Neville Chamberlain

Conservative Party

Image credit: Neville Chamberlain, Bassano Ltd, 21 February 1929. © National Portrait Gallery, London licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

Neville Chamberlain

This is the second time in our history that there has come back from Germany to Downing Street peace with honour. I believe it is peace for our time.

Conservative Party

May 1937 - May 1940

28 May 1937 - 10 May 1940

Neville Chamberlain by Bassano Ltd

Image credit: Neville Chamberlain, Bassano Ltd, 21 February 1929. © National Portrait Gallery, London licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

Key Facts

Tenure dates

28 May 1937 - 10 May 1940

Length of tenure

2 years, 348 days


Conservative Party


Anne de Vere Cole


18 Mar 1869

Birth place

Birmingham, England


9 Nov 1940 (aged 71 years)

Resting place

Westminster Abbey

About Neville Chamberlain

Neville Chamberlain intended to leave a legacy of great domestic reform. Much of his professional life, in local government, as health minister, and as chancellor, was dedicated to reform. But as Prime Minister, Chamberlain was defined by foreign affairs and his failed ‘appeasement’ strategy, that had been designed to prevent war.

Neville Chamberlain was born in 1869. He was the son of the great, and divisive, Birmingham politician Joseph Chamberlain. Neville was educated at Rugby School, and then worked in business, spending six years trying to establish a sisal plantation in the Bahamas. The venture was a failure, but Chamberlain learned much about management.

He then worked in business and began a political career in local government, becoming Lord Mayor in 1915. He was elected MP for Birmingham Ladywood in 1918, at the age of 49. He rose through the Conservative ranks, and was Minister of Health three times (1923, 1924-29, 1931) and Chancellor twice (1923-24, 1931-37), serving under Stanley Baldwin and Ramsay MacDonald.

As a Cabinet minister, Chamberlain was an energetic reformer. As Chancellor during the 1930s, he presented the Cabinet with a list of 25 measures he intended to pass, and passed 21 one of them, including reforms to pensions, housebuilding, and local government. Baldwin largely left Chamberlain in charge of economic matters, for which the latter earned a formidable reputation for competent stewardship.

Had Chamberlain retired in 1937, he would have done so as a successful interwar reformer. But Chamberlain was ambitious. From the early 1930s he manoeuvred to become Prime Minister, which he did when Baldwin resigned in 1937.

Once he became Prime Minister, reforms included the Factory Act and Pay Act, which set limits on hours worked by women and children, and the Housing Act which encouraged slum clearance. But he would not be remembered for these things.

The 1930s saw the rise of Nazi Germany, and with it a threat to the peace of Europe. Chamberlain was convinced that punitive sanctions had failed to restrain fascist Italy, and so embarked on a strategy of appeasement – making concessions to avoid conflict. Chamberlain’s government made no response when Hitler tore up the Versailles Treaty by annexing Austria in 1938. They also ignored Soviet proposals for a tripartite agreement to contain fascism.

Within months, Hitler threatened war if he was not given Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland. In September 1938, conflict seemed increasingly likely. Chamberlain flew to Germany three times, eventually concluding an agreement that effectively gave Hitler the Sudetenland. He returned to Heston airfield and brandished an agreement that Britian and Germany would never go to war, describing it as ‘peace in our time’. Briefly, Chamberlain was very popular.

In March 1939, Germany invaded Czechoslovakia, violating the Munich agreement. In response, Chamberlain, along with the French government, provided guarantees to Poland and Romania. On 1 September, Nazi Germany invaded Poland, and 48 hours later, Britain declared war.

Chamberlain was no more successful as a war premier. The war was not conducted vigorously, and in early May 1940, Parliament debated a motion of no confidence. Chamberlain survived, but the government’s majority fell from 240 to 80. Chamberlain reached out to the opposition in the hope of forming a coalition, which Labour leader Clement Attlee was prepared to do, but not with Chamberlain as Prime Minister. Chamberlain resigned on 10 May 1940.

He joined Churchill’s government as Lord President, loyally serving, and bringing the support of many backbenchers with him. That summer, he was diagnosed with cancer, from which he died in November 1940.

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