Chamberlain for our Time

Jose Harris

  • Neville Chamberlain. Vol. I: 1869-1929 by David Dilks
    Cambridge, 645 pp, £20.00, November 1984, ISBN 0 521 25724 7

The two things that everyone knows about Neville Chamberlain are that he was the son of Joseph Chamberlain and that he returned from Munich promising peace for our time. Between these two peaks of notoriety his historical reputation stretches dim, grey and obscure. An official biography by Sir Keith Feiling, written during the Second World War when Chamberlain’s reputation was at its lowest ebb, eloquently defended his subject’s personal integrity, but did little to dispel the impression of an essentially private and limited individual who had greatness thrust upon him by the high drama of historical events. Since Feiling wrote, Chamberlain has attracted some interest among historians as a social and administrative reformer; but his image remains that of a man who ‘looked at national politics through the wrong end of a municipal drainpipe’. ‘Neville has a retail mind in a wholesale business,’ observed his diametrical opposite, Lloyd George.

Volume One of the new biography by David Dilks uses the voluminous Chamberlain diaries and letters drawn upon by Feiling, but supplements them with a mass of public and private archives not available in 1944. It elaborates in a quarter of a million words themes dealt with by Feiling in fifty thousand. The early chapters are heavily overshadowed by the presence of Joseph Chamberlain, screw manufacturer, hero of Birmingham municipal socialism, populist thorn in the flesh of Gladstone, renegade to Liberal Unionism, and ultimately the great prophet of imperial federation and tariff reform. A radical innovator in public life, the twice-widowed, thrice-married Chamberlain was an awesome and demanding patriarch in the family setting. Few successful men in public life can have been so profoundly dominated as was Neville Chamberlain: in youth by his father’s omnipresent authority and in later life by what Feiling called ‘a family piety of religious force’. It was Jo who decided that the family political tradition was to be maintained by the elder son Austen, while Neville was to be reared for a life in provincial business. Both sons were educated at Rugby, but whereas Austen went on to Cambridge and grand tours of France and Germany, Neville on leaving school ‘took courses in applied science at Mason College’. It was his father’s decision that sent Neville on his first commercial venture, to the Caribbean island of Andros, where he spent seven years of appalling solitude trying unsuccessfully to make money out of growing sisal. When he returned home at the age of 28 his father purchased for him the local metal firm of Hoskins and Sons and he settled down to a life of conspicuous ordinariness as a medium-scale Birmingham businessman. He lived with his father and stepmother until the age of 42, when he married the beautiful and ambitious Ann de Vere Cole, sister of that friend of Virginia Woolf who reviewed the Channel Fleet in disguise as the Emperor of Abyssinia (Neville was relieved to find that Ann wholly deplored such exploits). Aloof, reserved, devoted to hobbies and private life, somewhat contemptuous of his fellow men, Neville Chamberlain had determined from an early age never to enter politics: but during the 1900s he found himself increasingly sucked by his father’s slipstream into tariff reform, election campaigns and local Unionist organisation. He became a Birmingham Councillor in 1911 and played an active part in developing the city’s hospital and medical services. Like his father, he soon came to regard Birmingham ‘with the familiar concern which a landowner feels for his estate’. He followed in Joseph’s footsteps by becoming Lord Mayor in 1915, and in this role was closely involved in wartime recruitment drives, in setting up a municipal savings bank and in welfare schemes for the families of Birmingham servicemen.

Just as it was his father’s influence that drew Neville Chamberlain into local government, so it was the influence of his half-brother Austen that eventually propelled him into the sphere of national politics. Austen Chamberlain had been a Front Bench Unionist MP since the 1890s, and in 1916 became Secretary of State for India in the wartime coalition. It was he who recommended Neville to Lloyd George, as the possible head of a new central government department dealing with military and civilian recruitment. The younger brother was appointed Director of National Service, a political post but with no Parliamentary seat in December 1916. In this position, with no experience of Whitehall, no political standing and no direct access to the Cabinet, Chamberlain found himself caught in the cross-fire of a fierce power struggle between capital and labour, between rival government departments, and between competing ideological visions of the role of the wartime state. Dilks records that ‘Chamberlain strove manfully to understand the blurred situation,’ but when he resigned after six months it was generally agreed that his appointment had been a failure. To his credit, he refused a consolatory knighthood and withdrew to Birmingham for the rest of the war. He was over fifty by the time of his first election to Parliament, for the Birmingham constituency of Ladywood, in 1918.

Once in Parliament, Chamberlain wisely avoided too close an identification with the post-war Lloyd George coalition, and his first ministerial office was that of Postmaster-General under Bonar Law in 1922. Then in 1923 came his appointment as Minister of Health, a post that gave him scope to pursue many of the social and municipal causes that he had earlier espoused in Birmingham. He discovered that ‘my pleasure is in administration rather than in the game of politics,’ and rapidly came to regard the Ministry as his spiritual home. His first tenure of the office was frustratingly brief. He had barely had time to draw up a programme of priorities – in itself something of an innovation for a minister of this period – when Bonar Law’s successor Baldwin insisted that he become Chancellor of the Exchequer (this despite Chamberlain’s protests that he was wholly incapable of understanding finance). He returned to the Ministry of Health, however, after the fall of the first Labour government in 1924, and remained there until 1929. It was at the Ministry that Chamberlain made his major impact on government and legislation – through Poor Law and local government reform, subsidised house-building, the introduction of ‘block grants’ in local authority finance and a massive extension of contributory social insurance. He also made a number of important contributions to wider Conservative politics – holding a watching brief for the revival of protection, promoting research into policy issues and encouraging the streamlining and professionalisation of Conservative Central Office. During the General Strike he was identified by the Left as a hard-nosed class-warrior: but within the Cabinet he was one of those who opposed harsh treatment of miners’ families and dissuaded Baldwin from repeal of the 1906 Trade Disputes Act. Welfare payments under Chamberlain’s regime rose in real terms to their highest level on record, the Poor Law in 1926 costing more to maintain than the whole of the British Army for that year. Outside Birmingham he made little impact on popular imagination, but in Parliament he was increasingly respected by both friends and opponents as a competent administrator and a dry but apposite debater. In the Civil Service he was revered as the ideal departmental minister, who understood the constraints of real politics and the inner logic of the administrative mind.

All this may well sound worthy but rather dull, and it has to be admitted that Professor Dilks’s volume makes heavy reading. Tory historians of the Feiling school used to beguile their readers by imaginative communion with the voices of the past, unencumbered by too many facts, but Dilks allows himself no such indulgence. Chamberlain may have been a boring man: he was nevertheless an interesting phenomenon. An anti-Conservative in both temperament and ideology, he reached the highest ranks in successive Conservative governments. Son of a father who had led a great onslaught on hereditary privilege, he became the residuary legatee of a hereditary political dynasty. With a mastery of certain technical subjects which rivalled that of Sidney Webb, he brought the outlook of the ‘expert’ into the gentlemanly arena of high politics. Like his father he retained a strong commitment to provincial values and local autonomy; but at the same time he was an important influence in transforming Conservatism from a party of local notables into a party of modern management. If a single man may be seen as encapsulating a historical trend, then Chamberlain exemplified the shift in English public life from history and custom to routine and rationalisation. All these points suggest that the meaning of Chamberlain’s ‘life’ is inseparable from his ‘times’ and that what he requires is a biography with a strong sociological dimension, rather than a narrowly-conceived exercise in political narrative.

Moreover, even within the narrow limits that he sets himself, Professor Dilks’s study seems to me in various ways deficient. His idyllic descriptions of Chamberlain’s closeknit family life do not fully harmonise with Mrs Chamberlain’s depressions and nervous breakdown, nor with the fact that his children often never saw their parents from one week’s end to another. His chapters on the Ministry of Health take no account of recent historical writing on inter-war social policy, much of which centres on Chamberlain as an important and highly controversial figure. Frequent reference is made to Chamberlain’s financial difficulties, but we get no clear picture of his sources of income, nor of their volume. (There are hints of extravagance and financial incompetence: Chamberlain in the early 1920s had a house in Eaton Square and a country home in Birmingham, but relied on his spinster sisters to pay for family holidays. To raise extra cash in 1923 he was reduced to writing for Harmsworth’s Encyclopedia – though Feiling reveals that a year or so before he had spent the whole of the proceeds from selling the island of Andros on buying one French cabinet.) His business activities, particularly in Hoskins’s and Elliott’s Metal Company, are very sketchily dealt with, and although Dilks denies that Chamberlain should be seen primarily as a ‘business’ politician, it is impossible to judge whether this is true without a more rigorous analysis of the business aspects of his life.

One of the main obstacles to such analysis is that Professor Dilks’s treatment of his subject is so remorselessly chronological. In his introduction he defends this approach, on the grounds that ‘writers and readers, who can follow a particular issue and discard all else, readily forget that statesmen do not enjoy the same luxury.’ But history is more than just an exercise in narrative realism: its whole purpose is to impart meaning and order to the atomistic occurrence of day-to-day events. To me it seemed that the juxtaposition of personal, political, business, aesthetic and philosophical themes in a continuous undifferentiated narrative did less than justice to any of them. What I missed most of all was any systematic analysis of Chamberlain’s general framework of political thought. There are some fascinating hints of this, in references to his admiration for Sir Robert Peel, his fondness for cautious, piecemeal change, his lack of reverence for history (combined with an element of pious nostalgia for his father’s heyday in the late 19th century). Above all, there is his utter remoteness from the socio-sacramental vision of his senior colleague, Stanley Baldwin. Loud echoes of Chamberlain’s philosophy can clearly be heard in much conservatism of the 1980s, and it seems to me a pity that most writers who are attracted to ‘conservative’ topics should show a marked distaste for the study of ideas. Historians will be grateful to Professor Dilks for his documentary industry: but they are unlikely to accept that Chamberlain’s career was as unproblematic and self-explanatory as his narrative suggests.