Chamberlain's legacy is marked by his appeasement policy regarding his signing of the Munich Agreement in 1938, conceding part of Czechoslovakia to German dictator Adolf Hitler. In the same year he also ceded the Irish Free State Royal Navy ports.
After working in business and local government and a short spell as Director of National Service in 1916 and 1917, Chamberlain followed his father and older half-brother in becoming a Member of Parliament in the 1918 general election at age 49. He declined a junior ministerial position, remaining a backbencher until he was appointed Postmaster General after the 1922 general election. He was rapidly promoted in 1923 to Minister of Health and then Chancellor of the Exchequer but presented no budget before the government fell in 1924.
He returned as Minister of Health, introducing a range of reform measures from 1924 to 1929. He was appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer in the coalition National Government in 1931 and spent six years reducing the war debt and the tax burden. When Stanley Baldwin retired after the abdication of Edward VIII and the coronation of George VI, Chamberlain took his place as Prime Minister in 1937.
Chamberlain was forced to resign the premiership on 10 May 1940, after Germany invaded the Netherlands, Belgium and France. He was succeeded by Winston Churchill but remained very well regarded in Parliament. Before ill health forced him to resign, he was an important member of Churchill's War Cabinet. He had a key role in the formation of the Special Operations Executive. Chamberlain died of cancer six months after leaving office.
Chamberlain was born in a house called Southbourne, in the Edgbaston district of Birmingham, England. He was the eldest son of the second marriage of Joseph Chamberlain, Lord Mayor of Birmingham, and a half-brother (and cousin through their mothers) to Austen, later Sir Austen. Joseph's first wife died giving birth to Austen; Neville's mother also died in childbirth in 1875, when Neville was six years old. The Chamberlain children found their relations with their father strained, and Neville grew up developing strong bonds with those siblings who were closest to him in age, most notably his sisters Ida and Hilda, to whom he wrote every week while away from them. Neville Chamberlain was a cousin of actor Alan Napier.
Chamberlain was educated at Rugby School. At first he declined to join the school debating society, changing his mind only in 1886 when he spoke in favour of preserving the United Kingdom, agreeing with his Liberal Unionist father's opposition over Irish Home Rule. It was during this period that Chamberlain developed a love of botany, and later became a fellow of the Royal Horticultural Society. He was also fascinated by ornithology and fishing. Chamberlain had a passion for music and literature, and in later life would often quote William Shakespeare in public debates.
After leaving school, Chamberlain became a day student at Mason Science College (later the University of Birmingham), as one of only four Prime Ministers to attend a university or college other than Oxford or Cambridge (the others being Lord John Russell and Gordon Brown, who both attended Edinburgh, John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute, who studied at the University of Leiden) along with others who did not attend university. He took a degree in science and metallurgy and shortly after graduation became apprenticed to an accounting firm.
In 1890, Joseph Chamberlain's finances took a downturn, and he decided, against better advice from his brothers, to try growing sisal in the Bahamas. Neville and Austen were sent to the Americas to investigate the island of Andros, which seemed a good prospect for a plantation, but the crops failed in the unsuitable environment, and by 1896 the business was shut down at a heavy loss.
Neville Chamberlain's later ventures at home were more successful. He served as chairman of several manufacturing firms in Birmingham, including Elliots (a metal goods manufacturer) and Hotskins (a cabin berth manufacturer). He gained a reputation for being a hands-on manager, taking a strong interest in the day-to-day running of affairs.
In 1915, like his father before him, he became Lord Mayor of Birmingham. Within the first two months, he had won government approval to increase the electricity supply, and he organised the use of coal as part of the war effort; he also prevented a strike by council workers. During this time he assisted in the creation of the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and the establishment of the Birmingham Municipal Bank, the only one of its type in the country, which aimed to encourage savings to pay for the war loan. The bank proved highly successful and lasted until 1976. Chamberlain was re-elected Lord Mayor in 1916, but he did not complete his term.
In December 1916, Chamberlain was in London when he received a message asking him to meet the new Prime Minister, David Lloyd George. In a brief meeting, Lloyd George offered Chamberlain the new position of Director of National Service, with responsibility for coordinating conscription and ensuring that essential war industries were able to function with sufficient workforces. Chamberlain had been recommended for the position by several people, including his brother Austen, and he agreed to accept the post; despite several interviews, however, he was left unclear about many aspects of the job. Over the following eight months only a few thousand volunteers were placed in industry. Chamberlain clashed several times with Lloyd George, who had taken a strong dislike to him, thus making the position even harder to operate. Chamberlain resigned in 1917. He and Lloyd George retained a mutual contempt that lasted throughout their political careers.
Embittered by his failure, Chamberlain decided to stand in the next general election, when he was elected, at age 49 — by far the oldest age for any future Prime Minister entering Parliament to date — for Birmingham Ladywood. He was offered a junior post at the Ministry of Health but declined it, refusing to serve a Lloyd George government. He also declined a knighthood. Chamberlain spent the next four years as a Conservative backbencher, despite his half-brother Austen becoming leader of Conservative MPs in 1921.
In October 1922, discontent amongst Conservatives against the Lloyd George Coalition Government erupted. At a meeting at the Carlton Club, the majority of MPs voted to leave the coalition, even though it meant abandoning their current leadership, since Austen had pledged to support Lloyd George. Neville was on his way home from Canada at the time of the meeting and so was not forced to choose between supporting his brother's leadership and bringing down a man he despised.
The new Conservative Prime Minister, Andrew Bonar Law, offered Chamberlain the position of Postmaster General, outside Cabinet. There was much discussion amongst the Chamberlain family as to whether he should accept; in the end, Austen reluctantly agreed to allow Neville to accept the post. He also became a member of the Privy Council.
In 1922, the Conservatives won the general election, but the Minister of Health, Sir Arthur Griffith-Boscawen, lost his seat and failed to win a by-election. To fill the position, Law chose Chamberlain. In this position, he introduced a Housing Act that provided subsidies for private companies building affordable housing as a first step towards a programme of slum clearances. He also introduced the Rent Restriction Act, which limited evictions and required rents to be linked to the property's state of repair. Chamberlain's main interest lay in housing, and becoming the Minister of Health gave him a chance to spread these ideas on a national basis. These ideas stemmed from his father, Joseph Chamberlain.
The following month Stanley Baldwin became Prime Minister and after serving as his own Chancellor of the Exchequer for three months whilst he sought a successor, he promoted Chamberlain to a position which he held until the government fell in January 1924. His first Chancellorship was unusual in that he presented no budget.
Chamberlain remained one of the leading Conservative figures, but he faced a significant challenge in the 1924 general election from Oswald Mosley, head of the Labour Party in Birmingham. After a tense series of recounts, Chamberlain was elected by a mere 77 votes; in subsequent elections he stood in a safer seat. The Conservatives formed a new government, but Chamberlain declined a second term as Chancellor of the Exchequer, choosing to become Minister of Health again.
Over the next four and a half years, he successfully introduced 21 pieces of legislation, the boldest of which was perhaps the Rating and Valuation Act 1925, which radically altered local government finance. The act transferred the power to raise rates from the Poor Law boards of guardians to local councils, introduced a single basis and method of assessment for evaluating rates, and enacted a process of quinquennial valuations. The measure established Chamberlain as a strong social reformer, but it angered some in his own party. He followed it with the Local Government Act 1929, which abolished the boards of guardians altogether, transferring their powers to local government and eliminating workhouses. The act also eliminated rates paid by agriculture and reduced those paid by businesses, a measure forced by Winston Churchill and the Exchequer; the result was a strong piece of legislation that won Chamberlain much acclaim. Another prominent piece of legislation was the Widows, Orphans, and Old Age Pensions Act 1925, which did much to foster the development of the embryonic Welfare State in Britain.
During these two years out of power, Baldwin's leadership came in for much criticism. Many in politics, Conservative or otherwise, urged the introduction of protective tariffs, an issue which had caused conflict on and off for the last 30 years. Chamberlain was inclined towards tariffs, having a personal desire to see his father's last campaign vindicated. The press baron Lord Beaverbrook launched a campaign for "Empire Free Trade", meaning the removal of tariffs within the British Empire and the erection of external tariffs; he was supported in his opposition to Baldwin by Lord Rothermere, who also opposed Baldwin's support for Indian independence. Their main newspapers, the Daily Express and Daily Mail respectively, criticised Baldwin and stirred up discontent within the party. At one point, Beaverbrook and Rothermere created the United Empire Party, which stood in by-elections and tried to get Conservatives to adopt its platform. Chamberlain found himself in the difficult position of supporting his leader, even though he disagreed with Baldwin's handling of the issue and was best placed to succeed if he did resign. Baldwin stood his ground, first winning a massive vote of confidence within his party and then taking on the challenge of the United Empire Party at the Westminster St. George's by-election in 1931. The official Conservative candidate was victorious, and Chamberlain found his position as the clear heir to Baldwin established, especially after Churchill's resignation from the Conservative Business Committee over Indian Home Rule.
Chamberlain and Baldwin were strong political partners throughout their fourteen years at the height of politics together, but Chamberlain was frustrated by Baldwin's sense of detachment and disinterest in the detail of policy, while Baldwin found Chamberlain's low opinion of the Labour Party disappointing. Despite their disagreements, their partnership proved to be effective.
After the 1931 general election, Chamberlain became Chancellor of the Exchequer a second time. As Chancellor, Chamberlain hoped to introduce protective tariffs, but the economic situation threatened government unity; at the general election, the parties supporting the government had agreed to ask for a "Doctor's mandate" to enact any legislation necessary to resolve the economic situation. Now the government, made up of Conservatives, Liberals, National Labour, and Liberal Nationals, faced a major crisis. The government agreed that no immediate steps would be taken; instead, the issue was referred to a subcommittee of the Cabinet — whose members were largely in favour of tariffs. In the meantime, Chamberlain introduced the Abnormal Importations Bill, which allowed temporary duties to be imposed if importers seemed to be taking advantage of government delays.
The Cabinet committee reported in favour, albeit not unanimously, of introducing a general tariff of 10%, with exceptions for certain goods such as produce from the Dominions and colonies, as well as higher tariffs for excessively high imports or for particular industries which needed safeguarding. In addition, the government would negotiate with Dominion governments to secure trading agreements within the British Empire, promoting Chamberlain's father's vision of the Empire as an economically self-sufficient unit. The Liberals in the Cabinet, together with Lord Snowden, refused to accept this and threatened resignation. However, on the suggestion of Lord Hailsham, the government agreed to suspend the principle of collective responsibility and allow the free-traders to publicly oppose the introduction of tariffs without giving up membership in the government. This unprecedented move had the effect of keeping the National Government together at this stage, but Chamberlain would have preferred to force the Liberals' resignations from the government, despite his reluctance to lose Snowden. Nevertheless, when he announced the policy in the House of Commons on 4 February 1932, he considered it "the greatest day of his life". For effect, he used his father's former dispatch box from his time at the Colonial Office and made great play in his speech of the rare moment when a son was able to complete his father's work. At the end of his speech, Austen walked down from the back benches and shook Neville's hand amid great applause.
Later that year, Chamberlain travelled to Ottawa, Canada, with a delegation of Cabinet ministers who intended to negotiate free trade within the Empire. The resulting Ottawa Agreement did not live up to expectations, most Dominion governments were reluctant to allow British goods in their markets. A series of bilateral agreements increased the tariffs on goods from outside the Empire even further, but there was still little direct increase in internal trade. The agreement was sufficient, however, to drive Snowden and the Liberals out of the National Government; Chamberlain welcomed this, believing that all the forces supporting the government would eventually combine into a single "National Party".
During his tenure as Chancellor, Chamberlain emerged as the most active minister of the government. In successive budgets he sought to undo the harsh budget cuts of 1931; he also took a lead in ending war debts, which were finally cancelled at a conference at Lausanne in 1932. In June 1933, Britain hosted the World Monetary and Economic Conference. Describing the event as the "most crucial gathering since Versailles," top U.S. newsmagazine Time featured Chamberlain on its cover, referring to him as "that mighty mover behind British Cabinet scenes, lean, taciturn, iron-willed... It is no secret that Scot MacDonald remains Prime Minister by Prime Mover Chamberlain's leave. In 1934, he declared that economic recovery was under way, stating that the nation had "finished Hard Times and could now start reading Great Expectations." However, from 1935 on, financial strains grew as the government proceeded on a programme of rearmament.
Chamberlain, aware of the strain this was placing on the Exchequer, found himself being attacked on two fronts: Winston Churchill accused him of being excessively frugal with defence expenditure, but the Labour Party attacked him as a warmonger in the 1935 general election. In the 1937 budget, Chamberlain proposed one of his most controversial taxes, the National Defence Contribution, which would raise revenue from excessive profits in industry. The proposal produced a massive storm of disapproval, and some political commentators speculated that Chamberlain might leave the Exchequer, not for 10 Downing Street but for the back benches.
Despite these attacks from the Labour Party and Churchill, Chamberlain had adopted a policy that would serve to be vital to Britain during wartime. This process was called rationalisation. Under this policy the government bought old factories and mines. This was a gradual process as the depression had hit Britain hard. Then the factories were destroyed. Gradually, newer and better factories were built in their place. They were not to be used when Britain was in a state of depression. Rather, Chamberlain was preparing Britain for the time when Britain would emerge out of the depression. By 1938, Britain was in the best position for rearmament, and thanks to this policy Britain had the most efficient factories in the world with the newest technology. This meant that Britain was able to produce the best weaponry quickly, and they had the best technology available.
Some historians have claimed that Chamberlain was not even a Conservative at all, arguing that his technocratic approach to government, commitment to social reform through state interventionism, and disdain for benign paternalism place him beyond even that strand of radical Conservatism associated with Benjamin Disraeli. In many areas, his outlook was similar to that of the Fabians. Chamberlain himself never liked to use the term "Conservative", preferring the term "Unionist", which had been more commonplace when he first entered politics and which recalled the Liberal Unionist Party of his father.
Chamberlain was a Unitarian and did not accept the basic trinitarian belief of the Church of England, the first Prime Minister to officially reject this doctrine since the Duke of Grafton. This did not bar him from advising the King on appointments in the established church.
Chamberlain's ministerial selections were notable for his willingness to appoint without regard for balancing the parties supporting the National Government. He was also notable for maintaining a core of ministers close to him who were in strong agreement with his goals and methods, and for appointing a significant number of ministers with no party political experience, choosing those with experience from the outside world. Such appointments included the Law Lord Lord Maugham as Lord Chancellor, the former First Sea Lord Lord Chatfield as Minister for Coordination of Defence, the businessman Andrew Duncan as President of the Board of Trade, the former Director-General of the BBC Sir John Reith as Minister of Information and the department store owner Lord Woolton as Minister of Food. Even when appointing existing MPs, Chamberlain often ignored conventional choices based on service and appointed MPs who had not been in the House of Commons very long, such as the former civil servant and Governor of Bengal Sir John Anderson, who became the Minister in charge of Air Raid Precautions; or the former President of the National Farmers Union Sir Reginald Dorman-Smith, who was made Minister of Agriculture.
Few aspects of domestic policy gave Chamberlain more trouble than agriculture. For years, British farming had been a depressed industry; vast sections of land went uncultivated while the country became increasingly dependent upon cheap foreign imports. These concerns were brought to the forefront by the National Farmers Union, which had considerable influence on MPs with rural constituencies. The union called for better protection of tariffs, for trade agreements to be made with the consent of the industry, and for the government to guarantee prices for producers. In support, Lord Beaverbrook's Daily Express launched a major campaign for the country to "Grow More Food", highlighting the "idle acres" that could be used. In 1938, Chamberlain gave a speech at Kettering in which he dismissed the Beaverbrook campaign, provoking an adverse reaction from farmers and his parliamentary supporters.
In late 1938, Chamberlain and his Minister of Agriculture William Shepherd Morrison proposed a Milk Industry Bill that would set up ten trial areas with district monopolies of milk distribution, create a Milk Commission, cut or reduce subsidies for quality milk, butter, and cheese, and grant local authorities the power to enforce pasteurisation. Politicians and the milk industry reacted unfavourably to the bill, fearing the level of state control involved and the possible impact on small dairies and individual retailers. The Milk Marketing Board declared itself in favour of amendments to the bill, a rare move; at the start of December, the government agreed to radically redraft the bill so as to make it a different measure. Early in 1939, Chamberlain moved Morrison away from the Ministry of Agriculture and appointed as his successor Sir Reginald Dorman-Smith, MP for Petersfield and a former president of the National Farmers Union. Dorman-Smith was hailed as bringing greater expertise to the role, but developments were slow; after war broke out there were many who still felt the country was not producing sufficient food to overcome the problem of restricted supplies.
Other proposed domestic reforms were cancelled outright when the war began, such as raising the school leaving age to 15, which would have otherwise commenced on 1 September 1939, were it not for the outbreak of World War II. The Home Secretary, Sir Samuel Hoare, proposed a radical reform of the criminal justice system, including abolition of flogging, which was also put on hold. Had peace continued and a general election been fought in 1939 or 1940, it seems likely that the government would have sought to radically extend the provision of pensions and health insurance while introducing family allowances.
De Valera also sought to overturn other aspects of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, most notably the issue of partition, as well as seeking to reclaim control of the three "Treaty Ports" which had remained in British control. Chamberlain, mindful of the deteriorating European situation, the desirability of support from a friendly neutral Republic of Ireland in time of war, and the difficulty of using the ports for defence if the Republic of Ireland was opposed, wished to achieve peaceful relations between the two countries. The United Kingdom was also claiming compensation from the Republic of Ireland, a claim whose validity the Free State strongly disputed.
Chamberlain, Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs Malcolm MacDonald, and de Valera held a conference starting in January 1938 in an attempt to resolve the other conflicts between their countries. De Valera hoped to secure, at the very least, the British government's neutrality on the matter of ending partition, but the devolved government of Northern Ireland was implacably opposed to any attempt to create a United Ireland. In February 1938, a Northern Ireland general election gave Lord Craigavon's government an increased majority, strengthening the Unionists' hand and making it difficult for the government to make any concessions. Despite this, de Valera proved willing to discuss the other points of contention.
The result of the conference was a strong and binding trade agreement between the two countries. The United Kingdom agreed to hand over the Treaty Ports to the Republic's control, while the Republic of Ireland agreed to pay the United Kingdom £10 million with wider claims cancelled. This was strongly derided by Winston Churchill in the House of Commons (who had built the treaty ports into the 1921 agreement precisely for the reason of possible submarine warfare against Germany). No settlement on partition was reached, and Chamberlain's hopes of being able to establish munitions factories in the Republic of Ireland were not realised during the Second World War, but the two countries also issued a formal expression of friendship. Chamberlain had forged a strong relationship with de Valera, as evidenced by the latter's letter upon Chamberlain's resignation:
I would like to testify that you did more than any former British Statesman to make a true friendship between the peoples of our two countries possible, and, if the task has not been completed, that it has not been for want of goodwill on your part.
The agreement was criticised at the time and subsequently by Winston Churchill, but he was the lone voice of dissent; the Diehard wing of the Conservative Party was no longer willing to fight over the issue of Ireland. Others have pointed out that the issue's resolution resulted in the Republic of Ireland taking a stance of benevolent neutrality during the Second World War (known in the Republic of Ireland as The Emergency).
However, after the invasion of France, the UK made a qualified offer of Irish unity in June 1940, without reference to those living in Northern Ireland. The Republic of Ireland would effectively join the allies against Germany by allowing British ships to use its ports, arresting Germans and Italians, setting up a joint defence council and allowing overflights. In return, arms would be provided to independent Ireland and British forces would cooperate in defending against a German invasion. London would declare that it accepted 'the principle of a United Ireland' in the form of an undertaking 'that the Union is to become at an early date an accomplished fact from which there shall be no turning back.'
Despite De Valera's strong and lifelong support of a united Ireland policy, the offer was refused mainly due to the exceptional military situation in mid-1940. The revised final terms were signed by Chamberlain on 28 June 1940 and sent to Éamon de Valera. On their rejection, neither the London nor Dublin governments publicised the matter.
The White Paper caused a massive outcry, both in the Jewish world and in British politics. Many supporting the National Government were opposed to the policy on the grounds that they claimed it contradicted the Balfour Declaration. Many government MPs either voted against the proposals or abstained, including Cabinet Ministers such as the Jewish Leslie Hore-Belisha.
The first crisis of Chamberlain's tenure was over the annexation of Austria. The Nazi regime had already been behind the assassination of one Chancellor of Austria, Engelbert Dollfuss, and was pressuring another to surrender. Informed of Germany's objectives, Chamberlain's government decided it was unable to stop events, and acquiesced to what later became known as the Anschluss.
The second crisis came over the Sudetenland area of Czechoslovakia, which was home to a large German minority. The Munich Agreement, engineered by the French and British governments, effectively allowed Hitler to annex the country's defensive frontier, leaving its industrial and economic core within a day's reach of the Wehrmacht. In reference to the Sudetenland and trenches being dug in a London central park, Chamberlain infamously declared in a radio broadcast on 27 September 1938:
How horrible, fantastic it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas-masks here because of a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing. I am myself a man of peace from the depths of my soul.Chamberlain flew to Munich to negotiate the agreement, and received an ecstatic reception upon his return to Britain on 30 September 1938. At Heston Aerodrome, west of London, he made the now famous "Peace for our time" speech and waved the agreement to a delighted crowd. When Hitler invaded and seized the rest of Czechoslovakia in March 1939, Chamberlain felt betrayed by the breaking of the Munich Agreement and decided to take a much harder line against the Nazis, declaring war against Germany upon their invasion of Poland.
The repeated failures of the Baldwin government to deal with rising Nazi power are often laid, historically, on the doorstep of Chamberlain, since he presided over the final collapse of European affairs, resisted acting on military information, lied to the House of Commons about Nazi military strength, shunted out opposition which, correctly, warned of the need to prepare – and above all, failed to use the months profitably to ready for the oncoming conflict. However, it is also true that by the time of his premiership, dealing with the Nazi Party in Germany was an order of magnitude more difficult. Germany had begun general conscription previously, and had already amassed an air arm. Chamberlain, caught between the bleak finances of the depression era and his own abhorrence of war – and a Kriegsherr who would not be denied a war – gave ground and entered history as a political scapegoat for what was a more general failure of political will and vision which had begun with the Treaty of Versailles in 1919.
The policy of keeping the peace had broad support; had the Commons wanted a more aggressive prime minister, Winston Churchill would have been the obvious choice. Even after the outbreak of war, it was not clear that the invasion of Poland need lead to a general conflict. What convicted Chamberlain in the eyes of many commentators and historians was not the policy itself, but his manner of carrying it out and the failure to hedge his bets. Many of his contemporaries viewed him as stubborn and unwilling to accept criticism, an opinion backed up by his dismissal of cabinet ministers who disagreed with him on foreign policy. If accurate, this assessment of his personality would explain why Chamberlain strove to remain on friendly terms with the Third Reich long after many of his colleagues became convinced that Hitler could not be restrained.
Chamberlain believed passionately in peace for many reasons (most of which are discussed in the article Appeasement), thinking it his job as Britain's leader to maintain stability in Europe; like many people in Britain and elsewhere, he thought that the best way to deal with Germany's belligerence was to treat it with kindness and meet its demands. He also believed that the leaders of people are essentially rational beings, and that Hitler must necessarily be rational as well. Most historians believe that Chamberlain, in holding to these views, pursued the policy of appeasement far longer than was justifiable, but it is not exactly clear whether any course could have averted war, and whether the outcome would have been any better had armed hostilities begun earlier, given that France, as well, was unwilling to commit its forces, and there were no other effective allies: Italy had joined the Pact of Steel, the USSR had signed a non-aggression pact, and the United States was still officially isolationist.
He did, however, abort the proposal of von Kleist and Wilhelm Canaris before the invasion of Austria to assassinate Hitler, deciding instead to play on the edge of the situation: to maintain a strong anti-communist power in Central Europe, with the Nazis, accepting some 'reward' on 'lebensraum' and still 'manage' with Hitler. Chamberlain, who was nicknamed "Monsieur J'aime Berlin" (French for Mr I love Berlin) just before the outbreak of hostilities, remained hopeful up until Germany's invasion of the Low Countries that a peace treaty to avert a general war could be obtained in return for concessions "that we don't really care about". This policy was widely criticised both at the time and since; but given that the French General Staff was determined not to attack Germany but instead remain on the strategic defensive, what alternatives Chamberlain could have pursued are not clear. It is true that he used the months of the Phoney War to complete development of the Spitfire and Hurricane, and to strengthen the RDF or Radar defence grid in Britain. Both of these priorities would pay crucial dividends in the Battle of Britain.
In Chamberlain's radio broadcast to the nation, he said:
I am speaking to you from the cabinet room of 10 Downing St. This morning the British Ambassador in Berlin handed the German Government a final note stating that, unless we heard from them by 11 o'clock that they were prepared at once to withdraw their troops from Poland, a state of war would exist between us. I have to tell you now that no such undertaking has been received, and that consequently this country is at war with Germany.
You can imagine what a bitter blow it is to me that all my long struggle to win peace has failed. Yet I cannot believe that there is anything more, or anything different, that I could have done, and that would have been more successful. Up to the very last it would have been quite possible to have arranged a peaceful and honourable settlement between Germany and Poland. But Hitler would not have it; he had evidently made up his mind to attack Poland whatever happened. And although he now says he put forward reasonable proposals which were rejected by the Poles, that is not a true statement. The proposals were never shown to the Poles, nor to us. And though they were announced in the German broadcast on Thursday night, Hitler did not wait to hear comments on them but ordered his troops to cross the Polish frontier the next morning.
His action shows convincingly that there is no chance of expecting that this man will ever give up his practice of using force to gain his will. He can only be stopped by force, and we and France are today in fulfillment of our obligations going to the aid of Poland who is so bravely resisting this wicked and unprovoked attack upon her people. We have a clear conscience, we have done all that any country could do to establish peace, but a situation in which no word given by Germany's ruler could be trusted, and no people or country could feel itself safe, had become intolerable. And now that we have resolved to finish it, I know that you will all play your parts with calmness and courage.
As part of the preparations for conflict, Chamberlain asked all his ministers to "place their offices in his hands" so that he could carry out a full-scale reconstruction of the government. The most notable new recruits were Winston Churchill and the former Cabinet Secretary Maurice Hankey, now Baron Hankey. Much of the press had campaigned for Churchill's return to government for several months, and taking him aboard looked like a good way to strengthen the government, especially as both the Labour Party and Liberal Party declined to join.
Initially, Chamberlain intended to make Churchill a minister without portfolio (possibly with the sinecure office of Lord Privy Seal) and include him in a War Cabinet of just six members, with the service ministers outside it. However, he was advised that it would be unwise not to give Churchill a department, so Churchill instead became First Lord of the Admiralty. Chamberlain's inclusion of all three service ministers in the War Cabinet drew criticism from those who argued that a smaller cabinet of non-departmental ministers could take decisions more efficiently.
The Soviet invasion of Poland and the subsequent Soviet-Finnish War led a call for military action against the Soviets, but Chamberlain believed that such action would only be possible if the war with Germany were concluded peacefully, a course of action he refused to countenance. The Moscow Peace Treaty in March 1940 brought no consequences in Britain, though the French government led by Édouard Daladier fell after a rebellion in the Chamber of Deputies. It was a worrying precedent for an allied prime minister.
Problems grew at the War Office as the Secretary of State for War, Leslie Hore-Belisha, became an ever more controversial figure. Hore-Belisha's high public profile and reputation as a radical reformer who was turning the army into a modern fighting force made him attractive to many, but he and the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Lord Gort, soon lost confidence in each other in strategic matters. Hore-Belisha had also proved a difficult member of the War Cabinet, and Chamberlain realised that a change was needed; the Minister of Information, Lord Macmillan, had also proved ineffective, and Chamberlain considered moving Hore-Belisha to that post. Senior colleagues raised the objection that a Jewish Minister of Information would not benefit relations with neutral countries, and Chamberlain offered Hore-Belisha the post of President of the Board of Trade instead. The latter refused and resigned from the government altogether; since the true nature of the disagreement could not be revealed to the public, it seemed that Chamberlain had folded under pressure from traditionalist, inefficient generals who disapproved of Hore-Belisha's changes.
When Germany invaded Norway in April 1940, an expeditionary force was sent to counter them, but the campaign proved difficult, and the force had to be withdrawn. The naval aspect of the campaign in particular proved controversial and was to have repercussions in Westminster.
Chamberlain's war policy was the subject of impassioned debate, to such an extent that he is one of the very few Prime ministers to have appeared in popular songs. The 1940 song "God Bless you Mr Chamberlain" expresses support : God bless you, Mr Chamberlain, we're all mighty proud of you. You look swell holding your umbrella, all the world loves a wonderful fellow...
You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go.
When the vote came the next day, over 40 government backbenchers voted against the government and many more abstained. Although the government won the vote, it became clear that Chamberlain would have to meet the charges brought against him. He initially tried to bolster his government by offering to appoint some prominent Conservative rebels and sacrifice some unpopular ministers, but demands for an all-party coalition government grew louder. Chamberlain set about investigating whether or not he could persuade the Labour Party to serve under him and, if not, then who should succeed him.
Two obvious successors soon emerged: Lord Halifax, then Foreign Minister, and Winston Churchill. Halifax would have proved acceptable to almost everyone, but he was deeply reluctant to accept, arguing that it was impossible for a member of the House of Lords to lead an effective government. Over the next 24 hours, Chamberlain explored the situation further. That afternoon he met with Halifax, Churchill and Margesson, who determined that if Labour should decline to serve under Chamberlain then Churchill would have to try to form a government. Labour leaders Clement Attlee and Arthur Greenwood were unable to commit their party and agreed to put two questions to the next day's meeting of the National Executive Committee: Would they join an all-party government under Chamberlain? If not, would they join an all-party government under "someone else"?
The next day, Germany invaded the Netherlands, Belgium and France. At first, Chamberlain believed it was best for him to remain in office for the duration of the crisis, but opposition to his continued premiership was such that, at a meeting of the War Cabinet, Lord Privy Seal Sir Kingsley Wood told him clearly that it was time to form an all-party government. Soon afterwards, a response came from the Labour National Executive – they would not serve with Chamberlain, but they would with someone else. On the evening of 10 May 1940, Chamberlain tendered his resignation to the King and formally recommended Churchill as his successor.
Chamberlain still wielded power within government as the head of the main home affairs committees, most notably the Lord President's Committee. He served loyally under Churchill, offering much constructive advice. Despite preconceived notions, many Labour ministers found him to be a helpful source of information and support. In late May 1940, the War Cabinet had a rapid series of meetings over proposals for peace from Germany which threatened to split the government. Churchill, supported by the Labour members Clement Attlee and Arthur Greenwood, was against the proposals, which were favoured by Lord Halifax. Chamberlain was initially inclined to accept the terms, but this division threatened to bring down the government. Over the course of three days, Churchill, aided by Greenwood and the Liberal leader Sir Archibald Sinclair, gradually persuaded Chamberlain to oppose the terms, and Britain remained in the war.
At this stage, Chamberlain still retained the support of most Conservative MPs. This was most visible in the House of Commons, where Conservatives would cheer Chamberlain, while Churchill only received the applause of Labour and Liberal members. Realising that this created the impression of a weak government, Chamberlain and the Chief Whip, David Margesson, took steps to encourage the formation of a Conservative power base that would support Churchill.
Despite this, there were many outside Parliament who wished to see Chamberlain removed from the government. In the summer of 1940, a highly damning polemic entitled Guilty Men was released by "Cato" – a pseudonym for three journalists (including future Labour leader Michael Foot) from the Beaverbrook publishing stable. The piece, which attacked the record of the National Government and called for the removal of Chamberlain and other ministers who had allegedly contributed to the British disasters, sold phenomenally well, going into twenty-one editions in the first few months despite not being carried by several major bookshops. Similar criticisms appeared in the press, and at one point Chamberlain felt compelled to ask Churchill to bring pressure on the critics.
At first, Chamberlain, like many others, regarded Churchill as a mere caretaker premier and looked forward to a return to 10 Downing Street after the war. By midsummer, however, Chamberlain's health was deteriorating; in July he underwent an operation for stomach cancer. He made several efforts to recover, but by the end of September he felt that it was impossible to continue in government, and he formally resigned as both Lord President and Leader of the Conservative Party. By special consent of Churchill and the King, Chamberlain continued to receive state papers for his remaining months so that he could keep himself informed of the situation. He retired to Highfield Park, near Heckfield in Hampshire, where he died of bowel cancer on 9 November at the age of 71, having lived for precisely six months after his resignation as Premier. He was cremated at the Golders Green Crematorium and his ashes are at Westminster Abbey.
Neville Chamberlain's estate was probated at 84,013 pounds sterling on 15 April 1941.
It fell to Neville Chamberlain in one of the supreme crises of the world to be contradicted by events, to be disappointed in his hopes, and to be deceived and cheated by a wicked man. But what were these hopes in which he was disappointed? What were these wishes in which he was frustrated? What was that faith that was abused? They were surely among the most noble and benevolent instincts of the human heart--the love of peace, the toil for peace, the strife for peace, the pursuit of peace, even at great peril, and certainly to the utter disdain of popularity or clamour. Whatever else history may or may not say about these terrible, tremendous years, we can be sure that Neville Chamberlain acted with perfect sincerity according to his lights and strove to the utmost of his capacity and authority, which were powerful, to save the world from the awful, devastating struggle in which we are now engaged. This alone will stand him in good stead as far as what is called the verdict of history is concerned.
Written criticism of Chamberlain was given its first early boost in the 1940 polemic Guilty Men, which offered a deeply critical view of the politics of the 1930s, most notably the Munich Agreement and steps taken towards rearmament. Together with Churchill's post-war memoirs The Second World War, texts like Guilty Men heavily condemned and vilified appeasement. The post-war Conservative leadership was dominated by individuals such as Churchill, Eden, and Harold Macmillan who had made their names opposing Chamberlain. Some even argued that Chamberlain's foreign policy was in stark contrast to the traditional Conservative line of interventionism and a willingness to take military action.
In recent years, a revisionist school of history has emerged to challenge many assumptions about appeasement, arguing that it was a reasonable policy given the limitations of British arms available, the scattering of British forces across the world, and the reluctance of Dominion governments to go to war. Some have also argued that Chamberlain's policy was entirely in keeping with the Conservative tradition started by Lord Derby between 1846 and 1868 and followed in the Splendid Isolation under Lord Salisbury in the 1880s and 1890s. The production of aircraft was greatly increased at the time of the Munich agreement. Had war begun instead, the Battle of Britain might have had a much different dynamic with bi-planes instead of Spitfires meeting the Germans. More likely, however, German aircraft would have been fully engaged against France and Czechoslovakia.
The emphasis on foreign policy has overshadowed Chamberlain's achievements in other spheres. His achievements as Minister of Health have been much praised by social historians, who have argued that he did much to improve conditions and brought the United Kingdom closer to the Welfare State of the post-war world.
A generally unrecognised aspect of Chamberlain is his role in the inception of and drawing up of a remit for the Special Operations Executive. His eagerness to avoid another Great War was, once war was a fact, matched by the ferocity of the SOE charter, which he drew up.
Chamberlain was, to an extent, unfortunate in his biography; when his widow commissioned Keith Feiling to write an official life in the 1940s, the government papers were not available for consultation. As a result, Feiling was unable to tackle criticisms by pointing to the government records in a way that later biographers could. Feiling filled the gap with extensive use of Chamberlain's private papers and produced a book that many consider to be the best account of Chamberlain's life, but which was unable to overcome the negative image of him at the time. Later historians have done much more, both emphasising Chamberlain's achievements in other spheres and making strong arguments in support of appeasement as the natural policy, but a new clear consensus has yet to be reached.
The papers of Neville Chamberlain are housed in the University of Birmingham Special Collections.
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