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Neville Chamberlain

Neville Chamberlain (Arthur) Neville Chamberlain (March 18, 1869-November 9, 1940), Prime Minister of Great Britain, was chiefly associated with the European policy of appeasement towards the expansionism of Adolf Hitler in the 1930s. His father Joseph Chamberlain was the most influential figure in British political life in the 1890s and his elder brother Austen was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1925 for his work in the creation of the Locarno Pact. Joseph, Austen, and Neville are unique in the political life of Western democracies; there are no other examples of where a father and his two sons have held such high office in a major state with each exerting a strong influence on the international stage.

Neville was born in Birmingham, the son of Joseph Chamberlain and his second wife Florence Kenrick. The deaths of both wives in childbirth produced such a gloom and bleakness in Joseph that in 1875, when his son Neville was six, he lost his personal faith. Joseph did not, however, relinquish his long held public Unitarian affiliation and principles. This duality in his father's attitude no doubt greatly influenced his sons. Neville, equally attached to and apprehensive of his father, was brought up as a Unitarian at the Church of the Messiah, Birmingham. Joseph never required religious adherence of his children. Rejecting creeds and possessing a cold rationality, he encouraged strong personal independence and an anti-authoritarian approach to practical issues. He advised his children to tell the truth, to do what they are told, to question afterwards if necessary, and, whatever they did, to do it well. You bore your own problems: this was a belief that Neville took to extreme lengths. Unitarians were encouraged to not show emotion or affection in public. This was a mark of the Chamberlains.

While attending Rugby School chapel, Neville refused to face the altar during the reading of the creed. Upon his return home from Rugby he may have briefly taught Unitarian Sunday school. There is no evidence that Neville attended Unitarian services, apart from funerals, during his adult life. Nor did he subscribe to the Church of the Messiah, though until the 1930s he gave small sums in support of the Sunday school and benevolent work. He did not take up membership in any other church or chapel, nor did he ever claim to be Christian or religious. He disliked attending worship services of any kind and showed no interest in organized religion.

Chamberlain took the Unitarian principles taught by his family in a social and political direction. His concern for the condition of humanity arose from his belief in a good and kind God, that man was not of essence evil and bound for eternal damnation, but could progress. This affirmation had social implications for commercially successful Unitarians, for, as one of Neville's cousins pointed out, 'We always understood as children that as our lives had fallen in pleasant places it behoved us the more to do what we could to improve the lot of those less happily placed.'

Following Rugby, Neville went to Mason College (later the basis for the University of Birmingham, which his father did so much to found). Here he studied the sciences, which neither interested nor motivated him. On entering an accountancy firm he was far more successful. In 1890 Joseph sent his sons to the Bahamas to assess a project to grow sisal. In 1891 Neville returned to superintend the operation. In 1896, after it had failed, Neville returned to England.

From 1897 to 1916 Chamberlain devoted himself to business, directing or owning several manufacturing firms in Birmingham, making metal, small arms, and ships' berths. In all his activities he was an innovator in welfare provision and in pensions, expressing a social conscience and commitment. In 1911, Chamberlain married Anne Vere Cole, to whom he was devoted for the rest of his life. They had two children.

Chamberlain was elected to Birmingham City Council in 1911 and in 1915 became Lord Mayor. Quickly making an impact, he played a signal part in the foundation of the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and the Birmingham Municipal Bank. In 1916 the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, appointed him Director General of National Service, a new post whose purpose was to recruit volunteers for war work. This proved to be a poisoned chalice, a job in which he was set up for failure, in part because he lacked a seat in Parliament and experience in national government. Moreover, Lloyd George disliked Chamberlain, and the feeling was reciprocated. In the following year Chamberlain resigned.

In 1918 Chamberlain was elected to the House of Commons as a Conservative member for Birmingham, Ladywood, though he still held radical social opinions. He asked himself, 'How can a man of nearly 50, enter the House with this stigma upon him, hope to achieve anything?' Nevertheless, his rise in government was swift. In 1922 he was appointed Postmaster General, and a few months later, Minister of Health, with a seat in the Cabinet. He quickly revolutionised the control of rents and housing provision for the poor. The next year, under Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, he became Chancellor of the Exchequer. In just six years from first election to Parliament he had become one of the key figures in the government. In late 1923 the Conservative government fell, but a year later, with Baldwin back as Prime Minister, both Neville and his brother Austen were in the Cabinet. Neville again became Minister of Health, which he preferred to the Exchequer. During the next five years he carried out a remarkable programme of social reform, placing twenty-one acts into the Statute Book.

While the Conservatives were out of office, 1929-31, in 1930 Chamberlain became Chairman of the Party. In 1931 a National Government under Labour leader, Ramsay MacDonald, was formed to deal with the economic crisis. Chamberlain became Chancellor of the Exchequer, a post he held for nearly six years until he became Prime Minister in 1937. During this period his political reputation stood very high. In 1936 he played a significant 'behind the scenes' role in securing the abdication of Edward VIII. As Prime Minister he was noted for his lucidity and hard work, but did not like criticism, wanted to control most things, and he made it clear how much he detested members of the opposition Labour Party.

As Prime Minister, Chamberlain's religion was the subject of comment, and became an issue. He was sometimes called a Unitarian in the press and in correspondence. While most British Prime Ministers claimed a Christian affiliation there is no evidence that Chamberlain himself claimed to be a Unitarian. The Bishop of Durham, who knew Chamberlain fairly well, said that 'he was a devout Unitarian'. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Cosmo Gordon Lang, who grew to like Chamberlain, was grieved that he was a Unitarian with no stated faith. He was not encouraged when Chamberlain called himself a 'reverent agnostic' (a phrase coined by his father, Joseph Chamberlain). Most commentators labeled Chamberlain a lapsed Unitarian.

'I (still) think it unseemly that a Unitarian should have the predominant voice in the appointment of Bishops,' wrote Lord Hugh Cecil, the leading Anglican, then Provost of Eton, in the Times in February 1938. Chamberlain was then appointing bishops of the Church of England. The controversy had arisen over a new rule being discussed by the Church Assembly requiring Deans and Chapters to elect the person nominated by the Prime Minister as bishop. In the debate Cecil stated, 'If we lived in the reign of Henry VIII a Unitarian would not be in Downing Street. He would be burned at Smithfield.'

What is known as the appeasement policy had been long in gestation. Chamberlain aimed at an abiding European settlement, through a series of pacts removing the grievances arising from the harsh treatment of Germany at the Treaty of Versailles. Some have claimed his appeasement policy grew, at least in part, out of his expressed horror at the thought that the poorer areas of London would be bombed. In dealing with Hitler he may have been hampered by an underdeveloped sense of evil, a Unitarian tendency. The Anglo-German agreement brokered by Chamberlain in 1938 was highly popular in Britain. He was lionised.

Chamberlain nevertheless distrusted and disliked the German dictator and, aware of the growing German military threat, pushed forward the process of rearmament. In 1939, when Hitler advanced into Poland, Chamberlain issued an ultimatum: if Germany continued its attack on Poland, Britain and Germany would be at war. The rejection of this ultimatum signalled the start of World War II. Deeply disappointed, he lamented on national radio, 'Everything I have worked for, everything I have hoped for, everything that I have believed in my public life, has crashed into ruins.' From then on, however, he pursued the war effort as best he could. Although he disliked being a war leader and was not especially good at it, the return to a position of power of Winston Churchill—with whom he generally got on well—enabled him to enlarge the war effort.

In April 1940 at the prompting of Lord Chancellor Lord Caldecote, an evangelical Christian, Chamberlain addressed the annual assembly of the National Council of the Evangelical Free Churches. His closing words encapsulate the nineteenth-century liberal religious ethos—progress, enlightenment and belief in the good in humanity—which he learned from his family and church upbringing and which influenced him to the end: 'Every day that passes gives us some new demonstration of Germany's utter disregard of religion, of mercy, of truth and of justice. If they were to triumph in what they are doing, why then every fortress which has been built by civilisation upon the principles of Christianity would go down and the world would relapse into that barbarism which, until a little while ago, we thought we had buried under centuries of progress . . . This war will be won by the spiritual forces of the world as much as by the material power of their brave defenders. These spiritual forces have been affronted by what Germany has done and is doing, and to you, whose mission it is to uphold and exalt the spiritual life of this country, I appeal, with the confidence to give us your aid to crush the powers of tyranny and wickedness for ever.'

Chamberlain attempted to widen his wartime government but neither the Labour nor the Liberal Party leaders would serve under him. After the loss of Norway to the Germans—for which he was blamed and vilified—he realised that a national government of all parties was mandatory. Accordingly, he resigned on 10 May 1940. He remained in the Cabinet (as lord president of the council) under Churchill, supporting the new prime minister during his crucial first month, as the new government decided to reject the peace terms offered by Germany and Italy.

So much emphasis has been placed on Chamberlain's time as Prime Minister and his role in international affairs, that it is often forgotten that his main contribution was to home affairs and social reform. As to his foreign policy, historian Robert Self makes a succinct evaluation: 'Neville Chamberlain was neither the inspired hero so extravagantly lauded in the immediate aftermath of Munich nor the foolishly misguided amateur so viciously denigrated after his fall.'

Following his death from bowel cancer, Chamberlain's funeral and interral of ashes took place in Westminster Abbey with no Unitarian reference or involvement. There were no obituaries in the Unitarian press.

The correspondence of the Chamberlain family is the centrepiece of the archives of the University of Birmingham. Neville Chamberlain's papers are published by Thomson Gale, edited by Peter Marsh, in microform on 117 reels (1996-2000). He wrote each week to his sisters Ida and Hilda over decades—in effect a diary of all he was doing politically. These have been published in four volumes: The Neville Chamberlain Diary Letters, edited by Robert Self (4 vols. 2002-05). Numerous other archives hold original material concerning Neville Chamberlain; a good guide to this material is at the conclusion of the entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004). The literature and sources on Neville Chamberlain are extensive. Andrew Crozier has written a superb article on him in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Other biographies include Keith Feiling, The Life of Neville Chamberlain (1946); David Dilks, Neville Chamberlain, vol 1 (1993); and David Dutton, Neville Chamberlain (2001).

Article by Alan Ruston - posted February 9, 2006


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