Neville Chamberlain was Prime Minister of Great Britain in September 1939 as Europe descended into World War Two after the failure of appeasement in the late 1930’s. Chamberlain paid a political price for the failure of Britain in Norway in the spring of 1940 and resigned as Prime Minister to be succeeded by Winston Churchill. He died shortly afterwards.
Neville Chamberlain was born into a famous political family. He was the son of Joseph Chamberlain and his half-brother was Austen. All three were to make their mark in politics, one way or another.
Neville Chamberlain was born in 1869. He was educated at Rugby School and after this, he managed his father’s sisal plantation in the Bahamas for seven years. On his return to Britain in 1897, Chamberlain became involved in local politics and in 1915 he was elected Lord Mayor of Birmingham, arguably England’s second city. In 1916, he was appointed director-general of National Service but was dismissed from this position by David Lloyd-George in 1917 who did not understand or appreciate Chamberlain’s method of working – this involved a detailed understanding of the problem at hand which usually led to a solution occurring later than Lloyd-George was used to.
In 1918, Chamberlain became the Member of Parliament for Ladywood in Birmingham. He held this constituency until 1929 when he was elected MP for Edgbaston – also in Birmingham. Chamberlain was MP for Edgbaston until his death in 1940.
Chamberlain gained a reputation for thoroughness in his duties as a MP and from 1924 to 1929, he served as Minister for Health under Stanley Baldwin and and he was appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer in the National Government of Ramsey Macdonald. Chamberlain held this position from November 1931 to May 1937. In this position, he enhanced his reputation as an efficient administrator and it surprised very few when he became Prime Minister on May 28th, 1937.
Chamberlain was suddenly thrust into a position which required him to be involved in European politics. He had no experience in foreign affairs and frequently took the advice of one of his advisors, Sir Horace Wilson, as opposed to the advice of the Foreign Office.
In the late 1930’s, Chamberlain is most associated with the policy of appeasement. Polls from the time show that many people in Britain supported what Chamberlain was trying to achieve. It was only after the failure of appeasement that Chamberlain’s decisions and career acquired a more negative image.
Two schools of thought exist as to why Chamberlain pursued appeasement.
One is that he honestly thought that he could address the grievances that he believed Germany rightly held after the Treaty of Versailles. Chamberlain believed that if was seen as being fair to German concerns, then he could achieve success and stop Europe from declining into war.
Another theory is that Chamberlain believed that appeasement was worth trying but that war was inevitable. He also realised that Britain was not well prepared for war and that he needed to buy time to improve Britain’s military position. In particular, it is said that Chamberlain knew that our air defences were weak and that the more time he could gain, the stronger they would become.
It is possible that a combination of the two – a desire for peace matched with a desire to ensure Britain was able to defend itself – determined what Chamberlain attempted to do.
In March 1939, Germany’s army swallowed up the rest of Czechoslovakia and destroyed whatever meaning the Munich Agreement ever had. Chamberlain swiftly offered a guarantee to Poland and when Poland was attacked in September 1939, Chamberlain had little choice but to declare war on Germany.
Perceived wisdom would have people believe that Chamberlain let down the British people when war was declared. In fact, in September 1939, his popularity rating was 55% and by Christmas 1939 in the era of the Phoney War, this had increased to 68%.
It was the abject failure of the British military in Norway that ended Chamberlain’s time as Prime Minister. Many in Parliament saw that he would not be an inspirational war leader and many politicians refused to serve in his proposed National Government.
|“It is not a question of who are the Prime Minister’s friends. It is a far bigger issue. He has appealed for sacrifice. The nation is prepared for every sacrifice as long as it has leadership, so long as the government show clearly what they are aiming at, and so long as the nation is confident that those who are leading it are doing their best. I say solemnly that the Prime Minister should give an example of sacrifice, because there is nothing which can contribute more to victory than that he should sacrifice the seals of office.”David Lloyd George|
He resigned on May 10th 1940 and was replaced as Prime Minister by Winston Churchill. Chamberlain served as Lord President of the Council in Churchill’s government. In October 1940, ill health forced him to resign this position and on November 9th, 1940, Neville Chamberlain died.