Far from the Least Worst Alternative

R.W. Johnson

  • Neville Chamberlain: A Biography by Robert Self
    Ashgate, 573 pp, £35.00, May 2006, ISBN 0 7546 5615 2

‘I am not a superstitious man and indeed I should not greatly care if I were never to be PM,’ Neville Chamberlain told his sisters, still in mourning for his brother, Austen, ‘but when I think of Father and Austen and reflect that less than three months of time and no individual stands between me and that office I wonder whether Fate has some dark secret in store to carry out her ironies to the end.’ Fate’s final irony is that Chamberlain is widely considered Britain’s worst 20th-century premier. It wasn’t all bad. By the time he had been forced out by Churchill in May 1940, as a result of the failed Norwegian campaign, his stock had sunk fairly low but, as Robert Self points out, he continued to serve in Churchill’s government to such good effect that the latter made no bones about saying that Chamberlain was ‘the best man’ he had, ‘head and shoulders over the average man in the administration’. Attlee also spoke admiringly of his work-rate, his administrative ability and his complete lack of rancour against the Labour ministers who had sealed his fate by refusing to serve in any government he led. He showed Churchill complete loyalty and played a pivotal role in stopping Halifax from suing for peace with the Axis.

What really did for Chamberlain was the ignominious retreat from France. As the embittered men of the British Expeditionary Force poured back into the country, in what Robert Boothby described as ‘a highly inflamed state of mind’, the government’s Home Intelligence unit noted a growing wave of ‘anti-Chamberlainism’, but no one could have failed to note the furious public outrage against the Men of Munich, the Guilty Men. Chamberlain’s mistake in his last few months – he died in November 1940 – was to believe this wave would soon pass. Instead, it only grew in strength, to encompass not only those who had not ‘stood up to Hitler’ but those who had presided over the mass unemployment of the 1930s, complacently claiming there was nothing to be done. By 1945, all of this had been conflated in the public mind to represent ‘the bad old days’, which had to be done away with at all costs. In that sense, Churchill was right to be dumbfounded by the electoral avalanche of 1945, for it was a vote against Chamberlainism, not against him. This wave hadn’t spent itself by the 1950s, and we still feel its ripples today.

Self, who has edited four volumes of Chamberlain’s diaries and letters, has set himself the doleful task of trying to resurrect his reputation. He has no difficulty in exciting sympathy for the young Neville, the second son of a true monstre sacré, the larger-than-life Joe, the great lord mayor of Birmingham, whose giant ego led him to split both the Liberals and the Unionists, leaving in his charismatic wake a generation of lesser lights committed to tariff reform as a way of binding the empire into the world’s dominant politico-economic bloc. It may have been the stuff of Rhodes’s dreams and Kipling’s poetry but it was a snare, wholly impractical for a country grown strong on free trade and dominions with their own interests to consult.

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