Chamberlain, Neville (1869–1940)

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British politician, served as prime minister from 1937 to 1940.

Born on 18 March 1869, Neville Chamberlain was the second son of the prominent politician Joseph Chamberlain (1836–1914). His elder halfbrother, Austen (1863–1937), was groomed for a political career; Neville was intended to look after the family fortunes in commerce. After seven difficult years managing a plantation in the Bahamas, he had a more successful business career in Birmingham. He entered local government, and was lord mayor of Birmingham in 1915–1916. In December 1916, Chamberlain accepted a national role as director-general of National Service, but after seven months was dropped by the Liberal prime minister David Lloyd George (1863–1945), whom he thereafter detested.

In 1918 Chamberlain was elected to the House of Commons, at the age of forty-nine. He welcomed the downfall of Lloyd George in October 1922, although this also ended Austen Chamberlain's leadership of the Conservative Party. However, Austen did not stand in his brother's way when Chamberlain was offered a post in the new Conservative government. His competence and vigor led to a swift progress: Chamberlain entered the cabinet in March 1923 as minister of health, and was promoted in August 1923 to chancellor of the exchequer. Although the Conservative government was defeated in January 1924, he had arrived in the front rank of British politics.

When the Conservatives returned to power in November 1924, Chamberlain declined the offer of leading the treasury and instead requested the ministry of health. He believed this had greater scope for creative work, and had already prepared an ambitious legislative program that drew on his expertise in local government. By the general election of 1929, Chamberlain had achieved nearly all of his planned reforms, and had emerged as a driving force within the government as a whole. However, his relations with the opposition Labour Party were poor, as in debate he tended to dismiss their arguments contemptuously.

Chamberlain took on key roles while the Conservatives were in opposition in 1929–1931, and emerged as Stanley Baldwin's (1867–1947) undisputed heir as party leader. Chamberlain played an important part in the creation of the National Government in August 1931, and after its landslide election victory became chancellor of the exchequer on 5 November 1931. He held this office until 1937, and was crucial to the government's durability and success. His orthodox economic approach was severely criticized after 1945, but it was the only acceptable method at the time. Stability and confidence were slowly restored, and in the 1935 general election the government's record secured a comfortable victory. Chamberlain's growing authority led to his taking wider roles, including influencing foreign policy, on which he was forming strong views.

He eventually succeeded Baldwin as prime minister on 28 May 1937. Although sixty-eight years old, he was physically robust and had a tremendous appetite for work. Chamberlain dominated his cabinet with an authority based upon his command of detail and certainty in his views. He was reserved in manner and many considered him to be narrow and humorless. Tackling the problems in international affairs was Chamberlain's priority as prime minister. Differences with his foreign secretary, Anthony Eden (1897–1977), led to the latter's resignation in February 1938, after which Chamberlain was firmly in charge. His policy of "appeasement" was a quest for peaceful compromise, intended to open a reasoned dialogue with the dictators Adolf Hitler (1889–1945) and Benito Mussolini (1883–1945) and meet their grievances.

In the 1938 Czech crisis, Chamberlain sought to avoid war over a distant country where no British interests were involved. He conceived a dramatic plan to fly to Germany and negotiate with Hitler directly. This led to the Munich agreement of September 1938, which resolved the crisis on Hitler's terms, but without war and with a promise of future goodwill; Chamberlain returned in triumph to an atmosphere of euphoric relief. However, Hitler's occupation of Prague in March 1939 discredited appeasement and made Chamberlain look weak and foolish. He continued the quest for peace, and when Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, Chamberlain held back from declaring war until a revolt of senior cabinet ministers forced his hand.

After war broke out, Chamberlain broadened his government to include Winston Churchill (1874–1965) and Eden. Although a capable administrator, Chamberlain was not temperamentally suited to war leadership, appearing to be unimaginative and complacent. Loss of support in the House of Commons after defeat in Norway forced him step down on 10 May 1940. His successor, Churchill, valued him as a colleague, and Chamberlain moved to the post of lord president and was effectively in charge of the Home Front. After the Dunkirk Evacuation in 1940, the popular mood turned against the former appeasers, but Churchill resisted the pressure to dismiss him. However, in the late summer Chamberlain's health swiftly failed and he resigned as Conservative Party leader in September, dying from cancer on 9 November 1940.

See alsoAppeasement; Churchill, Winston; Hitler, Adolf; World War II.


Charmley, John. Chamberlain and the Lost Peace. London, 1989. Revisionist account favorable to Chamberlain's policy.

Dilks, David. Neville Chamberlain. Cambridge, U.K., 1984. Only volume yet published of major official life.

Fuchser, Larry William. Neville Chamberlain and Appeasement: A Study in the Politics of History. London, 1982.

Parker, R. A. C. Chamberlain and Appeasement: British Policy and the Coming of the Second World War. New York, 1993.

Stuart Ball

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Chamberlain, Neville (1869–1940)

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