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Neville Chamberlain

Prime Minister 1937 - 1940

Neville Chamberlain is one of Britain's most controversial prime ministers, a victim of both bad judgment, and the image making of later times. In difficult periods it is more important than ever to give the impression that someone, somewhere is in control. This means that someone has to be found to take blame, while someone else has to be found to give the impression that everything will be alright. As the Second World War began Chamberlain had to be the man who took blame for events leading up to the war. Winston Churchill took the role of a man who turned things around.


Neville Chamberlain was born 18th March 1869, into a well established political family. His father, Joseph Chamberlain, was a well known political figure. Following education at Rugby school and Mason College, Birmingham, seven years were spent in the Bahamas trying to make his father's plantation work. Returning to Birmingham, there was a career in business, followed by involvement in city politics, culminating in a stint as mayor of Birmingham 1915 - 16. Then after a few months working as director of National Service, and falling out with David Lloyd George, Chamberlain entered Parliament in 1918. Here in the late 1920s, he made a name for himself as a minister for health, and then became established as chancellor 1931 - 37. With the retirement of Stanley Baldwin in 1937 Chamberlain was his natural replacement as prime minister. Almost immediately it was necessary to decide what to do about a threatening international situation. A number of writers, Ian Colvin being the most influential, have criticised the policies then adopted. Criticism was based on three decisions - the apparent decision not to invest heavily in defence; caving into Hitler and allowing him to invade Czechoslovakia without a fight in 1938; and failure to achieve an alliance with Russia. But according to other writers, Christopher Cook in The Prime Ministers for example, all three of these criticisms are, at least in some respects, potentially dubious. What we might really see here is the writing of history to serve later needs.


So if Chamberlain has been criticised on three grounds, let's have a look at each one in turn. On the subject of defence spending, Chamberlain decided that in a long war it was important to have a healthy economy, and that defence spending could not be allowed to damage the economy. What resources were available were refocused on defensive rather than offensive measures. Orders for fighters were given priority over those for bombers. The rationale for this was that offensive spending was more likely to antagonise potential enemies. Defensive spending would guard British interests with a lower risk of bringing on an attack. The naval historian Paul Kennedy, for one, would support the direction of Chamberlain's prewar defence policies. He writes: "The final irony of British defence policy in the interwar years was the Treasury, cursed by the 're-armers' at the time and almost universally scorned in historical literature since, was in fact perfectly correct in its Cassandra-like forebodings of the consequences of this large scale spending on the armed forces. This great increase in government expenditure, these enormous loans, did cause inflation, and many orders from abroad for machine-tools, steel, aircraft, instruments... drastically raised the amount of imports. Even before that final agonised decision to go to war Britain was swiftly becoming bankrupt" (The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery P297 - 298). Chamberlain, it could be argued did what he could with the resources available. And of course it was the fighter aircraft Chamberlain decided to focus on building which won the Battle of Britain in the summer of 1940. By then, of course Chamberlain was no longer in office to take any credit.




Chamberlain at Heston airfield - now closed - with the Munich agreement which he hoped would bring peace. This image is copyright free

As for allowing the German invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1938, James L. Stokesbury in A Short History of World War Two describes rebel German generals contacting Chamberlain and telling him that the allies must stand firm behind Czechoslovakia. As soon as Hitler ordered an invasion of the Sudentenland they would have Hitler removed. Unfortunately Chamberlain and the allies did not stand firm. Much was made of this afterwards. It has been noted that from 1937 Chamberlain took the highly questionable course of communicating with foreign governments without even informing his foreign secretary. In July 1937 he wrote a personal letter to Mussolini. He also carried on a correspondence with his sister in law who was living in Rome. She had developed a great admiration for Mussolini, and her private reports to Chamberlain were misleading. Adding to problems was the prime minister's habit of relying for advice regarding Germany and Italy on Sir Horace Wilson, chief industrial advisor, a man who had no experience of foreign affairs. Finally there was the decision to block a conference with the Americans which had been designed to bring about greater military cooperation between the European democracies and the United States, a cooperation which might have stopped German expansion in its tracks (see Harold Macmillan by Nigel Fisher Ch 9). Certainly details of Chamberlain's judgement look suspect at this time. But overall it should also be recalled that within Britain and France there was no general mood for an aggressive policy. Christopher Cook quotes a Mass Observation study - an early form of opinion poll - which showed that in September 1938, only six months before Germany's invasion of Czechoslovakia, 70% of those questioned were in favour of Chamberlain's policy of trying to negotiate a settlement with Germany (see The Prime Ministers P294). Memories of the First World War were still fresh, and people did not want war. A policy to seek some kind of settlement was the accepted opinion. The king, George VI, supported a policy of negotiation, which was forgotten when George VI was touring bomb sites in London during the Blitz. It was not forgotten in the case of Chamberlain, who had to take the blame, for policies which actually reflected the general run of opinion.





Battle of Britain Memorial, Chapel le Ferne, Kent

Finally with regard to the accusation that an alliance was not made with Russia, Russia before the war was regarded with much suspicion, as a potential enemy in themselves. Also an alliance with Russia did not correspond with the policy of negotiation. The idea was not to make Hitler feel surrounded and bring about a violent response. As it turned out Chamberlain was wrong about Hitler, as were many other people. By May 1940 Chamberlain's career as prime minister was over. He was invested with control over events which had led to this point, and was found wanting. But blame or praise are not always apportioned according to what is done or not done. When an expedition designed to defend Norway in April 1940 failed, Chamberlain took the blame for this, even though it was Winston Churchill who was more directly involved in planning the operation. Nevertheless it was Chamberlain's reputation which suffered, and it was Churchill who emerged the following month as the new prime minister. Churchill was now invested with the power to make things right, and stepped up with his famous speeches of defiance. Chamberlain left office on 10th May 1940. He was a victim of his own decisions. But these weren't only his decisions, they were the decisions, and disappointed hopes, of his time. On 2nd September 1940, on the day before war was declared, Chamberlain made a speech in the House of Commons, which summed up a personal, and a general shattering disappointment: "Everything that I have worked for, everything that I have hoped for, everything that I have believed in during my public life has crashed in ruins." (Quoted in Harold Macmillan by Nigel Fisher P62)

Inspite of the image of Churchill fighting fools and cowards in the pre war government, Churchill valued his predecessor's advice during the Battle of Britain: "I am up and down, and you are steady. It is helpful to feel that my decisions are approved by your judgment" (Cadogan Diaries P261). It was a loss to Churchill when Chamberlain finally succumbed to cancer and died in November 1940.