Chamberlain, Neville

views updated May 17 2018

Chamberlain, Neville 1869-1940


Although Arthur Neville Chamberlain entered Parliament in 1918 at the age of almost fifty, the election of a Conservative government in 1922 paved the way for his meteoric rise from postmaster-general, via the Ministry of Health to the Treasury and the second place in Stanley Baldwins government within only ten months. Thereafter, a dynamic period of social reform between 1924 and 1929 and his leading role during the Conservative Party and financial crises of 1930-1931 ensured that he emerged swiftly as Baldwins heir-apparent; claims powerfully reinforced by his success as chancellor of the exchequer between 1931 and 1937 when he presided over Britains spectacular recovery from the Great Depression. Although there is much debate about the reasons for Britains rapid return to prosperity, Chamberlain attributed it to a combination of a general tariff (introduced March 1932) and a cheap money policy designed to stimulate economic activity through low interest rates. Equally central to Chamberlains strategy was an ostensibly rigid commitment to balanced budgets. Although condemned by critics as proof of an unimaginative passivity in face of mass unemployment, Chamberlain staunchly defended the policy as crucial to the maintenance of investor confidence that there would be no departure from sound finance into the hazardous realms of loan-financed public works.

From 1934 onward, Chamberlain was deeply preoccupied with the problems of defending a vast and vulnerable global empire from the cumulative threats posed by Japan, Italy, and Germany at a time when Britain could not afford to rearm sufficiently ever to contemplate the possibility of fighting three major powers in widely separated areas. After his succession to the premiership in May 1937, Chamberlains response to this conundrum was to pursue with far greater vigor and determination his so-called double policy of rearmament and appeasement. The former was intended to repair defensive deficiencies at a pace the country could afford without jeopardizing long-term economic stability: Britains so-called fourth arm of defense. The latter policy simultaneously attempted to achieve better diplomatic relations with the dictators by redressing their legitimate grievances, and in so doing either to remove the underlying causes of tension or to expose Germanys Adolf Hitler as an insatiable mentally unstable leader bent on world domination. Chamberlain thus described his strategy as one of hoping for the best while preparing for the worst.

In September 1938 this policy culminated in the Munich conference at which the largely German-speaking Sudeten area of Czechoslovakia was ignominiously ceded to Hitler. Although Chamberlains success in averting an imminent and probably unwinnable war was initially hailed as a great personal triumph, his ill-judged promise of peace for our time soon came back to haunt him when Hitler seized the remaining (non-German) part of Czechoslovakia in March 1939 and then invaded Poland six months later. Despite continuing as prime minister throughout the so-called Phoney War, increasing discontent with Chamberlains leadership erupted in a parliamentary debate on May 7-8, 1940, when a substantial revolt of Members of Parliament inflicted a crushing moral (but not technical) defeat upon Chamberlain. He resigned as prime minister two days later but remained a key member of Winston Churchills all-party coalition until shortly before his death from cancer on November 9, 1940.

SEE ALSO Appeasement; Churchill, Winston; Conservative Party (Britain); Great Depression; Hitler, Adolf; Nazism; World War II


Dutton, David. 2001. Neville Chamberlain. London: Arnold.

Self, Robert. 2006. Neville Chamberlain: A Biography. Aldershot, U.K.: Ashgate.

Robert Self

Chamberlain, Neville

views updated Jun 08 2018

Neville Chamberlain

Born March 18, 1869
Birmingham, England
Died November 9, 1940

Hampshire, England
English statesman who was
prime minister from 1937 to 1940

Neville Chamberlain is best known for his failure to fend off war with dictators Benito Mussolini of Italy and Adolf Hitler of Germany. For many years his policy of compromise with these leaders—known as appeasement—was criticized and condemned, but recently some historians have suggested that it actually allowed England time to arm itself for the later conflict. Although those who didn't like Chamberlain's policies called him weak and blind to reality, others have claimed that he was really a man of integrity who had devoted his life to public service.

The son of a politician

The Chamberlain family had been shoemakers in the eighteenth century, and over the next 100 years or so they rose steadily to become businessmen of the upper middle class. Joseph Chamberlain, Neville's father, gave up business to pursue politics, becoming a radical member of England's Liberal Party with a deep concern for social welfare. Neville's mother, Florence Kenrick, was his father's second wife; tragically, she died in childbirth when Neville was six years old.

After Florence's death, Joseph Chamberlain spent less time at home and grew rather distant from his children. As a result, Neville grew up without the affection of either a mother or a father; fortunately, he was the eldest in a large troupe of younger siblings and cousins whose company he greatly enjoyed. He went away to school at Rugby (a famous private school), where he did well academically but was unhappy due to his poor relationship with the school's headmaster (principal) and because he missed his large family.

A business venture in the Bahamas

Chamberlain left Rugby in 1886 and attended Mason College in Birmingham, where he studied (again unhappily) science and engineering design. He was working in an accounting firm when, in 1890, his father suddenly announced that the family was going to start a business growing and processing sisal (a plant with strong fibers that can be used to make rope and other products) in the Bahamas. Neville and his brother Austen were put in charge of the operation and moved to the Bahamas to search for a suitable piece of land.

They settled on Andros Island (about twenty miles from Nassau, the biggest city in the Bahamas) and established the Andros Fibre Company. Austen soon returned to England, and Neville became the company's managing director. He worked long days of hard labor, clearing the land and putting up buildings. Although the plantation seemed promising at first, it eventually failed. Chamberlain returned to England, extremely disappointed but wiser and more self-reliant after his experiences.

Business, marriage, and politics

Chamberlain went into business in Birmingham, buying a company called Hoskins and Son, a manufacturer of berths (beds) for ships. He also got involved in local politics, sharing his father's interest—though he was neither as passionate nor as liberal as his father—in social issues. He was elected to the Birmingham City Council in 1911.

By the time Chamberlain was in his early forties he was still unmarried, and his friends and relatives were beginning to think he might always remain a bachelor. Then he met and fell in love with Anne Cole, and the two were married in January 1911. Their daughter Dorothy was born that December, and son Frank two years later. Throughout their life together Chamberlain was known to say about his accomplishments (including becoming prime minister), "I'd never have done it without Annie."

Chamberlain served as lord mayor of Birmingham from 1915 to 1916. His career in national politics began during World War I (1914-18), when he became director of National Service, overseeing the drafting of soldiers into the armed forces. He was elected to the House of Commons (England's legislative body) in 1918 as a member of the Conservative Party.

Rising to the top position

Chamberlain rose rapidly into the upper levels of the government, serving as minister of health (responsible for administering social services, especially public health care) from 1923 to 1929 (and again in 1931) and as chancellor of the exchequer (in charge of deciding how the government should spend its money) from 1923 to 1924 and from 1931 to 1937. He gained a reputation as a skilled, orderly administrator with the ability to push through needed reforms; Winston Churchill (who would succeed Chamberlain as prime minister) described him as "alert, businesslike, opinionated, and self-confident in a very high degree."

At the end of the 1930s, Germany and Italy were taking aggressive actions against other countries and threatening world peace. This was the most dominant concern when Chamberlain was elected to the position of prime minister (the chief executive and top leader of the government) in 1937. His first priority was to avoid war, and he decided that the best way to do so was through appeasement, which meant remaining on neutral terms and making compromises with Hitler and Mussolini.

Chamberlain's appeasement policy has been judged negatively over the years, but at the time there were many leaders other than Chamberlain who supported it. On the other hand, Foreign Minister Anthony Eden strongly disagreed and warned Chamberlain about the dangers of negotiating with dictators. He felt that England needed to stand up to Hitler and Mussolini.

"Peace in our time"

Chamberlain's first step was to make a treaty with Mussolini that accepted Italy's recent conquest of the East African country of Ethiopia, on the condition that Italy would stay out of the Spanish Civil War. Meanwhile, Germany was eager to reclaim some territory in Czechoslovakia, which it had lost in World War I, where many Germans still lived. Hitler claimed that he did not want war and would not try to gain any more of Czechoslovakia.

Chamberlain told Parliament that this was not an issue worth fighting about—that it was "a quarrel in a far away country, between people of whom we know nothing." After three meetings with Hitler (whom Chamberlain once described as "a gentleman"), both leaders signed the Munich Pact on September 30, 1938. In this agreement Germany promised to occupy only specified Czech territories and to leave the rest of the country alone.

Chamberlain made a triumphant return to London and was photographed waving the signed agreement in his hand, proclaiming that he had secured "peace in our time." He was praised as a superb peacemaker by the press, public, and other statesmen. But the glory was short-lived, for on March 14, 1939, Germany broke its promise and invaded all of Czechoslovakia.

A sad end to a career and life

Meanwhile, England had agreed to take action if Germany went even further and invaded Poland, so when the invasion occurred on September 1, 1939, Chamberlain had no choice but to try to protect Poland and the rest of Europe from Hitler. Two days later, England declared war on Germany.

The complete failure of Chamberlain's efforts to keep peace led to discontent in his own party and the refusal of the opposition, the Labour Party, to work with him. Many critics felt that he had completely misjudged Hitler and his intentions. After he invaded Poland Hitler began to act on his plan to conquer all of western Europe. England's failure to stop the German invasion of Norway and Denmark was the final blow, and Chamberlain resigned in May 1940. He stayed on in the government of the new prime minister, Winston Churchill, serving as lord president of the council, but by the end of the summer he had become ill with cancer.

Chamberlain resigned from his post in October and died a month later. Like many other famous public figures he was buried at Westminster Abbey in London, but in his village church in the town of Hampshire was placed a memorial that reads, "Neville Chamberlain. Prime Minister of Great Britain 1937-1940. Write me as one that loves his fellow-men."

Where to Learn More


Charmley, John. Chamberlain and the Lost Peace. Chicago: I. R. Dee, 1990.

Dilks, David. Neville Chamberlain. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

Macleod, Iain. Neville Chamberlain. New York: Atheneum, 1962.


Bartlett, J. W. "Munich Agreement Is Signed: September 30th, 1938." History Today (September 1998): 40.

Web sites

Beattie, A.J. Neville Chamberlain. [Online] Available: (January 8, 1999).

Neville Chamberlain unsuccessfully tried to prevent World War II through a policy of compromise with Germany.

Chamberlain, (Arthur) Neville

views updated May 29 2018

Chamberlain, (Arthur) Neville (1869–1940). Prime minister. Chamberlain was born in Birmingham, a son of Joseph Chamberlain by his second wife. Educated at Rugby and Mason College, Birmingham, he seemed destined for a business career, but his election to the city council in 1911 provided an opportunity for him to display his considerable talents as a municipal reformer; in 1915 he became lord mayor of Birmingham and in 1916 he was instrumental in establishing in Birmingham the nation's first—and only—municipal savings bank. His record of conscientious and effective service in local government led to appointments first as a member of the control board established to oversee the liquor trade during the First World War, and then as director-general of national service (1916).

In 1918, at the late age of 49, he determined to enter politics, and was elected as a Conservative MP for Birmingham. Chamberlain had conceived a healthy dislike of Lloyd George, but supported the coalition government (1918–22) as being in the national interest. In 1922 his half-brother Austen tried unsuccessfully to persuade the Conservative Party to continue in membership of the coalition; Neville agreed with Baldwin and Bonar Law that it had outlived its usefulness, and that Lloyd George's political judgement could no longer be trusted. In 1922, clearly marked out for high office, Chamberlain joined Bonar Law's government as postmaster-general, becoming minister of health in 1923, chancellor of the Exchequer 1923–4, and returning to the health portfolio in Baldwin's second government (1924–9).

Chamberlain's years at the Ministry of Health establish his claim to be one of the greatest social reformers in Britain in the 20th cent. It was at his urging that the cabinet agreed to finance a widows', orphans', and old-age pensions bill in 1925. He piloted through the Commons the Rating and Valuation Act of 1925, which gave relief from local rates to agriculture and industry, and he initiated the great Local Government Act of 1929, which abolished the Poor Law Guardians, transferring their powers, and the institutions they administered (including hospitals), to the counties and county boroughs. Meanwhile, he was able to bring about a partnership between private builders and local authorities to build almost 1 million houses for the working classes.

At the general election of 1929 Baldwin's government was voted out of office. Chamberlain agreed to Baldwin's suggestion that he undertake a reorganization of Conservative central office, establishing a research department, but he used this period (1929–31) and this position to work strenuously for the abandonment of free trade, which he correctly viewed as a millstone around the neck of British industry. During Baldwin's absence abroad Chamberlain represented the Conservative Party in the negotiations which led to the formation of the National Government. He held office in that administration as chancellor of the Exchequer, until succeeding Baldwin as prime minister in 1937.

Neville Chamberlain's years at the Treasury, coinciding with the depression of the 1930s, were years of challenge: he stood the test. In 1932 he persuaded the cabinet to agree to the abandonment of free trade: a general duty of 10 per cent was placed on almost all imports, but goods originating from within the British empire were exempted. As Chancellor, Chamberlain professed a desire to balance the books: in fact, perhaps more by accident than design, his budgets were frankly inflationary. The first, in 1932, was meant to be orthodox, but was wrongly calculated, and led to an excess of expenditure over revenue of some £32 million; this sum was simply added to the national debt. In 1933 the sinking-fund was suspended: repayment of the national debt was met through borrowing. The war loan was converted from 5 per cent to 3.5 per cent, and bank rate reduced. In 1934 he was able to restore earlier cuts in unemployment pay, and in 1935 to lower income tax. It is true that this policy of financial good housekeeping was blown off course by the need to rearm in the face of the Nazi menace. It is equally true that his budgets assisted economic recovery, and put the nation's finances into a position whereby they were able to meet the early demands of war in 1939. In 1937 he had no hesitation in taxing business profits (the ‘National Defence Contribution’), a move which delighted the socialists and caused a short-lived panic on the Stock Exchange.

In May 1937 Baldwin resigned the premiership; Chamberlain's succession was automatic. Almost exactly three years later he resigned in a welter of criticism, triggered by Britain's withdrawal from Norway but largely informed by public disenchantment with his pre-war foreign policy.

Chamberlain's policy towards Nazi Germany is commonly associated with ‘appeasement’. It is as well to remember, therefore, that ‘appeasement’ of the Nazis was a popular policy in Britain in the 1930s. There was widespread agreement that Germany had been treated badly at Versailles in 1919, that if the principle of national self-determination had any meaning then the Austrian Germans could not be prohibited from joining Germany proper, and that the plight of ethnic Germans incorporated within other states created after the First World War needed attention. Neville Chamberlain believed in the League of Nations, and would have joined France in bolstering the League in its efforts to counter the Italian invasion of Abyssinia. When that did not happen he became disenchanted with French diplomacy, and also unnerved by it. He saw it as his mission to prevent war with Germany and, if that could not be achieved, to postpone hostilities as long as possible in order to give the maximum time for rearmament.

But he had been unable to prevent or curtail Italian intervention in the Spanish Civil War, and Hitler's so-called ‘invasion’ of Austria caught him off guard. His policy during the Czech crisis (September 1938) was much affected, and undermined, by the unwillingness of the French to fulfil their treaty obligations towards the Czechs. Of course the 3 million Sudeten Germans living in Czechoslovakia were manipulated by the Nazis. None the less, Chamberlain's dramatic airline flight to Berchtesgaden (15 September), to meet Hitler, was tremendously popular at home, and his second visit, to sign the Munich agreement, though certainly paving the way for the Nazi take-over of the Czech state, was at the time widely hailed as a triumph.

In 1939, in relation to the British guarantee of Poland's borders, Chamberlain saw that appeasement was at an end. His honourable intentions were quickly erased from the public mind once Britain and Germany were at war. Chamberlain was then seen as a gullible English gentleman who had been totally outmanœuvred by a ruthless Führer. He had no stomach for war, and was not a war leader. In May 1940 he resigned to make way for Winston Churchill, and died shortly afterwards.

Geoffrey Alderman


Dilks, D. , Neville Chamberlain (Cambridge, 1984);
Feiling, K. G. , The Life of Neville Chamberlain (1946);
Neville, P. , Neville Chamberlain: A Study in Failure? (1992).

Arthur Neville Chamberlain

views updated May 11 2018

Arthur Neville Chamberlain

The English statesman Arthur Neville Chamberlain (1869-1940) was prime minister of Great Britain in the years preceding World War II. He is associated with the policy of appeasement toward Nazi Germany that culminated in the Munich Agreement of 1938.

Neville Chamberlain was born on March 18, 1869, at Edgbaston, Birmingham, the son of Joseph Chamberlain, colonial secretary from 1895 to 1903, and Florence Kenrick Chamberlain. Neville's home and family were the most influential aspects of his education and upbringing. He went to Rugby and then attended Mason College (later a part of the University of Birmingham) for 2 years to study science and engineering, but he did not distinguish himself in his studies. He then worked briefly and more successfully as an apprentice with an accounting firm.

In 1890 his father sent Neville to the island of Andros in the Bahamas to manage his 20,000-acre sisal plantation. Although the venture failed, the 7 years of comparative social isolation contributed to young Chamberlain's natural reserve and also gave him confidence in his own decisions. After returning to Birmingham, he became a leader in the city's industrial and political life.

Political Career

In 1911 Chamberlain married Annie Cole. He was elected that year to the city council of Birmingham, and in 1915 he became lord mayor of Birmingham.

Chamberlain's record led Lloyd George, the Liberal prime minister, to appoint him as the first director general of National Service in December 1916. Chamberlain was in charge of voluntary recruitment of labor in war industry, but he found himself without authority or organization to execute his duties. He lost confidence in Lloyd George and soon resigned.

In 1918, at the age of 49, Chamberlain entered national politics and was elected to Parliament. As a Conservative, he supported the coalition but would not accept a post under Lloyd George. When a Conservative administration was formed in 1922 under Bonar Law, he accepted appointment as postmaster general; his administrative talents were at once evident, and within a year he advanced rapidly to paymaster general, then to minister of health, and finally to chancellor of the Exchequer. In 1924, in the administration of Stanley Baldwin, he chose to return to the Ministry of Health for he was convinced that the government would rise or fall on its record of social reform.

Social Reformer

Indeed, Chamberlain made his reputation as a "radical Conservative" and energetic legislator during these years. His guiding principle in social legislation was that national resources should be used to help those who help themselves. His achievements included the Rating and Valuation Act of 1925, which assisted both agriculture and industry; the Widow, Orphans and Old Age Pension Act of 1925, which extended the act of 1908; the Local Government Act of 1929, which transferred care of the poor from Poor Law Unions to county agencies; and the construction of 400,000 new houses.

In 1931 Chamberlain joined the National government under Ramsay MacDonald, first as minister of health, then as chancellor of the Exchequer. In 1932, when he secured approval for a general tariff of 10 percent, he was adopting proposals urged by his father in 1903. He was responsible for the significant Unemployment Act of 1934, which reformed the system of administering relief. It was with good reason that Winston Churchill called him "the pack horse" of the administration.

Prime Minister

If his career had ended in 1937, Chamberlain might well have been recorded as the Conservative who did most for social reform between the wars. Instead, he succeeded Baldwin as prime minister in May 1937 and had to turn his attention abruptly to foreign affairs. Not that he did so with hesitation; here, as always, he faced his task with confidence. He was determined to avert a war, for which neither England nor France was prepared, through a policy of pacification involving collaboration with Hitler's Germany and Mussolini's Italy. Since he believed the League of Nations had failed, he turned to direct negotiation, seeking by compromise and appeasement to dissipate tensions that might lead to war—an approach already accepted by most Englishmen. However, his efforts with Mussolini led only to the resignation of Anthony Eden, his foreign secretary. And as for Hitler, Chamberlain accepted the Nazi takeover of Austria in March 1938 but attempted through negotiation to avert a similar fate for Czechoslovakia.

Chamberlain and Hitler conferred at Berchtesgaden and Godesberg in September and then met at Munich with Mussolini and Edouard Daladier, the French premier. The Munich Agreement was hailed enthusiastically in Britain, and it gave the nation precious time to rearm. But when the Reich absorbed Czechoslovakia in March 1939, Chamberlain realized that his policy of appeasement had failed. He announced military support for Poland and sought to include Russia in a security system. But on Sept. 1, 1939, German forces moved into Poland, and on September 3 Chamberlain broadcast to the nation that Britain was at war.

As a wartime leader, Chamberlain had no talent. The Germans invaded Scandinavia in April 1940, and the fall of Norway, despite desperate British aid, brought a division in the Commons which Chamberlain survived, though some 100 Conservatives either voted against him or abstained. On May 10 he resigned and was succeeded by Winston Churchill. Chamberlain remained as lord president of the council until illness forced him to retire in October. He died a month later on Nov. 9, 1940. His ashes are interred in Westminster Abbey.

Further Reading

There are two useful biographies of Chamberlain, Keith Feiling, The Life of Neville Chamberlain (1946), and lain Macleod, Neville Chamberlain (1961), although neither is objective. They should be supplemented by the relevant volumes of A. J. Toynbee, ed., Survey of International Affairs (1920), and by A. J. P. Taylor, English History, 1914-1945 (1965). Additional background works are Edward Hallett Carr, The Twenty Years' Crisis, 1919-1939: An Introduction to the Study of International Relations (1939; 2d rev. ed. 1946); W. N. Medlicott, British Foreign Policy since Versailles, 1919-1963 (1940; 2d ed. 1968); Alfred Leslie Rowse, Appeasement: A Study in Political Decline, 1933-1939 (1961); and Martin Gilbert and Richard Gott, The Appeasers (1963; 2d ed. 1967).

Additional Sources

Dilks, David, Neville Chamberlain, Cambridge Cambridgeshire; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

Hyde, H. Montgomery (Harford Montgomery), Neville Chamberlain, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1976. □

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