One Christmas Eve many years ago I found myself at a cocktail party in the home of a painter who, back then, lived in the Cotswolds. As with many cocktail parties — at least the ones I’ve been to — you can sometimes spend a bit of time checking out the pictures on the walls — which in that particular instance were very good — and, if the party is a bit slow at the start, you can also look through the books on the shelves. I was about the third shelf down, to the left of the fireplace, reading the blurb on the back of a history of World War Two when someone came up to me.
“ What are your thoughts on Neville Chamberlain?”
The lady who asked me this was quite elderly, extremely good looking, well dressed and beautifully spoken.
I told her that I thought Chamberlain had been, in my opinion, a reasonably good prime minister at a time when reasonably good prime ministers were very thin on the ground, and that, due to Britain’s lack of military preparedness during the mid-1930s was quite unprepared for war at any time before 1939, a situation that was not wholly of Chamberlain’s making. I went on to say that I felt Chamberlain knew he probably wouldn’t make a good war time prime minister but that he could use the very useful smoke screen put up by Winston Churchill, about the need to rearm, at the same time make overtures to Hitler (that would cost others dearly) that just might give him a chance to get his rearmament programme under way. It was a risk, and Chamberlain knew his policy of appeasement toward Hitler would be used against him. But, he judged, there was probably no other option.
Chamberlain also knew that the piece of paper he waved at the crowds and the cameras during that newsreel on his return from his last meeting with Hitler, would, along with his hope of “peace in our time,” be seen by many as empty and foolish. But I prattled on to my female listener that the piece of paper did serve the intended purpose of giving the mass of the British people hope, allowing them to carry on working (which might ensure the aircraft and the guns were made) at the same time almost unconsciously preparing themselves (with a bit of help from government propaganda) for a forthcoming war. I remember saying to the elderly lady that my own parents told me they had little or no idea that war was inevitable; they simply got on with their daily lives.
When World War II came it seemed more of a natural, inevitable occurrence. In other words Chamberlain had quietly prepared the nation for war, and in September 1939 had enough confidence — and the courage — after Germany’s invasion of Poland, to declare war on Germany.
My listener smiled and then revealed herself to be Neville Chamberlain’s daughter-in-law and that what I had said about Chamberlain was right, and that he had realised at the time he would indeed become a scapegoat, and that his policy of appeasement would be criticised for decades to come, as it has proved to be. She also confirmed that without the breathing space her father-in-law gave Britain we would not have had the aircraft to fight the Battle of Britain, and the will thereafter to carry on alone until Pearl Harbour.
I didn’t get a chance to talk to Chamberlain’s daughter-in-law for long that evening but I’ve always held that brief meeting very close to my heart.