Neville Chamberlain Volume I: Pioneering and Reform, 18691929
by David Dilks
Cambridge University Press, 645 pp., $29.95
On Neville Chamberlain’s death in November 1940, Winston Churchill delivered one of his most moving, majestic, and magnanimous orations. It showed a rare sympathy for disappointed hopes and upset calculations; it appealed to conscience and to history as the only sure judges of men’s deeds; and it took the broadest possible view of Chamberlain’s character and achievements. At the end of a year in which he had won immortality as the savior of his country, Churchill could well afford to be generous to his vanquished contemporary, who had been, at one time or another, his colleague, then his critic, his superior, then his subordinate. And so he left a good deal unsaid, dwelling on Chamberlain’s undeniable virtues, and saluting him as one whom Disraeli would have called “an English worthy”: for his dedicated pursuit of peace, for his physical and moral toughness, for his precision of mind and aptitude for business, and for his firmness of spirit and fortitude in adversity. All this, Churchill declared, would stand Chamberlain “in good stead so far as what is called the verdict of history is concerned.”
At that particular moment, when everything that Chamberlain had stood and worked for lay in ruins, even his closest friends could only put their hope in the future judgments of the past, for the verdict of the present was, as it nearly always has been, much less generous. In the late 1920s, when minister of health, and in the early 1930s, when chancellor of the exchequer, Chamberlain was variously described as having been “a good mayor of Birmingham in a lean year,” with “a retail mind in a wholesale business,” who looked “at affairs through the wrong end of a municipal drainpipe.” Nevertheless, he became prime minister in 1937, and in the following year went to see Hitler at Munich, dressed with inadvertent appropriateness like an undertaker, with his bowler hat, his February face, his Adam’s apple, and his rolled umbrella. For a brief moment he was the most acclaimed man in the country, as he returned with “peace in our time.” But peace and time soon ran out, as Hitler invaded Poland and, in quick succession, Chamberlain’s policy, government, reputation, and health all collapsed. By the time of his death, he was regarded and disregarded as the worst British prime minister since Lord North, the guiltiest of the “guilty men” of the 1930s: provincial, arrogant, inflexible, and cold.
The verdict of contemporaries was harsh, and the verdict of history has not been as compassionate as Churchill benevolently predicted. In 1946, the Oxford historian Keith Feiling mounted the first salvage operation by producing a pioneering biography. It was brief; it was inevitably discreet; it was much influenced by Chamberlain’s understandably partisan widow; and no one took much notice of it amid the distractions of the postwar period. In 1961, Iain Macleod, a Conservative cabinet minister, staged another rescue attempt, but again the result was not a success. Undeniably, he invested …