Leo McKinstry

In defence of Neville Chamberlain

In defence of Neville Chamberlain
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Among the unorthodox enthusiasms of Lloyd George was an interest in phrenology, the pseudo-science that holds that an individual’s character can be revealed by the shape and size of the cranium. Of his first sighting of the rising politician Neville Chamberlain during the Great War, Lloyd George later wrote, ‘When I saw that pinhead, I said to myself, he won’t be of any use.’

That has tended to be the verdict of history. Few prime ministers have been more vilified than Chamberlain, who died from cancer on 9 November 1940, seven months after he had left Downing Street. His very name is synonymous with cowardice in the face of oppression. As the architect of the policy of appeasement, he is widely seen as the man who emboldened the Nazi regime and left our country ill-prepared for war. To his many critics, his disastrous strategy stemmed from a mix of self-righteous vanity and naive parochialism. Certainly Chamberlain was no match for Hitler. He foolishly and infamously described the Fuhrer in 1938 as someone ‘who could be relied upon when he gave his word'. For his part, Hitler was profoundly unimpressed by Chamberlain. ‘If that silly old man comes interfering here again with his umbrella, I’ll kick him downstairs.’

Yet, 80 years after his death, there should be some recognition not only of Chamberlain’s better qualities, but also the uniquely difficult circumstances that confronted him. It is so easy for today’s historical armchair warriors to sit in moral judgement about the past, puffing themselves up in virtuous condemnation.

The reality is that in the late 1930s Chamberlain’s approach was a rational one, dictated by military strength and the mood of the nation. In 1938 Britain had neither the resources nor the major allies to fight a full-blooded war in central Europe. France was on the defensive, the USA isolationist and the Soviet Union hostile. Nor was there any public appetite for conflict, as shown by the outpouring of relief when Chamberlain returned from Munich with his ‘peace’ deal. Huge crowds gathered in London to cheer him, prompting the Times to write that ‘no conqueror returning from victory in the battlefield had come adorned with greater laurels’. In appreciation of his efforts, he was sent fine wines, fishing rods, umbrellas, pheasants, grouse, 6,000 Dutch bulbs, lengths of Scottish tweed and a cross from the Pope. When the Daily Sketch offered readers a free photo of the Prime Minister, there were 90,000 applications.

But Chamberlain was also a realist. For all his rhetoric about ‘peace in our time’, he knew Britain had to rearm. It is a myth that he neglected the military in his quest for an accommodation with the Nazis. On the contrary, both as Chancellor and then as Prime Minister in the 1930s, he presided over a massive expansion in Britain’s armed services. As early as 1935, when he was still in charge of the Treasury, he was attacked by Labour for ‘scaremongering, disgraceful in a responsible politician’ because of his advocacy of military expansion. By April 1939, rearmament was swallowing 21.4 per cent of Britain’s Gross National Product, a figure that reached 51.7 per cent by 1940. He did far more to bolster Britain’s military than was ever done by his detractor Michael Foot, the Labour left-winger who ferociously denounced Chamberlain in his 1940 book The Guilty Men but who managed to avoid any kind of war service.

The crucial point about Chamberlain’s drive for rearmament was that he ensured the greater share went where it was needed most, into the RAF and specifically into Fighter Command. In the 1930s, the RAF was still wedded to the belief in the ‘knock-out’ blow, whereby the best form of defence lay in the threat of overwhelming retaliation through strategic bombing. But Chamberlain rightly felt that the most effective form of defence lay in fighters, backed up by radar, though it has to be admitted this was partly for fiscal reasons. ‘A bomber costs as much as four fighters,’ he once complained. Nevertheless, it was thanks to his influence that the RAF had sufficient Spitfires and Hurricanes to prevail over the Luftwaffe in the summer of 1940. During the last two years of his premiership, Fighter Command more than doubled in size. As Chamberlain wrote to his sister, ‘If I am personally responsible for deficiencies in tanks and guns, I am equally responsible for the efficiency of the RAF.’

Apart from his support for fighters, Chamberlain performed two other crucial services that helped Britain win the war. First, in early May 1940, after the mess of the Norway campaign, he paved the way for Churchill’s succession when he could have favoured his fellow appeaser Lord Halifax. ‘I owe something to Chamberlain. He could have advised the King to send for Halifax but he didn’t,’ said Churchill later. Second, at the end of that month, Chamberlain backed Churchill in the vital cabinet discussions that ultimately threw out Halifax’s proposal to open peace talks with the Axis powers. When it really mattered, Chamberlain was alongside Churchill in the last ditch.

This is all part of an impressive record that defied Lloyd George’s early phrenological forecast. From 1931 to 1937, Chamberlain was a superb Chancellor who presided over an economic revival swifter and deeper than Franklin Roosevelt’s in America. Through a policy based on fiscal restraint, low-interest rates and the introduction of tariffs, he achieved annual economic growth of 5 per cent up to 1937, when he became Prime Minister, while at the same time presiding over falling unemployment, a budget surplus, a housing boom, and the creation of new industries like aviation and plastics. ‘England began a recovery which caused production and employment to be at an all-time peak in 1937,’ wrote the historian A.J.P. Taylor.

Chamberlain was no free market ideologue, but a strong believer in state intervention, as befitted his family’s heritage of municipal activism, started by his father Joe in the Victorian age. In the sort of measure that Joe would have enacted, Neville spent £35 million as Chancellor to establish the London Passenger Transport Board, overseeing the world’s most advanced public transit system. So profound was his commitment to progressive ideals that in 1924 he actually turned down the offer of the Treasury from Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin because he preferred to be Minister of Health. Over five years in that role, he introduced no fewer than 25 pieces of legislation, including the creation of maternity services, the reform of the local government rating system and the abolition of the despised Poor Law Boards. ‘He was a first-class administrator, probably one of the most capable Ministers of Health of this century,’ Labour’s Herbert Morrison grudgingly admitted.

Aloof and often icy, Chamberlain was not an easy man. Even his own half-brother Austen (for a brief time the Tory party leader) admitted that ‘Neville’s manner freezes people'. But he was nothing like his caricature of enfeeblement. In fact, with his administrative skill, command of detail and commitment to reform, he would have been the ideal figure for the current coronavirus crisis. 

It is impossible to imagine him making such an expensive hash of the testing regime as the present government has done. On his death, 80 years ago, Churchill praised his ‘precision of mind’ and ‘aptitude for business,’ exactly the qualities that are missing today.