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.

Neville, whose mother died when he was six, grew up in a loveless house: his father was a stern and distant figure. He knew, moreover, that his father had selected his older brother, Austen, to continue the dynasty while he was to ‘make his own way in the world’. Austen progressed happily from Rugby to Trinity College, Cambridge, and then became his father’s aide, while poor Neville had a horrific time at school, victimised by a housemaster who was ‘a bully or worse’, got bad reports, and ended up a reject from the metallurgy department of Mason College, scrabbling to make good as a chartered accountant.

In 1891, with Joe having blown much of his wealth and Austen launched early into politics, Neville, aged 22, was sent out to the Bahamas to rebuild the family fortune. Six years of misery ended in predictable catastrophe, and while Austen rose in the political world and Joe sank into terminal illness it was left to Neville, who had returned to England, to restore the family’s prosperity by hard grind in the metal business. This he did, while finding time to develop an interest in botany and natural history, articles on which he would contribute to journals for decades to come. Devoted to Shakespeare and Beethoven, he was a cut above the boorish provincial businessman he was often said to typify. Most important, he found happiness in his marriage to Annie. Even as PM, Neville talked everything over with her, claiming that ‘her mind works like that of the typical man in the street.’ For her part, she was blithely convinced that her husband could do no wrong.

Well aware that she had married into the country’s leading political dynasty, and believing politics to be ‘great fun’, Annie encouraged him in 1911 to stand for Birmingham City Council. He was already 42, far too old to start on a political career. He immediately and energetically launched himself into town planning, carried out a survey of the housing conditions of the Birmingham poor, and was one of the earliest advocates of green belts and garden suburbs. It rapidly became clear, even to Joe, that it was Neville, not Austen, who had inherited his energy and instinct for progressive social reform. Despite the war, Neville pushed on hard, insisting that the city must have its own orchestra, its own municipal savings bank and its own university. By 1915 he was, inevitably, lord mayor – the 11th member of his family to hold that position.

He had grown up sharing the family hatred of Lloyd George and it was rather against his better judgment that, in 1916, he accepted the director-generalship of the new Department of National Service, charged with making conscription a reality. He soon realised that he had been set up to fail. There was no plan, no department, there were no data with which to work, but instead endless rivalries with established departments, a complete lack of prime ministerial support and, soon, the humiliation of being publicly stigmatised as a failure, made worse by Lloyd George’s rudeness and double-dealing. By the time he resigned in 1917, his hatred for Lloyd George had become one of the dominant passions of his life. His adoption as a parliamentary candidate for the 1918 election was little comfort: ‘My career is broken. How can a man of nearly 50, entering the House with this stigma upon him, hope to achieve anything?’ But Lloyd George had miscalculated: when, in the 1930s, he made repeated attempts at a political comeback, it was Chamberlain who blocked the way every time, making it clear that he would never serve in the same government as the man he referred to as ‘the Goat’.

What changed everything was the 1922 Tory backbench revolt, which led to the fall of Lloyd George’s coalition and saw the resignation of much of the Tory leadership. This created a vacuum at the top, and it was soon obvious that Birmingham’s dynamic mayor was by far the most talented figure in a distinctly second-rate bunch. Suddenly, at the age of 53, Chamberlain was postmaster-general (giving the BBC its first operating licence and setting up a chain of wireless stations across the empire), and within a year had risen to become minister of health and then chancellor of the exchequer. Although he became prime minister only in 1937, there is no doubt that he was the driving force in all the interwar Tory governments. Right away, at the Ministry of Health, his meticulous grasp of detail and administrative ability awed his civil servants. Baldwin wanted him as chancellor because he was the only colleague he felt he could talk things over with. In Birmingham, Chamberlain had worked well with the unions, but in parliament he was offended by what he saw as the hypocritical vacuity of much Labour rhetoric and made his contempt for his opponents obvious. Before long he was the Tory minister Labour most loved to hate – which didn’t help in 1940. ‘He always treated us like dirt,’ Attlee said. ‘The fact is,’ Chamberlain wrote, ‘that intellectually, with a few exceptions, they are dirt.’

After the fall of the first Labour administration in 1924, Chamberlain returned for five years to the Ministry of Health, a rambling department with responsibility for roads, housing, pensions, national insurance, welfare and town planning. Within two weeks he presented cabinet with a set of 25 proposed reforms across this vast area – and then pushed through 21 of them, making him the greatest social reformer of his day. Before long, however, his qualities had become part of his problem. He could not but be aware that he was more able than others – Churchill he saw as ‘a brilliant wayward child’ – and his command of his subject was so complete that his opponents were quickly reduced to impotent wrath. He was also perfectly willing to use his superior gifts to bait the Opposition. He seemed to glory in being hated: ‘It’s because of my nasty sarcastic way,’ he told his sisters. ‘Very few people can stand sarcasm.’ But people of superior abilities are liable to think that they are always right and others always wrong.

This became apparent during the economic crisis of 1931, when Chamberlain took the hardest of hard lines: the only way to restore foreign confidence in Britain at a time of mass unemployment, he insisted, was by making large cuts in expenditure, particularly in unemployment benefit. Ramsay MacDonald took his side, and the result was the National Government, with Chamberlain back in government. It was very much his achievement, ‘the mercy of God’, he noted, having been ‘vouchsafed in three ways: Lloyd George was in bed, Winston was in Biarritz and S(tanley) B(aldwin) was at Aix.’ Once the election, and the inevitable Tory triumph, was out of the way, he became the Iron Chancellor of the Depression years, sternly insisting on balanced budgets and proudly leading the retreat into protectionism, even levying taxes on food. When he finally pushed through his Import Duties Bill he spoke of his sense of historic fulfilment on ‘the great day of my life’. Until then, he said, ‘like Hamlet, I have been haunted by my Father’s Ghost. Now the Ghost can rest in peace.’

He then set out to complete Joe’s work by trying to fit the Import Duties Bill within a broader scheme of imperial tariffs at the Ottawa Conference of 1932, but here his hopes crumbled. ‘I never want to see Canada again!’ he said as he left. The following year, the World Economic Conference foundered almost immediately when Roosevelt launched the dollar on the path of competitive devaluation. Roosevelt believed that ‘European statesmen are a bunch of bastards,’ and Chamberlain so thoroughly returned these sentiments that he never afterwards hid his dislike and contempt for FDR and all things American. He was, indeed, the most anti-American prime minister Britain has ever had, which became more and more of a problem as war loomed. In particular, he tended to the view that it was better to stay onside with Japan, no matter what outrages it committed, rather than get pushed into a pro-American corner.

Self tries, rather desperately, to see merit in Chamberlain’s Iron Chancellorship, repeatedly appealing to unspecified ‘modern econometric analysis’ to suggest that he was, if not exactly right, then at least justified. In Self’s eyes the experience of the 1970s has more or less disposed of Keynes, whom he seems to regard as a brilliant light-weight, always ready to argue both sides of the coin. In 1933, Chamberlain allowed Keynes an hour to put his plans for debt-led expansion to him, before concluding that his ideas were ‘even worse than I had supposed’. By this time, Chamberlain was sure he was right about more or less everything. He dominated both MacDonald and Baldwin and dictated defence policy long before he became premier. The entire National Government, Herbert Samuel observed, was ‘run by Neville Chamberlain. What he says goes.’ This was especially true during the abdication crisis. Chamberlain, a model of outraged provincial respectability, decided that Wallis Simpson was an absolute baggage, ‘a thoroughly selfish and heartless adventuress’ – after which there was no saving her. Should the king marry her, he predicted with great certainty, it would ‘end speedily in disillusionment and disgust’.

Self’s effort to see Chamberlain as the great talent he was is both useful and necessary, but he goes too far. For all Chamberlain’s tut-tutting, when he and Keynes met he was for once certainly not the ablest man in the room, something he wholly failed to recognise. Probably the wisest practical advice came from Jan Smuts, who appealed for simultaneous public works-led reflation throughout the empire, but he was dismissed by Chamberlain with the same offhand certainty. All one can say is that the real remedy – a large and concerted expansion in world trade – was beyond Britain to achieve on its own, but that doesn’t mean that Chamberlain’s was the least worst alternative. Far from it.

Similarly, Self is surely right to argue that Britain in the 1930s, a declining imperial power facing possible challenges in three different theatres, was in a situation it was beyond its means to cope with. However satisfying rhetorically, simply ‘standing up (alone) to the dictators’ was not a workable policy. Temporising to give time for rearmament is a difficult policy to fault. But, again, this doesn’t mean that Chamberlain was right. When Samuel Hoare was forced to resign after signing the Hoare-Laval Pact, which allowed Mussolini to get away with his Abyssinian aggression, Chamberlain immediately set to work to get the disgraced Hoare back into the government and, despite FDR’s pleas, offered Mussolini full recognition of his illegal conquest. Britain’s resistance to Mussolini had been based on principle. Hoare, the worst of the appeasers, had no interest in that. He was determined to be done with Foreign Office business so that he could get on with his holiday. The message this sent was disastrous.

When it came to rearmament Chamberlain insisted that priority be given to the navy and air force: the army could be neglected because it was unthinkable that Britain would send a major expeditionary force to Europe to resist the Germans. Thus that returning tide of men whose burning indignation at poor equipment and worse leadership was to lead to a decisive shift in British political life, was not just an unlucky break for Chamberlain. He may have suffered more than most from the vicissitudes of political life – when his final reversal came it was sudden and complete – but in his astonishing recovery from a late start he had also been luckier than most. But the final element of poetic justice is undeniable.