopular and ostracised for a decade, his warnings from the backbenches of Fascist imperialism went unheeded. His influence, it was said, had 'fallen to zero.'

In September 1939 President Franklin D. Roosevelt began one of the most remarkable correspondence in history by sending a personal letter to Churchill, then still First Lord of the Admiralty. Later Churchill would sign his letters Former Naval Person. Across the years the total number of messages would grow to 1,949. Roosevelt signaled his congratulations on the sinking of the Bismarck from "one former naval person to another former naval person".

Chamberlain's policy of appeasement failed, leading to his resignation and the vindication of Churchill's position. George VI asked Churchill to form a government in 1940 at the age of 65. Churchill became Prime Minister on May 10, 1940, the day Hitler launched his invasion of France, Belgium, and Holland. Asking the House of Commons for its confidence in his small War Cabinet, he said: "I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat."

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 03:08:04 ZULU