'I am not a superstitious man and indeed I should not greatly care if I were never to be PM,' Neville Chamberlain told his sisters, still in mourning for his brother, Austen, 'but when I think of Father and Austen and reflect that less than three months of time and no individual stands between me and that office I wonder whether Fate has some dark secret in store to carry out her ironies to the end.' Fate's final irony is that Chamberlain is widely considered Britain's worst 20th-century premier. It wasn't all bad. By the time he had been forced out by Churchill in May 1940, as a result of the failed Norwegian campaign, his stock had sunk fairly low but, as Robert Self points out, he continued to serve in Churchill's government to such good effect that the latter made no bones about saying that Chamberlain was 'the best man' he had, 'head and shoulders over the average man in the administration'. Attlee also spoke admiringly of his work-rate, his administrative ability and his complete lack of rancour against the Labour ministers who had sealed his fate by refusing to serve in any government he led. He showed Churchill complete loyalty and played a pivotal role in stopping Halifax from suing for peace with the Axis.
LRB 17 August 2006 | PDF Download