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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).

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Chamberlain, (Arthur) Neville (1869–1940) British prime minister (1937–40). Son of Joseph Chamberlain, he was a successful businessman before entering Parliament in 1918. During the 1920s, he served as chancellor of the exchequer (1923–24, 1931–37) and minister of health (1924–29). He succeeded Stanley Baldwin as Conservative prime minister. He confronted the threat to European peace posed by Adolf Hitler with a policy of appeasement and signed the Munich Agreement (1938). After Hitler's invasion of Poland, Chamberlain declared war in September 1939. After the loss of Norway, he was replaced by Winston Churchill in May 1940.