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In this guest post, Professor Robert Self, author of Neville Chamberlain: A Biography and the editor of four volumes of the Neville Chamberlain Diary Letters reflects on the motivations and objectives behind his eight-year project on this much maligned and misunderstood politician and statesman.
From a purely personal perspective, the appearance of my 573 page biography of Neville Chamberlain represented a very satisfying culmination of an eight-year project which began with the publication of four volumes of Neville Chamberlain’s diary letters to his sisters, Hilda and Ida, written weekly from 1915 until shortly before his death in November 1940.
The first of these volumes was published by Ashgate in 2000 with the fourth volume covering the crucial period of Chamberlain’s premiership appearing in 2005. The full-scale biography followed in 2006. My acquaintanceship with the Chamberlain family, however, stretches back to 1975 when my doctoral research first introduced me to the riches contained in the Chamberlain family archives held at Birmingham University Library.
Having produced an edited volume of Austen Chamberlain’s diary letters to his sisters in 1996, my mind turned to the far more ambitious idea of conducting a similar exercise with those of his younger and more famous half-brother. This was always going to be a far more formidable undertaking. Neville was an extremely diligent correspondent, sending lengthy epistles to his sisters at least once a week giving extremely detailed accounts of events and the individuals involved in them. As such, it represents an almost continuous record of British high politics untouched by later efforts to sanitise or correct the historical record with the wisdom of hindsight. Moreover, because this confidential correspondence mattered so much to Chamberlain, in the intimate personal – almost confessional – confines of these letters he was truly able to be himself, sharing his secrets, unburdening himself of his emotions and displaying his strengths and weaknesses of character, his assumptions, prejudices, values and inclinations while he indulged his self-confessed ‘epistolary garrulity’.
Notwithstanding the obviously immense value of this historical record, finding a publisher prepared to give the diary letters the treatment they deserved appeared likely to be a major problem. Certainly, by any standard, this represented a formidable publishing challenge given that there are almost 1200 letters containing nearly 2,000,000 words, spanning a quarter of a century during which Chamberlain stood at the very heart of British politics. Moreover, while possible to omit some of the routine trivia, alongside the valuable political content it was essential to retain enough of his observations concerning the antics of his children and his passion for birdwatching, botany, entomology, gardening, fishing and shooting to reveal that more human side of Chamberlain’s personality which he deliberately obscured beneath a sternly austere and ostensibly humourless demeanour. In the event, I was extraordinarily fortunate to find in Ashgate a publisher who more than fulfilled my highest expectations in terms of both understanding the nature of the task and in the remarkable quality of the volumes produced. Precisely the same can be said about Ashgate’s handling of the Neville Chamberlain biography itself. For all this support and encouragement I owe a particular and very substantial debt of gratitude to Tom Gray.
A variety of factors persuaded me that a full-scale biography was the obvious final stage in my Chamberlain project. First, while editing the diary letters I had conducted extensive research in over 150 collections of private papers on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as exhaustive study in countless official files at The National Archive. As much interesting new material had to be discarded when writing the relatively brief introductory chapters to each volume, the answer seemed to be a full-scale biography. By basing the biography primarily on these contemporary records, I hoped to capture Chamberlain’s own authentic voice as he explains, justifies and rationalises unfolding events and his responses to them. Like Keith Feiling some 60 years earlier, the principal intention was not to excuse or condemn Chamberlain, but rather to ‘let N.C. speak for himself’ in order to understand more clearly why he acted as he did and what he hoped to achieve during a long and dedicated career of public service to his country.
The second motivating factor was essentially historiographical. Despite the fierce controversy which still surrounds Chamberlains reputation, Keith Feiling’s biography of Chamberlain was still regarded as the best and most complete account even though it had been published 60 years earlier and by the author’s own admission it was only of a ‘provisional character’ until other archival sources became available. Since its publication in 1946, there have been astonishingly few other attempts at a single volume biography and those which did appear added little to our understanding of this most enigmatic of politicians. The intention, therefore, was to produce the first comprehensive single volume account of the life, record and achievements of a 20th century politician and statesman of the first rank using all of the archival material available to scholars.
The final motivation was more personal in that I confess to a rankling sense of injustice at many of the less balanced verdicts on Chamberlain’s record – particularly from a vociferous post- or counter-revisionist school. The position adopted in the biography could be best described as that of a qualified ‘revisionist’. On one hand, Chamberlain is undoubtedly guilty of lamentable errors of judgement compounded at times by an unrelentingly fatuous optimism – particularly after March 1938. But on the other hand, there is equally little doubt that Chamberlain quite rightly grasped that Britain was trapped in a vulnerable and reactive position at the mercy of a complex inter-related web of strategic, military, economic, financial, industrial and electoral constraints over which he had little control in the short term. As a self-proclaimed ‘realist’, Chamberlain’s consistent response to this conundrum was thus to pursue what he called ‘the double policy’ of rearmament at a pace the economy could sustain combined with the quest for better relations with the dictators by redressing legitimate grievances. Or as he described his strategy to Lord Halifax on his return from Munich ‘we must hope for the best while preparing for the worst’.
In the event, Chamberlain’s loss of the premiership in May 1940 signalled the far greater loss of his credibility and reputation. As Churchill is once supposed to have quipped, ‘Poor Neville will come badly out of history. I know, I will write that history’. As David Dutton has demonstrated in his outstanding study of Chamberlain’s evolving reputation, this proved to be a remarkably shrewd prediction because for many years Churchill’s highly-coloured version of events held the field unchallenged and unchallengeable. This caricature of the 1930s painted in a compellingly simplistic monochrome of black and white, right or wrong, good versus evil, courage in ‘standing up to Hitler’ versus craven appeasement, still continues to hold sway in popular memory, in television dramas and (more depressingly) in historical texts even to this day.
As a result, Chamberlain remained a profoundly underrated, misjudged and misunderstood figure with his many achievements in the domestic sphere too easily overshadowed by the final three years of his life. Had he died in 1937 he would have gone down in history as a great peacetime minister – a radical but realistic social reformer, a supremely talented administrator and the driving force behind many of the National Governments under-estimated successes after 1931. Above all, in perhaps the most original contribution of this biography, a detailed analysis of Chamberlain’s period as Chancellor of the Exchequer from 1931 to 1937 refutes much of the pervasive mythology surrounding this neglected and most woefully misunderstood period of his entire career. Contrary to the standard indictment, as Chancellor Chamberlain was not a passive mouthpiece for the blinkered views of his Treasury officials without the political will, imaginative vision or personal courage to do more than tinker impotently until the so-called ‘natural forces of recovery’ rescued Britain from the Great Depression. On the contrary, Chamberlain actively contributed to the development of innovative Treasury thinking to the extent that he can be regarded legitimately as the founder of a species of pre-Keynesian “managed economy” in Britain between the wars – particularly as the architect of a highly innovative brand of interventionist industrial and regional policy conceived as a fundamental solution to Britain’s long-term industrial problems.
For all the achievements, Chamberlain remains all too often the subject of vitriolic attack simply because perceptions of his long and varied career have been fundamentally blighted by the ultimate failure of his policy of appeasement during the last three years of his life. As he confessed to the Commons on the outbreak of war: ‘Everything I have worked for, everything that I have hoped for, everything that I have believed in during my public life, has crashed into ruins’. Unfortunately for Chamberlain, contemporaries and posterity have judged him accordingly. Yet the failure of appeasement is only one explanation for the personal venom so often injected into assessments of the man and his reputation. Ultimately, at the heart of the problem lies Chamberlain’s own quite deliberate attempt throughout his life to obscure the very existence of a deeper and more complex personality lurking behind the austerely forbidding persona. As Chamberlain’s PPS during the late 1930s, Alec Douglas-Home was absolutely correct when he later observed that his political master was ‘a rare complex person, half of him hidden from the world’. For all those excluded from the closed circle of family and a few real intimates, everything about the public face he presented to the world reinforced the impression that he was a man wholly devoid of instinctive warmth, sympathy and even humanity. As Harry Snell put it, his demeanour suggested that he had been ‘weaned on a pickle’. Or as a disgruntled Birmingham constituent is supposed once to have complained, ‘if you cut the bugger in half neither part would bleed’. Again, posterity has often uncritically followed where Chamberlain’s contemporaries led, by focusing far too much on the outwardly cold, smug and supposedly arrogant persona which, in Donald Watt’s view, makes it ‘extremely difficult to like Neville Chamberlain’.
Neville Chamberlain went to his grave in November 1940 absolutely confident that history would vindicate his policy and rehabilitate his reputation. Although this was by far the greatest miscalculation of his entire public career, my biography represents an attempt to at least partially redress the balance by explaining why he acted as he did and the limited range of policy options he confronted. In this respect, it is gratifying to note the biography was generally very well received by reviewers both at home and overseas. The European response is neatly encapsulated by Professor Antoine Capet of the University of Rouen in a lengthy review published in the French journal Cercles: Revue Pluridisciplinaire du Monde Anglophone:
Readers who are already familiar with the copious texts and notes which accompanied Robert Self’s superb edition of Neville Chamberlain’s Diaries will of course expect more than an exhaustive list of facts – and indeed what we have here is a magnificently argumentative interpretation … on top of a superbly authoritative chronicle of events in Chamberlain’s life.
Capet goes on to commend the ‘superb scholarly value’ of this study before concluding with the following verdict:
Since this cannot be the ‘definitive’ Biography, as there is no such notion, one wonders what may remain to be found by future biographers and one pities them. What makes it even more valuable and difficult to improve upon is that Robert Self gives extensive extracts from the Diary Letters which he has so competently edited. … The four volumes of Diary Letters and the Biography form a magnum opus which is likely to remain the state of the art on Neville Chamberlain for many years. Anybody interested in the inter-war years will find the book a capital addition to the existing literature … There is no doubt that this is scholarly academic writing at its best.
Given the generally far more hostile response to Neville Chamberlain in North America, it is encouraging to note that reaction has been equally positive across the Atlantic. Professor Larry Witherall is typical when he notes in the Journal of Modern History (2008, 80.3) that this ‘ exhaustively researched, immensely rich and layered assessment’ offers ‘a measured yet definitive assessment of this most misunderstood British figure’ and that, as such, it is ‘ an impressive and important study’.
The reception given to the biography and Diary Letters by specialist British scholars has been equally favourable. In his review of the Chamberlain biography in History ( June 2007), Professor Andrew Thorpe noted:
Chamberlain was always going to need a very good historian to be his biographer; but, in Robert Self, he has assuredly found one. It is not the least of Self’s achievements that he covers all areas of Chamberlain’s activities convincingly, with a very clear grasp of the secondary literature allied to unusually deep and thorough empirical research on a wide range of archival sources. … Thus, he appears to be as much at home when writing on, say, banking in Birmingham as he is on housing, economic policy or late 1930s diplomacy. The product is an authoritative book that is also highly readable. Self’s portrait of Chamberlain is sympathetic, but far from uncritical. … the context in which Chamberlain was operating is always noticed, and the book never falls into the trap of many political biographies, of facing the individual so much that it lacks wider perspective.
Thorpe thus concludes with the verdict that ‘this volume will rightly stand for many years as one of the very best biographies of a twentieth-century prime minister’. Or as Dr Jeremy Smith comments, Chamberlain’s faith that he would be vindicated by history ‘has at last been rewarded with the appearance of Dr Self’s monumental, and in some ways magnificent, biography… filling a remarkably long-standing lacuna in modern British political biography’. Parliamentary History 26.2, 2007).
While it is obviously pleasing to record that such positive comments were typical of the general response, whether any of this will prompt a more general reappraisal of Chamberlain’s overall reputation remains to be seen. It is at least encouraging to note that there has been some shift in professional opinion generally. In the most extensive academic poll designed to rank 20th Century British Prime Ministers in 2004 it was significant that while political scientists placed Chamberlain in 19th place out of 20, historians ranked him in 14th place. When we turn to the views of the layman and the writers of popular novels and TV dramas, however, there is less scope for optimism. Churchill’s prediction has been fully vindicated. ‘Poor Neville’ has come badly out of history – and, alas, I fear it is likely to remain that way.
Neville Chamberlain: A Biography was identified by our editors as having played a significant part in the building and reputation of our publishing programme. To see the full list of titles chosen by our editors visit, History Editors’ Choices.