Leo McKinstry

In defence of Neville Chamberlain

(Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)

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.

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