Sunday book review – Neville Chamberlain’s Legacy by Nicholas Milton

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.

Remarkable Birds by Mark Avery is published by Thames and Hudson – for reviews see here.

Inglorious: conflict in the uplands by Mark Avery is published by Bloomsbury – for reviews see here.


12 Replies to “Sunday book review – Neville Chamberlain’s Legacy by Nicholas Milton”

  1. A very enjoyable review.

    “Our politicians of today are still complex characters, mixtures of good and bad…” Well, yes, but I struggle to find much good in Johnson and Corbyn at the moment – both ruthlessly taking their parties to opposite extremes. Of course, Hitler liked dogs…

    1. Bob – if you can find no good in them then that says as much about you as it does about them. But thank you for your kind remark about the review. This blog is fanatical about greyness.

      1. Thanks Mark. Greyness is OK but it’s good to call a spade a spade – I know a liar when I hear one. Lying is the new normal in British politics. Unless there is a huge surge in the Lib Dem vote, the UK (or what’s left of it) is set to become a very nasty place. I’m in the unhappy grey middle, in a very safe Conservative seat and my vote will count for nothing. I did say “much good” btw. But Johnson is entirely driven by self-interest and Corbyn by an ideology where the ends justify the means – find what good you can.

        1. Bob – the ends can justify the means of course: if the ends are very very good then the net benefit is high even if the means are slightly shabby. It’s always been a phrase that has puzzled me. The ends don’t necessarily justify the means, but surely they ccan. I’m not making that point in defence of anything in particular, just in general.

          1. Mark – in general, I agree. My problem is that I don’t support the ends Corbyn (or Johnson) has in mind or the means – see Nick Cohen’s article “Only those who worship at the feet of the party leader are fit to stand” on the Guardian website.

  2. Enjoyable review, thank you.
    I’ve seen common sandpipers at Leamouth in January about 10 watery kilometers from St James’s Park. I’m not sure if it is to be seen further north in winter now than it was then.

  3. The other great birder politician was of course Edward Grey, foreign secretary at the start od WW1.
    The Chamberlain biography sounds extremely interesting – the question that strikes me is how the impact of the post-Munich delay is treated – contrary to the Churchill myth (as he said himself ‘history will treat me kindly because I will write it’) rearmament as war became closer and closer may have been critical – and if you look at the ships that played a critical role in 1939-1941 the number commissioned between Munich and the outbreak of war is impressive, but obviously not as impressive as the plane just coming into service – the Spitfire. Chamberlain probably was sincere in ‘peace in our time’ but he may well have bought the time that made the crucial difference.

    And, of course, he faced very real problems not of his making in stark contrast to Brexit in particular, the pointless construction of politicians alone, hoisted on the rest of us with sad consequences.

    1. Agree: it looks to be an interesting book.
      Did Chamberlain ever meet Grey? If not, he must have read his nature classic, The Charm of Birds (1927). But then, perhaps not given that Grey, in the first two sentences of the preface, predicted that his book would have no scientific value and that it would be of no interest to ‘those who do not care about birds.’ However, history kindly judged him wrong on both counts.

    2. Thanks for the blog, Mark. I am looking forward to reading the biography. It’s a period of history that interests me, particularly because our impressions of the reality of the time and our judgements could over rely on the benefit of hindsight, as per the Churchill quote. At that time, the atrocities with which we are familiar hadn’t taken place or weren’t widely known about and neither the British, its Empire nor the French had an appetite to fight, the carnage of the previous war being still fresh in people’s minds. How well do we still remember the Millennium, a nonentity in comparison?
      I wonder how much the enthusiasm to get involved militarily in Iraq and Libya came from Churchill’s legacy but was spent when it came to Syria. Perhaps Chamberlain is making a comeback!

  4. I think it is a case of bring back Chamberlin all is forgiven. Compared to the present day Tory lot he stands way above then in character, and stature. He was unfortunate for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The memories of the first WW were still vivid in most people’s minds and no way did they want a repeat of that and he was dealing with a man who word meant nothing ( some similarity or echo to today’s Situation).
    In those days a surprising number of politicians where keen on wildlife. Churchill always took a kindly approach to it and Field Marshal Alan Brooke was a keen bird watcher.
    What a difference from the current lot of no hopers in Government.

  5. Neville Chamberlain was not a typical Tory of the age in which he lived. Originally he belonged to the Liberal-Unionist grouping which supported the Conservative Party, eventually merging to form The Conservative and Unionist Party which it remains to this day.
    He has many fine characteristics and should in my view be re-habilitated.
    My Mother, who was on the right of politics thought him to be a wonderful gentleman, and for that reason only, not the man to be Prime Minister during a World War.

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