Chamberlain, (Arthur) Neville 1869-1940, statesman, was the youngest of three members of his family who, in two successive generations, played great parts at the highest level of British statesmanship. He was born at Edgbaston, Birmingham, 18 March 1869, the only son of Joseph Chamberlain [qv.], by his second wife, Florence, daughter of Timothy Kenrick, of Birmingham. His half-brother (Sir Joseph) Austen Chamberlain [qv.], being set apart for a political career, passed from Rugby to Cambridge. Neville, who was to go into business, returned home from Rugby and took commercial courses at Mason College, which was afterwards converted into Birmingham University. There he studied metallurgy and engineering design. From Mason College he entered the office of a firm of accountants where his mental alertness and quick mastery of financial problems were soon noted.
In 1890 Joseph Chamberlain bought 20,000 acres on the island of Andros in the Bahamas where he was advised that sisal could be profitably grown. There Neville went at the age of twenty-one (November 1890) to take charge of the development of the estate. For seven years he planned and toiled in the attempt to bring the enterprise to success. It was a life of extreme hardship, and all in vain: the soil was too thin for the crop. In the complete social isolation of those years, he found comfort in books, reading steadily and well in history, biography, and science. While his character was strengthened, the extreme loneliness of the life must have intensified the natural shyness and reserve which handicapped him for a time when he entered public life.
Back at Birmingham in 1897, Chamberlain began the business career which for many years absorbed all his energies. Although he then had no ambition for a parliamentary career, he was an ardent politician with a lively interest in local public affairs. No one could be of the household of Joseph Chamberlain and remain indifferent to the problems of government or to the individual's civic responsibilities. But his father and brother were fully occupied by their public duties and, after the loss of precious time in the Bahamas, Neville felt that he must concentrate on business until he had established an independent position. He soon became one of the outstanding figures in the industrial life of Birmingham and took an active part in the proceedings of the influential chamber of commerce. At the same time his lifelong interest in health questions was stimulated by work for the General Hospital, of which he became chairman. His life was broadening as Joseph Chamberlain's had done a generation before. There is, indeed, a remarkable resemblance between father and son, not only in the several main stages of their careersóbusiness, city government, parliament, Cabinetóbut (allowing for the seven lost years) in the timing of them.
Chamberlain was elected to the Birmingham city council in 1911, the year of his marriage to Annie Vere, daughter of Major William Utting Cole, 3rd Dragoon Guards, of Woodhay House, Newbury, who became an unfailing help in all phases of his public as of his private life. To city government he brought new vitality and enterprise. Under his chairmanship of the town planning committee, two Birmingham schemes for planning in built-up areas were the first to be sanctioned in this country. A still more notable personal achievement was the establishment in 1916, against the strong opposition of banking interests, of the first municipal savings bank. Although it succeeded beyond expectation, it remains the only municipal institution of its kind in the country.
Chamberlain's very exceptional record in city government was noted outside Birmingham and soon widened his responsibilities. In 1915 he was appointed a member of the Central Control Board (Liquor Traffic). A hapless experience in national war administration followed. In December 1916 Lloyd George, who had just succeeded Asquith as prime minister, proposed to relieve the strain on manpower by voluntary recruitment of labour for war industries. Chamberlain was made director-general of national service to organize and direct the work. In order that he might give his full time to the post, he resigned the lord mayoralty of Birmingham, to which he had been elected for a second term in the previous month. His efforts were fruitless. Within a few days of the appointment Lloyd George conceived a dislike of him and he was left without authority or equipment for his difficult task. He said afterwards that he was without instructions and without powers. After seven months of futility he resigned and returned to Birmingham.
This unhappy episode was a turning-point in Chamberlain's life. He was not the man to sit down quietly under failure that was not due to fault of his own. His mind was at last fixed on a career in national politics and, at the general election of December 1918, he was returned to the House of Commons as conservative member for the Ladywood division of Birmingham. He was then in his fiftieth year: there is no other instance of a prime minister who entered parliament so late.
For four years Chamberlain supported the coalition government of which his brother Austen was a leading member. He spoke seldom but always well. Voice, pose, and a lucid and incisive style recalled memories of his father. He was chairman of several departmental committees but rejected a suggestion of Bonar Law that he should accept government office; he no longer had any confidence in Lloyd George and would not serve under or with him. On the Irish treaty of December 1921 he supported the government.
When the coalition fell in October 1922, Chamberlain was on his way home from a holiday in Canada. For the first time he and his brother were in different camps. Austen was the chief defender of the coalition at the Carlton Club meeting (19 October) which destroyed it; and he continued for a time longer his co-operation with Lloyd George. Bonar Law pressed Neville to join the new government and, having become definitely anti-coalition, he accepted office as postmaster-general. At once the prime minister was greatly impressed by his sound judgement and fine administrative gifts. Promotion came swiftly, and he rose easily to each successive post. There were four posts in a little over a year (1922-1924): after the Post Office, the paymastership-general, the Ministry of Health (where he passed an important housing bill), and the chancellorship of the Exchequer. He was sworn of the Privy Council in 1922.
In his first term at the Treasury (1923-1924), Chamberlain was a chancellor without a budget. Baldwin, who succeeded Bonar Law as prime minister in May 1923, having announced a policy of tariff reform, decidedóagainst the advice of most of his colleagues, including Chamberlainóto appeal to the country in the autumn. The conservative majority was lost and, with liberal help, Ramsay MacDonald [qv.] formed the first labour government in January 1924.
It was a sharp disappointment to Chamberlain that when the conservatives secured a great majority in the following October, the party was once more committed against a general tariff. Baldwin offered him the Exchequer again but he preferred to return to the Ministry of Health; Mr. Churchill, who had just rejoined the conservative party, went to the Exchequer. His first budget provided the finance of the widows, orphans, and old-age pensions bill. This measure was suggested to Baldwin by Chamberlain while in opposition in 1924 and it was he who piloted the bill through the House in 1925.
Chamberlain's four and a half years (1924-1929) at the Ministry of Health raised the department's status and his own. Masterly conduct of the difficult Rating and Valuation Act of 1925 (which gave relief to agriculture and industry) put him in the first rank of parliamentarians. By securing the full co-operation of private builders as well as of the local councils, he solved the immediate housing problem: nearly a million houses had been built when he left office. In 1929 he passed the very important Local Government Act which reformed the Poor Law (boards of guardians were abolished) and recast the financial relations of the State and local authorities.
At the general election of May 1929 Chamberlain was returned for the Edgbaston division of Birmingham, and held the seat until his death. With labour in office again, he, at Baldwin's request, turned his attention to the re-organization of the conservative central office. A research department was set up and at once gave special consideration to the question of tariffs. The party leadership also came under review and, as chairman of the central office, he presented a critical memorandum which Baldwin so much disliked that for a short time it was thought that he would resign.
In the financial crisis of August 1931, which destroyed the labour government, it was Chamberlain who, until Baldwin returned from abroad, represented the conservative party in negotiations preceding the formation of the provisional all-party government. In that he was again minister of health, but he succeeded Philip Snowden [qv.] as chancellor of the Exchequer when the government was reconstituted in November after the general election, and he held the office for five and a half years. Drastic economies were necessary for several years before normal expenditure and revenue could be balanced. Throughout that trying period he directed policy with courage and sound judgement. Upon him also fell the brunt of negotiation and decision on war reparations, war debts, and Empire trade policy, this last being dealt with at the memorable Imperial Economic Conference held at Ottawa in 1932.
Although, in the general election, the government was not committed on the fiscal question, Chamberlain secured Cabinet approval for a general tariff which, at a common standard of 10 per cent., was more for revenue than protection. The free trade system, initiated eighty-six years before with the repeal of the Corn Laws, was thus ended in 1932; and the settlement has not since been seriously challenged. In the same year a great saving in debt charges was effected by the conversion of £2,000,000,000 of the 5 per cent. war loan to a 3ó per cent. stock.
By 1935 there seemed to be a good prospect of substantial tax reductions; but hope of that vanished when, in the following year, the government proposed an expenditure of £1,500,000,000 on rearmament within five years. This had been delayed to the point of danger, partly because of hostile public opinion, partly because a disarmament policy was still being pursued in the League of Nations, and partly because the financial crisis in the early 'thirties was held to be, for the time, more important. As soon as that anxiety was relieved Chamberlain's was the chief political initiative in increasing the air estimates in 1934. He thought that Baldwin exaggerated the strength of labour opposition in the country and he desired to make rearmament the main issue at the general election in 1935.
Dangers multiplied. Italy invaded Abyssinia in October 1935; Hitler's aggressions had already begun; the Spanish civil war broke out in July 1936; the Japanese menace continually disturbed the Far East. Foreign affairs occupied more and more of the time of the Cabinet, and Chamberlain took an active part in the discussions. Labour party hostility to him, which reached the depth of bitterness after the Munich conference of 1938, was intensified in the Abyssinian war when, quite wrongly, he was widely regarded as pro-Italian and anti-League of Nations. He had been in fact a stout upholder of the League and in the Abyssinian crisis was ready, if the French had been willing to co-operate, to prevent or stop war. He supported League sanctions against Italy, and called for their abandonment only when their failure was manifest.
In the summer of 1936 Baldwin, worn by the labours and anxieties of the time, decided to resign the premiership after the coronation in the following May. There was no rival to Chamberlain as his successor and, within the inmost circle of high politics, it was known for months before that he would be the next prime minister. It was with the warm approval and goodwill of all his colleagues that he entered upon the office on 28 May 1937.)2)252‹ZŇ1Ĺ2@]»f6√X‘’dEChamberlain had thus been able to ponder, months in advance, over the grave responsibilities awaiting him. The paramount, inescapable problem now was national defence. German militarism, and its aggressive political direction, menaced the peace of the world. Great Britain was unprepared to meet it: and danger was so near that it had become imprudent to reveal her military weakness. The labour party's opposition to rearmament still continued.
The position was one of extraordinary difficulty. British and French military weakness was an incitement to German aggression, and prejudiced every effort by negotiation to stop the drift towards war. Could Germany and Italy be brought back into the comity of nations? In no other way could war be averted. It was the way which for nearly two years Chamberlain resolutely pursued. He knew the difficulties and, in particular, was not unaware of the sinister qualities of Hitler and Mussolini. But the pacification of Europe, which was the aim of his policy, could not be achieved without their collaboration, and not to seek it was to admit failure which he would not do while any hope of success remained. He often said that he would take no responsibility for war until he had done everything possible to prevent it.
Conversations with the Berlin government were opened in the early days of the new premiership. The German foreign minister accepted an invitation to come to London in June; but events in the Spanish civil war angered Hitler and the visit was never paid. Chamberlain then turned to Rome. Through the foreign secretary, Mr. Eden, he sent a message to Mussolini who, in a friendly reply, suggested the expansion of the Anglo-Italian gentleman's agreement of the previous January. It was arranged to begin negotiations in September, but here also the Spanish war barred the way.
In November direct contact with Hitler came about in a curious manner. Lord Halifax, who was a master of foxhounds as well as lord president of the Council, went to Berlin for a national hunting exhibition. While there he was invited to meet the FŁhrer at Berchtesgaden. They had what Lord Halifax called a free, frank, informal and confidential talk. There was in this no movement away from France, whose government was at once informed of what happened. M. Chautemps, the premier, and M. Delbos, the foreign minister, came to London for discussion of the European situation; and, shortly afterwards, M. Delbos exchanged views with von Neurath in Berlin. The way appeared to be clearing for Anglo-German negotiations. Sir Nevile Henderson, the British ambassador in Berlin, came to London for consultation and returned with full instructions. At the same time von Ribbentrop, already counted an enemy of Great Britain, was appointed foreign minister in the German government. A month passed before Hitler received the ambassador. He was, Henderson reported, in a bad temper, very angry with British newspapers, and resentful of any criticism of his relations with Austria.
Hitler's designs upon Austrian independence alarmed Mussolini who at this turning-point (February 1938) informed the British government that he was ready to open discussions covering all matters in dispute between Great Britain and Italy. Chamberlain felt that if this offer were spurned the Hitler-Mussolini association would be strengthened and the risk of war increased. Mr. Eden objected to the procedure proposed on the ground that there should be no negotiation with Italy until she had withdrawn a substantial part of her forces from Spain. Chamberlain's undertaking that no agreement should take effect until that condition was complied with did not satisfy the foreign secretary; and, after close discussion at three meetings of the Cabinet, he resigned on 20 February. Lord Halifax succeeded him at the Foreign Office, and negotiations with Italy began at once. Three weeks later Hitler invaded Austria, destroyed its government, and proclaimed it a province of the German Reich. British protests, ignored in Berlin, were repeated in parliament: Chamberlain spoke of the profound shock to the friends of peace and the setback to hopes of international co-operation. The Germans gave a general undertaking that there would be no further aggression, and a particular assurance that they had no designs against Czechoslovakia. But confidence was everywhere weakened.
The British Cabinet considered the position and, on 24 March, Chamberlain gave to the House of Commons a detailed review of the country's liabilities abroad. As to Czechoslovakia, he quoted with approval a statement made by Mr. Eden, when foreign secretary, that nations cannot be expected to incur automatic military obligations save for areas where their vital interests are concerned. But that, Chamberlain continued, must not be interpreted as meaning that Britain would in no circumstances intervene. Ought Britain to assure France forthwith of full military support if she were called upon, by reason of German aggression, to go to the aid of her ally, Czechoslovakia? The Cabinet had decided against that but, said Chamberlain, legal obligations are not alone concerned and, if war broke out ó it would be well within the bounds of probability that other countries besides those which were parties to the original dispute would almost immediately become involved. This, he added, is especially true in the case of two countries like Great Britain and France, with long associations of friendship, with interests closely interwoven, devoted to the same ideals of democratic liberty and determined to uphold them.
While the labour opposition condemned this speech, Mr. Churchill welcomed it as a very considerable advance on any previous declaration. In effect, he said, there was evidently a defensive alliance with France and he was for declaring it openly and making it effective by a military convention. This view was not accepted. The Dominion governments approved the policy announced, but they did not wish to widen their obligations; and it would not have been easy at that time, nor even when events became more critical later in the year, to bring them into war on any issue which had then arisen in central Europe.
Within Czechoslovakia the situation rapidly worsened throughout the summer. Discontent among the three million Germans in the Sudeten border districts was whipped by Nazi agents into fierce agitation. Concessions by the Prague government were met by demands for more and still more. Border incidents, invented or distorted, were reported with provocative headings in all the German newspapers. The position was already dangerous when, towards the end of July, Chamberlain persuaded Lord Runciman to go to Prague as mediator. After weeks of negotiation with both sides he submitted a plan of home rule for the Sudeten areas on the Swiss cantonal model, and it was accepted by the Czech government. It was too late. Henlein, the Sudeten leader, threw off disguises and was seen to be Hitler's tool. The orders now came direct from Hitler. At Nuremberg, on 12 September, he demanded self-determination for the Sudetens and promised them the support of the Reich. Powerful German forces were ready for action. Lord Runciman could do no more and returned to London on 16 September.
The French government had approved the Runciman mission. France was pledged by treaty to defend the Czechs against aggression. At Lanark on 27 August, Sir John Simon, speaking for the government, repeated Chamberlain's declaration of 24 March which was, in effect, that if France were involved in war with Germany because she went to the aid of the Czechs, Britain would be at the side of France. Nevile Henderson also repeated this in an official communication to the German foreign minister. But France was unready. Many French newspapers, of all parties, favoured the German minority claims and blamed the Czech government for dilatoriness. Public opinion generally was apathetic. After information that the German army was ready to strike, the French Cabinet met on 13 September and the announcement was made that more reserves may be called up. It was evident that France would not then fulfil her treaty obligations to the Czechs. M. Daladier, the premier, afterwards said that he suggested to Downing Street some exceptional procedure.
Chamberlain had already considered what, in such a situation, his exceptional action should be. On the evening of 14 September the world was startled by the news that he had just sent a message to Hitler proposing that they should meet the next day to discuss a peaceful settlement. Hitler agreed, and on Thursday, 15 September, Chamberlain flew to Berchtesgaden. His action was everywhere approved. Hitler demanded an immediate assurance that the British government accepted the principle of self-determination for the Sudeten Germans. Chamberlain said that he would consult the Cabinet about that if Hitler gave an assurance that Germany would, meantime, refrain from hostilities. The assurance was given.
Chamberlain returned to London on the Friday, the same day that Lord Runciman arrived from Prague. The Cabinet sat for five hours on the Saturday, and on the Sunday there were long discussions with M. Daladier and M. Bonnet, the French foreign minister. It was then announced that the two governments were in complete agreement. The demand for self-determination had been conceded. British labour leaders condemned the decision and sought common action against it with French labour only to find that their French friends were not prepared to risk a war to preserve the integrity of Czechoslovakia.
On Thursday, 22 September, Chamberlain met Hitler a second time, at Godesberg, and was able to tell him that self-determination was accepted not only by Britain and France but also by Czechoslovakia. Moreover, arrangements for the transfer of territory had already been worked out. Hitler denounced these arrangements as dilatory and said that the German flag must fly over Sudetenland within a few days. Having considered this overnight, Chamberlain sent a letter to Hitler, protesting against any threat of force and adding that the Czechs could not withdraw their armed forces so long as they were faced with the prospect of invasion. Hitler replied a few hours later with a violent attack on the Czechs. Germany's decision was irrevocable. Chamberlain's curt rejoinder was that he proposed to return home at once. He asked for a memorandum and a map showing the areas in which it was proposed that plebiscites should be taken. These were not received and at half-past ten that night he saw Hitler again. He was then shown the memorandum. It provided for Czech evacuation of the Sudeten frontier districts within forty-eight hours. This moved Chamberlain to anger. He called it an ultimatum. Talk continued for several hours without removing the deadlock. But Hitler did say that this was the last of his territorial ambitions in Europe, and that he had no wish to include in the Reich people of any other race than the Germans. On Saturday, 24 September, Chamberlain returned to London.
Before the Godesberg conference ended, the Prague government was informed that the British and French governments could no longer take the responsibility of advising it not to mobilize. French opinion stiffened and M. Daladier said that if Czechoslovakia were attacked France would take measures to help her. The Czech government rejected the German terms. War appeared to be certain. British military and civil defence preparations were pressed forward with all speed.
But Chamberlain refused to abandon his peace efforts. On 26 September he sent Sir Horace Wilson to Berlin with a letter to Hitler suggesting that German and Czech representatives should together consider how the territory to be ceded should be handed over. The letter was delivered to Hitler the same day by Sir Horace and the British ambassador. Next morning Sir Horace saw Hitler again and gave him this message from the British prime minister: If, in pursuit of her treaty obligations, France became actively engaged in hostilities against Germany, the United Kingdom would feel obliged to support her. It is Tuesday to-day, Hitler retorted, and by next Monday we shall be at war. But he replied to the prime minister with an assurance that the Czechs' fears were groundless and that their economic organism would be stronger than before. Chamberlain thereupon appealed to him not to risk a world war when settlement was within reach in a few days. At the same time he asked Mussolini to support his proposal for further negotiation; and the Duce asked Hitler and Ribbentrop to delay action for twenty-four hours.£1£1CNd1ń—÷hn