13 June 2019
The verdict of history.
By J R Thomas
It’s one of the loneliest jobs in the world, being Prime Minister. It may not be quite true that no colleague can be trusted, that every friend is after your job, that should you trip not a single person will help you up, but it must often – usually – feel that way. Some premiers have the thick skin and robustness that shrugs that off – Churchill for instance; others such as David Cameron (remember him?) seem relaxed in the job but hugely relieved when it’s all over; and others just struggle to get over their ejection from power, even when their period in Downing Street was endlessly fraught (Mrs T).
But it is only when that final ejection has been carried out that both the departed politician and the rest of us can begin to form a judgment of the years in power, of the strategies pursued and failed, of the flaws and strengths of the departed leader. Sometimes that can take years; sometimes the instant verdict is the right one.
And of course that judgment of rightness of the policies pursued can change, sometimes years after the event, as the effects of those policies weave their way into history. Historians must sell books and build reputations and one way to do that is to debunk, in a scholarly and well-argued way, everything that every previous academic studying the period has said. New collections of papers emerge, careful memoires can change perceptions of events (or set up a skillful revenge). We may never be quite sure of some things; but we can be certain of others.
Politicians tend to be gossipy, and we often gain early insights into the nature of the departed premier’s leadership skills and flaws, of their personality and as to how that effected events, judgements, relationships with colleagues, with the civil service, with the leaders of other countries. A premier who is highly intelligent and experienced may yet possess such flaws of character that we wonder how on earth they ever managed to get to the top job, or keep it. Public charm can be offset by private rudeness and insensitivity; what looks like strength on a podium turns out to be obstinacy and mule headedness in the Cabinet Room; a commitment to inclusiveness and modernisation turns out to be a refusal to listen to any advice let alone take it; an apparent willingness to go the further mile is actually a complete lack of ideas and an inability to make decisions. The leader elevated with such high hopes turns out to be one utterly unsuited to the job.
No; this is not a dig at Theresa May. Though, in a distortion of famous words from fictional politics, you may possibly think so – but we could not possibly comment. All the failings set out above were those which have been ascribed to Neville Chamberlain, prime minister from 1937 to 1940, forever remembered for returning from a series of continental expeditions and brandishing an agreement which became a meaningless sell-out. Chamberlain’s attempts to appease Hitler caused much controversy even before its failure became apparent. His defenders said then, and continue to argue, that he bought more time for rearmament, that given the mind-set of the electorate and the extreme resistance of the Labour opposition no other course of action was possible as the country would not have countenanced war, and that he was deeply resistant to any thought of fighting in Europe after the slaughter of the First World War – a true man of peace.
His detractors would not disagree with the latter point. There is no doubting Chamberlain’s profound resistance to armed conflict. But his detractors say that he failed to provide leadership, a key part of his role, which would have prepared the country for earlier, probably successful resistance to Hitler. They say that the delay enabled the Germans to rearm much faster than the British and French and, far from strengthening the Allies military position, weakened it. And that appeasement simply avoided conflict by sacrificing many minorities in Europe of whom Chamberlain and his cabinet were well aware.
A new book* by Tim Bouverie, a young historian and journalist, examines and largely concurs with those negative views of Chamberlain. But it has the advantage of much original research among papers of the time, especially among letters of Chamberlain to his sisters (he was a most prolific and unguarded letter writer among his friends and family), and among the papers of his closest advisors, including Neville Henderson, the Ambassador to Berlin, Horace Wilson, a civil servant who was Chamberlain’s closest and most trusted advisor, and a coterie of powerful advisors in the Foreign Office. What is perhaps most original about this book is the insight it provides into Chamberlain’s style of government. Although he had held many of the great offices of state (but not that of Foreign Secretary) and had been Stanley Baldwin’s choice as his successor, Chamberlain was not a clubbable man, or one who took much notice of the junior ranks of the party. His administration was highly personal and depended more on close advisors such as Wilson than on his appointed ministers. He was arrogant, secretive, greatly inclined to take matters into his own hands without discussion or even notification. (This included even failing to discuss policy and actions with Lord Halifax, the Foreign Secretary, whose reputation is somewhat restored by this book.) Chamberlain had a startling lack of willingness to take on any viewpoint which conflicted with his own, even when clearly evidenced. Having formed a policy to deal with Hitler, he continued to pursue it even after it was clearly failing – and without using any of the justifications which his supporters have since provided on his behalf.
You may feel that there are indeed similarities with a recent prime minister, at least in personality, political style, and failure to adapt to changing circumstances, but we continue to refuse to comment. What it shows is how the selection of the wrong leader at the wrong time can lead to near-disaster, and how much British politics muddles through only by getting things right at the very last moment (we hope). Chamberlain was propelled to the job by discussions only at the top of the Conservative Party; Churchill, his successor, was selected the same way though clearly the desire of the back benches (but not of Chamberlain, cabinet, and King, who wanted Halifax). Since 1963 the system has been by a vote of the parliamentary party, now subject to a final vote of the party in the country. Who is to say this produces any better leaders? And yet our times once again depend on the selection of a leader of extraordinary skills and ability to inspire and unite; we can only trust that once again the hour will produce the person.
Tim Bouverie’s book leads to another thought. One reason we can pore with such insight over the events of the late 1930’s is because of the vast array of correspondence and papers left behind. Senior ministers, including the Prime Minister, diplomats, and well connected observers (even the King) left remarkably frank records by way of letters, notes, and diaries. We have a wonderfully clear picture of what the players in the drama really and privately thought, and did (Chamberlain approved the tapping of Churchill’s telephone in 1938, as illegal then as it is now). Will our fountains of electronic impulses survive, or give us such clarity of understanding?
*“Appeasing Hitler” by Tim Bouverie, published by Bodley Head, out now, RRP £20.