To most of us, Neville Chamberlain was a posh Tory Prime Minister who thought he could secure peace through appeasement with Hitler. Well, he was all of those things, but as ever the story is a bit more nuanced.
In a new biography, Nicholas Milton gives us a more rounded picture of Chamberlain. His private letters to family and friends provide an insight into his thinking and reveal much about him as a politician.
Chamberlain entered politics late, particularly given his famous political family. He worked in the family business before getting drawn into local government in the family's Birmingham base. In many ways, he was the archetypal hunting, shooting, fishing toff, although he gained a reputation championing public housing as well as widow's pensions and the first midwifery service.
His love of nature, particularly bird watching, is probably the most striking if a bit repetitive, feature of this book. At all the key historical moments, he was exchanging letters with fellow enthusiasts and wandering through St James Park with his civil servants. This love of nature had institutional consequences through the establishment of The Wildlife Trusts and his support for the Campaign for the Preservation of Rural England - although his participation in driven grouse shooting seems a bit bizarre today!
Foreign affairs dominated his period as Prime Minister. He was determined to secure peace, scarred as many of his generation were after the horrors of the First World War. His cousin Norman was killed in 1917.
He was convinced that Musso, as he called Mussolini, could be detached from Hitler, despite the advice of the Foreign Office and plenty of evidence to the contrary. A policy he pursued even after the outbreak of war. In April 1940 he wrote to his sister saying that “Musso will go as far as he dares to help Hitler without actually getting himself involved in the war.”
It is often forgotten today, but the Munich Agreement was popular at the time. The author dedicates a chapter of the book listing the astonishing array of gifts and other acknowledgements from a grateful world. Sponsoring hospital beds in his name was particularly popular and some 40,000 letters and gifts flooded into Downing Street.
He was eulogised by the right-wing press, including the Daily Mail, whose owner Lord Rothermere was an admirer of Hitler. In the early 1930s, Rothermere was so close to Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists that Daily Mail staff began to mimic their dress – wearing black shirts to work.
Even after Hitler broke the agreement and occupied the rest of Czechoslovakia, Chamberlain persisted with appeasement. Although he did start to rearm, mainly the RAF, after years of cuts. Even after war broke out following the invasion of Poland, he didn't believe Hitler would attack in the west. Chamberlain thought Hitler would seek to wear down the British through 'boredom'.
Once this delusion ended, he remained in the war cabinet after resigning as PM in favour of Churchill. I didn't know he was the creator of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), which made an important contribution to victory.
Chamberlain died on 9 November 1940 of cancer. He reflected “I regret nothing that I have done and I can see nothing undone that I ought to have done". History has not agreed with this assessment, understandably so.
I had expected a more sympathetic biography, but the author doesn't spare us Chamberlain's many faults. Instead, he gives us a more rounded picture of the man and the politician in the context of the period.
|Next year is the 80th anniversary of the 1940 campaigns that ended Chamberlain's premiership. He could have used our cat to keep the peace!