Neville Chamberlain – Redressing The Balance
A Conservative History Group Publication
Neville Chamberlain – appeaser, wearer of ludicrous (even by the standards of the day) wing collars, the co-architect with Adolf Hitler of “peace in our time”, the Prime Minister willing to sell out the peoples of eastern Europe, who deliberately and repeatedly lied to the House of Commons and the nation about the German threat and Britain’s readiness to meet it – that Neville Chamberlain is the subject of this crisp and short book by Alistair Lexden, the Conservative historian.
Over several decades Dr Alistair B. Cooke, as he was then, established a formidable reputation for rigour as Deputy Director of the Conservative Research Department. I never worked for him but I did do a piece of work for him late on in John Major’s Premiereship on a party consultation entitled ‘Our Nation’s Future’. At the following General Election the nation decided its immediate future did not include Mr Major or the Conservative Party, but I can testify to Lord Lexden’s, as he is now, commitment to rigour – a lesson that has stood me in good stead ever since. Consequently when this volume landed on my desk I took an especial interest.
This year marks the 80th anniversary of the signing of the Munich Agreement by the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and the Fuhrer. On his return from Berchtesgaden, the German leaders mountain top retreat, Chamberlain was greeted as a hero by the King, Parliament and the people. It is easy to forget that now. Chamberlain was not forcing the policy of appeasement on an unwilling nation. However Winston Churchill and a few others took the opposite view. They were right. As Prime Minister Chamberlain was in the best possible position to know the truth of the situation. Instead of facing up to the hard and unpleasant reality he persisted in what he thought was popular. Too late he changed his position and history has damned him for it ever since.
Lexden’s is a fluent and persuasive case for the defence. He describes Chamberlain’s social reforms, his cultural hinterland, his period as Chancellor, his twenty year career at the top of the Conservative Party and national politics. His thesis is that just three years of his late Premiereship focussed on foreign affairs has eclipsed an important political career which had a profoundly good record across a series of domestic policy reforms and initiatives. It is an heroic attempt to redress the balance in appreciation and understanding of this consequential Conservative leader and Prime Minister. This is a valuable and interesting contribution to Conservative and national history, one would expect no less, but in the final analysis one that is doomed to fail. The fact is that as Prime Minister, and before that as a very senior member of the Government, Neville Chamberlain was part and then leader of a group of people who completely misunderstood what was going on on the European continent and forced a policy approach that left the country in a weak and vulnerable position (remind you of any other more recent former Prime Minister….?). In the end it does not matter how many social reforms he introduced or how wide his cultural interests were. He failed in the one thing that matters above all else for a Prime Minister, then as now, to keep the country safe from external threat. For that failure, above all else, he will always be remembered.