What’s the first word that pops into your head when you hear the name Neville Chamberlain? Was it ‘appeasement’? Or ‘Piece of paper’? Or maybe ‘Peace for our time’? Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement was well-meaning but, in retrospect (and to be fair, at the time, in the minds of many), was fatally flawed. It didn’t work and probably was doomed to failure from the beginning. Thinking the best of a powerful and untrustworthy foe is rarely the right thing to do (please note many wildlife NGOs) but at the time, you can’t be quite so sure they are untrustworthy, and nice people too often give nasty people the benefit of the doubt.
Chamberlain got Hitler wrong and that is how he will be remembered. But no person, and political figures are people after all, is one-dimensional. This book will tell you much about the run-up to war and the early war years – Chamberlain was Prime Minister from May 1937 to May 1940 – but it also fills in the details of his early life, his early political career (he was Chancellor of the Exchequor for six years) and what we now call a public figure’s hinterland, their back-story, interests and relationships.
At a time of a general election, when the main two party leaders are charicatures whom we think we know, it is refeshing to read about a long-gone politician and learn about his significant achievements behind, indeed overshadowed by, his one big failure. Chamberlain was a reforming Tory whose government introduced measures to give workers statutory holidays, improve working conditions, remove slums, improve rental conditions amd many other progressive reforms. These were what drove Chamberlain on, and a threat on the other side of the Channel was a distraction from sorting out the domestic agenda. Whether that, his eagerness to do good domestically, was what made him misjudge Hitler’s aims to the point of gullibility is unclear.
There is much food for thought in this well-written book. Chamberlain was a grey man in the sense that all men and women are grey – they are a mixture of black and white. If appeasement was black, there is a lot of white in this political career to lighten the overall tone – personally, I think that is normal. Read the book and make up your own mind on the shade of grey.
But for the naturalist the most interesting part of Chamberlain’s hinterland is his interest in natural history, especially birds. When Prime Minister, Chamberlain would occasionally nip out of the back of Downing Street and have a walk round St James’s Park with his binoculars. He saw some good stuff too!
A letter to The Times, when Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1933, about a Grey Wagtail in St James’s Park, brought Chamberlain opprobrium from those who thought he should have been working all the time, not doing a spot of birdwatching, and praise from the many who admired the fact that a senior politician was actually interested in nature.
I think there have been 27 Chancellors since Chamberlain and looking down the list only Ken Clarke leaps out as a birder although I think Norman Lamont knew a bit and there may have been others. I was once sent a hand-written note on Treasury letterhead by Ken Clarke congratulating me/us on the publicity for the Red Data List of birds in 1993 (I think) – I wish I knew where that note was, I’d get it framed. But back in the 1930s it was perhaps easier for politicians to be known for their hobbies rather than their gaffs, and to be seen as complex people rather than cardboard cut-outs. Our politicians of today are still complex characters, mixtures of good and bad, black and white, nerd and guru, sheep and wolf, hawk and dove, family person and working politico, saint and sinner and many more apparent opposites or contradictions. This sensitive account brings that home for a figure in the past but it is true of those on the political scene today too.
And he was a birder! And a moth-er and more. I can believe the Grey Wagtail in St James’s Park but I reserve judgement on the January Common Sandpiper in the same locality. It’s not impossible but I think the London Bird Club would want a better description than we are given in this book. Green Sandpiper? Who knows? And, quite honestly, who cares? (I do).
Chamberlain also spent time as a council member of the organisations that morphed into the Wildlife Trusts an CPRE.
This is a tender and sensitive account of a character whose reputation is dominated by one big and important failing. There was more to the man and the legacy of the man than that. It’s a good read and well worth reading before 12 December just for political context.
And the book has two forewords, from two of my heroes: Chris Packham (who was wearing an Extinction Rebellion tie on the evening the book was launched) and Hilary Benn (the best Secretary of State for the Environment in recent times (as voted by you a few years ago).
Neville Chamberlain’s legacy: Hitler, Munich and the path to war by Nicholas Milton is published by Pen and Sword Books.