Neville Chamberlain ensured Britain's victory in World War II
This post is timed to the minute. For exactly 70 years ago, on the 3rd September 1939 at 11.00am, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain solemnly informed the nation that we were at war with Germany. Winston Churchill was brought back into the Government, notwithstanding his maverick tendencies, his disloyalty and his history of defecting. He went on to become prime minister, Britain won the war, and the rest, as they say, is history.
The name Neville Chamberlain has become synonymous with appeasement, ignorance, weakness, cowardice. But it is easy to dismiss his considerable efforts and achievements, or to view him rather simplistically through the received history of the world according to Winston Churchill.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and history has always been written by the victors. And Churchill ensured that the legacy of Chamberlain is exactly as we know it. But just 20 years after ‘the war to end all wars’, what British prime minister would not have gone to very great lengths indeed to avoid another devastating war with Germany? What responsible leader would enter a bloody conflict so ill-prepared? Who would rush to declare war when the military top brass, the MoD and the Treasury are all telling you that you can neither afford it nor win?
Chamberlain followed Baldwin in subsuming foreign policy to pressing domestic issues: their strengths were in constructing the ‘One Nation’ Toryism first espoused by Disraeli, and their achievements on the home-front were impressive. The Conservative Party of the 1930s was not divided left-right or traditionalist-moderniser, but between the Baldwinian ‘scuttlers’ and the imperialists. This assisted Chamberlain in retaining the support of the Party for his policy of Appeasement (and it is easy to forget that this was Party policy with majority support): Churchill was neither trusted nor respected. Chamberlain commanded considerable loyalty, and he saw it as his duty to drag his party and country out of the path of a major war.
He therefore forced the pace in his efforts to secure a peaceful understanding with Hitler, and took great risks with his own reputation by involving himself so personally in the late stages of Appeasement. He naturally talked up the chances of peace in his speeches, even as he knew that sustaining peace was not remotely likely. This was his personal and sincere contribution to engendering the trust and harmony that he was desperately trying to achieve. Silencing his critics, including Churchill, was thus part of his foreign policy.
Best laid plans, and all that.
On the outbreak of war, Chamberlain said: “My long struggle for peace has failed.” Though he was convinced (and it may be true) that by delaying the start of what became known as World War II through the Munich settlement, he significantly increased Britain’s chances of victory. As he told the National Union in 1940:
“After the Munich agreement, the Labour Party were relieved that we had escaped the war. Now they want to know why we did not call Hitler’s bluff. If we get through this war successfully, then it will be to Munich that we shall owe it. In the condition our armaments were in at that time, if we had called Hitler’s bluff and he had called ours, I do not think we could have survived a week.”
‘Peace in our time’ provided valuable breathing space, for the Battle of Britain of 1940 was won only by a whisker, and would almost certainly have been lost had it taken place in 1938.
For this, we must thank Neville Chamberlain.
Blessed are the half-hearted war lords.