Chamberlain, (Arthur) Neville
(18691940), prime minister
, was born on 18 March 1869 at Edgbaston, Birmingham, the only son of and his second wife, Florence (18471875), the daughter of Timothy Kenrick of Birmingham. His childhood was by all accounts very happy, although the household in which he grew to maturity was affected by profound sadness. His father's first wife, Harriet Kenrick, had died while giving birth to Neville's elder half-brother, , in 1863, and his own mother died in similar circumstances in 1875, the child on this occasion also perishing. This unquestionably left its mark on Joseph Chamberlain and imposed a certain strain on his relations with his children. Neville later recalled that for many years his feelings towards his father were characterized by respect and fear rather than love, noting that few could face his piercing eye with composure (Feiling, 3). It is clear, though, that Joseph Chamberlain loved all his children equally, and that despite a busy life he spent considerable time with them and was in turn adored. Furthermore, the family remained remarkably close-knit and self-contained, providing Neville with a permanent haven of security and affection.
Not unnaturally, age conferred a certain distance upon the relationship between the children of the first marriageBeatrice (b
. 1862) [see Chamberlain, Beatrice Mary
] and Austen (b
. 1863)and those of the second: Neville, Ida (b
. 1870) [see (Florence) Ida Chamberlain under Beatrice Chamberlain
], Hilda (b
. 1872) [see (Caroline) Hilda Chamberlain under Beatrice Chamberlain
], and Ethel (b
. 1873). This was later compounded by Austen's absence at Rugby School. Neville, however, emerged as the leader of a junior family group, and in the process formed particularly close relationships with his sisters Ida and Hilda. There was also a large cousinage, mostly female, spawned by the Chamberlains' intermarriage with other members of the Unitarian and Quaker industrial aristocracy of Birmingham, which completed Neville's family circle.
His Unitarian background and upbringing made Chamberlain aware of the need to promote progress and instilled in him a profound sense of duty. He also developed an understanding of the responsibilities that wealth and privilege incur. One of his cousins later wrote: You may say that Neville was a born social reformer, and brought up in an atmosphere of precept and example (Feiling, 13). Another cousin commented: We always understood as children that as our lives had fallen in pleasant places it behoved us all the more to do what we could to improve the lot of those less happily placed (NCP (Neville Chamberlain papers, University of Birmingham Library), 11/15/44, Lady Cecily Debenham to Anne Chamberlain, 11 Sept 194?). In this respect, Neville was much more like his father than was Austen, who styled himself Liberal Unionist out of sentiment and respect for his father, but was at heart a born Conservative (Dilks, 25).
Neville Chamberlain, on the other hand, as he indicated on accepting the leadership of the Conservative Party, remained a Liberal Unionist from conviction. On 1 June 1937 he told the party that he:
was not born a little Conservative. I was brought up as a Liberal and afterwards as a Liberal Unionist. The fact that I am here, accepted by you Conservatives as your leader, is to my mind a demonstration of the catholicity of the Conservative Party, of that readiness to cover the widest possible field which has made it this great force in the country, and has justified the saying of Disraeli that the Conservative Party was nothing if it was not a National Party. (Ramsden, Age of Balfour, 356)
For Neville Chamberlain, as for his father before him, issues such as slum clearance, urban development, and the provision of schools and hospitals were vital concerns and the proper preoccupations of politicians and statesmen. He never lost sight of these goals even during the most critical international crises of his premiership, informing a Conservative conference on 12 May 1938 that it was his observance of his father's
deep sympathy with the working classes and his intense desire to better their lot which inspired me with an ambition to do something in my turn to afford better help to the working people and better opportunities for the enjoyment of life. (Chamberlain, 210)
The extent of his genuine concern for the quality of life of ordinary people is indicated in his shock at the condition of the working classes revealed by Birmingham evacuees during 1940, which no doubt would also have made clear to him the limitations of power. There can, however, be no gainsaying his anguish at his ignorance.
Chamberlain grew up to be a man of broad interests and avocations. In his youth a keen entomologist, he later developed an even keener interest in flowers, becoming eventually a fellow of the Royal Horticultural Society. Ornithology was another of his passions, which he advanced by rising at five in the morning to learn to distinguish the songs of the various species. Even during the frenetic years of the 1930s, when occupying the most senior offices, he found time to indulge these pursuits. In 1914 he added angling to his list of hobbies. His range of interests, however, was not confined to natural history. There is probably no prime minister who knew his Shakespeare better than Chamberlain; witness his quotation from Hotspur in 1 Henry IV
at Heston Airport on leaving for Munich in 1938: that he hoped to pluck from this nettle danger, this flower, safety. Moreover, he read other authors widely. Finally, he inherited from his mother's side musicality and a deep love of music.
The only thing that disturbed Chamberlain's childhood happiness was school. He hated the preparatory school at Rugby and Rugby School itself, where he followed his brother in 1882. He was bullied and, perhaps as a result, became somewhat shy and withdrawn, not participating in the school debating society until the period of the home rule controversy in 1886, when he spoke in his father's defence. The real cause of his dislike of Rugby may, however, simply have been the reality of living away from the family and the associated loneliness. His father's decision that he be removed from the classical to the recently introduced modern side did nothing to endear him to the institution. A career in business had been predetermined for him by his father, who considered that the subjects taught in the modern curriculum would be more relevant. At the end of 1886 Neville left Rugby, but there was no question of his following Austen to Cambridge. Austen had been sent there by his father and thence on an extensive tour of Europe as preparation for a career in politics; but a university education was deemed an unnecessary expense for a career in business. In this Joseph Chamberlain, although unintentionally, did Neville a great disservice. A university education would in all probability have made him a better integrated, more self-confident, and poised personality, with a capacity to project his inner warmth beyond the confines of the family and intimate friends and an ability to appreciate that there were points of view as intellectually sound as his own. He certainly had the intelligence to benefit from the university experience, which his father later recognized. Comparing his two sons in 1902, Joseph Chamberlain observed that, while he thought Austen had a fair chance of leading a government, Neville was the really clever one and that if ever he became interested in a political career he would back him to be Prime Minister (Dilks, 86).
Chamberlain's education was completed at Mason College, Birmingham, which became the basis for the University of Birmingham. There he studied science, metallurgy, and engineering. These were, however, disciplines which did not fully absorb him and at which he did not excel. Nevertheless, it was at this time that he developed a profound interest in natural science, reading the works of Darwin, Huxley, and Wallace. On leaving Mason College he was apprenticed to a firm of chartered accountants, being so successful there that he was offered a permanency.
By 1890 Chamberlain was a serious young man with a very strong sense of duty, a sharp intellect, and clarity of thought. He could also empathize with the distress of the less well-favoured sections of society and he understood their needs. With these qualities he combined resilience, determination, and obstinacy, which served him surprisingly well and immediately in 1890.
Having sold the family's business interests in 1874, Joseph Chamberlain was obliged to live off the profits of his investments in order to sustain his career in politics. By 1890 his South American investments had declined considerably, and he had not had a ministerial salary for four years. He was living off capital, and therefore susceptible to the suggestion that a fortune was to be made from growing sisal in the Bahama Islands. He instructed Neville to make his way to New York and proceed thence with Austen to the Bahamas to assess the profitability of sisal culture.
On returning to Birmingham in January 1891, the two brothers reported that profits of 30 per cent could be anticipated. Joseph Chamberlain decided to go ahead, despite words of caution from his brothers and other associates, and it was determined that Neville should supervise the entire undertaking. Back in the Bahamas in May 1891, Neville decided that the island of Andros would be the best location for the Chamberlain plantation, and he arranged the purchase of the land. Unfortunately, by 1896 the worst forebodings of Joseph Chamberlain's brothers were realized, and it was necessary to wind up the business at a personal loss to Joseph Chamberlain of £50,000. It was clear that Andros and the Bahamas in general were a poor location for the cultivation of sisal on a large scale, and that much of the fibre produced was of inferior quality. This and a catastrophic fall in the price of sisal forced Neville Chamberlain to inform his father in April 1896 that:
there is only one conclusion to be drawn … which I do with great reluctance and with the most bitter disappointment. I no longer see any chance of making the investment pay. I cannot blame myself too much for the want of judgment. You and Austen have had to rely solely on my reports but I have been here all the time and no doubt a sharper man would have seen long ago what the ultimate result was likely to be. (NCP, 1/6/10/114, Neville Chamberlain to Joseph Chamberlain, 28 April 1896)
There can be no doubting the personal sense of failure that Chamberlain felt, but the collapse of the enterprise could not be attributed to a lack of efficiency, skill, or determination on his part. Had the Andros Fibre Company ever had any prospect of success, the energy and single-mindedness of Neville Chamberlain would have ensured it. Merely to establish the plantation, he had had to endure demanding physical conditions and undertake substantial manual work himself. In truth, no amount of ingenuity on his part could have saved the plantation from the initial and critical misjudgement that sisal would grow on Andros. The responsibility for failure was as much that of his father and brother as it was his.
Nevertheless, there were gains. Chamberlain had had to be self-reliant and learn to be confident of his judgement: as a result he became altogether much tougher and more resilient. Andros had confirmed in him too the sense of social obligation and duty to his neighbour, genuinely expressed in the anguish he felt at abandoning his good works and leaving his workers to relapse into their previous state. The solitude of Andros and the lack of sophisticated company had been a disadvantage in one sense, but it enabled him to read extensively. He took with him to Andros works by Darwin, Bagehot, George Eliot, and the botanist John Lindley. The Bible
and the complete Shakespeare followed, as did other scientific, historical, and biographical material. There were also the compensations of the local fauna, which absorbed him. In many respects, Andros was his university, although a more costly one than Cambridge. Nevertheless, so much solitude and experience of dissolute whites harmed his character: his shyness and reserve were reinforced and his sense of superiority and a certain conceit of himself confirmed. Yet at the same time he had become more tolerant and had learned to cope with human frailty. Even so, he still felt the need to prove himself: home and Birmingham provided him with that opportunity.
Between 1897 and 1916 Chamberlain established himself as a leading figure in the industrial life of Birmingham. Shortly after returning to Britain from the Bahamas he secured a directorship in Elliott's Metal Company. He soon acquired a reputation for his direct involvement in all aspects of the company's operations and his willingness to consult the workforce. His main business interest, however, until his semi-retirement from the world of commerce immediately before the First World War, was the Bordesley firm of Hoskins & Son, manufacturers of ships' berths, which he bought at the end of 1897 with the help of his family. He continued, however, to be a director of Elliott's, to which he devoted one day a week, eventually becoming chairman of that company too. Later he joined the board of the Birmingham Small Arms Company, with which there was a family connection through an uncle.
At Hoskins, Chamberlain added to his reputation as a hands-on manager. His practical involvement in the day-to-day running of the business was exceptional by the standards of the day. He was, nevertheless, prepared to entrust matters to proven and trusted subordinates and became an accomplished practitioner in the art of delegation. He was accessible to his workers and solicitous of their welfare to the extent of encouraging trade union membership, in which he was considerably in advance of his contemporaries. At Elliott's, Chamberlain introduced a surgery and welfare supervisors and, after 1914, instituted a scheme of war benefits for those too badly injured to resume work and their dependants. At Hoskins he was equally innovative in welfare and reform, devising a 5 per cent bonus on production and a pension plan. When business was slack he was reluctant to lay men off. Indeed, for his time he was an exemplary employer and could justifiably take pride in the fact that he never experienced a strike.
Emerging local politician
Chamberlain's conspicuous success in business, besides enabling him to purge his sense of failure in Andros, gave him a base from which to involve himself in wider aspects of Birmingham life. He was an emphatic supporter of the creation of the University of Birmingham, which owed much to the determination of his father, who became its first chancellor in 1900. An indefatigable fund-raiser on its behalf, Neville was also on the university council. Perhaps more compelling, though, was his concern for health care. He was a member of and eventually chaired Birmingham General Hospital's board of management, and was treasurer of the Birmingham General Dispensary. As evidence of the rigour that he brought to these voluntary duties, he devised a scheme to relieve the general hospital of trivial outpatient cases that foreshadowed Lloyd George's National Insurance Act
. The acceptance of this scheme was a major success for Chamberlain, and the manner in which he promoted itmeticulous planning, close attention to detail, acute grasp of the complexities of the problem, and skill as a negotiatordemonstrated many of the attributes that made him a highly respected figure in local government.
There were inevitably rumours that Chamberlain's entry into municipal or national public life was imminent. He felt, however, that he had to succeed in business and restore the financial losses of Andros before embarking on a political career. But he did speak for his father and others during election campaigns, and when his father left the Unionist government in 1903 to campaign for tariff reform Neville became an ardent adherent, confessing that he had for many years been a convert to the cause (NCP, 3/9/18, Neville Chamberlain to F. B. Matthews, 31 Aug 1903). As a businessman he was naturally aware of the external threat to local manufacturers, and like his father and brother he favoured imperial preference. He also took a lively interest in international developments and recognized the threat from Germany before 1914. He did not believe that the ententes concluded with France in 1904 and Russia in 1907 would do much to deter Germany, and so he became very active in the Navy League in Birmingham. He deplored reductions in the size of the army.
The year 1911 was to be a significant turning point in Chamberlain's life. First, at the comparatively advanced age of forty-one he married, in January, Anne Vere, the daughter of William Utting Cole, an army officer, after a brief courtship and engagement. Until this time he had envisaged permanent bachelorhood, but to his everlasting joy he found in Anne Cole the perfect partner, although in many respects their characters were completely antithetical. He was precise, meticulous, and in control of his emotions; she was somewhat impulsive and volatile. Nevertheless, they were a devoted couple, and Neville later claimed that he owed everything to her. In 1911 their daughter, Dorothy, was born; in 1913 their son, Frank. Anne Chamberlain found immediate favour with her husband's family and particularly with Joseph Chamberlain, but her relationship with him was short-lived, for he died on 2 July 1914.
Anne Chamberlain emphatically supported her husband's entry into politics, preferably in the House of Commons, for which she, as did many others, thought him equipped. It was not, however, the stimulus of his wife that prompted this step, but rather the passage of the Greater Birmingham Bill
in 1911 and the desire to participate actively in the development of the city which its provisions made possible. In November 1911, standing as a Liberal Unionist candidate, he was elected to Birmingham city council on a manifesto that emphasized town planning, the need to develop canals and inland waterways, and the importance of improved technical education.
Local government and political apprenticeship
Chamberlain's rise to pre-eminence in local government was rapid. In 1914 he was elected as alderman, and in 1915 he became lord mayor. Lloyd George later jibed that Chamberlain was a good mayor of Birmingham in an off year (Taylor, 256), but Chamberlain's actions and public statements throughout this period eloquently testify to his profound concern for social reform and for the welfare of ordinary people; it was even said that he should have been a Labour man (Feiling, 52). To achieve his objectives, he became practised in the arts of persuasion and conciliation.
On election Chamberlain was immediately made chairman of the town planning committee. Under his leadership and direction the first two town planning schemes in Britain were passed into law by the end of 1913. In the same year he became chairman of a special committee charged with investigating the housing conditions of Birmingham's poorest citizens. Its interim report, although accepted by the council, was not immediately implemented because of the war, but the vision remained. On becoming lord mayor in November 1915 he spoke of the need to move the working classes from their hideous and depressing surroundings to cleaner, brighter and more wholesome dwellings in the still uncontaminated country which lay within [the city's] boundaries (Birmingham Daily Post
, 10 Nov 1915).
Chamberlain's assiduity in local government ensured that his reputation for industry and efficiency spread rapidly beyond Birmingham. In 1915 Lloyd George, the newly appointed minister of munitions in the Asquith coalition, invited him to serve on the liquor control board, set up to minimize the impact of alcohol consumption on arms production. Chamberlain accepted, but after a brief period of distinguished service felt compelled to resign because service on the board was incompatible with the duties of lord mayor. Despite the constraints of wartime, his record as lord mayor was exceptional. He was indefatigable in organizing the city for war, and his schedule was punishing. Within six weeks of assuming office he had persuaded the Ministry of Munitions to underwrite the costs of increasing Birmingham's electricity supply, begun rationalizing the purchase of coal for the gas and electricity industries in the city through a joint committee, and prevented a strike by the council's workers by mediating an agreement between their leaders and the labour committee.
The lasting monuments of Chamberlain's year as lord mayor, however, were the establishment of the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and the Birmingham Municipal Bank. The former he proposed after a concert given in Birmingham in 1916 by the Hallé Orchestra. He felt that a city of Birmingham's stature should be endowed with an orchestra of a high standard and that it should be funded partly from the rates. There was, though, an additional agenda: such an orchestra, located in a large concert hall, would, through cheaper seats, make music both accessible to a wider audience and simultaneously more self-financing. In 1919 an annual grant from the rates was voted and made possible the creation of the city orchestra.
No less socially improving was Birmingham City Bank. The government was anxious by the end of 1915 to encourage investment in war loan by a population now enjoying high wages. The essence of the problem was to persuade those who had never before saved to invest. Chamberlain thought this could be done through municipal savings associations in which the workers could invest by means of regular contributions that would be deducted at source by employers; the deposited funds, not being generally available for withdrawal until the end of the war, would be available for war loan. Interest would be guaranteed by the municipalities. Despite petty obstruction from the Treasury and objections from the banks and trade unions, his tireless lobbying eventually ensured that his scheme for municipal savings banks became law in 1916. Such was the success of the Birmingham Municipal Bank that it was made permanent by an act of parliament in 1919 with the additional power to advance mortgages to depositors. It remained in existence until 1976, the only organization of its type in the country.
Chamberlain would have liked to have achieved much more, but he recognized the limitations that war imposed and that social advance must wait. He believed that the German government's wicked ambitions had stayed the march of progress and had set back for an indefinite period reforms that might have bettered the lot of generations to come (Birmingham Daily Post
, 10 Nov 1915). Even so, his undoubted achievements and popularity were such that he was elected lord mayor for a second term. He was, however, destined never to complete it.
Director-general of national service, 19161917
The need for the efficient organization of manpower for both the military effort and the industrial one that would sustain it had long been one of Chamberlain's convictions. When, therefore, in December 1916 the new prime minister, Lloyd George, on the suggestion of Austen Chamberlain, offered him the newly created post of director-general of national service, he was predisposed to accept the commission and resigned as lord mayor. His remit was to recruit volunteers
for essential war work; but, beyond that, despite three interviews with Lloyd George, he had no detailed instructions or even terms of appointment. Moreover, it was decided that he did not need a seat in the Commons. Given these difficulties, he was in a hopeless position from the start. In eight months only a few thousand volunteers were placed in employment essential for war work. The underlying problem, however, was that Lloyd George took an instant dislike to him, dismissing him as a pin-headed incompetent (Amery Diaries
, 143); the contempt was reciprocated, Chamberlain later referring to Lloyd George as a dirty little Welsh Attorney (Ramsden, Age of Balfour
On 8 August 1917 Chamberlain resigned. This was a bitter experience, redolent, as he himself recognized, of Andros. He had made mistakes; he should have had experience of parliament before taking such a position; he should have insisted upon a seat in the Commons; and perhaps it had been imprudent to select as his principal assistant a man unversed in the intricacies of Whitehall, Birmingham's former town clerk. Chamberlain had, though, faced insuperable obstacles from the beginning. Both his successor, Sir Auckland Geddes, and the leader of the Conservative Party, Andrew Bonar Law, later publicly recognized the extent of his difficulties and acknowledged his contribution in very constrained circumstances.
This was a depressing period in Chamberlain's life, but with the support of his family he had within weeks determined upon a parliamentary future for himself. There was, though, a further sting in the tail of the year 1917 that intensified the mortification of failure in governmental office. In December his cousin Norman, for whom he had the highest regard and great affection, was reported missing in action, and his death was confirmed in the new year. This not only reinforced Chamberlain's hatred of war, but undoubtedly also contributed to the depression which followed his unsuccessful directorship of national service. He wrote: My career is broken. How can a man of nearly 50, entering the House with this stigma upon him, hope to achieve anything? (NCP, 2/20, diary, 17 Dec 1917).
Election to parliament and advance to office, 19181923
Chamberlain was elected to parliament in the general election of 1918 as the member for Birmingham, Ladywood, and remained a radical while sitting in the Conservative and Liberal Unionist interest. His election address urged that reconstruction should be a national enterprise that disregarded party. The best monument to the war dead would be social improvement that embraced proper pension provision, a minimum wage where necessary, shorter working hours, and a programme of state-aided housing construction. This was all consonant with his enlightened and highly acclaimed speech to the Trades Union Congress in Birmingham in September 1916. This had urged partnership between unions and employers. He was not himself averse to workers being represented on boards of directors, and he keenly advocated steadiness of employment. Neville's radicalism soon brought about a brief clash with Austen Chamberlain, by then chancellor of the exchequer in the Lloyd George coalition. Whereas Austen thought Neville wild, Neville thought Austen unprogressive and prejudiced (NCP, 18/1/196, Neville Chamberlain to Hilda Chamberlain, 4 Jan 1919).
As a back-bencher, Chamberlain made an immediate impression, precipitating an amendment to a bill in his maiden speech. It is said that he was lucid and penetrating in argument and had a style reminiscent of his father's. He dutifully supported the Lloyd George coalition government, but, already having declined a knighthood from Lloyd George, refused a junior post in the Ministry of Health when it was offered. His detestation of Lloyd George, which had its origins in the latter's criticisms of his father during the South African War, was now complete after his experience of the department of national service.
His opportunity for ministerial advancement came with the fall of the coalition in 1922. Paradoxically, the Carlton Club meeting of Conservatives, which brought about the collapse of the coalition, also marked the end of his brother's leadership of the Conservative Party and the possibility of Austen's ever becoming prime minister, for he stood loyally by Lloyd George and paid the price. For Neville, who was in Canada and was spared the embarrassment of voting against Austen, it marked the threshold of his ministerial career. Bonar Law, who now became the prime minister of a Conservative government, offered Neville the post of postmaster-general outside the cabinet. After some hesitation, precipitated by fear of offending his brother, whohe feltmight have regarded his promotion as the last drop of bitterness in the cup (NCP, 18/1/370, Neville Chamberlain to Hilda Chamberlain, 31 Oct 1922), he accepted with Austen's ultimately ungrudging approval. Simultaneously, Neville was sworn of the privy council.
The new government was confirmed in the general election of November 1922, which surprisingly opened up for Chamberlain the prospect of immediate advance. The minister of health, Griffith-Boscawen, lost two seats, one in the general election and another in a by-election, which turned on the issue of rent decontrol. Law, after offering Griffith-Boscawen's post, for political reasons, to a number of senior Conservatives, was finally compelled to turn to the man he thought ideally suited to the task, and Chamberlain became minister of health in March 1923. He even named his terms: he would have complete authority over the government's policy on control of rents and would supervise housing policy. By the summer recess he had successfully put the Rent Restriction Act
on the statute book. This circumscribed landlords' power to evict and related rents to the state of repair of a property. He also provided, in the Chamberlain Housing Act
of 1923, a government subsidy for the construction of homes completed by October 1925. The subsidy focused on smaller properties, for their unsubsidized construction by private enterprise, which he wished to promote, would have been uneconomic. In Chamberlain's thinking it was only thus that a start could be made in providing adequate housing for the working classes. Moreover, only by building new houses could an effective policy of slum clearance be inaugurated. This act was succeeded in 1924 by Labour's Wheatley Housing Act
, which increased the subsidy and shifted the emphasis to municipal building.
Chamberlain and Baldwin
In May 1923 Bonar Law could no longer continue in the premiership owing to ill health, and he was succeeded by Stanley Baldwin. There followed further elevation for Chamberlain, who, in Law's estimation, would have been a strong contender for the premiership itself had he possessed longer parliamentary experience. At first Baldwin continued as chancellor, combining the office with the premiership, while he endeavoured to induce a former Liberal, Reginald McKenna, to return both to the treasury and to the Commons. When he failed, he offered the post in August to Chamberlain, by whom he had already been greatly impressed. Baldwin's first government proved the beginning of a collaboration in government between Chamberlain and Baldwin which spanned a large part of the inter-war years.
Baldwin and Chamberlain shared a business background; both had been active in local government before entering the Commons, and both entered national politics relatively late in life. But whereas Chamberlain was ruthlessly efficient and instantly decisive, Baldwin was somewhat relaxed, overcontemplative, and disinclined to come to hasty decisions. For all that, Baldwin understood people as Chamberlain never did, had an intuitive feel for the mood of the House of Commons and public opinion, and exuded common sense and goodwill. As Chamberlain put it, Baldwin had a singular and instinctive knowledge of how the plain man's mind works (Ramsden, Age of Balfour
, 295) and was essential for retaining the floating vote. Yet Chamberlain was the dominant legislative and administrative inspiration in the governments over which Baldwin presided.
Their governmental collaboration in the short term, however, was brief and without significant consequence, for Baldwin chose on 25 October 1923 to call a general election on the issue of tariff protection. Chamberlain was naturally gratified by Baldwin's conversion to protectionism and loyally supported him. The election of December 1923 was, though, for the Conservatives a disaster. Although the tariffs Baldwin envisaged would not have added to the cost of food, the opposition parties were able to play on this fear, and the Conservatives lost. They were, however, back in office in October 1924, having dropped the idea of a general tariff, and as a fully united party.
Minister of health, 19241929
Chamberlain had been regarded from the moment he took office as a bridge to the disaffected coalition Conservatives, and his first act in opposition was to facilitate their re-entry into the shadow cabinet. Both Neville and Austen Chamberlain became members of Baldwin's cabinet of 19249. Neville did not, however, return to the Treasury. A place had to be found for Winston Churchill, now a Conservative again, and it was he who became chancellor of the exchequer. This was not a disappointment. Having triumphed over Oswald Mosley in the Ladywood constituency by only the narrowest of margins, Chamberlain was very conscious of Labour's growing electoral power and was convinced that only a programme of rigorous and conspicuous social reform would secure the future of the Conservatives in government.
Chamberlain's concern with social reform was not, though, merely pragmatic and tactical: it was the mainspring of his involvement in political activity. For him social reform was essential for the social progress he believed to be desirable. Significantly, he did not consider himself to be a Conservative, and neither was his mode of thought consonant with the Conservative mind or tradition. He cannot even be placed in the Disraelian tory radical mould: he disliked Disraeli and disdained the paternalism associated with him. On the contrary, his background of Liberalism and Liberal Unionism remained with him to the end and informed his attitude towards domestic politics, where he shared many of the beliefs of the Fabian socialists. Indeed, in the formal sense Chamberlain was never even elected as a Conservative member of parliament, but rather as a candidate of the Birmingham Unionist Association. Chamberlain was a politician of radical inclinations, who having drifted towards the Conservative Party later wanted to change its name. In the wake of the formation of the National Government and the general election of 1931, which presented both Chamberlain and Baldwin with the centrist, consensual opportunity they had long wanted, Chamberlain wrote of his desire for the creation of a truly national party, which would discard the odious title of Conservative (Feiling, 197). Moreover, he welcomed the secession of the free-traders from the National Government in 1932 in the anticipation that it would facilitate the formation of a fused party under a National name (ibid., 216). For Chamberlain the National Government, when it came, was not a means of pursuing narrow Conservative interests, but rather a vehicle for the realization of truly national and social reform objectives.
Given this mindset, Chamberlain was in 1924 not only content, but preferred, to return to the Ministry of Health. His four and a half years there witnessed a prodigious programme of legislation, all of it conceived by the beginning of the parliament. Of the twenty-five bills he proposed to enact over four years, twenty-one were on the statute book by the time parliament was dissolved in 1929.
The two most significant pieces of legislation were the Rating and Valuation Act
of 1925 and the Local Government Act
of 1929. The Rating and Valuation Act
was the foundation of everything Chamberlain wished to achieve in social reform. Its four main provisions were to transfer rating powers from the poor-law guardians to the county, borough, and district councils, which he viewed as the real living bodies of to-day (Macleod); to institute a single basis for rating valuation; to standardize the method of assessment; and to impose quinquennial valuations. An act of this type naturally affected the interests of some in his own party, and there was considerable resistance. The Local Government Act
abolished the poor-law boards of guardians and transferred their responsibilities to the county and borough councils. It also recast the relationship between national and local government. Chamberlain's principal difficulty was with Churchill, who wished to combine poor-law reform with the abolition of the rate paid by business and agriculture. After some disputation it was eventually agreed that the rate paid by manufacturers should be set at a quarter of the general rate, while agriculture should pay none at all. The loss sustained by the local authorities would be made up by a block grant from the Treasury.
These two acts were very substantial accomplishments. They were not demagogic and were designed, within the framework of financial discipline, to improve the condition of the people, not to win plaudits at party conferences (Jenkins, 339). None the less, Chamberlain received many accolades from Conservatives in the Commons for the Local Government Act
, and the press was fulsome. Such was Chamberlain's record in government that by 1929 he was, with Churchill, a serious contender for the premiership. He had been in the Commons for just over a decade.
Chamberlain's second term at the Ministry of Health involved close collaboration with Churchill. Their relationship was evidently cordial and is exemplified in the passage of the Widows, Orphans, and Old Age Pensions Act
of 1925. This was launched by Churchill in his budget, but it was steered through parliament by Chamberlain, who won the praise of the king for his compassionate and skilful handling of the measure. This compulsory and contributory act, which arguably built upon the achievements of the pre-1914 legislation and pointed the way to Beveridge, illustrated Chamberlain's underlying commitment to the welfare of ordinary people. His attitude towards the trade unions at the time of the general strike also indicates moderation and sympathy with the working classes. He opposed the enactment of anti-trade union legislation during the strike and favoured generosity in the aftermath. He also held trade union leaders such as Ernest Bevin, secretary of the Transport and General Workers' Union, and Arthur Pugh, chairman of the general council of the TUC, in considerable esteem.
Yet from the mid-1920s onwards an acerbity entered into Chamberlain's relationship with Labour. This was connected with the measures he introduced to curb the practice of Poplarism, namely, setting rates of poor-law relief at levels beyond necessity. The Board of Guardians (Default) Act
of 1926 and the Audit (Local Authorities) Act
of 1927 engendered animus on both sides, which Chamberlain displayed too publicly for Baldwin's comfort. He was rebuked by the prime minister for treating the opposition as dirt, which Chamberlain thought intellectually they were, judged by the arguments the Labour leaders deployed. The mutual antipathy and bitterness was particularly poignant, for Chamberlain was by far the most progressive member of the government. It was on the basis of his act of 1923 and Wheatley's act of 1924, that 800,000 new homes were built during Baldwin's second government and fifty-eight slum clearance schemes approved.
Opposition and the Conservative leadership crisis, 19291931
Before parliament was dissolved in 1929 Baldwin speculated that Chamberlain might like to move to the Treasury if the government were returned. Chamberlain declined this suggestion and volunteered his candidature for the Colonial Office. In the event, he went to the Treasury, although not until he had spent two years in opposition and a further very brief spell at the Ministry of Health.
At the general election of 1929 Chamberlain moved from the marginal seat of Birmingham, Ladywood, to the safe Conservative constituency of Birmingham, Edgbaston, which he held until his death. Out of office as a result of Baldwin's defeat at the polls, Chamberlain spent the winter months of 192930 in east Africa as a frustrated colonial secretary. On his return from east Africa, however, he began looking to the future. Baldwin was prevailed upon in March 1930 to accept the formation of an inner shadow cabinet committee of business, and it was also agreed that Chamberlain should become the head of a new Conservative Party research department, of which he was the real founder. He retained the post until his death in 1940. In June 1930 he became chairman of the Conservative Party.
The years of opposition between 1929 and 1931 were a period of crisis for the Conservative Party, as the leadership of Baldwin was under constant attack. Baldwin's temperament and style were not suited to opposition, and Chamberlain himself was forced to alert him to the discontent at his lack of drive. Chamberlain's position was invidious, for many of Baldwin's critics would have liked him to replace Baldwin. The difficulty was compounded by the hostility of the press magnate Lord Beaverbrook, who underpinned his personal dislike for Baldwin with a campaign for empire free trade, which in essence meant tariffs and imperial preference. During the election of 1929 the Conservative government had committed itself to imperial preference, but with the proviso that protective taxation on food should be excluded. Beaverbrook, on the other hand, after the election, argued that there should be a referendum on the issue of food taxes, ran crusader candidates in by-elections to campaign for one, and for a brief period organized his own United Empire Party. Beaverbrook, in harness with the other great press magnate, Lord Rothermere, was a formidable adversary and even induced Baldwin in the end to concede the referendum. Even so, despite the mediation of Chamberlain, who was himself, of course, by no means averse to tariffs and imperial preference, Beaverbrook could not be induced to end his attacks. In June 1930, at Caxton Hall, Baldwin put his leadership to the test at a meeting of the Conservative Party. The overwhelming vote of confidence that Baldwin received was gratifying, but it did not bring the question of his leadership to a final determination.
On balance, Chamberlain conducted himself with great dignity throughout this crisis. He insisted that he would not play Lloyd George to Baldwin's Asquith, but was at the same time made aware that his position was strong. In July 1930 Rothermere plainly indicated to him that, if he were to become leader of the Conservative Party, he could rely upon his and Beaverbrook's complete support. The commonest loyalty made it impossible for him to entertain such a suggestion, but the tragedy of it was that if S. B. would go the whole party would heave a sigh of relief (Feiling, 180). From all sides Chamberlain was repeatedly alerted to the lack of confidence in Baldwin; so much so, that in February 1931 he felt compelled to confront his leader with a memorandum on the state of party opinion drawn up by the Conservatives' chief agent, Robert Topping. This argued that since the Caxton Hall speech Baldwin's position had steadily deteriorated and could not now be ignored. Given Chamberlain's own view of Baldwin, this memorandum could not have been totally unwelcome, for it also implied that he should be the next leader. After showing the document to senior Conservatives, on the rather disingenuous ground that he wanted to canvass their advice on whether Baldwin should see it, he sent it to him on 1 March 1931. On the afternoon of the same day he confirmed to Baldwin that the memorandum represented the views of his colleagues. Baldwin agreed that he should retire and that the announcement would be made at the shadow cabinet on the following day. The Times
even prepared an appropriate leader.
The forthcoming by-election in the St George's division of Westminster had made it all the more necessary for Baldwin to see the Topping memorandum. This was particularly favourable ground for a Beaverbrook/Rothermere candidate, and if one had been elected it would have badly damaged Baldwin's leadership and the Conservative Party. By 1 March 1931 the press lords had an empire crusade candidate in place, but the official Conservative candidate had withdrawn. Having been dissuaded from retirement by his confidants, Baldwin informed Chamberlain on 2 March that he would go down fighting and that he would do so by standing as the official candidate for St George's. To Chamberlain's remonstrance that he could not do this because of the effect upon his successor, he replied: I don't give a damn about my successor, Neville (Jenkins, 42). This was a critical point, both for the defeat of Baldwin's opponents and for the future relationship between Baldwin and Chamberlain. Baldwin would retire when he was ready to do so and would not be pushed. As it happened, Baldwin did not have to resign his Bewdley constituency and Duff Cooper fought St George's as the official Conservative. To his credit, and whatever his personal feelings of disappointment, Chamberlain furnished Cooper with every support that the Conservative Party could provide. Baldwin, for his part, aided his own cause by a resounding speech at Queen's Hall in which he denounced the meretricious conduct of the press lords and asked the electors to reflect that they were not so much asked to consider who should lead the Conservative Party, but to determine who should appoint the leader. Duff Cooper was elected with a majority of 5000.
The internal wrangling within the Conservative Party was played out against the backdrop of the economic crisis that finally caused in 1931 the fall of Ramsay MacDonald's second Labour government. By that year unemployment had risen to two and a half million. Moreover, in July 1931 the loss of foreign confidence in the British financial and economic system was demonstrated by the withdrawal from the City of some £66 million in gold and foreign exchange. Chamberlain diagnosed the core of the problem in the growth of government expenditure over income. This was borne out by the report of the May committee on national expenditure, which recommended economies of £96.5 million, to be achieved by reducing official salaries and unemployment expenditures. It was a programme that the Labour government could not put into effect. Neither could they devise any other strategy that would revive confidence and secure a foreign loan. The resources of the Conservative Research Department were fully employed by Chamberlain in preparing for debates in which Labour was impaled on a series of ever more difficult hooks of financial policy (Ramsden, Appetite for Power
, 280). Both Baldwin and Chamberlain had rejected earlier suggestions by MacDonald regarding the formation of a coalition government, but by the end of July Chamberlain had probably come round to thinking that a national government would be in the nation's best interests. The determination of Baldwin to continue his holidays at this critical juncture left the conduct of Conservative strategy in the hands of Chamberlain, who perhaps underestimated Conservative strength in persuading MacDonald to remain as prime minister. A national government under MacDonald was announced on 24 August 1931. Philip Snowden remained chancellor of the exchequer, while Chamberlain returned to the Ministry of Health. The fundamental objective of the government was the maintenance of the parity of the pound and the imposition of economies, after which parliament would be dissolved and party politics would resume as normal.
Events, however, ensured that the National Government became permanent for the duration of the 1930s. The parity of sterling had to be abandoned on 19 September, when the government abandoned the gold standard. Furthermore, the reaction to the economies introduced by the governmentthe Invergordon mutiny and demonstrations involving clashes with the policeconvinced Chamberlain that the emphatic approval of public opinion should be sought through a general election for any further measures deemed necessary. Provided that MacDonald would accept tariffs, he was happy for him to remain prime minister, for the continuance of MacDonald in office would probably make it that much easier to gain the electorate's endorsement. The final appeal to the country, though, was a curious mixture. The parties fought for their own policies, while the government sought a doctor's mandate, or, more accurately expressed, a free hand. Given that the Conservatives were committed to tariffs, and given that they were the overwhelming beneficiaries of the election of October 1931, the government would henceforth be committed to tariffs.
Chancellor of the exchequer, 19311937: tariffs, reparations, and budgets
In the Commons the National Government was now supported by 473 Conservatives, which meant that they could demand a larger number of cabinet posts. Chamberlain went to the Treasury, where he remained for five and a half years. He proved a powerful chancellor of the exchequer. Baldwin, who as leader of the Conservatives was happy to leave formal power in the hands of MacDonald, left the substance of power in Chamberlain's hands. From the beginning Chamberlain was in complete control of budgetary and economic policy and added to that social and industrial policy as well. Furthermore, once the international crisis of the 1930s deepened, he became a dominant voice in both rearmament and foreign policy. His was a formidable presence in the cabinet: not only did he read his own departmental briefs, but he seemed to read everyone else's as well. With considerable justification he confided to his diary in spring 1935: I am more and more carrying this government on my back. The P.M. is ill and tired, S. B. is tired and won't apply his mind to problems. It is certainly time there was a change (NCP, 2/23a, diary, 8 March 1935).
Chamberlain took immediate steps to achieve the protection of the home market and with it the realization of his father's ambitions. First came the Abnormal Importations Act
and then in February 1932 the general tariff of 10 per cent. This had several purposes: to improve the balance of payments deficit, to raise revenue, to stabilize sterling, and to decrease unemployment. This was an emotional occasion for Chamberlain, who made his feelings clear to the Commons. He stated:
There can have been few occasions in all our long political history when the son of a man who counted for something in his day and generation has been vouchsafed the privilege of setting the seal on the work which the father began but had perforce to leave unfinished. (Hansard 5C, 261.296)
Austen ventured to the Treasury bench to shake his brother's hand; the Commons gave him a tumultuous reception. Significantly, dominion goods were exempted from the tariff pending the Ottawa conference of July and August that year, when it was hoped to institute a regime of imperial preference. Baldwin led the delegation, but it was Chamberlain as usual who was the workhorse, subjecting his colleagues to endless preparatory seminars during the passage across the Atlantic. The dominion governments were, however, much less enthusiastic and more concerned with their national interests than with imperial economic unity. All that really emerged was a declaration of intent which affirmed the belief that the reduction or elimination of empire tariff barriers would increase trade and commended the agreements achieved at Ottawa as steps in the right direction. It could be said cynically that enough discrimination was achieved to give the Americans a running grievance, but not enough to produce any great stimulation of Empire trade (Jenkins, 348).
In 1932 Chamberlain attended the Lausanne conference on reparations that ran from June to July. His favoured outcome was the cancellation all round of both reparations and war debts, for which he bid at the opening session. Here, however, he ran into the objections of the French. Yet he managed to establish good working relations with the French prime minister, Herriot, and with the Germans. Owing to his mediation, it proved possible in the end to achieve agreement on a final lump sum to be paid by the Germans and a political statement that stressed the importance of improved political relations for financial confidence.
The first of Chamberlain's budgets, introduced in April 1932, was castigated for its severity, although it could be argued that it merely continued the austerity introduced by Snowden's emergency budget of September 1931, with the addition of the 5 per cent cut in police pay that had been initially and accidentally omitted. His main purpose was to build up the gold and foreign currency reserves as a means of maintaining the stability of sterling, for which purpose he made provision to borrow up to £150 million to create the exchequer equalization account. The prospective deficit of £35 million he surmised would mostly be covered by the general tariff and the reimposition of the tax on tea. His strategy was to continue economies until expenditure and revenue were balanced. His caution was predicated on the prevailing economic orthodoxy, although it remains fashionable to criticize his lack of vision. Perhaps his major achievement in this year of frenetic activity was to save the exchequer £40 million in interest charges by converting £2000 million of war loan at 5 per cent to 3.5 per cent stock. This was an important prerequisite for the cheap money policy of the 1930s that greatly contributed to the decade's housing construction boom.
Similar budgetary discipline followed, until by 1934 Chamberlain spoke of the possibility of moving from Bleak House
to Great Expectations
. He reduced the standard rate of income tax by 6d
. (2.5 per cent), restored the cut in unemployment benefit, and began restoring the cuts in the pay of state and local government employees. In the following year he confidently asserted that the nation had recovered 80 per cent of its prosperity. In essence, Chamberlain had aimed in his financial policy both at deflation sufficient to restore confidence and, by maintaining purchasing power in the economy, at inflation sufficient to promote recovery. He had done so with considerable courage and success, making his record as chancellor impressive. His economic policy was not, though, one of classic laissez-faire
. He believed in the control of markets and in using the power of government to determine the structure of industry. Two examples of this were the protection and cartelization of the iron and steel industry, which led to increased production, and the creation of the London Passenger Transport Board, with a subsidy of £35 million from the public purse, which presided over what was then the world's most efficient underground system. Nevertheless, the entwined problems of unemployment, low wages, and poverty remained, and from within the Conservative ranks Harold Macmillan criticized the government for not doing enough. From outside the Conservative Party, the Next Five Years Group was also highly critical.
By 1935 Chamberlain felt that he was increasingly shouldering the burden of government and thought it was time for a change of leadership. He observed to his sister Hilda:
As you will see I have become a sort of Acting P.M.only without the actual power of the P.M. I have to say Have you thought or What would you say when it would be quicker to say This is what you must do. (NCP, 18/1/910A, Neville Chamberlain to Hilda Chamberlain, 23 March 1935)
The precipitous decline in MacDonald's ability to preside over the government did not, however, result in Chamberlain's elevation to the premiership in June 1935, although that would have been favoured by many. Baldwin succeeded and led the government into the general election victory of 1935. But Chamberlain was the principal author of the government's manifesto, though he had not been able, as he wished, to put defence to the forefront as an issue in the election. At the same time Chamberlain recognized that Baldwin's ability to reassure the electorate was a major element in the result. The prime minister, though, was soon buffeted by the crisis created by the HoareLaval pact, and throughout 1936 his health so deteriorated that he announced that he would retire in May 1937. There was little doubt that Chamberlain would succeed him. Following the Conservative Party conference at Margate in October 1936, Chamberlain noted in his diary that his position as heir apparent and acting prime minister seemed to be generally accepted. In the abdication crisis of 1936 he showed himself very apprehensive of Edward VIII's succession, which he thought unsafe, and backed Baldwin in his handling of the issue.
Becomes prime minister, 1937
Thus when Chamberlain became prime minister on 28 May 1937 it was George VI's hands that he kissed. It had proved an effortless succession, but it proved a far from effortless premiership. Chamberlain brought instant control to the business of government. As chancellor of the exchequer he had assumed a certain responsibility for ensuring that ministers were appropriately active, and he could now do this with all the authority of his office. Almost his first prime ministerial act was to ask ministers to inform him of their departmental plans for the coming two years. He read all cabinet papers assiduously and chaired all the major cabinet committees, in particular the foreign policy committee and the committee of imperial defence. His mastery of government business was prodigious. His main aid in this was Sir Horace Wilson, who kept Chamberlain briefed of departmental actions and who rendered the mass of information to the coherence necessary for effective supervision (Beattie, 223). Wilson's official role was that of chief industrial adviser to the government, but he had been brought into Downing Street by Baldwin in a general advisory capacity and was retained by Chamberlain in that role. Given, however, that the main problems that faced the Chamberlain government were external, he increasingly focused his attention on foreign affairs.
Chamberlain's management of the cabinet was not in fact authoritarian. He seldom spoke first, but was able to influence decisions by his capacity to reduce complex discussions to lucid conclusions in masterly summings-upwhich led Lord Swinton to liken his mind to a searchlight. Chamberlain was also able to impress his views on the cabinet as a whole through an inner cabinet, which consisted of himself, Simon, Lord Halifax, and Hoare.
By the time he became prime minister, certain traits in Chamberlain's character had become marked. He was very averse to criticism, wanted to be in control, and was susceptible to flattery. The conviction that he was right undoubtedly contributed to his failure to court public and parliamentary support. Attention to public opinion and elections were low on his list of priorities, and he never socialized in the Commons smoking rooms. The importance of mollifying opposition with soothing language was not for him essential to the presentation of policy. He was, therefore, very easily misrepresented by opponents as cold, austere, and dictatorial.
Yet, at the same time Chamberlain was very concerned that government policy should be presented properly, as he saw it, by the media. He recognized the power of modern methods of communication and became an adept performer on contemporary newsreels. Moreover, he perceived radio's potential as a means of creating popular support for governmental policy. It could, however, also be used to stimulate opposition, and by broadcasting talks critical of other countries, most notably Nazi Germany, it could damage the outcome of foreign policy. Thus governmental pressure ensured that such talks were cancelled or redrafted in such a way as to make them quite anodyne. With regard to the press, Chamberlain was the first British prime minister to practise news management on a substantial scale. The primary objective of this activity was to suppress opposition to foreign policy and to facilitate its success. Through George Steward, head of the press office at 10 Downing Street, the political journalists at Westminster, who constituted the lobby, were gradually organized so that they became disseminators of the official line rather than journalists competitively seeking news and other stories.
Appeasement of Nazi Germany and fascist Italy
In the wake of the Rhineland crisis in 1936, Chamberlain wrote to one of his sisters:
If we could once get this trouble behind us and start Europe on a new basis we should I believe see a rapid expansion in trade for the undertone is firm and enterprise is just waiting for the restoration of confidence to go ahead. (NCP, 18/1/952, Neville Chamberlain to Hilda Chamberlain, 21 March 1936)
This was the agenda that Chamberlain would have preferred for his premiership; completion of recovery from the recession and further social reform on the basis provided by recovery. He could not, however, begin to contemplate such an agenda until the tensions in Europe provoked by the belligerence of Nazi Germany and fascist Italy had been resolved. In the past it has been suggested that he attempted to achieve this by introducing and pursuing the policy of appeasement.
Chamberlain did not, however, produce appeasement as a new policy initiative. On the contrary, appeasement had evolved steadily as the foreign policy of the National Government from 1931 until 1936, when it assumed its classic form. What Chamberlain did after 1937 was to inject the policy with some vigour in the hope all the sooner to end the crisis created in Europe by the Nazi clamour for revision of the treaty of Versailles. For Chamberlain and his colleagues appeasement implied the object of policynamely, the pacification of Europeto be achieved through negotiating a European and general settlement that would in almost all respects replace the treaty of Versailles and bring Germany into satisfactory treaty relations with all her neighbours. Appeasement was a policy that sought to bring about genuine peace in Europe by removing all sources of grievance in a Europe-wide agreement to which Germany would also make appropriate contributions. It was not a craven, cowardly policy of surrender and unilateral concession, or a sell out, as it was later described. The essence of this policy was first suggested by the Foreign Office officials Orme Sargent and Frank Ashton-Gwatkin in 1931 and received the full backing of the permanent under-secretary, Sir Robert Vansittart. It was, however, too ambitious to be pursued in the first instance in all its aspects. Not until 1935, when Hitler's unilateral denunciation of the disarmament clauses of the treaty of Versailles further deepened the European crisis, did the Foreign Office resume the recommendation of such a policy. It was subsequently adopted by the government in the early months of 1936.
The type of general settlement contemplated was the supplementation of the Locarno treaty arrangements with an air pact, in which France and Germany would guarantee Britain in addition to one another. As part of the deal, the demilitarized Rhineland zone would disappear. There would also be an arms limitation agreement. Provided that her aims were peacefully accomplished, Germany's preponderant interest in central and eastern Europe would be recognized. Finally, Britain would undertake not to impede the expansion of Germany's exports. For the time being it was deemed imprudent to raise the question of colonies or Germany's return to the League of Nations. On 6 March 1936, as an opening move, Anthony Eden, the foreign secretary, broached the issue of an air pact with the German ambassador, but on the following day Hitler remilitarized the Rhineland unilaterally. Although this denied Eden and the government a valuable concession, thereby placing them at a disadvantage in the negotiations they wished to start, it did not mean that those negotiations would not now be attempted. On the contrary, Eden thought them inevitable. Successive foreign secretariesSimon, Hoare, and Edenhad all been complicit in the formulation of this policy, as had Chamberlain, on account of his dominating position in the cabinet and his office at the Treasury, where he had to bear in mind the financial implications of the rearmament necessary as long as Germany remained overtly dissatisfied and belligerent.
Chamberlain and foreign policy
Chamberlain also played a critical role in the early stages of rearmament made essential by Japanese aggression in the Far East and the reality of Nazi rule in Germany. Given the absence of a co-ordinating defence ministry, he was the arbiter of the forces' competing claims on the meagre funds available. He was unable to allow the costs of the full programme recommended by the defence requirements sub-committee (DRC) in 1934 and determined that the bulk of the spending should be allocated to aerial rearmament. The strength of the Royal Air Force was, therefore, to be increased by 50 per cent. Connected with this decision was his endorsement of the DRC's reversal of strategic priorities which now established Germany rather than Japan as the ultimate potential enemy. Chamberlain was, nevertheless, conscious of the threat posed to British interests in the Far East, and in agreement with the views of the head of the Treasury, Sir Warren Fisher, advocated the revival of the Anglo-Japanese alliance (190222), in substance though not necessarily in form. Here, however, he ran into the opposition of Vansittart, who deprecated the impact that such a course would have on American opinion.
As Chamberlain's private papers testify, the German menace remained a constant preoccupation, leading to a further revision of the defence estimates. The defence white papers of 1936 and 1937, of which he was the principal author, outlined a rearmament programme costing £1500 million over a five-year period, £400 million of which was to be found from borrowing. These statements contemplated substantial increases in the strength of all the armed forces, with the RAF having a front-line strength of 1750 aircraft. To pay for this Chamberlain raised income tax to 5s
. in the pound in the budget of 1937, which he justified to the public at large in a Pathé newsreel item that for its time was a skilful performance. He was not so successful with his attempt to tax the growth
in profits attendant upon rearmament. His proposed national defence contribution aroused firm opposition and had to be replaced with a straightforward tax on profits.
During the year before he became prime minister Chamberlain intervened decisively on three occasions in foreign policy. First, he gave a decisive lead in winding up sanctions against Italy, imposed during the Italo-Abyssinian War of 19356. On 5 May 1936 Italian forces entered Addis Ababa and the war was over. The lifting of sanctions posed a great moral problem as a member state of the League of Nations had been denied its independence. On the other hand, Germany, having taken advantage of the Abyssinian crisis to remilitarize the Rhineland in March 1936, continued to menace the peace of Europe. The maintenance of sanctions appeared in the circumstances gratuitous follya measure likely to increase Britain's number of enemies. Aware that Eden, the foreign secretary, had been persuaded of the intellectual case for dropping sanctions, Chamberlain elected to give a lead. In a speech on 10 June 1936 at the 1900 Club he spoke of the maintenance of sanctions as the very midsummer of madness (Dutton, Anthony Eden
The other two occasions were not public, and both involved the nature of the response that Britain should make to Germany's claim for colonial equality of rights made in connection with her putative return to the League of Nations during the fallout from the remilitarization of the Rhineland. The committee chaired by Lord Plymouth to investigate the issue concluded that, while there were practical, legal, and economic difficulties in the way of returning colonies to Germany, the subject could not be avoided if a general settlement were to be achieved. Although Eden pleaded the case for a flat negative, Chamberlain's arguments in the cabinet committee on foreign policy were decisive, and in a Commons statement at the end of July 1936 the question was effectively left open.
In the following month Hjalmar Schacht, the German minister of economics, told French ministers that in return for colonial satisfaction Hitler would agree to arms limitation and a European settlement. The Foreign Office, however, was sceptical of this approach, arguing that, if Germany wanted to achieve a settlement, this should be negotiated through the established diplomatic channels. Subsequently, the department effectively stifled any further contact with Schacht without any explanation to the cabinet. Within the Treasury this had a devastating impression. Sir Frederick Leith-Ross, the chief economic adviser to the government, was, in the course of his duties, in regular contact with Schacht, and he learned from the latter that serious proposals had been frustrated by Eden and the Foreign Office. Sir Warren Fisher, for his part, was most disparaging of the competence of the Foreign Office, and Chamberlain was undoubtedly prompted towards a similarly unflattering view. Through Chamberlain it was decided that Leith-Ross should visit Schacht in Germany to explore the latter's suggestions more fully. Excitedly, Chamberlain wrote that he had a scheme in hand which ultimately might restrain Hitler (NCP, 18/1/991, Neville Chamberlain to Ida Chamberlain, 6 Jan 1937). When the cabinet committee on foreign policy discussed Leith-Ross's visit to Badenweiler in March 1937, it was Chamberlain's voice again that moulded policy. He commented that he understood that Eden shared his view that, if a general settlement could be achieved on the back of a colonial deal, such a procedure should not be ruled out. With regard to the suggestions made by Schacht, he emphasized:
Any government which turned down this invitation without at least exploring the possibilities sufficiently to make sure that there was no possible basis of agreement would incur a very heavy responsibility. Even a slight improvement in the international atmosphere may lead gradually to a general détente, whereas a policy of drift may lead to a general war. (Crozier, 2013)
It was decided, therefore, to try to advance on the basis of the Schacht proposals. In the event, it proved impossible. The French were by spring 1937 less willing to proceed, and the reality anyway was that Schacht had exceeded his function.
First steps towards a general settlement
By the time he became prime minister Chamberlain dominated the formulation of foreign policy. His involvement and interest were not new. He had been regularly informed by the foreign secretary about the international situation, and there was a strong identity of view between the two. Chamberlain continued the effort to secure a general settlement, but he doubted the willingness of the Foreign Office to play its part. He wrote that, in his opinion, the double policy of rearmament and better relations with Germany and Italy will carry us through if only the F.O. will play up (NCP, 18/1/1010, Neville Chamberlain to Hilda Chamberlain, 1 Aug 1937). Within the Treasury there was a firm conviction that the Foreign Office had missed an opportunity of coming to terms with Hitler, a major reason being the slow British response to the Schacht initiative. By August 1937 there was a feeling that the Foreign Office was frigid and that a fresh start was required (Crozier, 205). This was emphatically the opinion of Sir Warren Fisher and unquestionably that of Chamberlain, who was fortified in his views by Sir Samuel Hoare.
Chamberlain, therefore, wished to reinvigorate the policy of reaching a general settlement with Germany by himself taking, as prime minister, a more active role in foreign policy. Eden does not at first seem to have resented this. By December 1937, however, their relationship was undergoing considerable strain. For Chamberlain the principal object of foreign policy was to bring Germany, the main potential danger facing Britain, into a general European settlement. This ambition he believed would be achieved more easily if Britain and Italy were able to settle their differences, for such a development might also arrest the growing intimacy between Rome and Berlin. Finally, it would be important to complete the British rearmament programme, although within the necessary financial constraints. Germany was the central problem. As Chamberlain wrote: if only we could get on terms with Germany I would not care a rap for Musso (Feiling, 329). It was, though, with Italy that he first attempted to improve relations.
Chamberlain and Eden, 19371938
During summer 1937, much to Chamberlain's annoyance, Eden continued to assess Italy as a greater threat to Britain than Germany and still hoped that the latter could be brought into a general settlement. It was, however, Eden who suggested to Chamberlain in July that a personal letter to Mussolini might be the way to start an improvement in Anglo-Italian relations. Eden thought he himself should write it, but Chamberlain pre-empted him, possibly because he thought the foreign secretary was showing insufficient urgency. But Eden resented this action, which he considered to be an interference, and the incident was the first breach in what had hitherto been a harmonious relationship. It was not, however, possible to make immediate progress in improving Anglo-Italian relations because the Nyon conference took firm measures to counter acts of Italian submarine piracy in the western Mediterranean connected with Italian intervention on the side of the nationalists in the Spanish Civil War.
An opening, however, to improved relations with Germany suggested itself when in November 1937 Lord Halifax, then lord president of the council, was invited by Göring to visit a hunting exhibition in Berlin. Far from opposing the visit, Eden in the first instance encouraged it, and Chamberlain was naturally enthusiastic. But, prompted by Foreign Office staff, Eden later raised objections, especially when it was learned that Hitler would receive Lord Halifax only at Berchtesgaden, an arrangement he felt redolent of servility if accepted. His differences over the Halifax visit eventually came to a heated disagreement with Chamberlain, but Eden eventually accepted that it might bring positive results.
An immediate consequence of this disagreement was that Chamberlain finally took the opportunity, as he put it, to stir up the Foreign Office with a long pole (Crozier, 225). Vansittart, who had demurred at the prospect of the Halifax visit, was removed from the day-to-day running of the Foreign Office and elevated to the specially created rank of chief diplomatic adviser. He was replaced by Sir Alexander Cadogan, who was very enthusiastic for a policy of direct engagement with the dictators. Undoubtedly, the prime minister was determined that Vansittart should not inhibit contact with Göring as he had previously done with Schacht. Chamberlain, though, was a little unfair to Vansittart. The latter supported his policy towards Italy and had played a decisive part in formulating the government's policy towards Germany. He, therefore, had some justification for telling Chamberlain that he had always favoured his foreign policy, but had been obstructed by others! (NCP, 18/1/1031, Neville Chamberlain to Ida Chamberlain, 12 Dec 1937). Chamberlain, however, did not believe him.
Lord Halifax concluded from his visit to Germany that Hitler and the German government might be amenable to a general settlement if Germany were conceded colonial satisfaction. Chamberlain was very satisfied; contact had been made and a picture of the German attitude obtained. It seemed that colonies had now assumed rather greater importance in the minds of the Germans, but nothing could be done without a German quid pro quo or French consent. At the end of November 1937 the French prime minister and foreign minister visited London for talks at which there was a large measure of agreement about the nature of a general settlement, and the French proved surprisingly compliant in the matter of colonies.
During December 1937 the cabinet also considered the financial implications of rearmament. It was decided to accept the £1500 million quinquennial estimate and not to exceed it, on the grounds that too lavish an expenditure on rearmament might damage the economy. Moreover, as British participation in any war against a major power was likely to result in a long-drawn-out war of attrition, it was thought best to maintain her financial resources intact. Finance now emerged as the fourth arm of Britain's defence preparations. During the same month the chiefs of staff reported that Britain's forces were still insufficiently developed to meet her global commitments: although Britain's forces could probably act as a deterrent to Germany, the nub of the problem was that a war with Germany would in all probability extend as well to war with Italy and Japan. This, therefore, emphasized the need to reduce the number of Britain's potential enemies.
On 24 January 1938 Chamberlain presented to the cabinet committee on foreign policy a scheme for a new approach to Germany in which the colonial question had been placed at the forefront. None the less, Chamberlain emphasized that the colonial question could not be settled independently of a general settlement; to meet the objections that other countries might raise to the renewal of German colonial activity he proposed the institution of a new colonial regime in Africa south of the Sahara and north of South Africa and the Rhodesias, in which all colonial powers would subscribe to a uniform code of colonial administration. Chamberlain's aim was to stimulate German interest in a general settlement by offering to negotiate in principle the prior settlement of the colonial question. It was agreed to accept this approach, and the British ambassador in Berlin was to broach this whole issue with Hitler in spring 1938.
By this time Eden had resigned. His resignation was not founded upon some great issue of principle connected with Germany. If his confidant, Oliver Harvey, thought that negotiations with Germany could only be beneficial, provided that they resulted in a general settlement, Eden's view would not have been that far distant. His resignation was based rather upon Chamberlain's rejection out of hand of a rather hazy proposal from President Roosevelt for a conference in Washington to discuss issues relating to world peace. Chamberlain felt this would cut across his own efforts to secure agreements with the European dictators, and, in any case, he doubted whether the United States government would contribute anything effective to world peace. Eden, who had throughout 1937 been pursuing the chimera of close Anglo-American co-operation, was furious with Chamberlain. Had the Roosevelt proposal not been secret, Eden would probably have resigned on that issue.
Eden was, however, provided with another opportunity when Chamberlain determined to press ahead with an Anglo-Italian agreement in February 1938. This was accompanied by some rather unorthodox manoeuvring involving contacts with the Italians via Lady Ivy Chamberlain, Sir Austen's widow, who was spending the winter in Rome, and Neville's angling companion, Sir Joseph Ball, a former M15 official but now director of the Conservative Research Department. Eden was convinced that he was being sidelined. He also felt that Italy's position was worsening as a result of her involvement in Abyssinia and Spain and the threatened absorption of Austria by Germany. Thus it was unnecessary to court the treacherous Italians too assiduously. Chamberlain felt, however, that delay would result in yet another lost opportunity. On 20 February Eden resigned and was succeeded by Lord Halifax. On 16 April 1938 an Anglo-Italian agreement was concluded in which Britain undertook to recognize the Italian conquest of Abyssinia, while Italy agreed to accept a British scheme for the withdrawal of the so-called Italian volunteers assisting the nationalist forces in the Spanish Civil War. In the long run this agreement proved worthless, in the sense that it did nothing to deter Italy from ever closer involvement with Germany.
The offer to Germany of a general settlement and the Czechoslovakia crisis, 1938
The approach to Germany did not even produce an agreement. When Sir Nevile Henderson, British ambassador in Berlin, outlined to Hitler on 3 March 1938 the British proposals, it was to be the first and last occasion on which the offer of a general settlement was put directly to the German government. Henderson did not use the term, out of deference to Hitler's hostility to it, but that was what he clearly implied in both this interview and a previous one with Ribbentrop on 1 March. The interview was to prove a complete fiasco for British policy. The Führer bluntly rejected any possibility of being brought into a general settlement in exchange for a colonial settlement. This and the Anschluss
of Austria and Germany effected by force a few days later were depressing results for Chamberlain's policy. Both the Foreign Office and Chamberlain were reconciled to the idea that it might not be possible to maintain Austria's independence in the long term, but the manner of its achievement was an ugly portent for the future. Furthermore, Chamberlain had failed to wrest the initiative from Hitler, who now proceeded to encourage the Sudeten German separatists in Czechoslovakia.
On 24 March 1938 Chamberlain, in a speech to the Commons, reviewed the situation following the Anschluss
. After referring to the disturbance of international confidence created by the German action, he mentioned the demands of the German minority in Czechoslovakia as one of the issues continuing to give rise to anxiety. A peaceful resolution of the problem could, however, do much to advance stability in central Europe. Reviewing Britain's defence commitments, he stated that a British guarantee of Czech independence would not be advisable, for it would effectively remove from the British government control over the decision on whether to go to war. But, he continued:
Where peace and war are concerned, legal obligations are not alone involved, and if war broke out, it would be unlikely to be confined to those who have assumed such obligations. It would be quite impossible to say where it would end and what Governments might become involved. (Hansard 5C, 333.14056)
This was a clear warning to the German government of what might happen if they had recourse to force to solve the question of the German minority in Czechoslovakia. It also implied the threat of dragging Germany into a world war, a theme enlarged upon by Lord Lothian in a speech to Chatham House on the same day.
The situation in Czechoslovakia, however, continued to deteriorate. Chamberlain still aimed to bring Germany into a general settlement, but progress in that direction could not be achieved while uncertainty persisted in GermanCzech relations. Lord Runciman was sent to mediate. On 5 September 1938 President Beneš virtually conceded all the demands in the Karlsbad programme; this offer, though, was rejected by Henlein, the leader of the Sudeten Germans. On 12 September, in a speech at Nuremberg, Hitler demanded self-determination for the Sudetens and promised them all assistance. One central problem for Britain was the fact that France was pledged to defend the territorial integrity of Czechoslovakia. Chamberlain himself recognized that, if France became embroiled in a war with Germany over central Europe, Britain would be in a difficult and dangerous situation, for she could not afford to see France destroyed. Britain might, therefore, become involved in a war before she was ready. On the other hand, Chamberlain suspected that the French were not prepared to honour their obligations to the Czechs, and this perception encouraged him in his belief that it was his duty to solve the Czech question. On 13 September he decided to activate a plan already conceived at the end of August; he would see Hitler personally, and on 15 September he flew to Germany, where he met Hitler at Berchtesgaden. It was the first time in his life that he had flown. At Berchtesgaden he accepted in principle the proposition of self-determination and secession of non-Czech areas, subject to endorsement by the cabinet, and Hitler agreed to refrain from using force.
Upon Chamberlain's return to London, the cabinet quickly agreed with the principle of secession combined with a guarantee of Czechoslovakia's new frontiers. Chamberlain informed his colleagues of his impression that Hitler's ambitions were limited and that he was sincere when he said that he wanted only a solution of the Sudeten problem. On 1819 September the French prime minister and foreign minister flew to London and endorsed Chamberlain's proposals. The French subsequently informed the Czechs that the French government would not honour its alliance obligation to come to their assistance should a German attack follow Czech rejection of the Anglo-French proposals.
When, however, Chamberlain flew to Germany a second time and presented his hard-won concessions to Hitler, he was astonished by the Führer's reaction. There could be no further delay. There had to be a solution by 1 October, and German forces would start to occupy the Sudeten areas on 28 September. Moreover, Polish and Hungarian claims on Czech territory would also have to be settled. After a second meeting Hitler stated that German troops would only begin occupying Czech territory on 1 October and insisted that the document containing his proposals was a memorandum and not an ultimatum. Despite this depressing turn of events, Chamberlain felt bound to recommend to his colleagues, the French, and the Czechs the terms of Hitler's Godesberg memorandum. He now, however, began to face resistance. Lord Halifax felt it would be improper to coerce the Czechs into accepting the Godesberg terms, and the cabinet became divided, with Chamberlain's position supported by a minority. Furthermore, the French were now seemingly determined to stand by the Czechs, who rejected the Godesberg terms. War seemed inevitable, for Britain could not stand by with equanimity, whatever the formalities of treaty commitments, if France went to war in support of the Czechs and was in turn threatened with subjugation by Germany. The Royal Navy was mobilized, air-raid trenches were dug in Hyde Park, and gas masks were distributed.
The Munich conference
With the agreement of the French, and on Chamberlain's suggestion, Sir Horace Wilson was sent to Berlin to make a further appeal to Hitler to settle the Sudeten dispute peacefully with instructions to state that, should Hitler be resolute in his determination to solve the crisis by force, then Britain would be obliged, if France took active measures in support of Czechoslovakia, to go to war with Germany. In the early morning of Monday 26 September 1938, Wilson made his appeal, but Hitler was adamant that he wanted Czech acceptance of the Godesberg terms by 2.00 p.m. on Wednesday 28 September. The German leader followed this with an intemperate broadcast to the German nation. After some hesitation, but fortified by Chamberlain, Wilson on 27 September warned Hitler of the consequences of a resort to force. Hitler merely replied that within six days all parties interested in the dispute would be at war. That same day Chamberlain broadcast to the British nation. It was, he said, horrible, fantastic, incredible that Britain should be preparing for war on account of a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing and he affirmed that he would not hesitate to pay even a third visit to Germany if there were a prospect of success (Feiling, 372). That same evening the British ambassador in Rome was instructed to act on his own suggestion and propose to Mussolini that he use his influence with Hitler to persuade him to delay his proposed military action against Czechoslovakia.
This manoeuvre worked. At 3.00 p.m. on the afternoon of 28 September Chamberlain was opening a Commons debate on the European situation when an urgent message arrived from the Foreign Office informing the prime minister that Hitler had delayed mobilization by twenty-four hours and that he, the French prime minister, Daladier, and Mussolini had been invited to a conference the following morning in Munich. In a welter of tumult, Chamberlain informed the Commons of this development and said that he would accept the invitation. Neither the Czechs nor the Soviets were invited to the conference, where on 2930 September the issue of the Sudetenland was disposed of in the Munich agreement, under which the Czech government was to evacuate specified areas by 10 October, an international commission was to determine Czechoslovakia's new frontiers, an international force was to occupy the areas subject to plebiscite, and the four signatory powers agreed to participate in a guarantee of the newly defined state.
After breakfast on the morning of 30 September, Chamberlain persuaded Hitler to sign the so-called Anglo-German declaration. Obtaining Hitler's signature on this document was undoubtedly a major aim of Chamberlain's visit to Munich, for it was in his mind a potential guarantee of future peace. Yet he had doubts, telling Lord Dunglass, his parliamentary private secretary, who accompanied him to Munich, that peace could not be a certainty, given Hitler's volatility. He went further, opining that Hitler was without question the most detestable and bigoted man with whom it had been his lot to do business and that Munich represented the last throw (Home, 645). The Anglo-German declaration, therefore, had more than one dimension to it. As he informed Dunglass, it would also ensure that if war did break out the international community would know on which nation the responsibility should fall (Thorpe, 83). This was of particular importance with regard to opinion in the United States.
The declaration emphasized the importance of Anglo-German relations for the future of European peace, recognized the Munich agreement and the Anglo-German naval agreement as symptomatic of the desire of the two nations never again to go to war with one another, and affirmed the determination of the two governments to remove further outstanding causes of difference. On landing at Heston Airport Chamberlain waved the Anglo-German declaration as he emerged from the aircraft and stated: The settlement of the Czechoslovakian problem which has now been achieved is, in my view, only the prelude to a larger settlement in which all Europe may find peace (Parker, 18081). For Chamberlain the Munich agreement and the Anglo-German declaration were, therefore, the essential preliminaries to the general settlement that since 1936 had proved so elusive. Later in the day, when he arrived at 10 Downing Street, Chamberlain appeared before the deliriously enthusiastic crowds at a first-floor window and against his better judgement declared that for the second time in British history peace with honour had been brought back from Berlin. He stated: I believe it is peace for our time (Feiling, 381).
The relief that the Munich agreement brought to Britain cannot be overestimated, and Chamberlain's popularity soared. On the return from Munich, the drive from Heston Airport to Downing Street took one and a half hours because of the density of the crowds lining the route. There had been nothing like it since the armistice in 1918. In the words of the Scottish socialist James Maxton, Chamberlain had done something that the mass of the common people in the world wanted done (Feiling, 379). He was effusively greeted by George VI and fêted on the balcony of Buckingham Palace to scenes of jubilant clamour. Downing Street was inundated with flowers, poems, and the icons of Chamberlain's public and private lives, umbrellas and fishing rods, as ordinary people sought to express their release from the abomination of war. A Mass-Observation survey reported that 54 per cent of the sample endorsed Chamberlain's actions, with only 10 per cent expressing outright opposition. In Germany, Chamberlain's contribution to peace was equally joyously received. In October 1938 a former German naval officer conveyed the following message: I feel like one having been condemned to death, and set free in the last minute … It is my fervent wish to let Mr. Chamberlain know that we will thank him and bless him, all our life long (ibid., 38081). Chamberlain's stock had reached its zenith. Had he decided to call an election in autumn 1938 his government would undoubtedly have been returned with a massive majority, despite the reservations of Conservative central office, which contributed to the prime minister's restraint.
The opposition of the Labour Party and a minority of Conservatives led by Churchill, and the resignation of Duff Cooper from the cabinet, did little immediately to dent the mood of optimism. But events proved that the quest for a general settlement was an increasingly forlorn aspiration. In November 1938 the disagreeable face of national socialism was brutally displayed in the anti-Jewish pogrom known as the Kristallnacht
. For a time Britain seemed to fare better with Mussolini. During November 1938 the Anglo-Italian agreement was ratified, but the results of a visit by Chamberlain and Halifax to Rome in January 1939 were almost wholly negative. In the months after Munich, Halifax remained sceptical about the long-term prospects for peace, but Chamberlain still aspired to a general settlement, although that was contingent upon the Germans renouncing the use of force. In March 1939 Hitler demonstrated that such a renunciation was not imminent.
The policy of guarantees, spring and summer 1939
While Germany had at Munich agreed to participate in an international guarantee of Czechoslovakia, there was no intention on Hitler's part of honouring this commitment. On the contrary, he was preoccupied with destroying Czechoslovakia as soon as he could. In the separatist Slovak movement he had a willing ally. With the encouragement of Hitler, the Slovak parliament declared independence on 14 March 1939. The Czech president and the foreign minister subsequently requested a meeting with Hitler to persuade him to agree to the continued existence of Czechoslovakia. Hitler, however, bullied the Czech leaders into signing away their country's independence. On 15 March German forces entered Prague and the provinces of Bohemia and Moravia became protectorates of the Reich.
This created profound shock in Britain. Chamberlain's speech in the House of Commons on 15 March was rather bland in its condemnation, but two days later in Birmingham he displayed his anger in a number of rhetorical questions. Was the destruction of Czechoslovakia the beginning of a new phase of German policy? Would other small states now be attacked? More ominously, was this the first step in an advance towards domination of the globe? He warned that because Britain opposed war as absurd and barbarous it did not mean that Britain would flinch from resisting a challenge if it were made. On the same day a scare story was started by the Romanian minister in London that suggested an imminent German attack upon Romania. This proved ultimately to have been bogus, but it galvanized the attitude of the British government. On 18 March Chamberlain told the cabinet that he had come to the definite conclusion that Hitler's attitude made it impossible to negotiate on the old basis with the Nazi regime … No reliance could be placed on any of the assurances given by the Nazi leaders (Colvin, 188) He thought that the next step should be to ascertain who would join Britain in resisting aggression. Poland, he felt, was the key to the situation. Two days later the cabinet again met and discussed a draft declaration of agreement to consult interested powers if the independence of European states was threatened further. Chamberlain emphasized that the central issue was to be able to confront Germany with war on two fronts if she really intended to attempt the domination of the world, and he said: We should attack Germany not in order to save a particular victim but in order to pull down the bully (Colvin, 190). Herein lay the origins of the policy of guarantees pursued by the British government during the spring and summer of 1939. It was a commitment to go to war should Germany undertake a further unprovoked act of aggression; a commitment that was given public form the following month with the introduction of conscription.
Chamberlain's scheme for a declaration of agreement to consult was frustrated by the Polish refusal to be associated with the Soviet Union. By spring 1939 the Poles were in a desperate situation. In October 1938 the German government had suggested the resolution of all outstanding problems between the two countries. Danzig should be returned and there should be extra-territorial road and rail rights in the Polish corridor linking East Prussia with the Reich. The Poles refused to concede these demands, and neither a visit to Hitler by the Polish foreign minister, Beck, nor a visit to Warsaw by the German foreign minister, Ribbentrop, altered the situation. By March 1939 the Poles were not going to budge, however firm the pressure from Berlin. Moreover, they were determined to fight rather than surrender. The Poles concealed much of the reality of this from the British and the French. Nevertheless, scare stories at the end of March 1939 of an imminent German attack on Poland disseminated by the journalist Ian Colvin and a fear in London that the Poles might come to some agreement with the German government prompted Chamberlain into the offer of a guarantee to Poland on 30 March, for either eventuality was considered damaging for British policy, in that it would render resistance on a two-front basis difficult. The guarantee was accepted and made public on the following day. It was the measure that committed Britain to war five months later. Subsequently, the policy of guarantees was extended to Greece, Turkey, and Romania.
Outbreak of war and formation of war cabinet
The seizure by Germany of the German-speaking Lithuanian city of Memel on 23 March had contributed to the anxieties that provoked the reversal that now gave Warsaw an influence over British policy. But further anxiety was occasioned by Mussolini's annexation of Albania on 7 April and by the conclusion of the so-called pact of steel between Germany and Italy. In addition, Hitler's denunciation of the Anglo-German naval agreement and the PolishGerman non-aggression pact in a speech to the Reichstag of 28 April made it clear that GermanPolish relations were reaching a point of crisis. Chamberlain was now persuaded by Halifax that the concept of the grand alliance, incorporating the Soviet Union, was the only remedy against the belligerence of Berlin. The problem here, though, was the reality that neither the Poles nor the Romanians wanted Soviet troops on their soil. The question of transit facilities for the Red Army bedevilled the negotiations from start to finish. Equally problematic were Soviet suspicions of the intentions of the Western powers, which prompted the Soviet government to conduct parallel negotiations with the Germans culminating in the NaziSoviet non-aggression pact of 23 August 1939. Hitler was evidently determined to destroy Poland and to realize German ambitions in Danzig by force, whatever the risk of war. Chamberlain's response on 25 August was finally to convert the guarantee of Poland into a formal, reciprocal military alliance. This gave Hitler some pause, and the attack on Poland was postponed from 26 August until 1 September.
When the invasion of Poland began the German government refused to comply with Anglo-French ultimata demanding withdrawal, and at 11.00 a.m. on 3 September a state of war was deemed to exist between Britain and Germany. In his broadcast to the nation announcing this, Chamberlain stated:
Everything I have worked for, everything that I have hoped for, everything that I have believed in my public life, has crashed into ruins. There is only one thing left for me to do: that is, to devote what strength and powers I have to forwarding the victory of the cause for which we have sacrificed so much. (Feiling, 416)
Chamberlain immediately sought to widen the basis of his government, but neither the Labour nor the Liberal leader would agree to serve under him. None the less, Eden returned and, more importantly, Churchill, who went to the Admiralty, joined it. Chamberlain disliked the role of war leader. Nevertheless, his commitment to victory and what was tantamount to unconditional surrender was absolute. On 5 September 1939 he informed the archbishop of Canterbury: I pray the struggle may be short, but it can't end as long as Hitler remains in power (Feiling, 419). While Chamberlain remained open to a negotiated settlement with Hitler right up to the outbreak of war, a point on which in the eyes of even favourably disposed critics he remains vulnerable, it is necessary to set against statements that he made to that effect the record of implacable opposition to a peace on any other than allied terms once the war had begun. He was certain that Britain ought to reject any proposals that Hitler might make following the fall of Poland, convinced that the restoration of any civilized standards in Europe was contingent on putting an end to Nazi policy (ibid., 424). When on 6 October 1939 Hitler suggested a European conference to resolve the problems arising from the collapse of Poland, despite the favourable American response, he excoriated Hitler's proposals in a letter to his sister Ida. There was no real advance in mind or spirit towards a reasonable peace; no reliance could be placed on anything that Hitler said; and, finally, the only chance of peace is the disappearance of Hitler and that is what we are working for (Macleod, 279). Such resolve proved crucial at the end of May 1940. In his determination the prime minister would have been fortified by the virtual unanimity of the empire in going to war with Germany. Both Australia and New Zealand declared war on 3 September. Although for constitutional reasons Canada did not declare war until 10 September, she was effectively at war as soon as Britain was. Whatever the difficulties in other parts of the empire, such as South Africa and India, the reality was that, from the beginning, a large part of the earth's surface was hostile territory as far as Germany was concerned.
Given the absence of Labour and Liberal members, Chamberlain's war cabinet consisted of the old inner coreHalifax, Simon, and Hoaretogether with Churchill, Lord Chatfield, Lord Hankey, Sir Kingsley Wood, and Leslie Hore-Belisha. The success of the team, however, depended upon the partnership that was soon forged between Chamberlain and Churchill. As early as the beginning of October 1939 the latter was informed by the prime minister that their relationship need not remain strictly formal, and thereafter their dealings were marked by a steadily increasing warmth. In February 1940 Churchill for the first time accompanied Chamberlain on a visit to Paris for a meeting of the supreme war council; two months later he was effectively presiding over the general running of the war by chairing the military co-ordination committee.
It did prove necessary, however, to reconstruct the cabinet in January 1940. Chamberlain greatly admired the courage, imagination and drive (Macleod, 284) of Leslie Hore-Belisha, whom he had included in his cabinet as secretary of state for war in 1937; but the defects of his qualities soon became evident with the onset of hostilities. Hore-Belisha's self-confidence and lack of tact soon led to difficulties with Lord Gort, the commander-in-chief of the British expeditionary force (BEF) in France. The manner in which he criticized what he perceived to be the defensive inadequacies of the BEF was easily interpreted by Gort as outright condemnation of his ability as a general. Chamberlain correctly concluded that continuing friction of this kind was unsatisfactory and determined to reassign Hore-Belisha rather than lose him. But the latter would not accept a transfer to the presidency of the Board of Trade (the preferred option of the Ministry of Information having been vetoed by the Foreign Office), and he left the government. Oliver Stanley replaced him at the War Office and Sir John Reith went to the Ministry of Information. Further minor changes occurred in April 1940 when Lord Chatfield retired from the war cabinet.
Throughout the first six months of the war Chamberlain's eye was fixed firmly upon the defeat of Germany and the destruction of Hitler. This can be seen in his attitude towards the Russo-Finnish War that lasted from November 1939 until March 1940. Soviet motives were undoubtedly defensive and were connected with their desire to improve their strategic position in the Baltic. The Finns declined to respond to Soviet proposals for a territorial exchange that would have enhanced the defence of Leningrad, and Moscow elected to secure Soviet aims by recourse to war. Chamberlain, nevertheless, was not beguiled by the mood of public sentiment for the Finns that soon engulfed opinion in Britain, France, and the United States. He thought Stalin's latest performance … no worse morally, and in its developments … likely to be much less brutal (Feiling, 427) than Hitler's attack on Poland. He could not allow his indignation against the Soviet action to blind him to the reality that it was not very likely to damage the allied war effort. Thus to conclude peace with Germany in order to pursue a crusade against Russia, as one correspondent urged, was not practical policy. He wrote:
I still regard Germany as Public Enemy No. 1, and I cannot take Russia very seriously as an aggressive force … I am afraid that, although the Germans would like to make peace on their own terms, they are very far from the frame of mind which will be necessary before they are prepared to listen to what we should call reason. (Feiling, 4278)
The capitulation of the Finns on 12 March 1940 finally saved the British from madcap schemes, particularly from those elaborated by the French that would have involved military confrontation with the Soviet Union.
Although Chamberlain believed it prudent to remain on the defensive until Hitler attacked, he was convinced that Germany would ultimately be defeated by an economic pressure that would lead to economic failure and social collapse in Germany. This assumption was somewhat complacent, but there was intelligence information, though misguided, to support such an interpretation. He also believed that the longer Hitler delayed in taking the initiative the better it was for the allies. Nevertheless, it was unfortunate that he publicly declared on 4 April 1940 that Hitler missed the bus (Taylor, 470), for within days the Wehrmacht overran Denmark and Norway. This had been prompted by German fears of allied interdiction of iron ore supplies from Sweden. While there was little that could be done to save Denmark, an allied expeditionary force endeavoured to eject the Germans from Norway, but without success.
Chamberlain's resignation as prime minister, May 1940
Although Churchill was the minister primarily responsible for the Norwegian fiasco, it was Chamberlain who incurred the odium for the failure. He won the Commons debate on the Norway campaign on 78 May by 281 votes to 200; but it was a Pyrrhic victory, for thirty-three supporters of the government had voted with the opposition and there had been more than sixty abstentions. There had also been many wounding words, not least from Leo Amery, a former colleague and fellow Birmingham MP of many years' standing, who, quoting Cromwell, said: You have sat here for too long for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God go! (Macleod, 289). The previous September, on the eve of the outbreak of war, it had been Amery who had scathingly criticized his own government when he had urged the Labour leader, Arthur Greenwood, to speak for England! (Cameron Watt, 579). What was critical was that Chamberlain himself realized that there must be now a full coalition government incorporating the Labour and Liberal opposition. As, however, the chancellor of the exchequer and his former parliamentary private secretary, Sir Kingsley Wood, advised him, he could not remain in office while Labour refused to serve under him.
On 10 May 1940, the day the phoney war ended, as Hitler's forces attacked the Low Countries and France simultaneously, Chamberlain resigned. He had not been outstanding as a war leader and he knew it. There were, however, problems with his only really credible replacement, Winston Churchill, who was not popular in the Conservative Party. Chamberlain's preferred successor was Lord Halifax, but Halifax in effect declined on the grounds of his peerage and a self-recognition that his qualities did not match the hour. The premiership, therefore, passed to Churchill by default. Churchill, though, did not possess the immediate support of the Conservative Party, and Chamberlain continued as leader while remaining in the government as lord president of the council, in which post he served with distinction during the little time that was left to him.
It was as well that Halifax declined the premiership: he proved an appeaser for all seasons. At the end of May 1940, as France and western Europe were falling under the Nazi juggernaut, he argued the possibility of a negotiated peace, but he was opposed by Chamberlain, who was now in favour of seeing the struggle through to the bitter end. After relinquishing the premiership he had broadcast to the nation, stating:
And you and I, must rally behind our new leader, and with our united strength, and with unshakeable courage, fight and work until this wild beast, that has sprung out of his lair upon us, has been finally disarmed and overthrown. (Feiling, 441)
Now, at crucial war cabinets on 26, 27, and 28 May, he lent Churchill his decisive support, as Halifax, following discussions with the Italian ambassador, Signor Bastianini, suggested that a European conference might achieve peace and security in Europe and assure Britain's liberty and independence (Lukacs, 109). Chamberlain agreed with Churchill that there were no terms which Hitler would endorse that Britain could accept. Had he sided with Halifax it is likely that Churchill's position would have been fatally weakened. It was a critical moment in British history and perhaps that of the world.
The excellent relations that had developed between Churchill and Chamberlain became more important following the former's assumption of the premiership. On 10 May 1940 Churchill wrote the following to Chamberlain:
my first act on coming back from the Palace is to write and tell you how grateful I am to you for promising to stand by me, and to aid the country at this extremely grievous and formidable moment … With your help and counsel, and the support of the great party of which you are the leader, I trust that I shall succeed … In these eight months we have worked together I am proud to have won your friendship and your confidence in an increasing measure. To a very large extent I am in your handsand I feel no fear of that. (Feiling, 442)
Following the war cabinet split at the end of May 1940 he informed Lloyd George, no friend of Chamberlain's: I have received a very great deal of help from Chamberlain. His kindness and courtesy to me in our new relations have touched me. I have joined hands with him and must act with perfect loyalty (Lukacs, 121).
In his new role Chamberlain's position was far from negligible. He was responsible for co-ordinating internal policy, while Churchill focused upon the elaboration of war policy. During the latter's absences he chaired the full cabinet. As chairman of the lord president's committee, in effect a subcommittee of senior cabinet ministers, he was responsible for determining a plethora of domestic issues. It was Chamberlain who was responsible for enacting the Emergency Powers (Defence) Bill
. He also, at Churchill's behest and with the assistance of Malcolm MacDonald, attempted to secure the abandonment of Éire's neutrality. On the eve of his departure from public life, railway fares, rating problems of local authorities in coastal towns and war damage compensation were listed by Churchill as issues on which he needed his predecessor's advice in addition to the fundamentals of general policy (Macleod, 295). War truly dissolved old enmities. In Clement Attlee's memoirs there appears the following encomium:
He was Lord President. Very able and crafty, and free from any rancour he might well have felt against us. He worked very hard and well: a good chairman, a good committee man, always very businesslike. You could work with him. (Attlee, 37)
Death and reputation
There can, however, be no gainsaying Chamberlain's mood of depression at the prospect of so much death and maiming. In a letter to his sister Hilda, he expressed his relief on retiring from the premiership, as he knew the agony of mind it would mean … to give directions that would bring death and mutilation to so many (NCP, 18/1/1156, Neville Chamberlain to Hilda Chamberlain, 17 May 1940). Within a month the depression was accompanied by physical illness as he recorded the presence of abdominal pain. Following an X-ray on 24 July and an exploratory operation, terminal cancer of the large bowel was diagnosed. Chamberlain returned to 11 Downing Street on 9 September, as he put it, a partial cripple. He tendered his resignation as lord president on 22 September and resigned from public life on 3 October, having declined the Order of the Garter, preferring to remain simple Mr Chamberlain, like his father before him. He died on 9 November 1940 at Highfield Park, near the village of Heckfield, Hampshire. After a commemoration service in Westminster Abbey on 14 November, his ashes were interred beside the tomb of Andrew Bonar Law. On 12 November Churchill paid tribute to him in the House of Commons as a man who had acted with perfect sincerity according to his lights and who had striven to save the world from the catastrophe into which it had fallen. This alone, he said, will stand him in good stead as far as what is called the verdict of history is concerned (Macleod, 304).
In recent years Churchill's prophecy might well be said to have been fulfilled. But Chamberlain's reputation was severely damaged for many years after his death by the writings of men such as Sir Lewis Namier and Sir John Wheeler-Bennett. His entire career was encapsulated in the concept of the man of Munich, and foreign policy during his premiership was condemned as crass and craven. Moreover, no opportunity was missed to stigmatize Chamberlain as a complete novice in foreign policy.
The process of vilification began in earnest with the publication in July 1940 of Guilty Men
by the pseudonymous Cato. It was, in fact, written by three left-wing journalists who were then on the payroll of Beaverbrook newspapersPeter Howard, Frank Owen, and Michael Foot [see
]. Its impact on Chamberlain's posthumous reputation is difficult to exaggerate. Published in the wake of Dunkirk and Hitler's conquest of France and western Europe, it caught a public mood agitated by the prospect of imminent invasion. The tract's central argument was that British defence policy during the 1930s left Britain ill-equipped and unprepared for war. Chamberlain was indicted as the first of the Guilty Men, who had inherited a great empire, supreme in arms and secure in liberty and brought it to national humiliation (Cato, 16, 19). More than that, he had wilfully ignored the sage advice of the Foreign Office in favour of the unaccountable Sir Horace Wilson, the second of the nominated guilty. In this way the myth was first disseminated that Chamberlain had preferred and acted upon the advice of shadowy figures such as Wilson and a small group of sycophantic ministers (Dutton, Chamberlain
, 76). With his scrawny neck inside a wing collar seemingly two sizes too big for him, and his umbrella, Chamberlain had always been an easy target for cartoonists; ridicule of him and the National Government that he effectively led for almost a decade was now de rigueur
. It was perhaps most scathingly encapsulated in the stigmatization of the appointment in 1936 of Sir Thomas Inskip as minister for the co-ordination of defence as the most extraordinary since the Roman Emperor Caligula made his horse a Consul (Cato, 76). Some wanted to go further, advocating the hanging of Chamberlain and his colleagues from the lamp-posts in Downing Street.
was followed by a series of imitation tracts, mostly published during the war, but the most cogent and sophisticated presentation of this view came in 1964 with the publication by Martin Gilbert and Richard Gott of The Appeasers
. In the following year Professor Cameron Watt referred in the Political Quarterly
to the rise of a revisionist school and asserted that the image of Chamberlain as a pro-German dupe, ignorant of foreign affairs, was less easy to sustain. In 1966 Martin Gilbert published a partial retraction of his earlier views in The Roots of Appeasement
, which emphasized that appeasement had to be seen as a policy that was pursued before Chamberlain became prime minister, although he castigated Chamberlain for continuing it. He also pointed to the fact that appeasement was a policy of rather more sensible dimensions than sheer one-sided concession. In 1968 Keith Robbins published Munich 1938
, which attempted to look at Munich in the context of fifty years of Anglo-German relations without the encumbering notion of appeasement. He indicated the identity of view between appeasers and anti-appeasers and rightly asserted that, at bottom, Munich was the consequence of the desire to avoid another Anglo-German war, rather than an attempt to gain peace at any price.
Once the fifty-year rule regarding access to public archives was relaxed in 1968, the rehabilitation of Chamberlain could proceed and might be said to have started with Maurice Cowling's The Impact of Hitler: British Politics and British Policy, 19331940
(1975). This curiously constructed work sought to interpret British politics in the 1930s in the context of British foreign policy, but it stressed the responsible nature of foreign policy under Chamberlain, which was designed to match British commitments with resources. Full rehabilitation might be said to have been achieved with John Charmley's Chamberlain and the Lost Peace
(1989). According to Charmley, appeasement was justified to the last because Britain's involvement in war with Germany would be ruinous whether winner or loser. But he vitiates the argument for Chamberlain by concluding that the war itself was a mistake. Yet the degree to which Chamberlain's reputation has been enhanced is revealed in the way that post-revisionist critical works, such as R. A. C. Parker's Chamberlain and Appeasement
, now recognize Chamberlain's intelligence, diligence, and administrative expertise.
The problem with all these accounts, though, is that they concentrate upon Chamberlain's premiership and foreign policy. This focus distorts the true image of Chamberlain's mission and contribution, which lay in domestic policy and social reform. He has, however, fared better at the hands of his principal biographers. The earliest official biography of Chamberlain, written by Keith Feiling, is still the best account of Chamberlain's entire life. Its interpretations have stood the test of time, as they have been steadily confirmed and buttressed by archival research. Iain Macleod's biography, concentrating as it does on presenting Chamberlain as a social reformer, is a valuable corrective to the mountain of literature on Chamberlain's foreign policy. The same can be said of David Dilks's first volume of an official life, which concentrates upon the years down to 1929.
On the eve of Chamberlain's becoming prime minister, Anthony Eden stated to a confidant that Neville Chamberlain had the makings of a really great Prime Minister provided his health held out (Diplomatic Diaries of Oliver Harvey
, 334). Chamberlain's problem, however, was not health, but Hitler. He had the misfortune to be in office when the European crisis that began with Hitler's appointment as German chancellor began to peak. Inevitably, he was diverted from focusing upon those issues, covered by social reform, which would probably have made his premiership distinguished. Indeed, his eagerness to bring Hitler to terms was rooted in a desire to return as quickly as possible to domestic issues. This was never a realistic prospect as long as Hitler remained in office. The central charge directed against Chamberlain has been that, had he adopted a more confrontational policy, war could have been avoided. This has been in recent years more sophisticatedly argued by R. A. C. Parker. The suggestion is that a policy of a close Franco-British alliance and collaboration with the USSR would effectively have curbed the expansionist ambitions of Nazi Germany. Parker concludes: Led by Chamberlain, the government rejected effective deterrence. Chamberlain's powerful, obstinate personality and his skill in debate probably stifled serious chances of preventing the Second World War (Parker, 347).
The problem with this view, and that of its supporters such as Michael Roi, is that it takes no account of the intentions of Hitler. Some historians, such as Klaus Hildebrand and Andreas Hillgruber, argue that Hitler had a foreign policy programme of phased expansion whatever the cost; others, such as Timothy Mason, argue that the domestic structures created by the National Socialists ensured that Germany would eventually have to embark upon a war of plunder; finally, others such as Professor Cameron Watt have argued simply that Hitler willed, wanted, craved war and the destruction wrought by war (Cameron Watt, 623). If any of these interpretations is correct, and the truth probably lies in an amalgam of all three, no policy pursued by Chamberlain could have maintained peace. That he strove to avoid war, conscious of the vast human misery and material destruction it wrought, should redound to his eternal credit, for in doing so, as he told Hitler at Godesberg, he risked his political life.
Had Chamberlain retired with Baldwin in 1937 he would not have risked anything. He would still have been a considerable figure in British political history, his career a study in success. Like his father, Joseph Chamberlain, and his elder half-brother, Austen Chamberlain, he played a major part in British public life and, arguably, was more successful, for in 1937 he became prime minister. This was all the more noteworthy an achievement, for he had not entered the House of Commons until 1918 at the age of forty-nine. From then until the request by the crown that he form a government his political career might accurately be described as one of resounding achievement. The premiership, however, was to be the undoing of his reputation. He became prime minister precisely at the time when the international crisis of the 1930s, precipitated by the demands of Nazi Germany, was reaching its critical point and threatening to escalate into a major European war. In order to avert such a catastrophe, Neville Chamberlain attempted by an energetic policy of conciliation and redress of justified grievances to bring Germany into satisfactory and peaceable treaty relations with her neighbours. He did not succeed and war broke out in 1939, causing his premiership to be condemned as a failure for many years afterwards. His name became inextricably linked with the discredited, but much misunderstood, policy of appeasement and the shame and disgrace of the surrender to German demands at Munich in 1938. In short, he became the most maligned and vilified of twentieth-century British prime ministers. Foreign policy and war brought upon his premiership discredit for many years. Paradoxically, for his successor, Churchill, whose career up to 1939 has been described by Rhodes James as a study in failure, it was foreign policy and war that made his reputation.
On the other hand, Chamberlain had all the attributes of an outstanding peacetime prime minister and a radically reforming one at that. Even during the turbulent 1930s, the governments in which he played leading roles did not lose sight of social reform. The Unemployment Act
of 1934 established the Unemployment Assistance Board, largely Chamberlain's creation. Its purpose was to remove the issue of relief from the political fray. Moreover, Chamberlain:
saw the importance of providing some interest in life for the large numbers of men never likely to get work, and out of this realisation was to come the responsibility of the U.A.B. for the welfare, not merely the maintenance, of the unemployed. (Bruce, 271)
What a Chamberlain government would have done had there been no war in 1939 will never be known, but an election was due in 1940, and the manifesto proposals outlined by the Conservative Research Department embraced family allowances and the inclusion of insured persons' dependants in health coverabout half the advances usually attributed to Beveridge. As Lady Cecily Debenham wrote to Chamberlain's widow, Anne, after his death:
Neville was a Radical to the end of his days. It makes my blood boil when I see his Tory and Reactionary outlook taken as a matter of course because the Whirligig of Politics made him leader of the Tory party. (NCP, 11/15/44, Lady Cecily Debenham to Anne Chamberlain, 11 Sept 194?)
Andrew J. Crozier