Neville Chamberlain remains one of Britain’s more well-known, and often most maligned Prime Ministers. Famous for his policy of appeasement in the 1930s, he put off the inevitable for as long as possible, before declaring war on Germany in September 1939.
Whilst Chamberlain’s handling of late 1930s foreign relations is ultimately what he is most remembered for, he was a staunch advocate for progressive social and domestic policy at home, and worked tirelessly in office despite crises and betrayals.
Here are 10 facts about Neville Chamberlain.
1. Initially he showed little interest in politics
Chamberlain was born in 1869 in Birmingham, to a middle class family with connections in local politics. He attended Rugby School, and later Mason College (now known as the University of Birmingham), but showed little enthusiasm for his studies.
Neville became an apprentice accountant, but after less than a year, his father dispatched him to the Bahamas to establish and run a sisal plantation. The endeavour failed, and Chamberlain returned to England six years later, having lost £50,000.
2. His wife convinced him to run as an MP
In 1910, aged 40, Chamberlain met Anne Cole, with whom he quickly, and surprisingly, fell in love. The pair married the following year and Anne greatly encouraged his entry into local politics. The two shared a lot of views and political interests – particularly regarding housing – and Anne remained a constant source of support throughout his life.
Chamberlain initially became involved with local Birmingham politics, standing as a local councillor and eventually being elected Lord Mayor of Birmingham. In 1919, he stood as the Unionist candidate for Birmingham Ladywood, and was elected to Parliament with almost 70% of the vote.
3. He clashed frequently with David Lloyd George
Before being elected as an MP, Chamberlain had been appointed Director of National Service by the then Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, co-ordinating conscription and ensuring essential industries had sufficient workforces during the war. Less than a year later, Chamberlain resigned, saying he had received little to no support from the Prime Minister.
In 1920, Chamberlain was offered a position in the Ministry of Health – he declined it, citing the fact he did not want to serve under Lloyd George. Several colleagues warned him if he were to decline the role, he may well not be offered anything else for the duration of Lloyd George’s premiership.
Lloyd George unexpectedly resigned in 1922 following a breakdown in the Conservative-Unionist coalition, and Lloyd George’s longstanding ally, Bonar Law, was temporarily appointed Prime Minister. Taking advantage of this, Chamberlain served as Minister of Health and briefly, Chancellor of the Exchequer, before the Conservatives’ defeat to Ramsey McDonald’s Labour in 1923.
4. His star began to rise after the 1924 General Election
Chamberlain was reappointed as Minister of Health in 1924, and passed 21 key pieces of legislation before he left office 5 years later. In 1931, he was appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer: no small job given the extent of Britain’s war debt.
Major policies and achievements included the passing of ‘Imperial Preference’ import tariffs, increases in welfare spending and a somewhat controversial reduction in defence spending, which was later reversed from 1935 onwards, as the perceived threat of Hitler’s Germany rose.
Many historians and politicians later criticised Chamberlain for disarming in the first place, but in general, many assess his legacy as Chancellor relatively positively, arguing he oversaw a general rise in living standards and could not have anticipated the crisis that was to come.
5. He thought his premiership would be defined by domestic reform
Stanley Baldwin resigned as Prime Minister following the abdication crisis of 1936 and coronation of the new king, George VI: he advised the new king to send for Chamberlain in order to appoint him as the new Prime Minister.
In 1937, Chamberlain passed the Factories Act, and in 1938, the Holiday With Pay Act, Coal Act, and Housing Act, all of which aimed at improving working conditions and effectively saw more social security and legislation to create safer, better working and living conditions for many people. Other social reform and domestic policy that had been discussed was shelved following the outbreak of war in 1939.
6. The situation in Europe was out of his control
By 1937, European politics were becoming increasingly strained: Spain was already engulfed in a brutal civil war. Under Adolf Hitler, Germany was rearming – breaking the terms of the Treaty of Versailles – and Chamberlain did his best to reconcile with Germany rather than to openly condemn Hitler’s policy.
He also opened talks with Italy, who had become an international pariah following its invasion and conquest of Ethiopia, in an attempt to cement relations with Italy and woo them as a potential ally against Germany if necessary.
Ultimately, Chamberlain remembered the horrors of the First World War well, and was determined not to let Britain be dragged into another costly and damaging conflict. As a result, he famously attempted to pursue a policy of appeasement in Europe.
7. Many consider him to have made the most serious error of judgement in the 20th century
Famously, Chamberlain visited the German Chancellor, Adolf Hitler, at his retreat in Berchtesgarden, near Munich in 1938. The two spoke for about 3 hours: Hitler demanded the annexation of the Sudetenland, and Chamberlain believed he had no further designs on European expansion beyond this concession. Chamberlain agreed on the proviso that a plebicite (similar to a referendum) would be held, and if the population voted in favour of Hitler’s annexation, it would happen.
Chamberlain visited Hitler several more times in September 1938, and eventually the issue culminated in a summit attended by Britain, Germany, France and Italy, where the Sudetenland question was to be settled once and for all.
On his return, on 30 September 1938, Chamberlain famously said:
“My good friends, for the second time in our history, a British prime minister has returned from Germany bringing peace with honour. I believe it is peace for our time.”
At the time, some suggested Chamberlain should be awarded a Nobel Peace Prize, whilst others lauded his skill as a statesman and ability to avoid war. It did not take long for Chamberlain’s reputation to be torn to shreds – war was soon to follow and many consider his concessions to Hitler in 1938 as misguided as they provided Germany enough time to consolidate her forces.
8. He took Britain to war in September 1939
Kristallnacht, in November 1938, firmly turned public opinion against Germany: any dialogue or friendliness with Germany would have been deemed unacceptable by the public following a violent pogrom against Germany’s Jewish population. Germany continued to rearm and expand, invading Bohemia and Moravia in early 1939.
Chamberlain began to increasingly focus on rearmament in Britain, building up the Territorial Army, introducing peacetime conscription, and creating a Ministry of Supply – these policies were both to placate the British and intimidate Germany.
On 1 September 1939, Germany invaded Poland and Britain issued an ultimatum for them to withdraw or face war. They refused. On 3 September 1939, Chamberlain declared Britain was at war with Germany, called Parliament to sit on a Sunday and created a War Cabinet – all measures designed to facilitate a speedy crushing of Germany.
Despite everything, Chamberlain’s popularity remained high – in April 1940, it was still at 60%.
9. He quickly came under attack from his own government
Debates over Norway brought matters to a head for Chamberlain’s government. Germany had invaded, and the few Allied forces that were deployed there were no match for the German army – they were ordered to withdraw.
The whole operation, known as the ‘Norway Debate’, received immense criticism. Debates in Parliament worsened the situation, as many felt Chamberlain was asking for party political voting lines on the issue rather than pulling together for unity in a time of national crisis.
After discussions with Attlee’s Labour party about Labour effectively joining Chamberlain’s government in order to create a coherent, unified government, it became clear that Labour would not serve under Chamberlain, but saw Winston Churchill as a valid alternative.
On 10 May 1940, Chamberlain formally resigned, asking the king to send for Churchill as his replacement. Churchill and Baldwin both wrote to express their gratitude to Chamberlain for his decision.
10. He died shortly afterwards
Initially Chamberlain continued to serve as an MP and was appointed Lord President of the Council: Churchill decided not to dramatically shake up the Cabinet given the situation. Colleagues remember him continuing to work diligently and hard, showing no bitterness However, Chamberlain had no chance to repair or fully understand his legacy: he resigned in September 1940 once it became clear he was seriously ill, with limited time remaining, and he died two months later, in November 1940, from bowel cancer.
Just before his death, Chamberlain wrote he did “not fear the historian’s verdict”, believing that his actions at Munich were the best possible course of action to give Britain a fighting chance at winning the coming war. This seems somewhat fortunate, given many historians would condemn his decision to appease Hitler – and fascism across Europe – for as long as he did.