Since his fall and death soon after, history has (a la Churchill) been particularly unkind to Neville Chamberlain. Writing many years later, Michael Foot still numbered him as still the most culpable of The Guilty Men. He is remembered for nothing more than that piece of paper, and the Churchillian orthodoxy has rendered Chamberlain as nothing more than what one might call, after Mowatt, the pygmy’s pygmy. In a fit of rhetoric, I have even been known to wield the phrase ‘the worst prime minister since Chamberlain’. It might be that, after all, history has been less than entirely fair.
There is no doubt that his was one of the more remarkable ministerial careers: he was chancellor twice, and an innovative and reforming minister of health. He was the most creative and influential minister in Baldwin’s 1924-29 government; as chancellor he was the leading figure in the National Governments of the ‘thirties, taking on much of the role of prime minister in the process. His time as prime minister was brief, and dominated by one issue, but before the Norway debate that brought about his fall (and for many even after), he had the often passionate loyalty of many of his party and country. He was neither Hitler’s stooge, nor did he have the wool pulled over his eyes. Closer, in the eyes of his contemporaries, to a giant than a pigmy.
As the son of Joe and half-brother of Austen (see the post in this series on Austen Chamberlain for more about the family, here), Chamberlain’s political outlook was forged in the heart of his remarkable family. His Unitarianism and his father’s political tradition were at the heart of his ministerial career in the Treasury and at the Ministry of Health; when he became prime minister he proudly and publicly referred to his Liberal political inheritance.
It was his older stepbrother, Austen who was the born into a political career. It seems his father always intended a career in business for him. Thus, after Rugby School, he did not go on to Cambridge like Austen. For a naturally shy and somewhat haughty man, he perhaps missed out on some of the social graces university might have given him. Instead, attending courses in practical subjects at Mason College, later to become the University of Birmingham gave him a very different education. Like Bonar Law, he would become of the few Tory leaders with direct experience of running a business, both succesfully and, in his first venture, unsuccessfully.
Chamberlain’s father has made his name in Birmingham, as a great Liberal reformer. Joseph Chamberlain’s ‘municipal socialism’ had given the city roads, sewers, a great city hall and a raft of public improvement. Neville Chamberlain’s political views never lost the commitment to the idea that government could and should intervene and reform for the wider public good. In response to Gladstone’s support for Home Rule, Joe Chamberlain had split from the Liberals, styling himself and his supporters Liberal Unionists. In part, it was a polite fiction, they were de facto Conservatives, but the belief in social reform remained part of Joe Chamberlain’s political outlook. Of his sons, Austen was, in reality, much more a Tory than anything else; Neville ran as a Unionist always, and retained his father’s commitment to Liberal reform. As such, he would play a key role in refashioning Conservative politics in the Baldwin years and may well, were it not for Hitler and circumstance, have done more.
Chamberlain’s first forays into public affairs every much reflected those beliefs and that background. As one of Birmingham’s leading businessmen, and a Chamberlain to boot, he played a central role in the creation of its university, and in its health provision (both his father’s wives had died in childbirth). Like his father, he was also a strong supporter of tariffs. By the war, he had become one of the leading figure in Birmingham’s local politics. His command of detail, energy and vision were very evident in a highly successful spell as major. It was his brother Austen, to whom he was less close than he was to most of his family, who persuaded Lloyd George to appoint him to the new post of director of national service. It marked Neville’s debut on the national stage. It was not a success, and he resigned in August 1917: he had no clear remit and he very quickly developed an antipathy to Lloyd George. It seemed as if his political career was over before it had begun. Chamberlain married late in life, but very happily, and his own children were infants as war broke out. Nonetheless, he lost his cousin Norman in 1917 and was thus scarred by loss in that war as so many of his generation were. His desire to avoid another war was heartfelt.
The antipathy towards Lloyd George was mutual. Lloyd George had been his father’s great enemy at the time of the Boer War, and now had scuppered his first government job. Ironically, that enmity would serve him well politically, until the very end. Chamberlain entered the Commons in the Coupon Election of 1918, making a mark on the backbenches. He supported the Lloyd George government, but refused both a knighthood and a junior post in the ministry of health. By coincidence, he was in Canada in October 1922 when Lloyd George, and his brother, were ousted at the Carlton Club. Being unsullied by coalition, with a known antipathy to Lloyd George, he was always a likely choice for Bonar Law as he formed a cabinet from the 2nd XI (the leading coalitionists, including Austen, refused to serve). He was made postmaster-general (not in cabinet) initially. However, in the 1922 general election, Bonar Law’s first choice a minister of health lost his seat and then lost a by-election to boot. Chamberlain, with his experience in local government and health provision, was the natural choice. Even then Bonar Law hawked the job around other senior ministers. The new ministry was something of Cinderella position, especially since the cuts imposed upon it by the Geddes Axe, and Bonar Law had no takers. Thus, Chamberlain entered the cabinet just four years after entering the Commons. In some ways it made a great deal of political sense. Since his stepbrother had gone with Lloyd George, the Chamberlain name remained in the cabinet, and although Neville only had Austen’s grudging blessing, he might in time act as a bridge to his stepbrother and his supporters (as he would be in 1924).
He only had a short spell in his first stint at Health. When Bonar Law fell ill, and Baldwin became prime minister, his first choice of chancellor, Reginald McKenna, at some length, turned the offer down. Thus, Chamberlain was, once more, the second pick, and that gave him another startling promotion. His first time in number 11 was the briefest since 1900 (being just five months), but it saw him forge a partnership with Baldwin that would dominate inter-war British politics. It was not always easy, and by the ‘thirties Chamberlain often longed to see the back of his leader, but it would prove crucial to British politics between the wars, to the history of British Conservatism and the Baldwin’s desire to cement constitutional politics to the new democracy.
Unsurprisingly, Chamberlain strongly supported Baldwin’s gamble to go to the country to try and win a mandate to introduce his father’s beloved tariff reform. When the gamble backfired, Baldwin was weakened, but lacked serious rivals (it was too late for one Chamberlain, and too soon for the other). Instead, Chamberlain also played a role in facilitating the return of the old coalitionists to the front bench. When Baldwin won in 1924, Austen returned to government as foreign secretary. Neville, meanwhile, was minister of health once more. The two brothers served in the same cabinet.
It might be supposed that Chamberlain saw the Ministry of Health as a demotion. Baldwin had to find cabinet places for the old grandees, such as Austen, and he decided to offer the Treasury to Churchill (who was, as the saying goes, safer inside the tent than outside). In fact, Health was a ministerial post he genuinely wanted. It fitted his liberal and reforming instincts. Working closely with Churchill (an ex-Liberal, it should be remembered), he passed a raft of social reforms: Chamberlain piloted 21 separate acts of parliament through the Commons in the five years of Baldwin’s government, some in the face of opposition from his own backbenches. Already his 1923 Housing Act had paved the way for Wheatley’s 1924 act. He abolished the outdated poor law guardians, reformed the rates (the system of local government taxation) and created the block grant (whereby central government helped fund local government); his Widows, Orphans and Old Age Pensions Act of 1925 gives us the between the New Liberal reforms of the Lloyd George era and Beveridge. By 1929, Chamberlain was the favourite to succeed Baldwin should the latter fall on his sword, or be pushed onto it.
Following the defeat in 1929, Baldwin looked ripe for just such a fall. By 1931, there was mounting opposition to him on the Conservative benches. He was a poor leader of the opposition, and he was not helped by the campaign led by Beaverbrook and Rothermere (the proprietors of the Express and the Daily Mail) for a referendum on tariffs. The situation came a head in 1931, so much so that on March 1st Chamberlain elicited a promise from Baldwin that he would announce his retirement the following morning. Baldwin changed his mind overnight; had he gone, Chamberlain would probably have succeeded him then, rather than in 1937. As it was, Chamberlain remained loyal. Perhaps, rather like his half-brother, he needed sharper elbows. Had he been less loyal, and having the support of the press barons, he might well have become prime minister in 1931. The rest of his career would certainly have been very different.
As it was, he was to become of the more successful modern chancellors. Initially, he returned to Health in 1931, but then to number 11 after the 1931 election. Beyond that, Chamberlain was the dominant figure in the National Government, given MacDonald’s political weakness and isolation, and Baldwin’s tendency towards inertia. He ran economic, social and industrial policy, and the mid-‘30s he was the dominant voice in defence and foreign policy too. In 1932, he fulfilled his father’s ambition to introduce tariffs, a moment that profoundly affected him and his brother. He imposed further cuts in 1932, but by 1934 was able to cut taxes and restore benefits (and public sector pay cuts). A policy of cheap money and budgetary restraint saw recovery begin; he effectively cut the debt burden by buying back war bonds and converting them to cheaper replacements, thus making the cheap money policy viable. He was also creative. He not only protected iron and steel, but cartelised it; he carried through the creation of London Transport initiated by Labour’s Herbert Morrison. Within the constraints of budgetary probity, Chamberlain was not the orthodox fiscal conservative that sometimes depicted. If we now accept that the British economy grew in the 1930s Chamberlain, as chancellor, surely gets some credit for that.
Chamberlain’s reach went well beyond the Treasury. When MacDonald was forced to step down many, including Chamberlain, believed Baldwin should step aside for his chancellor; Chamberlain believed that he was, already, de facto acting prime minister. Once again, the elbows remained blunted and the Chancellor remained loyal; he was very uneasy about Edward VIII, and strongly supported Baldwin in the abdication crisis.
Even before becoming prime minister, Chamberlain had taken the leading role in the formulation of both foreign policy and defence. He was a reluctant, but committed supporter of rearmament. He agreed with the central premise of the Defence Requirements Committee created in 1934, that Germany was the primary threat. However, he disagreed with its conclusions: they had called for the army to get most, but Chamberlain successfully diverted the money to the RAF and, in particular, into bombers. As he would be as prime minister, Chamberlain became an ardent believer in the idea that the bomber will always get through. That belief stayed with him when he became prime minister. The bombers-first policy also dictated Britain’s inability to field a substantial force in France: that fact would severely constrain policy in 1938. Thus, even had he not been prime minister, he would have still been a candidate for The Guilty Men. As Baldwin’s heir apparent, he had been something close to acting prime minister as MacDonald’s decline and Baldwin’s lassitude required it. He had long felt that his time was overdue; he duly succeeded Baldwin in 1937.
In many ways, few have come to the job so well qualified. And he had considerable virtues as prime minister: insisting on departments having clear policy objectives and then monitoring them; he was an effective chair of cabinet meetings. He was the first prime minister to have a press officer who, sometimes less than subtly, steered reportage the government’s way. As is so often the case, though, the top job quickly showed his weaknesses as much as his strengths. He relied on an inner circle: his adviser, Sir Horace Wilson, along with Sir John Simon, Sir Samuel Hoare and Lord Halifax. Thus, the range of advice and views he received was strictly limited. In any case, he was so convinced that he was right he had little use for such views. He was increasingly vain, but also thin-skinned. Like others that have been number two for a long time, there is an unmistakable air of an old man in a hurry about him. Comparisons with Balfour, Eden and Brown come to mind.
It is the fate of some prime ministers that for any virtues that might have had, they will only ever be remembered for one thing. For Eden, that was Suez; for Cameron, the referendum. For Chamberlain, of course, it was Munich. Appeasement was, in many ways, the logical outcome of inter-war foreign and defence policy, and it was certainly in place before 1937. The precedents came in the 1920s, which had seen Germany rehabilitated and simultaneously restrained by a series of agreements, most notably at Locarno. Perhaps, a web of agreements that granted concessions, but also constrained, could similarly contain Hitler’s Germany. Defence policy was also a child of the 1920s, in that since the Geddes Axe was wielded in the last year of Lloyd George’s government the ten-year rule put the lid on arms expenditure. The lid had been removed when Chamberlain was at the Treasury. Chamberlain raised defence expenditure in 1934, 1936 and 1937, but progress was cautious and from a low base.
Chamberlain was also intimately involved in the formulation of foreign policy. If Lloyd George’s view that he saw foreign affairs through the wrong end of municipal drainpipe, there was something of the instinctive isolationist about him. However, by the late ‘thirties, his policy was not isolationist. In 1936, Germany’s economics minister, Hjalmar Schacht, had intimated that Hitler was in favour of a general settlement in Europe, and wanted to talk on that basis. It came to nothing, Schacht being an increasingly peripheral figure, but Chamberlain had become convinced that the reason it had not was excessive caution and lack of speed of action on the part of the Foreign Office. That would do much to shape his conduct of foreign policy as prime minister.
Some prime ministers are more content to leave foreign policy to their foreign secretary than others. Chamberlain’s distrust of the foreign office, allied to his enormous self-belief, ensured that he would want to take a lead. It cost him his foreign secretary in 1937. It is often supposed that Eden resigned because he did not support appeasement (an idea Eden would soon encourage). In fact, they fell out over Italy. The first breach in the relationship was when Chamberlain took it into his own hands to write to Mussolini. True, Eden had his doubts about Halifax’s visit to see Hitler in 1937, but agreed to it in the end. Eden’s nose was put out of joint when his permanent secretary, Sir Robert Vansittart was kicked upstairs, and replace by Cadogan, who Eden saw as Chamberlain’s man. Their relationship was further soured when Chamberlain rejected an American proposal to hold a conference towards a general settlement. Characteristically, Chamberlain wanted to be in control of the process himself. When Chamberlain once more resorted to direct diplomacy with Rome (in part via Austen’s widow, Ivy), Eden walked out.
Now is not the place to go into an in depth analysis of appeasement. It should, however, be noted that in the summer of 1938, there was not much in the way of a viable alternative, lest that alternative be war (and a war for which Britain was ill prepared). It is also true to say that Chamberlain was in no sense Hitler’s stooge. Chamberlain found Hitler repellent, and was very much aware that there was every chance that he would never keep his word in any case. But, it was at least worth the attempt. It is also true that Hitler saw Munich as a setback. Nonetheless, it pays not be too kind to Chamberlain. Certainly, Plan Z, the last ditch attempt to save peace by his personal intervention, owed much to the boundless self-confidence, or vanity, we noted above. Chamberlain also placed far too much confidence in Mussolini (though the Italian connection did lead to the Munich conference). He also remained wedded to the idea of a general European settlement for far too long, and he saw Munich as the prelude to a wider peace. The ‘scrap of paper’, the document Chamberlain waved so dramatically upon stepping out of the plane at Heston, was meant to clear the path for just such a process. And, if he was playing a weak hand, the weakness of that hand was in large part one of his own creation.
If Chamberlain’s faith in Mussolini and a possible general settlement lingered longer than it should have, that faith was gone by early 1939, after a visit to Rome and Hitler’s seizure of the rest of Czechoslovakia in the March. Appeasement was abandoned. The Polish guarantee, which dictated that if Germany did attack then Britain and France would go to war to defend Poland, made that concrete. However, it is true to say that Britain’s diplomatic engagement with the Soviet Union was too little too late, and was in part slowed by Chamberlain’s detestation of Bolshevism (there was much to detest in the Stalinist USSR of the ‘thirties, of course). Conscription was also introduced; already, in 1938, the brakes had been taken off rearmament: that, and the shadow factories scheme (in which plans were made for a rapid conversion to wartime production) would enable Britain to make the move to a full blown war economy far more quickly than Nazi Germany. Given where it had started from, Britain was as ready for war as it could have been in 1939.
If Chamberlain took Britain to war with a heavy heart, which he did, he was also determined to see it through. He was implacably opposed to coming to any kind of terms with Hitler. At the heart of Chamberlain’s strategy was his belief that Germany could not sustain a long war. This justified the defensive posture of we know as the phoney war. It is also true that Chamberlain and Churchill’s relationship quickly warmed, and Churchill played an increasingly prominent role.
As a war leader, Chamberlain had problems, however. Neither Labour nor the Liberals would serve under him. It is certainly true that Chamberlain found the role of war leader uncongenial, and his characteristic optimism could easily look like complacency. That is what, in the end, undid him. In May 1940, when Denmark and Norway had fallen, the most dramatic of all parliamentary debates began.
Ostensibly, the Norway debate was about the war. It was not. As he summed up, the Labour leader Clement Attlee made that explicit. He accused the government of ‘a failure of grip, a failure of drive’ and that ‘to win the war, we want different people at the helm from those who have led us into it.’ Sir Roger Keys (left), a retired admiral and war hero, in full dress uniform, reminded the House thus: ‘One hundred and forty years ago, Nelson said, “I am of the opinion that the boldest measures are the safest” and that still holds good to-day.’ Unparliamentary applause ensued: the debate was now about Chamberlain, not Norway.
Keys was a Conservative. So was Leo Amery, a former cabinet colleague to boot. In his peroration, he too looked to history:
Somehow or other we must get into the Government men who can match our enemies in fighting spirit, in daring, in resolution and in thirst for victory. Some 300 years ago, when this House found that its troops were being beaten again and again by the dash and daring of the Cavaliers, by Prince Rupert’s Cavalry, Oliver Cromwell spoke to John Hampden. In one of his speeches he recounted what he said. It was this: I said to him, ‘Your troops are most of them old, decayed serving men and tapsters and such kind of fellows.’…You must get men of a spirit that are likely to go as far as they will go, or you will be beaten still. It may not be easy to find these men. They can be found only by trial and by ruthlessly discarding all who fail and have their failings discovered. We are fighting to-day for our life, for our liberty, for our all; we cannot go on being led as we are. I have quoted certain words of Oliver Cromwell. I will quote certain other words. I do it with great reluctance, because I am speaking of those who are old friends and associates of mine, but they are words which, I think, are applicable to the present situation. This is what Cromwell said to the Long Parliament when he thought it was no longer fit to conduct the affairs of the nation: You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go.
It was, perhaps, a decisive intervention. As Arthur Greenwood got to his feet for Labour, Amery (right) implored him to ‘Speak for England, Arthur’. Greenwood called upon Conservative members to do their wider duty to the nation, and effect a change: Chamberlain had to go.
The following day, Herbert Morrison made it plain that Labour would divide the House on a vote of censure: Chamberlain’s critics on his own benches would now have to put up or shut up. In response, Chamberlain emphasisied his commanding majority: ‘I have friends in this House.’ As he called upon his own party to support him, for the support of his friends, another Tory, Bob Boothby, shouted ‘Not I’. Later, the aged Lloyd George rose to make his final contribution to our history:
I was not here when the right hon. Gentleman made the observation, but he definitely appealed on a question which is a great national, Imperial and world issue. He said, “I have got my friends”. It is not a question of who are the Prime Minister’s friends. It is a far bigger issue. The Prime Minister must remember that he has met this formidable foe of ours in peace and in war. He has always been worsted. He is not in a position to appeal on the ground of friendship. He has appealed for sacrifice. The nation is prepared for every sacrifice so long as it has leadership, so long as the Government show clearly what they are aiming at and so long as the nation is confident that those who are leading it are doing their best. I say solemnly that the Prime Minister should give an example of sacrifice, because there is nothing which can contribute more to victory in this war than that he should sacrifice the seals of office.
The government had a majority of 213, but on that night it was reduced to 81. 41 Tories had voted with the opposition, a further 60 abstained. One Labour MP, Josiah Wedgwood, broke out into a chorus of Rule Britannia; a Conservative rebel, Harold Macmillan, joined him. Chamberlain left the chamber to cries of ‘Go’. In the brutal way of such things (just ask Lloyd George or Margaret Thatcher), he was finished. Unlike Asquith, though, he did not flounce off. He served Churchill as lord president of the council, which included chairing cabinet. Most importantly, he supported Churchill’s decision to fight on.
There would be no time as an elder statesman. Like Bonar Law, death took him quickly, in November 1940. For a long time, his reputation was dust. Yet, his was certainly among the most distinguished of ministerial careers. Whether anyone else would have fared any better as prime minister in 1937-40 is at least open to question. The brutal reality of politics is that, all too often, men and women are remembered for one thing. He waved the piece of paper; ‘Go’. Perhaps it is the duty of history if not, as Churchill put it, to be kind or unkind, but at least to try and be fair. Chamberlain was, along with Baldwin, the most important politician of the inter-war period. In both cases, Mowatt was wrong: Chamberlain was undoubtedly anything but a political pigmy. As prime minister, he faced what was close enough to an impossible task, if that task was peace. That he left Britain at least able to survive when war came and Churchill took his place should at least give pause for thought. Chamberlain failed, but did much for his country in peace and war.
Chamberlain as chancellor:
That 1938 moment:
And the coming of war:
And, finally, a debate: