A review of Neville Chamberlain: Volume One, Pioneering and Reform, 1869-1929, by David Dilks
It is no easy task to find a balanced as well as comprehensive account of Neville Chamberlain's career. His political life appears checkered, viewed as it so often is through the lens of the Munich debacle. David Dilks's first volume of a projected two-part biography of the life of Chamberlain comes as a relief. In his opening volume, Dilks, an historian of early twentieth-century Britain and professor at the University of Leeds, takes the story of Chamberlain's life up to 1929, the year the Local Government act was passed.
Chamberlain spent nearly a decade of his life nurturing this bill to completion. The act was perhaps the most comprehensive piece of legislation ever produced by a Parliament. It was a five-year plan designed to cover the whole field of health, housing, local taxation and rating, and was to be carried out methodically by twenty-five Bills neatly spaced over each succeeding session of the five-years Parliament. Echoing contemporary sentiments in America, Chamberlain declared that local government was nearer to the homes and closer to the hearts of people; it was "something friendly, familiar and accessible and yet above, standing as a guardian angel between them and ill-health or injustice" (p. 572). This legislative work was the highlight of Chamberlain's career to 1929 and as such a fitting end for Dilks's initial opus. The author suggests throughout his first volume that Chamberlain's painstaking penchant for detail was his strongest attribute, a quality that he possessed in abundance and used to great advantage not only in the 1920s, but throughout his rise to power in British politics.
Dilks's work is the first to make thorough use of all the official records of Chamberlain's life. Since the first authorized biography appeared forty years ago, a great deal of material has come to light that Dilks states has "deepened our knowledge" of both the public and private dimensions of Chamberlain's life (p. ix). The biographer's task throughout is to make use of these voluminous sources to convey "what it was like to be with Chamberlain" (p. xi). Dilks recognizes that he is working against a tainted image of Chamberlain as the architect of appeasement, an image that has ingrained itself in the historical consciousness of the post-World War II generation. Only by meticulously reconstructing the type of man Chamberlain was, as he had risen to power, can Dilks hope to dispel any lingering doubts about the British statesman. It is precisely these historical demons that the author exorcises, with a penchant for detail that Chamberlain himself might have admired. I assume that this process of enlightenment will continue as Dilks turns in his next volume to Hitler's decade and Chamberlain's confrontation with "that man."
Chamberlain was a master of minutiae, as his colleague through the 1920s and '30s, Samuel Hoare, noted. Hoare called his friend the "analyst," and cites as evidence of Chamberlain's profound power of grasping details, the aforementioned program for the reform of local government. Chamberlain's mind was analytic; his virtue lay in his ability to comprehend and manage facts, sorting and arranging information to produce desired results. Dilks suggests that only Chamberlain could have grasped the essentials, and possessed the necessary patience, to see the Local Government bill through to its conclusion, producing a quiet revolution in British politics that still reverberates today: "It has been well said that Chamberlain contributed more than any other minister of the twentieth century to the conception of national policies locally administered which underlies much of British government to this day" (p. 577).
However, as A. J. P. Taylor wrote, "in a crisis good will and efficiency are, not enough." Nor are the qualities of amicability and comprehension of facts alone sufficient qualifications for statesmen. Chamberlain, quite simply, was not a great statesman. And it is important to understand why he wasn't. Yet a careful reading of Dilks's biography could lead someone to the opposite conclusion-that efficiency and good will are suitable in dark times. That mistake was nearly fatal in the 1930s. In order to understand why Chamberlain was not a great statesman, we must closely scrutinize Dilks's biography.
The work is divided into three parts of roughly equal length. The first of these three parts ends in 1918 with Chamberlain nearly fifty and about to enter the House of Commons for the first time. Chamberlain himself recollected a dictum of Gladstone's at this stage of his life "that a man could no more become a member of Parliament at 40 than a woman could a ballet girl at the same age" (p. 256). His misgivings about his break with local politics in his hometown of Birmingham proved unfounded; Chamberlain learned the tune of national politics and was able to keep in step, at times leading the dance. In fact, it was the long fructification of Chamberlain's powers in the shadow of his father Joseph that accounts for a measure of his success-as well as failure-when he finally broke onto the national scene. Young Neville was nurtured on the politics of Joseph Chamberlain and grew in power himself through grants from that elder statesman. Comparing Neville to his half-brother Austen, the father said: "Of my two boys Neville is really the clever one, but he isn't interested in politics; if he was, I would back him to be Prime Minister" (p.86). There is a grain of truth to this. Joe Chamberlain's devotion to his son was intense, and he was prepared to go to any length to see him succeed. Despite his devotion, in fact Chamberlain's father did little to urge his son into the political arena.
Close-knit loyalties between Neville and his sisters were also crucial to his maturation. Dilks's single biggest source of information for the first fifty years of Chamberlain's life was the correspondence between Neville and his unmarried sisters. They called themselves "the Click," and if a single member was hit, they all hit back. Family provided an essential support network for Chamberlain, as he rose to his highest post in local politics, Lord Mayor of Birmingham. Yet the long period spent with his family and in Birmingham politics also proved an impediment to the young politician. He found it difficult at first to adjust to government on the national level, after having attained a measure of success in Birmingham. Attlee called him a radio set tuned to Midland Regional. As Dilks evinces, it was World War I that provided the impetus for Chamberlain to emerge finally on the national scene.
Chamberlain was not equipped to make the transition from provincial life to national politics. His initial post in London was in the cabinet of Lloyd George as Director-General of National Service. The duty thus fell to Chamberlain to orchestrate the conscription of future soldiers to man the trenches opposite the Kaiser's army. Dilks rightly goes into great detail about Chamberlain's important work at National Service and his attempts to master the intricacies of what was, after all, an agency that had not even existed until he took up the post. Although Dilks deserves praise for his meticulous description of this critical juncture between local and national politics in Chamberlain's career, he is far too quick to come to his protagonist's defense when criticism is required. He blurs those criteria for statesmanship first propounded in ancient Athens, and nurtured in succeeding generations, standards we must keep in mind in order to determine what greatness is in national leadership.
Perhaps the crucial indicator of statesmanship was suggested by Bagehot in his observation of Britain's highest office:
The Prime Minister is at the head of our business and like every head of business he ought to have mind in reserve. He must be able to take a fresh view of new contingencies and keep an animated curiosity as to coming events. If he suffer himself to be involved in minutiae, some great change in the world, some Franco-Prussian war may break out, like a thief in the night, and if he has no elastic thought and no spare energy he may make the worst errors.
In Birmingham, Chamberlain was able to dictate the speed of events around him. He brought into play his laborious power of detail in order to manage affairs. However, thrown into national politics at quite literally a day's notice, he lacked that mind and reserve necessary for him to rise to the occasion. At this point of the story, Dilks is perhaps too quick to forgive what was an obvious failure on Chamberlain's part. For example, the author cites a letter from Violet Markham on Chamberlain's mismanagement of National Service, written at a time when Britain was desperately in need of manpower to continue the war: "She blamed Chamberlain . . . for his lacking quick wits and the power of grasping a situation, the ability to run an administration and the will to fight his department's battles" (p. 247). This is all valid criticism. Yet Dilks attempts to explain away Chamberlain's failure, when the truth is he simply did not have the quickness of mind to help Lloyd George bring the war to a speedy conclusion. Another five years and perhaps Chamberlain's organizational abilities could have regularized the conscription process. However, the War Cabinet knew that Britain needed rapid results and that the nation could not tolerate the loss of life such a project would entail. Chamberlain lacked the virtue Aristotle called prudence, the power to deliberate and act on what is right and good for the political community-especially at times of greatest danger to it. Lacking this quality, when called to duty by Lloyd George in the midst of war, Chamberlain's response at National Service proved ineffectual. Perhaps this is why Dilks does not quote Lloyd George's well-known appraisal of Chamberlain, an appraisal that echoes Bagehot's observations: "Mr. Neville Chamberlain is a man of rigid competency. Such men have their uses in conventional times or in conventional positions, and are indispensable for filling subordinate posts at all times. But they are lost in an emergency or in creative tasks at any time."
The return to a degree of normality in the 1920s suited Chamberlain. It is roughly at this point in the biography that Dilks opens his final section. With the crisis of war passed, Chamberlain's administrative powers were again skillfully utilized to forge changes in the British system of politics that have proved as durable as they are thorough. During the 1920s Chamberlain became head of the Ministry of Health. Having resigned his wartime post, he eagerly plunged into learning the minutiae of the Health ministry. The first decade of his life at Westminister culminated in the aforementioned construction and passage of the Local Government bill. What then does Dilks make of Chamberlain's career up to the point when he neared the pinnacle of power? He had moved from the quiet, urbane politics of Birmingham where one man could still grasp and manage affairs, to national life where he prospered in ministerial posts after a shaky start. Since Dilks makes much of Chamberlain's early life-his devotion to family and local ties-a look back at this early career might prove instructive in summarizing with some finality the powers Chamberlain both possessed and lacked.
Perhaps the greatest testimonial to the young Neville's painstaking attempts to master the intricacies of his environment was his project of growing sisal for profit on a small island in the Bahamas, at the command of Joseph Chamberlain. The young man barely twenty earnestly set to work at this arduous task, for half a decade. Dilks is impressed with Chamberlain's dogged determination under the most horrendous conditions, to create a sisal plantation in accordance with his father's wishes: "Neville Chamberlain would rise at five and . . . repair to the patch of land being cleared of undergrowth and coppice, oversee the landing of lumber, direct the men or take an axe himself and do what he described as a 'little work'" (p. 48).
This is instructive testimony of the perseverance and attention to detail that Chamberlain displayed throughout his life. Even in a blisteringly hot environment he gave a project doomed to failure his undivided attention. "To be sure, much of the work was not worthy of his attention; but someone had to do it and at least in this way, by acquiring a thorough knowledge of the people and the duties, he would be better placed to oversee the plantation and organize the labor most effectively" (p. 53).
At Andros in the Bahamas, in World War I, and in the twilight of his career, as Hitler's power increased, Chamberlain lacked the vision necessary to see where his efforts would lead. In the only conversation of significance that the two men had in their many decades of public life together, Chamberlain related to Winston Churchill his story of the vain attempt to grow sisal.
Churchill had no idea of the pioneering spirit that impelled the introverted Chamberlain. In his recollection of their conversation in The Gathering Storm, Sir Winston noted: "What a pity that Hitler did not know when he met this sober English politician with his umbrella at . . . Munich that he was actually talking to a hard bitten pioneer from the outer marches of the British Empire." Churchill himself was exiled to the outer marches throughout the 1930s. We should not let his magnanimous appraisal of Chamberlain's early life blind us to his later deficiencies.
Are we wrong to blame this sober English politician with his umbrella? Perhaps the very complexity of modern society militates against the production of the conditions necessary to bring forth statesmen. The single mind that could survey the entire scene and make sense of it may be an impossibility-a thing of the past. If so, then it might be that the rational managers-the Chamberlains-are sufficient for the survival of political society. And yet, thoughts of De Gaulle and Churchill linger in recent memory. Churchill himself wrote: "The great figures who have hitherto guided the world in previous generations are absent now and seem to be increasingly lacking at the summits of all the main spheres of thought and action." Writing this in the 1930s, Churchill was mercifully incorrect, for Britain and France still possessed statesmen of the highest caliber to see them through the dark times ahead. Were they the last of the great statesmen? One hopes not. At any rate, Dilks permits us a look at the intricacies of Chamberlain's mind; a perspective of both his successes and failures. His detailed biography is a welcome edition to British scholarship. I eagerly await Mr. Dilks's treatment of Chamberlain as Prime Minister and his confrontation with the dictators.