Lord Lexden is the Conservative Party’s official historian. His website can be found here. This article is based on a lecture delivered at the Carlton Club in March.
Writing in his diary on 13 November 1940, Viscount Mersey, historian, author and long-serving Liberal Whip in the House of Lords, noted the death of Neville Chamberlain which had occurred four days earlier. He praised Chamberlain as “a good man whose merits will be better appreciated in the future.”
It was the judgement of a seasoned observer of the political scene, an opponent of the Conservative Party, who had met Chamberlain on a number of occasions, but did not know him well. Their conversations had brought out some of his wider merits outside the political sphere. At a party in 10 Downing Street the previous year before the outbreak of war, they had discussed the pictures of prime ministers that fill the wall beside the staircase leading to the first floor. Chamberlain, “looking young [he was then 70], well, black-haired and alert”, spoke knowledgeably about the production of steel engravings of painted portraits. He also told Mersey, who was greatly interested in art, that he had recently established that only two portraits of Sir George Downing, builder of the famous street, survived, both of them in America.
Lord Mersey’s favourable opinion, which reflected overall approval of a controversial political career, was strengthened by evidence of Chamberlain’s wider cultural interests that not all holders of high office have possessed. Posterity would surely arrive at a fair, balanced appreciation of this “good man”.
Mersey misjudged his fellow countrymen. Nearly 80 years on, they have still not come to appreciate Chamberlain’s many merits in and beyond politics, even though examples of them can be readily identified in his long, uninterrupted years of public service which began in Birmingham in 1911. They are not found because they are not sought. What Chamberlain did before he became prime minister in 1937 is virtually unknown. Attention is concentrated on the three years of his premiership – and on only one aspect of them, his conduct of foreign affairs in response to severe threats on three fronts: the continent of Europe, the Mediterranean and North Africa, and the Far East (with the first of the three attracting most of the comment). Who remembers that in 1938 several million working people became entitled to paid holidays for the first time?
Too many historians have reinforced the public obsession with Chamberlain’s foreign policy. It has been examined from almost every conceivable angle. Some of the numerous studies have reached conclusions favourable to Chamberlain, but little notice has been taken of them outside academic circles. Public opinion remains extraordinarily reluctant to question, let alone reconsider, the condemnation of Chamberlain’s handling of foreign affairs which, shortly before his death, replaced the widespread approval that it had previously attracted. The hero of Munich continued to enjoy the nation’s support until the spring of 1940 when it suddenly collapsed, the abrupt reversal of view being greatly assisted by the wide distribution of a scurrilous, but influential publication, Guilty Men. That too is unappreciated today.
With public opinion in such a state, plain falsehoods are readily accepted as truths. Chamberlain dwells in the national memory as a weak, spineless figure, always ready to defer to Hitler and anxious to arrange for him to be granted the territorial concessions he demanded. In reality Chamberlain was one of the most formidable politicians of the twentieth century. He ruled the Conservative Party with a rod of iron, exacting obedience from all but a small group of dissidents in Parliament until his resignation as prime minister on 10 May 1940; indeed, his dominance was only slightly lessened by it, for Tories failed to warm to Churchill in his early days in power (some never did). This point at least emerges clearly from the recent, much-lauded film, Darkest Hour, which, like most of its genre, takes grave liberties with the historical facts.
For Hitler, Chamberlain felt an overwhelmingly strong, personal distaste , going to meet him in September 1938 not in order to submit tamely to him, but to try and prepare the way for a new European settlement that would avert the war that, like the majority of his contemporaries, he believed would destroy civilisation. From the start of his quest he was clear that boundaries agreed for new central and eastern European states, created by the Versailles Treaty but unable to provide stability in the region, could not be regarded as inviolate. Virtually everyone agreed with him.
Chamberlain is ridiculed as a narrow-minded, insular figure, hopelessly ill-fitted to participate in international affairs. The patronising words of his elder half-brother, Austen, are frequently quoted: “Neville, you must remember you know nothing about foreign affairs”. In fact he knew more about them than most senior politicians of his time. He had visited places in North Africa and the Far East that were mere names to them, as well as travelling extensively in Europe, adding North America in his later years. From the moment that Britain began to rearm in 1934 when Chamberlain was Chancellor of the Exchequer following the collapse of a big international conference called to eliminate the most destructive weapons, foreign affairs were never far from the centre of his mind.
It is, however, the widespread ignorance about Chamberlain’s career before 1937 which above all prevents a serious appreciation of his merits. Hardly anyone is aware, for example, that in the 1920s he devised the first full policy programmes to be put before the country at general elections by the Tory Party and then personally implemented most of the progressive pledges which filled them, making him the greatest social reformer in the Party’s history.
Knowledge of such things can now be readily acquired for the first time. They are described fully and lucidly by Robert Self in his fine biography of Chamberlain, based on material in some 150 archives, which was published in 2006. This detailed study is complemented by a brilliant short profile by Nicholas Shakespeare in his account of how Chamberlain lost the premiership in 1940, Six Minutes in May: How Churchill Unexpectedly Became Prime Minister, published last year. These two works document Chamberlain’s numerous merits without in any way concealing his shortcomings which until now have received all the attention. It is time that the balance was redressed
(Arthur) Neville Chamberlain was born on 18 March 1869 into Birmingham’s first family, over which his powerful father, who had made a fortune as a screw manufacturer by his forties, presided with complete and unquestioned authority.
Many regarded the great “radical Joe” with his youthful republican sympathies— a politician famously described by Churchill, who was in awe of him, as “the man who made the weather”—as a profound danger to the existing social order, but within his family circle he was a stern upholder of prevailing middle-class Victorian attitudes. He decided what each of his six children (by two marriages, both of which were ended by the deaths of his wives) should do with their lives. Austen, his eldest son, would become prime minister; Neville would make a great deal of money to replenish the family’s coffers which had become alarmingly depleted ; his four daughters would form a support group, fetching and carrying as required to advance the family’s interests.
The master plan miscarried. Austen reached the cabinet quite easily with the help of his father now in alliance with the Tories, but then faltered so badly that it became clear that he would never get to the very top. Neville spent six years in the 1890s on a bleak frontier outpost of Empire, Andros Island in the Bahamas, working round the clock with a devoted team recruited locally (whom he organised brilliantly) in the hope of making a fortune from the first large-scale British cultivation of sisal, thought to be ideal for making rope: but his 20,000 acres yielded nothing except substantial losses, though through no fault of his: the plants would not flourish in the prevailing conditions. Only the four Chamberlain daughters, all of them very able women who never married, successfully filled the roles assigned to them as highly resourceful assistants and advisers to the menfolk.
After 1900, while Austen failed to make the most of his chances in politics, Neville flourished, running two Midlands businesses concerned with the production of metal goods and displaying for the first time that passionate desire to create a better society which was to become the dominating theme of his political life. His employees shared in the firms’ profits; pension schemes were established; effective health cover was provided.
Chamberlain himself now acquired an extraordinarily wide range of interests, at all of which he excelled. Britain possessed no greater expert on the countryside: he studied bird life intently everywhere, including in St James’s Park when he was prime minister; he knew the name of every tree and flower; he handled gun and fishing-rod with skill. As prime minister he published articles in natural history and botany magazines. In 1940 he still thought nothing, at the age of 71, of walking 20 miles through the land he had hoped so much to save from Nazi bombs. As his premiership ended and with cancer not yet diagnosed, his doctor told him he had the constitution of man of forty.
At home he was an accomplished pianist with a deep love of Beethoven. He came to know Shakespeare so well that in later years he became a regular correspondent of one of the leading authorities on the works of the Bard. In a Commons speech, Churchill once cited Henry VI as the source of a quotation used not unkindly about Chamberlain; he pointed out at once that it came from Richard III. Lord Mersey was far from being the only recipient of his knowledge of art. Like so much of his political life, his talents in other spheres too remain practically unknown. He did not boast about them.
His deep personal contentment was, however, sustained principally by the love of his family. His attractive, vivacious wife Anne, Birmingham’s foremost Tory canvasser, exuded charm; Churchill was prominent among those who relished her company. She put people at their ease, something her husband, gravely handicapped by shyness (as he himself recognised), rarely did. He always said that he could not have become prime minister without her.
His delight in his two children never wavered. He was the kind of father, rare at that period, who rushed home from work to be with them before bedtime. His niece, Valerie, who lived with the Chamberlains at No 10, recalled: “He had a reputation for being cold. He wasn’t cold at all. He was amusing and he was interesting and he was kind. What more can you have?” Constant affection was also provided by two of his clever, unmarried sisters to whom he wrote long letters revealing his innermost thoughts. Now published, this correspondence illustrates his principal characteristics, the good and the not so good, in rich detail.
This secure, affluent family background strengthened his determination to make life better for the mass of working people. Birmingham was the beneficiary of his crusading zeal before and during the First World War as he rose swiftly from Councillor to Lord Mayor. He insisted on the kind of careful urban planning that only became standard practice throughout the land after 1945. The new housing estates which he oversaw fostered community life through imaginative design, with plenty of open space for recreation. Integrated medical services, including specialist infant welfare centres, were brought within the reach of most working people. He created the first municipal savings bank and the first city symphony orchestra.
He took his mission for social improvement to the national stage as a Birmingham MP in 1918, his fiftieth year: no one else elected at that age has gone on to become prime minister. He got his first ministerial post in 1922; ten months later he was Chancellor of Exchequer and the second figure in the cabinet under Stanley Baldwin, whom he was to supply with progressive policies and dynamic ideas for the next fourteen years. Many were put into detailed form for him by his small, devoted Conservative Research Department, the Right’s first think-tank, which he established in 1929. It came at the end of an immensely productive five-year term at the Ministry of Health, at that time responsible for all social services apart from education.
The work done in partnership with Baldwin, and by Chamberlain alone after 1937, gave Britain some of the best welfare services in the world. Much that he had pioneered in Birmingham was extended to the country as a whole. He wanted his fellow countrymen to live in decent houses: some 3 million were built during his years in office. He wanted them to have access to good health services: progress was made towards a comprehensive national system. He wanted the elderly to have security: the contributory pensions system he introduced in 1925 laid the basis for it.
At the heart of all this lay the principle of the helping hand. “Our policy”, he said in 1925, “is to use the great resources of the state, not for the distribution of an indiscriminate largesse, but to help those who have the will and desire to raise themselves to higher and better things.” With his strong Victorian values, he could not imagine that there would be many uninterested in responding to this offer.
Deeply conscious in his last years of how much grinding poverty still remained, he would have liked to have gone much further. He dreamed in 1940 of a further stint as premier after the war when his mission might be more fully accomplished. Instead, the completion of the welfare state fell to the Labour Party. Chamberlain’s vital contribution was forgotten, the more readily because in the years of his ascendancy he had treated Attlee and his colleagues “like dirt”, in their words. They would never acknowledge him as a fellow builder of a better, fairer Britain. Briefly, they came together in Churchill’s government in 1940. A new respect immediately sprang up between them, but the very short duration of their partnership could not efface the memory of the fierce attacks that Chamberlain, one of the most effective Commons debaters of his time( he always had all the facts at his fingertips), had inflicted on them in his prime.
What the Labour Party and his other critics never appreciated is that he was called on in the late 1930s to make vast sums available for defence, after having earlier with Baldwin made the social services the largest item of public expenditure for the first time, with so much scope for further increases. Chamberlain, the great social reformer, could hardly contemplate this with equanimity, but he saw clearly what had to be done as he pursued his “double policy”, as he called it, of rebuilding armaments and of striving for peace with Hitler and Mussolini in a new European settlement (while, like everyone else, hoping against hope that a third cruel regime in Japan, busily committing atrocities in Manchuria, did not advance against us in the Far East). Speaking in Birmingham in this month (April) 80 years ago, he said:
“To me the very idea that the hard-won savings of our people, which ought to be devoted to the alleviation of suffering, to the opening out of institutions and recreations, to the care of the old, to the development of the minds and the bodies of the young—the thought that these savings should have to be dissipated upon the construction of weapons of war is hateful and damnable. Yet I cannot shut my eyes to the fact that under the present conditions of the world we have no alternative but to go on with it, because it is the very breath of our British being, our freedom itself, that is at stake. Do not let us forget that this freedom has come down to us from the past, bought for us at a price. If we wish to keep it we must pay the interest on that price in each succeeding generation”.
(How odd it is that that Chamberlain should have come to be regarded as a poor public speaker. How hopeless today’s politicians sound by comparison.)
Neville Chamberlain was strongly imbued with his father’s radicalism. He saw himself as carrying forward a family, rather than a party, creed. He was over forty when Joe Chamberlain’s followers merged with the Tories. His father argued for ambitious social reforms; he implemented them. His father stood for tariffs, not free trade; he introduced them in 1932. His father believed that local councils, close to the people, should deliver most public services; he carried through complex legislation in 1928 (greeted with prolonged cheering in the Commons) which made them effective, well-resourced institutions, doing more to improve local government, in the view of A.J.P. Taylor, “than any other single man in the twentieth century… In few other European countries were the tasks of local government so wide and varied. For the ordinary British citizen, ‘they’ usually meant the town hall, not an agency of the central government.” It is not obvious that departure in recent decades from this model of administration, so easy for the public to understand, has served the country well.
Shortly before his death, Chamberlain received a letter of farewell from Sir John Simon, the cleverest of all his colleagues. Simon’s words brought him great comfort. “You have spent yourself in the country’s service”, he wrote, “and have done more than any man alive to improve the conditions of life of humble folk.” Chamberlain replied: “It gave me particular pleasure that you remembered my efforts for social improvement. It was the hope of doing something to improve the conditions of life for the poorer people that brought me at past middle life into politics, and it is some satisfaction to me that I was able to carry out some part of my ambition.”
Neville Chamberlain will never lack critics. Much – too much – has been heard from them since 1940. There is another side to this story of human tragedy which has been touched upon in this article. Lack of appreciation of his many merits has made him the most misunderstood statesman in modern British history.
– – – – – – – – – –
BIBLIOGRAPHY. Alistair Cooke (Lexden), “Neville Chamberlain’s Private Army” in Alistair Cooke (ed.), Tory Policy Making: The Conservative Research Department 1929-2009 (2009) and “Chamberlain and Churchill: A Perfect Partnership” in The London Magazine (forthcoming). David Dilks, Churchill and Company: Allies and Rivals in War and Peace (2012). H. Montgomery Hyde, Neville Chamberlain (1976). Viscount Mersey, A Picture of Life 1872-1940 (1941) and Journals and Memories (1952). Robert Self, Neville Chamberlain: A Biography (2006). Nicholas Shakespeare, Six Minutes in May: How Churchill Unexpectedly Became Prime Minister (2017). A.J.P. Taylor, English History 1914-1945 (1965).