Time for Theresa May’s Neville Chamberlain moment

Neville Chamberlain wasn’t a bad minister; in fact he was an effective Minister of Health in the 1920s and a National Government Chancellor of the Exchequer in the 1930s, but

Premier Chamberlain

Neville Chamberlain

his reputation took a dive after his premiership 1937-40 and the publication pseudonymously of the book ‘Guilty Men’ in 1940. (It was subsequently revealed to be the work of 3 journalists – one each Labour, Liberal and Conservative).

Guilty Men

Cover ‘Guilty Men’

The picture that many people have is of Chamberlain in September 1938 coming back from the third of the three meetings with Hitler waving a piece of paper bearing Hitler’s signature and declaring it meant ‘Peace in our time’.

This diplomatic initiative was wildly popular in the UK. It was indeed ‘The Will of the People’ all the way down from the King and Queen. The UK and to an even greater degree France, had been traumatised by the memories and sacrifices of the Great War (our First World War) and there was widespread determination to avoid repeating them. The steps toward re-armament made in the 1930s were denounced by some as warmongering. The most vocal of those who warned of the coming danger – Churchill – was tarnished by his reputation developed since 1925 as an extreme right-winger. Many in the Tory dominated National Government viewed Churchill as toxic.

What Chamberlain had done at Munich was to sacrifice the defence and stability of Czechoslovakia – the last remaining parliamentary democracy in central and eastern Europe and a country clearly on the same wavelength as the western powers. His description of it as a ‘faraway country of which we know little’ ranks as one of the most cringe-making utterances of a British Prime Minister. The betrayal by France was worse, as the links between France and Czechoslovakia were stronger. Czechoslovakia had an efficient army, formidable border defences (ceded by the Munich Agreement), and lots of industry including armaments. When Rommel’s tank division invaded France in 1940, it was equipped with Czech, not German, tanks. By the end of the war and for a decade after, the British Army’s light machine gun was the Bren, designed by ZB in Brno.

When did Chamberlain start working out that assurances from Hitler had no value? Did he have doubts even as he flew back from Munich to adulation and wild popularity? He didn’t have the advantages of present day politicians, who know their opposite numbers well through regular EU meetings. In any event, the defence preparations in the UK continued and intensified through 1939, while Germany took over the rest of what is now the Czech Republic in March, and prepared for invasion of Poland at the start of September.

I’m pretty sure that Chamberlain saw the necessity of going against ‘The Will of the People’ by March 1939 at the latest and most publicly broke with his earlier policy by declaring war on 3rd September. He was still the archetypal Tory figure and after he was displaced as Prime Minister in May 1940, the Conservatives retained him as their Leader. He remained an effective member of the small War Cabinet, and chaired it in Churchill’s absence. But later in 1940 he became terminally ill, resigned his offices and died in November.

Perhaps the lesson for Theresa May is that when a policy, however popular, comes apart at the seams, it is the job of a leader to abandon it. It is clear by now that the simple vote for Brexit in 2016 embodied a number of different dreams. No one Brexit really has a majority. The negotiations and preparations for different Brexits have dragged on, wasting our resources and those of our European partners and making consumers and businesses nervous. Will Theresa May take us over the waterfall? The UK government has many domestic responsibilities, and for the last two years the price of Brexit has been that many of them have been put on the back burner.

Is it not the time for Theresa May, about Brexit, come to the same conclusion as Neville Chamberlain about Appeasement? The policy was ‘The Will of the People’ and we’ve tried our best to implement it, but it doesn’t work. Time to dump it; no need for the third referendum.

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