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Chamberlain in Rehab: British Foreign Policy Between the Wars

Simon Heffer took a PhD in modern history at Cambridge. His previous books include: The Age of Decadence; Moral Desperado: A Life of Thomas Carlyle; Like the Roman: The Life of Enoch Powell; Power and Place: The Political Consequences of King Edward VII; and Nor Shall My Sword: The Reinvention of England. In a thirty-year career on Fleet Street, he has held senior editorial positions on The Daily Telegraph and The Spectator and is now a columnist for The Sunday Telegraph.


Lawrence Goldman

Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to another of the webinars organised by History Reclaimed. It’s my very great pleasure to introduce to you an old friend and colleague, Professor Simon Heffer. Simon is, I’m sure, known to many of you as a leading journalist and columnist. He’s worked across Fleet Street in his career, but most notably for the Telegraph and the Spectator. He’s also a professor at the University of Buckingham, where he teaches a range of courses, particularly in Victorian history. In recent years he’s been the author of some very notable books on modern British history. I count among them The Age of Decadence: Britain 1880 to 1914, which was published in 2018, and my personal favourite, High Minds, the Victorians and the birth of modern Britain of 2014. Most recently, just a few weeks ago, he published a very well received study of the 1920s and 30s, Sing As We Go: Britain Between The Wars, which will form the basis of today’s seminar, the initial working title of which was British Foreign Policy Between the World Wars, but which has been refined recently and is now Neville Chamberlain in Rehab.

Simon Heffer

Lawrence, thank you very much indeed for inviting me to give this talk to this very distinguished group of people. I’m enormously grateful to you. I wrote this book, it’s the fourth and final volume of my History of Britain from 1838 to 1939, with an open mind about Neville Chamberlain. I’m in that generation of course who’ve been brought up to believe that Winston Churchill saved our country, I think is a great deal of truth in that, and that he was a formidably great man. I think there’s a lot of truth in that as well. But it seems that much of Churchill’s greatness has come at the expense of the reputation of Chamberlain. I remember reading The Gathering Storm when I was in my late teens and thinking “My god, what a shambles and joke the chamberlain administration was”. It was in studying and researching for Sing As We Go that I changed my mind. I learned so much about Chamberlain before he became Prime Minister in 1937. His role particularly as a health minister in the 1920s and his role as Chancellor of the Exchequer during the worst years really of the slub from 1931 to 1937 and I realised that he was a formidable man. But more to the point, when I got into sifting the papers of what went on in 1938 and 1939, it also became clear to me that although he made mistakes, and I shan’t be pretending he didn’t, his room for manoeuvre in the face of the threat, of the wickedness of Nazism and of Germany and the fascist axis that was being formed between Hitler and Mussolini, his room for many of was very limited. I came to the conclusion in the book, and I’ll try and justify it today, that Chamberlain really did his best for Britain and I’m not entirely sure anybody else who might have been in power at that time would have done better.

Chamberlain first served his country nationally in the Great War when he became director of national service, and his experience of Lloyd George whom he detested was such that he refused an invitation to serve in the Lloyd George Coalition after he was elected to parliament in 1918. He described Lloyd George as “so sly, so treacherous and unscrupulous and a man who never had the rudiments of a gentleman”. He later called him “this dirty little Welsh attorney”. There was no love lost there at all.

He was off the job of a minister at the Ministry of Health. Under Christopher Addison and he turned that down. But he did agree to sit on a parliamentary committee, the Unhealthy Areas Committee and became an expert on slum housing. When Lloyd George left the stage in 1922, Chamberlain was more than willing to serve in Bonar Law’s administration and then in Baldwin’s. He began as postmaster general and in 1923 for the first time became minister of health. He rose very quickly in the Conservative Party ranks because so many Tories were refusing to serve those who had served in the coalition and were refusing to serve under Bonar Law. He became Chancellor of the Exchequer briefly and then when Baldwin got back into office after the first Labour government in late 1924, he became Minister of Health again. The other aspects in Chamberlain’s upbringing, which I think affect his personality as a minister.

He had a very unconventional breeding for a politician despite being the son of one of the most famous statesmen of the nineteenth century, Joe Chamberlain and half-brother of Austin Chamberlain, one of the most notable statesmen of the 20 century. Neville Chamberlain didn’t go to university. He trained as an accountant. And with his brother Austin, he went out to the Bahamas in 1896 when he was just 26 years old to see on Joe’s behalf whether there was a plantation there that was suitable for growing sisal. There was a huge demand for sisal in the late nineteenth century. It was used for rope, it was just floor coverings, hats, shoes, and items of luggage.

He and his brother Austin thought this was a great investment. They spent 50,000 pounds of Joe Chamberlain’s money on it. Joe was colonial secretary at the time in Salisbury’s government and was unable to engage in business directly himself. And that 50,000 pounds was lost. Neville was left in charge of the plantation. For reasons that were not entirely his fault, but many of them climatic and acts of God, sisal didn’t grow very well, they couldn’t sell it at the price they’d imagined. The 50,000 pounds of Joe’s money that went down the drain was equivalent to about 5 million today. Now, although it wasn’t entirely level trained in fault, it was also Austin’s fault. Neville never took the blame. It depressed him but it also motivated him enormously. It made him very obstinate, it gave what another historian has called his “unassailable belief” in his own rectitude. But it also made him incredibly determined. He was determined never to repeat the failure that he’d had with the sisal plantation.

When he got back to England after the turn of the century, he used his accountancy expertise to get a position in an engineering firm in Birmingham. And he distinguished himself in this firm and in a succession of other firms as a very clever commercial strategist and a very successful manager. And in the decade before the Great War he went on to run several engineering businesses and improved the performance of every one. Strikes were virtually unknown in his businesses. This was at a time when there was enormous industrial unrest in most of the old industries in Britain. The period that Ramsay Macdonald called “The great unrest before the Great War”. And he was much loved by his employees because he was so progressive. He learned his progressive policy from Joe Chamberlain who’d been of course legendary Lord Mayor of Birmingham. He provided health care and pension schemes for his workers to reward their hard work and their loyalty.

He himself became Lord Mayor of Birmingham in 1915 after only 4 years on the City Council and made conspicuous success of it. It’s why he was asked by Lloyd George to become the man in charge of national service. And he had what Maurice Cowling famously called “a common desire to prove that conservatives cared about the working classes” So that sense of progressivism and his stubbornness and obstinacy, were the qualities and the flaws that he brought into politics.

He was perhaps also assisted by not by not being a doctrinaire conservative. Indeed, and again like his father who landed upon the Conservative or the Unionist party as it was at the time by accident after the 1886 home rule crisis, was not really a conservative at all when he stood for parliament it was as candidate for the Birmingham Unionist Association and he never made a secret of his desire to advance social progress. He got plenty of chance to do this in his appointment as Minister of Health. He showed a considerable ability. In his five months at health he started programs in municipal perform. And reform and set about reforming national systems of welfare such as they were in those days.

The Addison Housing Program, the famous Lloyd George idea of homes fit for heroes, I misquote him I know but that’s what it’s become known as, had fallen to pieces in 1921, Addison had resigned, Lloyd George had never allowed enough money for this programme. Neville Chamberlain set out to revise this, to revise house building, by bringing in a 6 pound subsidy per house per year over 20 years on houses that were for sale.

His ideological flexibility helped him accept that the vast amount of housing that was needed in post-war Britain would not be forthcoming unless the state helped to pay for it. A very unconservative view. However, at the same time he refused contemplating higher subsidies than 6 pounds per house because he believed quite rightly that more subsidies would drive prices back to absurd levels which is what had done the Lloyd George program.

The perception, however, that this benefited the rising lower middle class at the expense of blue collar workers did harm conservative support among working class people. And the building of their lower specification housing had already stopped under Chamberlain’s predecessors because rent controls made them uneconomical.

It’s also true the houses that were built under his act were very small. It took an amendment to that act to expand them to more than 950 square feet. But they were more sanitary than those they replaced and the act also had an effect in stimulating public sector supply. Though he claimed in 1925 when he was healthiness of the second time, that his act had already shown that it was building up a whole new class of good citizens. So we go back again to Joe Chamberlain’s progressivism from Birmingham in the 1870.

By 1929 thanks to his initiative a total of 436,000 houses had been built although only around a fifth of those had been for local authority tenants. But perhaps the most significant advance of his that he writes about himself was that having been Minister of Health briefly, he didn’t want to take the job of Chancellor of the Exchequer when it was offered to him after Baldwin’s victory in 1924. He was so devoted to this progressive reform agenda that he knew he couldn’t do it as Chancellor of the Exchequer at the treasury, he wanted to go back to the Ministry of Health. That with various interesting consequences led to Winston Churchill becoming Chancellor. He told his sister Hilda who was one of his 2 great confidants, the other was his sister Ida, “I could have been Chancellor but told SB that whilst I was prepared to do what he wanted, I preferred my own job”.

He realised that the Ministry of Health, although it was called that, was really a ministry of local government and it had tentacles that extended so far into national life that it gave him extraordinary power and influence. And within days of becoming minister of health again in 1924, he had devised a programme of legislation that would run through the entire parliament. And he said to Ida, his sister, “unless we leave our mark as social reformers, the country will take it out of us here and after”. By 1929, that ministry had sponsored 25 bills, 21 of which were enacted.

Now, his zeal and energy elevated him above his colleagues. Some of the things he did were the Widows, orphans, and old age contributory Pensions Act of 1925. He also reformed the poor law, it’s perhaps the most important thing he did. He wanted responsibility for supporting the indigent removed from parishes and placed, centrally on the government and on the treasury. If he hadn’t done this, who knows what would have happened when unemployment reached 3 million in the 1930s. It was a very far-sighted measure. Not only because it meant that unemployed people could be sustained with certainty by the taxpayer rather than by the ratepayer but also it meant the abolition of the local boards of guardians and the workhouse.

It’s astonishing how many people still think the workhouse went out with Charles Dickens in fact it was there until 1930 and it was Chamberlain who abolished it.

Now, as one who considered himself a liberal unionist, just as his father had, Chamberlain had been impressed by William Beveridge’s 1924 pamphlet: Insurance for all and everything. It described the need for a widows, as opposed to a war widows, pension with additions for dependent children and for the old age pension started 65 not 70. Now this is an era when I think the average lifespan for a woman was 57 and for a man was 52 so for pension to start 70 was really quite a comical idea.

Chamberlain wanted a comprehensive insurance scheme covering not just old age in the widow, but also unemployment and sick pay and he outlined such a scheme for Baldwin when they were in opposition during 1924 Labour government. And Chamberlain’s whole series of proposals along these lines give that 1924 government the most astonishing record of progress and he is almost the only person in that government who actually achieves anything. He worries when he’s Minister of Health about the diet of poor people about whether the money paid to the unemployed is sufficient. But it means by 1929 he has established himself not just as a formidable figure in the conservative firmament but also probably as Baldwin’s heir apparent whenever that time was to come. Also that he is now a big power broker in the Conservative Party. So when we get to 1931 after the 1929 elections which had been lost by the conservatives, the Labour government has its economic problems that come off the Wall Street crash. By August 1931 the country is already almost bankrupt. And while Baldwin is on holiday in Aix-les-Bains it is Chamberlain who leads the Conservative Party’s response to this and who is upfront with King George V at getting a national government formed before Baldwin actually gets back to England He’s guaranteed that Baldwin and he would serve in that national government and that Ramsay MacDonald would lead it. It’s Chamberlain’s decision effectively that Ramsay Macdonald would lead it because, he says, international confidence in our country depends on him. He has a high international reputation, and we need to support him.

Philip Snowdon who was MacDonald’s Chancellor in that government and the man who took us off gold standard, one of the most far sighted and important economic acts of the decade, refused to fight the election. He’d fallen out with MacDonald by then and so Chamberlain becomes chancellor of the Exchequer in MacDonald’s national government in November 1931.

He is a man who again excels in a crisis and there is an enormous financial crisis obviously running right through to, effectively, 1934. He manages in 1932 to start reducing the national debt to maintain a balanced budget and to get a large part of Britain’s war loan converted to lower interest-bearing bonds which drives down the cost of supporting the national debt.

We are repaying debt at a huge rate from the mid 20s until Chamberlain becomes Chancellor, we’re repaying at a rate that means at least 40% of public spending is devoted annually to servicing debt, which is an imaginable figure by today’s standards.

In a further attempt to improve morale, Chamberlain convinces the cabinet that the unemployment figures which have been published weekly up until then should from January 1932 appear monthly. So as always having a practical, almost gladstonian approach to politics, Chamberlain also understands the importance of maintaining public morale at a time when all around Europe there’s tremendous political instability.

Chamberlain’s ability would, I think, have distinguished him in a government of statesmen. In a government of has-beens and mediocrities, he shone very brightly.

He took risks and he broke with orthodoxies. He had massive integrity. He had a commanding sense of decency. But on the other hand, he wasn’t popular, he wasn’t clubbable. He didn’t suffer fools. His biggest mistake was probably treating the Labour Party as something akin to pond life. “His bark was as bad as his bite”, Lord Vansittart said of him. And Vansittart thought he annoyed people because “he seldom slipped; he had command of himself and exercised it sharply”. He was under no illusion by the time he became Chancellor that he could dominate the cabinet and he did, and it bred a self-regard that would harm him when he became Prime Minister.

And the traits that he had developed by the stage are what went against him in May 1940. He had very strained relations with Ramsay Macdonald, whom he thought, frankly, not his equal intellectually or managerially. And, as the 1931 Parliament wore on and he presented more and more budgets, the economy improved and his reputation greatly improved with it. He was on the case of public housing schemes and public work schemes and greater public spending when it could be afforded even before Keynes wrote the general theory. And indeed he consulted Keynes and Keynes was a very serious influence on him as Chancellor.

The public sector indeed grew slowly throughout the slump under Chamberlain’s leadership. 5% of the workforce in 1929 to nearly 6% in 1938. Chamberlain was able by 1934 to report a 39 million pound surplus on the budget. There was a 29 million surplus the following year and he said in 1935 that broadly speaking we have recovered in this country, 80% of our prosperity.

By that stage the 1929 production had increased by 10% and although wages had fallen by 3% the cost of living had dropped by 13% so even people on the dole with the cut that was made in the dole in 1931 was slightly better off than they had been in the depths of the slump.

He also borrowed money to support some strategic industries, notably ship building. And he later on borrowed money to build up armaments. This takes us on to the question of appeasement.

Churchill speaking in May 1932 in the House of Commons said that he would put his trust in and I quote “the patient and skillful removal of the causes of antagonism which are wise foreign policy should eventually achieve”. In doing so, he summed up really what became Chamberlain’s foreign policy when he became Prime Minister.

In 1937 he wanted patiently and skillfully to remove political causes of antagonism. The trouble was he was dealing with a maniac in the in the shape of Adolf Hitler. I just want to say something about what appeasement really means given the ubiquity of the word in our discussions of 1930s politics and particularly about Chamberlain. It’s important to note how what it meant at the time in the thirties differs from what it’s come to mean.

As of the word Holocaust, the events of the Second World War and their place in historical memory has changed the meaning of what that word had indicated since the Middle Ages. The OED published, coincidentally in 1933, after more than half a century of labour the first definition of the verb appease: “to bring peace to pacify, quiet or settle strife or disorder”.

But it says that appeasement means the action or process of appeasing, notably to achieve pacification and satisfaction. Nowhere does it suggest then, and this is when the word is being used. quite promiscuously in political discourse that the act should entail, surrender, capitulation or humiliation, by or of the appeaser. And indeed, it could be argued that the most significant act of appeasement in living memory was the armistice which pacified Europe after 4 years of slaughter and had been dictated by the victorious powers.

But the events of 1933-39 have retrospectively brought such a smell to appeasement.

The latest edition of the OED records a new interpretation of the word which dates from an entry in the annual register of 1939 which concisely contrasts the change in meaning the public opinion had by the eve of war imposed upon the verb to appease. It says “So far were they from trying to appease the dictators that they might be described as facing up to them. Thus, to appease has come to mean the opposite of to face up. The new definition has it that in the political context it was used in a derogatory sense, especially that of the British Prime Minister’s efforts from 1937 to placate and so stave off the threatened aggression of the Axis powers”. So, a dirty word and indeed from 1938 never mind 1939 it is seen in that very pejorative sense.

Now Chamberlain is under no illusions about Hitler. He is painted as someone who is so naive. He doesn’t get it at all. He writes to one of his sisters on the third of September,1938, 11 days before he makes his first visit to Germany: “Is it not positively horrible? To think that the fate of hundreds of millions depends on this man and that he is half mad”.

And he is so convinced of the madness of Hitler, not least due to his half-brother, Sir Austin, who is very quick off the mark in 1933 about how bad Hitler is that Chamberlain as Chancellor starts to do what he can to get rearmament going.

He says on the sixth of June 1934, as Chancellor, that Britain could not afford to fight both Japan and Germany. Japan of course has invaded Manchuria two and a half years earlier.

Chamberlain’s sentiments upset Sir Maurice Hankey who chaired the defence requirements subcommittee as cabinet secretary.  Chamberlain sat on this and precisely because he was Chancellor exerted great influence.

He, was mocked by Chatfield, the First Sea Lord because the Navy had a fixation with combat against Japan. However, Chamberlain said, “We cannot provide simultaneously for hostilities with Japan and Germany. And the latter is the problem to which we must address ourselves”. A Defence requirements subcommittee was set up in 1933 upon which Chamberlain sat. It was believed by the subcommittee generally that to do things on a German scale would require a mere additional 25 squadrons for the RAF. Chamberlain, however, in 1933 wanted 80 squadrons for the Metropolitan RAF which he said he would fund by halving the subcommittee’s recommendations for the other 2 services. In fact, he immediately found more money, although the Navy was, boosted as I’ll illustrate in a moment, but the army had to wait until Chamberlain’s Prime Ministership.

He writes in 1935 that “we must hurry our own rearmament”. That’s the phrase he uses because of what he sees going on in Germany. He’s so pro-rearmament at the 1935 election that when Stanley Baldwin his leader and by then Prime Minister makes a commitment that there will be no great armament, that’s the exact phrase he uses. Chamberlain says quite the reverse and he’s accused by Arthur Greenwood, the deputy leader of the Labour Party, of scaremongering.

It’s at that time, in late 1935, that’s there is a development going on the new monoplane that will evolve into the Hawker Hurricane designed by Sydney Camm who is Hawker’s chief engineer.

They approach the air ministry for money and it falls flat. However, when Chamberlain gets to hear of this late in 1934, he decides to reallocate funding. And the taxpayer pays for an improved design to the Hurricane. It would first fly on 6th November 1935 from Brooklands the motor-racing circuit in Surrey and also by the end of 1934, something resembling Spitfire with its famous elliptical wings is on the drawing board at the Southampton office of RJ Mitchell, the chief designer at Supermarine.

Chamberlain also funds the building of airfields and the RAF, because he’s convinced that air superiority is going to win the next war. He begins to fund the RAF in far greater terms.

Its manpower rises from 32,000 in 1935 to 56,000 in 1937. Its budget is 16.7 million in 1933 by 1938 before Munich it’s 143 million more than the other 2 services combined.

He becomes Prime Minister in 1937 and of course then has more or less complete power over how we proceed. This has a very bad effect in that he decides to become his own foreign secretary. And that of course forces Eden out in the spring of 1938 which unbalances the government. Eden resigns, as I’m sure you all know, because he tried to cozy up to Mussolini and to put some division between Mussolini and Hitler. Chamberlain, couldn’t have known that by the time he succeeded Baldwin in May 1937, he as Chancellor would have raised the estimate for the following 5 years’ defence spending so up until 1942 to an extra 1.5 billion pounds. Now that was a figure that most conservative MPs had dreamed of a year or 2 earlier.

Chamberlain said on 21st September 1935 for the election campaign of that year, that only if Britain were recognised to be strong enough could she fulfil her mission of the peacemaker of Europe.

The archive of letters to his 2 sisters is the most valuable gold mine you’re ever going to find where he says that he really has to keep increasing defence estimates, he really has to keep funding rearmament. Whether Baldwin likes it or not, and there are great tensions in the months before we take over from Baldwin about how much more defence spending is going up. He eventually, by 1928, has promised to increase the RAF to a 124 squadrons with 1736 aircraft in it.

In his 1936 budget, he says that expenditure on the armed forces is going to go up by about another 30% that year. It was thought, by the way, that in 1936 that would bring out defence spending up to around a fifth of what Germany was spending. In fact, the Germans, of course, were lying about what they were spending. It was going to be nearer half.

The naval budget also increased. In 1936 alone, for example, Chamberlain authorised the expenditure on 2 new capital ships, 5 cruisers, 9 destroyers, 4 submarines, one aircraft carrier, 6 sloops and a range of small craft including 2 motor minesweepers, 6 motor torpedo boats and one river gunboat. So by the time he becomes Prime Minister, the age of disarmament is really over. The following year in 1937, the naval program is even bigger. It’s more or less the same as 1936 but it’s got 36 miscellaneous vessels, 7 submarines and 10 motor torpedo boats.

Now, it’s not least because he’s such a chancellor that Chamberlain had created an economic climate that had eased the ability to pay for or all these extra armaments.

And in March 1938, he’s been Prime Minister for 9 months and a month after Eden’s resignation, he is absolutely frank with his fellow members of parliament that Britain may have to embark upon a war and needs to be ready to do so. But he’s had a report from the chiefs of staff and this is something which I think profoundly affects what he does at Munich and on his other 2 visits to Germany in September 1938, and I think what he learns in these chiefs of staff is not taken into account. They say to him, “We conclude that no profession that we in our possible allies can bring to bear either by land or sea or in the air could prevent Germany from invading an overrun Bohemia and from inflicting a decisive defeat on the Czechoslovakian army. We should then be faced with the necessity of undertaking a war against Germany for the purpose of restoring Czechoslovakia’s lost integrity and this object would only be achieved by the defeat of Germany and is the outcome of a prolonged struggle. In the world situation today [This is March 1938], it seems to us that if such trouble was to take place, it is more than probable that both Italy and Japan would seize the opportunity to further their own ends and that in consequence, the problem we have to envisage is not that of a limited European war only, but of a world war”.

A couple of days earlier, the specific advice that he has been given by the chiefs of staff is that after the fall of the check of Czechoslovakia, the French would remain behind the Maginot lines, the Germans owing to the strength of their air force could damage us more than we can damage theirs.

At least 2 months would elapse before the United Kingdom could give any effective help to France. Meanwhile, the people of this country would have been supporting a position of being subjected to constant bombing, a responsibility that no government ought to take. He tells his sister a week before he goes to Munich.

He’s been reading Temperley’s study of Canning’s foreign policy. He says “The key lesson I’ve learned is that you should never menace unless you are in a position to carry out your threats. And although if we were to fight, I should hope we should be able to give a good account of ourselves, we are certainly not in a position in which the military advisers would feel happy at undertaking to begin hostilities if we were not forced to do so”.

He also consults dominion Prime Ministers who have got autonomy following the statute of Westminster. This is not like 1914, where a declaration of war by the mother country brings in what we would now call the white Commonwealth to support us. He says that there was no enthusiasm to join a fight over Czechoslovakia. Admiral Sinclair, the head of the Secret Intelligence Service tells him on the fourteenth of September that nothing could be done to prevent Germany being reunited with the Sudetenland. But he also advises Chamberlain, advice that Chamberlain takes, to continue to arm heavily.

“Our own policy must rest on the capacity to retaliate with adequate force. Our only chance of preserving peace is to be ready for war on any scale without relying too much on outside support”.

Chamberlain took that advice. He knew we were not ready for war on any scale in September 1938, which is why sadly he, with support from the French, said he could do nothing to prevent the Sudetenland being taken by the Nazis. Also, Belisha is war minister. A much underrated man rather like Chamberlain himself. Belisha is Jewish and he has been reading out at selected cabinet meetings, extracts from Mein Kampf just in case any of his fellow ministers are unaware of some of the things that Hitler is planning. And he speaks in the margins of a cabinet meeting on the fourteenth of September about the horrors of war, of German bombers over London, and his horror in allowing our people to suffer all the miseries of war in our present state.

But Belisha is also told by the chief of the imperial general staff that day that to take offensive against Germany now would be like a man attacking a tiger before he’s loaded his gun.

I’m almost out of time, but I just want to say that in the light of everything that Chamberlain was told and that Belisha was told during the run-up to Munich, I’m not sure what else a responsible Prime Minister could have done. He had very limited resources, he had inherited a policy from not just Stanley Baldwin and Ramsay McDonald of trying to run down our armed forces and succeeding but also mustn’t be forgotten within the 5 years that Churchill was Chancellor the Exchequer in the 1920s, he cut defence spending in each of his 5 budgets. That’s something that Churchill doesn’t admit oddly enough in the gathering storm. I’ll leave it to you to wonder why.

Churchill was, of course, the man who wrote the most influential history of this period in the immediate post-war period and no one was there really apart from Keith Feiling to do it for Chamberlain. And Chamberlain today, 80 years more or less after the war was finished, I think it’s still not had a fair crack of the whip.

I just want to conclude by reading one contemporary account of Chamberlain. It’s written by of all people A. P. Herbert who was famed as a comic writer, but was an independent member of parliament. And Herbert said in his memoirs in 1950 that he adored Churchill and didn’t like Chamberlain but admired him. He added, “I hated the dictators as much as Mr. Churchill did and often said so in the press. But I wanted Mr Chamberlain to be right and keep the peace successfully. I would never throw a stone at him then and I will not now, when we are all so much right wiser”. He reminded his readers of the Labour Party’s hypocrisy in claiming to oppose dictators while voting almost every year against the defence estimates and indeed, of opposing conscription in 1939. And he recalled the events of 28th September 1938 when Chamberlain had theatrically announced to the Commons that he’d fly to Munich for one last attempt to reason with Hitler. And Herbert wrote, “I stood up in the end and cheered as nearly all members did that melodramatic afternoon. Any man who stood and cheered that day, to think a long time, it seemed to me, before he cast a stone”.

I don’t know how easy it will be to rehabilitate Neville Chamberlain but I think that all the facts, as opposed to prejudice, of what went on, particularly in those last weeks before Munich mean that he merits ample reconsideration at this stage. Thank you very much.

Lawrence Goldman

Thank you so much, Simon, for that compelling reassessment of Neville Chamberlain, which I’m sure will be of great influence when people come to see this webinar and consider your argument because the evidence that you’ve adduced is compelling.

My first question, although I want to come back to Neville Chamberlain as Minister of Health and so forth, is to ask whether in 1940 with the publication of Guilty Men written by Michael Foot and so forth, we see something very common in society: the use of hindsight after the event and the desire for scapegoats and the desire to blame, when in fact all the evidence points to great concern and serious statesmanship based upon the best evidence that was then available in the autumn of 1938.

Simon Heffer

I think you’re absolutely right and Guilty Men is an absolutely shameful publication. It pretends to be something it isn’t. It pretends to be a description of the omniscience of Chamberlain’s political opponents. And how right they were and how wrong he was. As I said a moment ago, the Labour Party in parliament routinely voted down the defence estimates and it wouldn’t even approve a limited amount of conscription after the invasion of Czechoslovakia in March 1939, even though we had given a guarantee to Poland, which was obviously next on the shopping list for Hitler, that we would have at that stage to declare war. It’s really the first draft of a radical manifesto for the 1945 election.

Of course it makes some relatively accurate points about the lack of preparedness for war. But this is a lack of preparedness that the Labour Party itself was at the forefront of insuring came about. There was a massive pacifist movement in this country in the 1930s. After the Fulham by-election in 1933, when a Labour candidate who supported disarmament was elected, Baldwin, I think quite wrongly, was terrified into rowing back on any promises that he might have appeared to make about building up our armed forces and having something other than collective security under the League of Nations as a way of protecting  the national indeed the imperial interest. Churchill quite correctly condemned Baldwin. Baldwin admitted this in the House of Commons in early 1936. He said, “I was terrified to talk about rearming because I thought that would be the end of the Conservative Party” and Churchill said, “how appalling view to put a sectarian party in interest ahead of what’s good for the country”. Baldwin is a really quite compromised figure. And the attacks in Guilty Men and the attacks in 1940, yes they’re made with hindsight but they don’t necessarily all apply, many of them don’t apply at all to the Chamberlain Administration from 1937 onwards. They apply to what Ramsay MacDonald of course considered a traitor by the Labour Party and Baldwin himself as Ramsay MacDonald’s right-hand man and as Prime Minister from 35 to 37 had allowed to happen to the armed forces, although to be fair to MacDonald, it is in 1932 under his premiership that the so-called ‘ten-year rule’ which is where government departments are told to imagine there won’t be another war within 10 years is lifted. So in 1932, even before Hitler comes to power, things are looking dodgy, largely because of the Japanese invasion of Manchuria. Things are looking dodgy enough in the world that the government says “there might be a war within 10 years we better start preparing for it” but that’s a rhetorical statement the actual preparation is pretty minimal.

Lawrence Goldman

I wonder also when thinking about the breadth of British history over some centuries, whether the expectation that somehow in the 1930s, Chamberlain should have rearmed to such a degree that we were capable of somehow preventing Hitler occupying the Sudetenland then the rest of Czechoslovakia, that is almost pie in the sky because traditionally we’ve never had large land armies and we’ve very rarely been able to put them on the continent and we’ve paid for others or formed alliances to stop a particular power controlling the continent. There is an a-historical side to the way in which Chamberlain has been criticised.

Simon Heffer

Yes, there is. And again, the only person in the Labour Party who actually showed any realism and indeed genuine patriotism about this was Ernest Bevin. And of course he wasn’t even in parliament. He was a trade union leader. But he was a deeply patriotic and highly intelligent man who realised exactly what was happening in Europe and how whatever means we use to counter it, a big land army marching to Prague to liberate it was simply never going to be part of it. There was Churchill’s idea in the winter of 1915 that we could have a naval invasion of Germany from the Baltic. Landing at Kiel and marching to Berlin from there. This is simply not realistic. All we could do and Chamberlain realised this very early on, was when we had the resources and as things got more dangerous to build up our armaments so that we could send a force as we had in 1914 to mainland Europe to France or Belgium and take on the Germans on a western front and beat Germany and then with luck liberate the Czech lands that have been invaded or by this stage of the Polish lands that had been invaded. Of course, a version of that happened but with the Soviet Union involved. It is pie in the sky and there is just a little bit too much hindsight that goes on. There’s a lot that we did know in the 1930, even before Kristallnacht of Hitler’s persecution of the Jews. We were well aware of that and of the iniquities of that. We were well aware of his persecution of people he didn’t agree with him politically, even we knew about his prosecution of homosexuals.

So anyone who thought until 1938 that Hitler was a nice guy, was clearly mad. That isn’t the same as having the ability suddenly to put it in place a war machine that will make him think twice about either continuing that sort of bad behaviour or engaging in random acts of conquest around Germany. I think if you look at the figures, and given we had just come out of a terrible slump, and were largely on our own, but the Americans were entirely isolationist. There was no sense until really weeks before Pearl Harbor that Roosevelt might consider coming out of an isolationist stance and really repeating the help of 1917-18.

We rearmed as fast as we could without bankrupting ourselves. And we also rearmed in step with the change of attitudes on behalf of the British people. There was still in 1935-36 an awful lot of people who never wanted another war of any description. And those who lived through 1914-18, you can entirely understand their point of view. It’s a perfectly respectable point of view. It was only as the wickedness of Hitler became more and more apparent, which wasn’t really until the Anschluss in the spring of 1938 that more and more people in this country realised that they might well have to fight or at least endorse a government that was going to fight for liberty and on the continent of Europe. Chamberlain, I think, made every feasible preparation he could as quickly as he could for that.

Lawrence Goldman

But beyond preparation, I wonder if the case against Chamberlain is the sort of moral case about compromising over Czech sovereignty. Now we see it quite interestingly in the Ukraine crisis at present, that we say we will support Ukraine and Ukrainian sovereignty, it is their decision ultimately and we will support their decision. And of course that’s not quite what Chamberlain did at Munich. He compromised over Czech sovereignty. And I wonder if there was an alternative to that, whether simply walking away from the table at that point and saying “We cannot, we’re not prepared to compromise over the fate of democratic Czechoslovakia and we can’t come to an agreement” whether that might have been an alternative way and whether the moral objection is the stronger to the prudential objection over defence deployments and so forth.

Simon Heffer

I think the difference between now and then is that we know just how very badly stretched. Putin’s forces are. And we know we can say to the Ukrainians, quite rightly in my view, “we are supportive of your sovereignty and we would defend your sovereignty” because we know that probably are not going to have to be a single British pair of boots going on the ground in Ukraine to fight against the Russians because once that happens we’re on the verge of a third world war. And I think we know that and the Russians know that. That wasn’t the case in 1938 if we had walked away, that would have been an opening invitation for Hitler to just walk in to the whole of the Czech lands as he did the following march to create his puppet state in Slovakia as he did the following March.

And to say, “okay, what are you going to do about it?” And that would have been an even greater humiliation. And the humiliation came and it was as you know within 10 days followed by the guarantee to Poland. The Guarantee to Poland held Hitler off for 5 months. Because again, although we armed at a tremendous rate in the summer of 1939, he knew he could do that, particularly after the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, he could do that and there was virtually nothing we could do about it.

We always have to defeat Hitler in the West and eventually the Soviet Union changes its mind and fights him from the east. And it’s not until that happens we can do anything about Poland so we honour our promise about Poland but it takes a very long time to deliver on it.

Lawrence Goldman

If I can take you back to the first part of your fascinating discussion about Chamberlain, let me put to you this point that the way you describe him and it’s absolutely the case that he was a very fine administrator, a man with the social conscience, a man who shaped modern conservatism or took forward that Disraelian inheritance and developed that social policy for conservatism but would it be in entirely stupid if I said that perhaps he was always a liberal unionist rather than a traditional conservative.

His father had been and joined a conservative cabinet, but was of course, a liberal by origin in his politics and there’s a sense in which that Chamberlainite tradition of liberal unionism seems to inform Neville as you present him in the 20s and 30s.

Simon Heffer

Lawrence you are absolutely right and indeed Chamberlain told a joke at his own expense at the great party meeting on I think the third of June 1937 where he was confirmed as leader. He said “it’s very good at the Conservative Party to make me its leader. I’m not actually a conservative”. He was a liberal unionist and was the first to admit it. Joe was very cynical as indeed Churchill was in that if they fell out with their own party, they might not have a lot in common with the opposite party, but there was enough in common that they could turn up and join that party. That’s exactly what Neville Chamberlain did. You’re right to say that his desire to improve the lives of working-class people which he had started to do in Birmingham during the war as Lord Mayor in very difficult circumstances and which his father had done consistently throughout the 1870s was part of a liberal tradition. I think it’s also why he was so contemptuous of the Labour Party because I think he thought the Labour Party were Johnny Come Lately on this front.

Most genuine conservatives of his generation and indeed later had some respect for the Labour Party. They saw them as people who many of them had left school at the age of 12 and worked in really quite grim manual occupations, gone down coal mines and spoke with real authority about the plight of working-class people and what conditions were like. Chamberlain never had that respect for them. And of course it’s why they refused to come into government with him in September 1939. They had to wait until Churchill became a Prime Minister and he and Attlee got on perfectly well, but Attlee was somebody with whom Chamberlain did not even have decent relations that normally go between a Prime Minister and a leader of the opposition. It was almost at the sort of level that you got when Theresa May was leading the Conservative Party and Jeremy Corbyn was leading the Conservative Party and Jeremy Corbyn was leading Labour. She could barely bring herself to speak to him and I think that’s rather how. Chamberlain felt about Attlee, that he was a far superior character. So yes, there is that liberal tradition and it informed those 25 bills, 21 of which were enacted that he that he takes through the House of Commons as been Minister of Health in the 1920s that’s a liberal agenda and it does quite a lot to ensure that the Liberal Party do not come back after the 1929 election. Because a lot of what they would have done has just been done.

Lawrence Goldman

Well your point reminds me of the argument of Robert Skidelsky many years ago in that book, Politicians and the Slump, that with labour in power in 1931, based upon a kind of utopian tradition, it was simply in no position to deal with the minutiae of a financial and economic crisis, whereas someone like Chamberlain was. He was commanding as you present him at the Treasury as somebody able to cope with the problems of massive debt and indeed social reconstruction. So your point about his contempt for a party that had come late to social reform and hadn’t thought through the minutiae, the dynamics of social reform make some sense in view of Skidelsky’s argument, I think.

Simon Heffer

Oh, I agree. Chamberlain was a trained accountant, he had run a business. He could read a balance sheet and he understood money. He understood capitalism which is not the same thing as understanding the economy. But in our settlement it’s an important thing. I don’t want to do down Philip Snowden, who was, MacDonald’s Chancellor both in 1924 and in the 29 to 31 Government because Snowden absolutely understood that everyone would expect the Labour Party to be financially incompetent. And he took enormous steps as chancellor of the Exchequer on those 2 occasions to show that they were entirely responsible. He is the most gladstonian Chancellor since Gladstone, without doubt much more so than Harcourt or Asquith. Certainly much more than Lord George. He is a very Gladstoneian Chancellor. He also has the brilliance to see the logic of taking us off the gold standard, without which who knows what would have happened to our economy in the 1930. So I don’t want to do him down but Chamberlain did have a natural aptitude for looking after the economic arrangements of this country. And as you say, he could see the minutiae. He didn’t get lost in the way that the Labour Party did. The Labour Party was of course dealing with a storm that had blown into the other side of the Atlantic and was something that no one there had predicted and it would have been interesting to see how a Conservative Chancellor, whether it was Churchill or Chamberlain, had they still been in office in October 1929 would have dealt with the Wall Street crash. Certainly, picking up the pieces 2 years later and having acclimatised himself to the fact that we started from there, Chamberlain did extremely well.

Lawrence Goldman

Simon, the hour is up but that was a wonderful presentation of a man who definitely deserves a new view to be rehabilitated. You’ve made a compelling case and I think all who watch this will go away with a new view not only on Chamberlain but also on the 1920s and 30s. We were perhaps not as ill prepared as Guilty Men and others suggested in 1940 and Chamberlain deserves much credit for that. So thank you again, Simon, and we look forward we hope very much that your new book will sell well and many congratulations on its publication.

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Simon Heffer