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Neville Chamberlain

Neville Chamberlain was born to a political family, being the youngest son of Joseph Chamberlain, a Victorian Cabinet Minister, and the half-brother of Austen, a Chancellor of the Exchequer. He was educated at Rugby and Mason College, Birmingham. When he was 21 Chamberlain left for the Bahamas to manage a 20,000 acre estate a venture which eventually failed. But he gained a reputation for being a hands-on manager, taking a strong interest in the day to day running of affairs.

On his return he became prominent manufacturer in Birmingham, where he was elected a councillor in 1911 and Lord Mayor in 1915. Lloyd George appointed him Director-General of the Department of National Service in 1916, but personal bitterness between the two men led to his resignation within one year. In 1918 Chamberlain was elected Conservative MP for Ladywood, but refused to serve under Lloyd George in coalition government. In 1922 he became Postmaster General under Bonar Law, where he proved his judgement and ability.

He was made Minister of Health within months and, under Baldwin, Chancellor of the Exchequer all in little more than a year, and within five years of entering Parliament. Chamberlain's Local Government Act of 1929 reformed the Poor Law, effectively laying the foundations of the welfare state, and reorganised local government finance.

In 1931 Ramsay MacDonald made Chamberlain Chancellor in his National Government, and Baldwin retained him in turn. During the economic crisis, he achieved his father's protectionist ambitions by passing the Import Duties Bill in 1932. In May 1937 he succeeded Baldwin as Prime Minister, and was elected Conservative leader.

War was brewing in Europe, and had already exploded in Spain. Chamberlain was unwilling to go down in history as responsible for an inevitably destructive war without doing everything possible to prevent it. Neville Chamberlain, as with many in Europe who had witnessed the horrors of the First World War and its aftermath, was committed to peace at almost any price.

In the early months of 1936, quite probably before the Rhineland crisis, Chamberlain introduced a comprehensive peace plan which called for an appeasement of the de facto "Axis" Coalition with a premium on the preservation of peace. Chamberlain's supporters, among the leading British politicians, were Messrs. Baldwin, Simon, Runciman, Sir Samuel Hoare, who had reevaluated his policy since his experience with M. Laval, Lord Lothian and for a time, Lord Halifax. Chamberlain's appeasement policy was opposed by Sir Robert Vansittart at the Foreign Office from the beginning and, within the Cabinet, by Mr. Eden after the summer of 1937 and finally by Lord Halifax in 1938.

Under the leadership of Prime Minister Chamberlain, Britain evinced a growing desire to come to terms with Hitler and Mussolini. War in the Far East and conflict with the fascist countries in Europe seemed to threaten British interests at too many points. Chamberlain was determined to relieve this situation through agreements with Berlin and Rome. Lord Halifax was sent to Germany late in November [1937] for conversations with Hitler and other German leaders. When these interviews proved disappointing, Chamberlain felt all the more justified in approaching Rome.

Anglo-Italian relations had been severely strained by the contest for control of the Mediterranean, by Italian propaganda among the Arabs, by Britain's refusal to recognize the conquest of Ethiopia and by other questions. The British Prime Minister, supported by most of his colleagues, decided to seek a settlement of all these outstanding issues. In his desire to open conversations with Italy he was opposed by his Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, who not only doubted the advisability of negotiating with the fascist powers, but in particular insisted that Italy should first demonstrate its good faith by withdrawing its troops from Spain. With Eden's resignation on February 20 [1938], Chamberlain's policy triumphed.

Chamberlain famously met German chancellor Adolf Hitler in Munich 1938 the result of which was an agreement that Britain and Germany would never again go to war. "I believe," he declared on his return to the UK, "it is peace for our time." However, the success of 'appeasement' was shortlived, as Hitler occupied Prague the following year. The turning point in the diplomatic struggle for a new balance of power in Europe [was] Hitler's invasion, in March 1939, of the non-German provinces of Bohemia and Moravia. Prime Minister Chamberlain, who at Munich had apparently assumed that Hitler wanted only to redress Germany's Versailles grievances and unite all German-speaking peoples in the Third Reich, was suddenly confronted with the prospect of a Nazi bid for world domination.

The subsequent invasion of Poland forced Chamberlain's hand, and he declared war on 3 September, 1939. He soon came under attack from all political sides after the disastrous first months of war when Germany look set for a rapid victory. Neville Chamberlain may not have been the ideal prime minister of a country preparing for war, but he was no fool and was fully alert to the danger posed by Nazi Germany.

MP Leo Amery called for Chamberlain to resign after disaster in Norway. "This is what Cromwell said to the Long Parliament when he thought it was no longer fit to conduct the affairs of the nation: "You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go.""

Unable to form a national government himself, he resigned in May 1940 after the failure of the British efforts to liberate Norway. Bowel cancer struck soon after, forcing him to leave Churchill's coalition government. On his death bed he garnered the strength to whisper 'approaching dissolution brings relief.'

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Page last modified: 08-03-2022 19:37:43 ZULU