The enigma that is Neville Chamberlain


The name Neville Chamberlain has been synonymous with the failure of appeasement in the late 1930s and its inability to prevent the Second World War. In fact, any mention of Neville Chamberlain at present is guaranteed to be followed by mentions of “Munich”, “1938” and “peace in our time” as this recent interview in The Times with Russian pro-democracy activist and former World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov shows:

‘Like or dislike Putin, he has a strategy,’ Kasparov continues. ‘He follows his logic, and if one side has a bad plan and the other has no plan, the bad plan wins. And Obama has no plan.’ His failure to take military action last year when Assad crossed a red line by using chemical weapons on his own people was a signal to every thug on the world stage, Iran’s included, that at a push America would walk away. ‘That’s it. That’s [Neville] Chamberlain. Actually, I wouldn’t criticise Chamberlain too much because he didn’t have the history book to read from. He didn’t have the next chapter. Obama does.’

The reference to Chamberlain is, of course, to Munich and ‘peace for our time’. Kasparov is big on analogies between Germany circa 1938 and Russia circa 2015. He doesn’t think them remotely overdone.

Kasparov returned to the same theme in a speech at the recent Aspen Institute Berlin event:

Four words. Four words can move the world, but not always for the better. As famous as “tear down this wall” and “ich bin ein Berliner” are, even more infamous is “peace for our time”. “Peace for our time,” Neville Chamberlain’s desperate plea for mercy and harmony in the face of ultimate evil after returning from Munich in 1938 became synonymous with weakness and appeasement. In some ways this is unfair, because at least Chamberlain had no way to know what was to come.

Remarks such as these continue to cement further Chamberlain’s reputation as an appeaser and one who was out of his depth in an increasingly belligerent world where diplomacy wasn’t going to cut much ice and the question of going to war was being increasingly seen as “when” not “if”. Even Chamberlain realised this but by then it was too late as in less than a year, Europe was again plunged into war: and by 1940 his political stock had fallen to such low that he was obliged to resign and after a series of backroom machinations, Winston Churchill was chosen to succeed him. It was said that one reason why Chamberlain sought a deal with Hitler was the hope that averting war would leave him free to concentrate on domestic issues and his continuing programme of reform. However it wasn’t meant to be and perhaps it was his greatest misfortune to be tangled up with a crisis that for all his efforts ended up with another world war.

The question then begs why has Chamberlain’s political star, at its peak in 1938 after Munich, plunged so badly afterwards? It was a far cry from his homecoming from that now infamous meeting with Hitler where enthusiastic crowds lined the streets to greet him as he made his way to Number 10 Downing Street: then much later as he made an appearance on the famous balcony at Buckingham Palace with King George VI and Queen Elizabeth again to rapturous cheers and applause. His most recent biographer Robert Self has written about the “Chamberlain enigma” which might go into some way explaining his place in history and why his life and achievements before Munich have almost been forgotten.

In death as in life, Chamberlain has been overshadowed the former by Winston Churchill – whose leadership during the Second World War led Britain to victory – and by his father Joseph, a maverick businessman turned politician whose colourful political career saw him emerge from being mayor of Birmingham to one of the political household names of late 19th and early 20th century Britain. There was also his half-brother Austen, a Conservative Party grandee who held two of the four Great Offices of State (Foreign Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer) and along the way was showered with honours such as the Order of the Garter and the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts in negotiating the Treaty of Locarno in 1925.

It has been said that Chamberlain saw becoming Prime Minister as a way to crown his career and cement his achievements as a domestic reformer. Had he been in Number 10 only for a short time then perhaps he would have been remembered by history as he wished to be. Unfortunately events would conspire otherwise, an irony not lost on the man himself when he remarked not long after he resigned: “Few men can have known such a tremendous reverse of fortune in so short a time.”

It wasn’t only Munich that conspired to ensure that Chamberlain’s reputation continues to be tarnished. His public persona was a contrast to his father and brother: both easily identified with their neat and impeccable appearance with their monocle becoming almost a trademark as Churchill and his cigar. Neville Chamberlain’s image was a combination of stern superiority and “Brahminical aloofness” where he seldom smiled and his uniform of swallow tailed coat, neatly pressed trousers, stiff winged collar and full tie which combined with his tall, spare figure and ascetic face gave him the look as one observed of a “provincial undertaker” which as Self has concluded “the effect was forbidding and intimidating”.


His own personality could be seen as a contributory factor to how history has judged him.   Outwardly stiff, cold, reserved and formal concealing a warmth that was revealed only to the very few, the result was Chamberlain’s shyness was concealed behind a cold manner that gave the impression of viewing everyone with disdain. Despite a happy marriage and his closeness to his sisters, he was more inclined towards interests and hobbies that that were solitary in nature and appealed to his sense of the meticulous such as shooting and fishing. He had very few friends and was not really bothered about cultivating intimates and confidantes beyond his family circle.

Chamberlain would be described today as a loner and an introvert. Unlike his older brother who revelled in the rituals of Parliament, he merely saw it as a place of work and business so avoided any social events or even popping down to the Smoking Room for a chat with fellow MPs and ministers. This together with his antipathy towards the Labour Party meant that he was unable to cultivate the allies he needed especially during the last two years of his premiership.

One of his greatest strengths as a minister was his capacity for sustained hard work –  he saw hard work and perseverance as key to political effectiveness. As Minister for Health (1923, 1924-9, 1931) and Chancellor of the Exchequer (1931-7), Chamberlain was known for his unparalleled mastery of the detail of departmental policy and administration as well as developing a reputation for sheer hard work and with an analytical mind and systematic thinking. However, all these virtues could be interpreted by political opponents and enemies as vices; it led others to see Chamberlain as inflexible and narrow minded. Once he made up his mind that was it, it was hard to convince him the merits of another point of view and in a sense his detractors were right. As historian Nick Smart observed, Chamberlain’s personality “healthily insulated from reflecting on the consequences of his actions. When setbacks occurred, and there were usually many, he could explain these away as acts of nature, or more usually, as someone else’s fault.” (p. 18)

Despite his cold personality suggesting his disdain for others, Chamberlain’s commitment to social reform and improving people’s living standards was sincere and was influenced by both his father’s social policies which he pursued as Mayor of Birmingham and the family’s Unitarian faith. Chamberlain was of the view that individualism and collectivism were in a state of continuous interaction and this was his main guiding principle throughout his political career.

In terms of his political views, Chamberlain distrusted both socialism and liberalism, seeing socialists as mischief makers due to their pandering to envy: while he was of the view that liberals with their paternalism were outdated and parochial. Instead he believed in the gradual improvement of living standards via efficiency in the delivery of public services which was a far cry from the traditional view of a small state. He believed grand municipal intervention through efficient administration within the framework of existing laws and by correct execution would produce the best results in terms of service provision and this remained the most consistent part of his political credo.

Chamberlain regarded his stint especially as Minister of Health as the most productive time of his political career. The work of the Ministry of Health appealed to his methodical nature and where he could put his political ideals into practice. The remit of the ministry was then was far wider than today’s Department of Health. Apart from health, responsibilities included welfare, housing, insurance and pensions. When he took over the Health Ministry in 1924, Chamberlain set a target that 25 bills should be passed while the Conservative Party was in power and by 1929, 21 of these had been passed. These ranged from housing, reforming the Poor Law (which led to its eventual abolition), pensions and health insurance as well as more prosaic issues such as maternity care, children’s milk and food preservatives.


He kept himself involved and informed not only relying on reports from civil servants and as those reported on the papers but also through travelling the length and breadth of the country to inspect hospitals and houses to see for himself what needed to be done and improved. In a letter to his sister Hilda dated 1 November 1925 he described how appalling some of the housing conditions which he encountered in Bradford:

Next day we motored over to Bradford which is only 9 miles away. It is quite a different sort of place, nearly 2 ½ times the size and more enterprising and go-ahead. But I saw in it some of the worst slum houses I have come across yet. In one case an old couple were living in a single room with one window most of which they have blocked up with board so the interior was like a cave. In the gloom there gradually became apparent the faces of the filthy pair who inhabited it together with another old woman who was apparently taking a meal with them. It was revolting. In one of their housing estates I went into a newly-built house with one large living room and a kitchenette. The windows were all tightly shut, the whole place reeked with a musty odour and the walls were already filthy. The bath had a board over it which was piled a heap of dirty clothing. I learned it was occupied by a drayman and his family of 12- the wife was in the maternity hospital expecting the 13th. It’s a sad illustration of the fact that the housing problem is not merely a problem of housing but of social education.

This excerpt sums up Chamberlain’s views of what the social problem was and how  it went beyond housing. It also demonstrated his being observant and the ability to take in as much detail as he could which helped him argue his case in order to get things done. His commitment to domestic reform continued even as he became Chancellor of the Exchequer and finally Prime Minister and in fact until events propelled him into involvement in foreign affairs, Chamberlain was  still actively involved in steering important bills through Parliament among them the Factories Act of 1937, the Coal Act of 1938 and the Holidays with Pay Act and the Housing Act, also passed during the same year. All these could be seen as laying the groundwork for similar types of legislation that would come into force after the Second World War.

Chamberlain’s achievements as a domestic reformer was his contribution to the idea of “New Conservatism” where the state’s resources would be marshalled to help those who had a genuine desire to better themselves. However there was the strong streak of middle class superiority in him; he was of the view that ordinary people had no clue what was good for them and it was up to the people in elected and non-elected positions to decide – summed up by a statement made by a later politician as “In the case of nutrition and health, just as in the case of education, the gentlemen of Whitehall really do know better what is good for the people than the people know themselves.” (Douglas Jay 1937).  For Chamberlain “the State was not inherently an enemy or malign, the state’s power had to be expanded in order for the good of society. Improvements in social legislation would be a bulwark against socialism and aid in the transition of the working class from “proletariat to citizens” (Self, p. 32). There’s an irony that his appearance in series six of Downton Abbey is to defend the village hospital against the encroaching power of a larger bureaucracy, when in reality his sympathy would have been entirely with the bureaucrats and not those who defended local interests.

Another irony with Chamberlain popping up in Downton Abbey is how his character has been distorted to suit the plot. It’s the same trick that Julian Fellowes used with Dame Nellie Melba and to a lesser extent the British Royal Family and with Neville Chamberlain it’s no different. While Robert is carried away to the hospital, Chamberlain strikes up a conversation with Tom Branson and mentions something indiscreet that he admits is something that the papers shouldn’t get hold of. The real Neville Chamberlain would do no such thing. Given the real Chamberlain was not the sort of person who confided to even friends and acquaintances, how much less likely would he be to confide in someone who he’s going to meet once and most likely never again?

DA Chamberlain S6

This points to another complaint raised by critics and viewers, how real life people are used as plot bunnies or distractions. Hugh Bonneville introduced Chamberlain’s appearance in episode 5, saying “It’s delicious when historical characters either pop in or are referred to. We have minister of the government coming in to this series who audiences will recognise when he does appear. He has a significant part to play in the future of the country. Of course this is a complete romantic fictional world. But it’s lovely when little dots of reality creep in. If it sends someone to look at a history book, fantastic.” Of course the joke on Bonneville and the PR is that an examination of his political career shows that Chamberlain isn’t in fact likely to be sympathetic to what Violet wants and this might be a subtle point about the dowager’s unawareness of his politics and her readiness to assume everyone will fall in with her wishes or Fellowes’s willingness to distort fact in pursuit of a story. The former might have been the point but given his readiness to assume viewer ignorance about pretty much everything it’s just as likely to be the latter.

Just as with Robert’s gastric attack, Neville Chamberlain is used as a plot device for the dreary hospital saga that pits the Dowager Countess against Cora. His appearance is in a scene that brings to a head that power struggle between both women and tedious as it is, this is the defining plot of the series. In the end Cora has triumphed but of course ultimately her triumph is temporary. The remaining power of her and her class will be swept aside by government and the war Chamberlain failed to prevent as surely as she sweeps aside Violet. Another interesting point here is that this shows fundamentally that the “power” that the likes of the Crawleys have is a façade, the reality of power is that it is exercised by the likes of Neville Chamberlain. In a triumph of symbolism, the old guard in the character of the Earl of Grantham collapses bleeding in front of the politician and the centraliser. The old ways are not yet in their death throes and are hanging on, but they are on their way out. I don’t think Fellowes realises the bitter ironies he writes into Downton Abbey, one of them being that in the long run these people are asking for help from the one man whose failure to prevent another cataclysmic war effectively finishes off the aristocracy after its long period of decline.


Quotes by Garry Kasparov taken from Times Magazine interview on 17 October 2015 and speech at the Aspen Institute Berlin’s 2nd Transatlantic Conference on October 14, 2015

Portrait of Neville Chamberlain by Henry Lamb on display at the National Portrait Gallery London. Photo taken by blogger

Neville Chamberlain as portrayed by Rupert Frazer in series 6 episode 5 of Downton Abbey

Further Reading:

Nick Smart. Neville Chamberlain (Oxford, 2010)

Robert Self. Neville Chamberlain: A Biography (Aldershot, 2006)

Douglas Jay. The Socialist Case (London, 1937)

David Dutton. Neville Chamberlain (London, 2001)

Andrew Marr. The Making of Modern Britain (London, 2009)

David Cannadine. The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy (London, 1990)

Martin Pugh. We Danced All Night: A Social History of Britain Between the Wars (London, 2009)

Robert Self (ed.) The Neville Chamberlain Diary Letters (Aldershot, 2000-2005)


4 thoughts on “The enigma that is Neville Chamberlain

  1. “There’s an irony that his appearance in series six of Downton Abbey is to defend the village hospital against the encroaching power of a larger bureaucracy”

    Um, he did no such thing and he was not “sympathetic to what Violet wants” … he was simply blackmailed.

    I appreciated the rest of your analysis, though; I have long been aware that Chamberlain is a victim of the sort of shallow one word dismissal that this species of hairless apes is prone to.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. What I wrote which you quote was the gist of Chamberlain’s appearance in the programme but I added “that when in reality his sympathy would have been entirely with the bureaucrats and not those who defended local interests.”

      Many thanks for your comment. I have to admit that it was writing this blog that allowed me to get to know more about the man.


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