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 Chamberlain with a certain degree of pale and private warmth. But he had little real sympathy for his subject; he lacked any formal training as a historian or biographer; he was not prepared to work through the mass of relevant archival material; and the book reinforced Chamberlain’s many critics at least as much as it consoled his few apologists. Twenty years after Chamberlain’s death, the “verdict of history” remained very largely unfavorable, and rehabilitating his reputation seemed about as forlorn an undertaking as raising the Titanic.
Now, twenty years later, David Dilks has mounted the most ambitious relief expedition yet. He brings to this formidable task formidable knowledge of the history and politics of the twentieth century, having already been research assistant to Sir Anthony Eden, Lord Tedder, and Harold Macmillan, as well as the editor of the wartime Foreign Office diaries of Sir Alexander Cadogan and the author of a two-volume study of Curzon in India. For this most recent undertaking, he has had free access to all the relevant Chamberlain papers and to the mass of official archival material that has recently become available; and, although he has benefited from the recollections and hospitality of Chamberlain’s descendants, they have in no sense influenced his arguments or his writing. And so, after a decade’s intensive labor, Dilks has produced the first installment of what will surely be the most monumental life of Chamberlain ever to be written: six hundred pages, and the story has only reached 1929. What is more, its purpose is avowedly revisionist, as the author seeks to acquit Chamberlain from the long-held charges of being a “gullible provincial administrator, of narrow sympathies, limited imagination, conventional background,” which are at best “misleading” and at worst “a caricature.”
As Dilks rightly explains, Neville Chamberlain can only be understood against his provincial family background, which he sees as a positive force rather than as a negative constraint. Neville’s father, Joseph, was one of those rare nineteenth-century figures who left London for the provinces to make their fortune—and he promptly did as a Birmingham screw manufacturer. By marriage he linked himself to the town’s Nonconformist elite; he entered local government and was a brilliant reforming mayor; he moved on to national politics as an advanced radical; he differed from Gladstone and split the Liberal party over Irish Home Rule; he committed further apostasy by becoming colonial secretary in Lord Salisbury’s administration; and then split the Conservative party in turn by taking up the issue of tariff reform. In his early years he was a man of deep Nonconformist piety; he was the bestdressed public figure of his generation, always sporting an orchid in his buttonhole; and for two decades he was the most dynamic—and destructive—force in British politics. He was thrice married and twice widowed. By his first wife, he produced a daughter and a son, Austen; by his second, three more daughters and another son, Neville.
This tightknit family group was self-sufficient, self-regarding, and mutually devoted. Joseph Chamberlain could not talk to either of his sons about their respective mothers, and they, like their father, subdued their emotions all their lives. Having decided that Austen was to carry on the family’s name in politics, Joseph determined that Neville was to do so in business. So while Austen went to Cambridge University and took the grand tour, Neville studied metallurgy at the local college, and entered a firm of accountants. On his father’s instructions, he then spent six years trying to grow sisal on the island of Andros in the Bahamas. The intention was to rehabilitate the family finances; but the result was a loss of £50,000. On his return, Neville became a Birmingham businessman, and established a reputation as a model employer. He married, became involved in local Unionist party affairs, and did good works for hospitals, schools, and the territorial army. Despite his intention to stay out of public life, he became a city councilor in 1911 at the age of forty-two, and became mayor four years later, like his father before him.
Thus far, Neville’s life and career had unfolded exactly as Joseph had planned and predicted. But the war proved a turning point. While serving his second term as mayor, he was summoned to Whitehall to become director-general of National Service in Lloyd George’s wartime administration. With few contacts and no apprenticeship in government, no seat in the Commons or cabinet, no support from the prime minister, and no clearly defined authority, Chamberlain had little opportunity to distinguish himself, and he resigned after six months. But there was now no going back to the Birmingham parish pump. He became an MP for a local constituency in 1918 when just under fifty, and did four years dutiful work as a Conservative backbencher. On the fall of the Lloyd George coalition in 1922, he took office in Bonar Law’s Conservative government, serving successively as postmaster general, paymaster general, and minister of health. When Baldwin succeeded Law unexpectedly in 1923 for his brief first administration, Chamberlain became, equally unexpectedly, his chancellor of the exchequer.
He had insufficient time to make any real mark in any of these posts, not even presenting a budget as chancellor; but he established close relations with Baldwin, and became as influential in the national party organization as he already was locally in Birmingham. When the Conservatives regained power in 1924, Austen became foreign secretary, and Neville returned to the Ministry of Health, where he remained for the five years’ life of the administration. It was a large department with varied responsibilities, including housing, hospitals, pensions, the poor law, and local government. Much of the work was trivial and routine, including dealing with such problems as the risk of death from black widow spiders and the danger of poisoning from cheap lipsticks. But there were also substantial achievements, such as recasting the rating system, reforming pensions, and the abolition of the poor law. As the stock of many other ministers fell, that of Chamberlain rose. By the time the Baldwin government was defeated in the 1929 general election, Neville Chamberlain was already being talked of as a future prime minister. And this after only ten years in Parliament.
There, for the moment, Dilks leaves his hero: fully established and on the brink of greater things. How good a case for the defense has he made? Dilks tries hard to rehabilitate Chamberlain, seeking to present him as a more credible person and creditable politician than hitherto. He was well read in Shakespeare and the classics, had traveled widely in Europe and beyond, was an accomplished shot and fisherman and an expert on orchids, birds, insects, and butterflies. He was an energetic administrator and formidable master of business, who adopted a policy only when he had weighed all the arguments and heard all the evidence. He took on tedious, unheroic chores that more self-regarding and self-seeking figures disdained, and dispatched them efficiently and punctually. His experience in local government, his dominance of politics in Birmingham, his influential position in the party, and his reliability as a minister made him inconspicuously indispensable.
But although Dilks labors hard to make the most of Chamberlain’s early life and worthy works, the book does not really succeed either as biography or as rehabilitation. In the first place, it is at once too long and too short. To lavish six hundred pages on a man who, whatever he later became, was in the first sixty years of his life at best a figure of the second rank, is indulgent in the extreme, and only proves self-defeating. There is far too much irrelevant information about the decoration of Neville’s bathroom, the make of his car, and the variety of birds in his back garden. There are three chapters on Andros, three on National Service, and ten on his long stint as minister of health. Many episodes, like the succession of Baldwin to the prime-ministership and the general strike of 1926, with which Chamberlain was only tangentially connected, receive excessively detailed treatment. In his preface, Dilks approvingly quotes Sir Robert Menzies: “A telling anecdote is of far more value than all the turgid minutes of those committees.” It is a pity he has not taken these words to heart.
Yet for all its length, this book does not tell us enough. By wandering from subject to subject—from butterflies to business, from orchids to organization—we may get a full picture of Chamberlain’s life, but the result is an unstructured chronological treatment in which no theme is ever satisfactorily explored. The picture of Joseph Chamberlain is too admiring, and the accounts of the family finances are fragmentary and contradictory. Time and again, we are told that Neville was a reluctant Conservative, yet there is no systematic analysis of his political views. Like his father, he was both the architect and beneficiary of a new-style, middle-class Tory party; but this, too, is only thinly treated. And the author does not seem to have absorbed recent work on the politics of the interwar years, which sees Chamberlain as an important but highly controversial domestic reformer.
As a biography, this book is not a success; and as a work of rehabilitation, it is frequently unconvincing. For much of the evidence that is presented in such abundance suggests an interpretation very much at odds with that which Dilks puts forward. Take, for instance, Chamberlain’s upbringing. Dilks presents it as nearly idyllic, yet is this how it really was? The family was suffocatingly self-contained, so it is hardly surprising that in later life Neville found people hard to get on with, and was so conspicuously lacking in the gifts and graces of friendship. All the young Chamberlains were dwarfed by the towering inferno of their father’s personality. Austen and Neville were shy to a pathological degree, even with each other; both married very late in life, and Neville lived as a bachelor under his father’s roof until he did; while three of their sisters never married, and two clucked away in their later years like characters in Arsenic and Old Lace. For Neville himself, the failures at Andros and at National Service clearly cut deep, and it can hardly have been a boost to his understandably low self-esteem to be so obviously inferior in his father’s eyes to his elder half-brother.
Although Dilks does not discuss this, it is clear from the evidence that for most of his life Neville was dominated by somebody: as a boy by his father, whom he idolized to excess; as a man by Austen, whose early career was so much more glittering than his own; and as a husband by his wife, who cherished political ambitions for him which he was too reticent or realistic to admit for himself. As a result, Neville was such a late developer, both psychologically and politically, that there was not very much to develop when the opportunities finally and unexpectedly came. Dilks claims that his marriage showed him “a passionate man, with intense feelings and humor”; but there is little corroborating evidence presented. The First World War seems to have made curiously little impact on him, either in giving him experience or deepening his emotions. His hobbies were solitary or cerebral or both. The only time he lost his temper was when his umbrella was broken. Not surprisingly, his wife suffered from recurrent depression and breakdowns.
Likewise, as a public figure, he emerges as being, at best, a poor man’s Peel. He disliked speechmaking, was in many ways out of sympathy with the Conservative party, and never enjoyed politics, as his father had done, for the great game it is. As for his personality, even Austen spotted that it was “his coldness which kills”; he was never capable of crossing a political or intellectual gap by an act of imaginative understanding; and he had all the distrust of intuition, imagination, originality, and cleverness that those who lack these qualities often display. He owed his rapid advance in the early 1920s entirely to the absence of senior figures in the Tory party; he was patronizing and sneering to Labour MPs in the House of Commons; and his appraisals of such flawed but gifted men as Churchill and Lloyd George are little more than smug catalogs of prim and priggish disparagement. By 1929, Chamberlain had no major, imaginative achievement to his credit, but was indispensably and unstoppably second-rate. As such, he was set in a rut of self-righteous narrow-mindedness which hardly equipped him to cope at an even higher level with the crowded and tumultuous decade that was to come. As a person and a politician, he was just like his umbrella: drab, stiff, and rolled up tight.
The Chamberlain who thus emerges from Dilks’s pages is a man of limited talents and ruthlessly subdued emotions, who was powerfully driven, sometimes by the need to emancipate himself from the domination of others, sometimes by the need to meet the expectations they entertained of him, sometimes by the need to prove himself in the light of past failures, and sometimes by the need to show that being a non-university provincial didn’t matter. His aloofness was thus born more of insecurity than of arrogance, and the ease with which he criticized others was but a way of protecting himself. So, despite Dilks’s revisionist intentions, the Chamberlain who stands forth from the evidence is a man of familiar faults and failings: it is only the explanation of them that he has really changed. If Austen was born to a greatness that he could not fulfill, and Joseph achieved a greatness that he could not handle, then Neville had greatness thrust upon him—and, in trying to prove that he could carry it, collapsed under its weight.
Comfortingly, if disappointingly, there is really remarkably little discrepancy between Joseph’s assessment of Neville’s future prospects, Churchill’s account of his past achievements, and Dilks’s picture of his pioneering and reforming activities. Joseph envisaged him as a sound man of business, but nothing more. In his perceptive valediction, Churchill acclaimed exactly the same solid virtues, and drew a discreet veil over Chamberlain’s limitations of mind and heart. In his admirable desire to do full justice to his subject, Dilks suffers from no such inhibitions. But, making all the evidence available is no guarantee of vindication. At worst, this book offers much reinforcement to the view that Chamberlain was indeed “a gullible provincial administrator, of narrow sympathies, limited imagination, conventional background.” And at best, it wearingly exemplifies those very sober and stultifying characteristics by which Chamberlain himself significantly set so much store: untiring industry, mastery of detail, inexorable competence, and remorseless information. They no more made Chamberlain a great man than they make this a great biography.
March 28, 1985