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A first-rate study of an oft-misunderstood figure

Neville Chamberlain, Volume 1: 1869-1929 - David Dilks

Neville Chamberlain is one of the most recognizable figures of twentieth-century international politics. Much of his reputation, though, rests on the foreign policy he pursued as prime minister of Great Britain in the late 1930s, primarily his advocacy of appeasement - a policy predicated on the notion that armed conflict can be avoided by placating the demands of the aggressors through compromise. Thanks to Chamberlain's exhaustive pursuit of peace during his premiership, he has come down to us more as caricature than character - the man in the swallow-tail coat and bowler hat who waved the infamous peace of paper in front of the newsreel cameras and declared that he had obtained "peace in our time."

 

To the extent that this image of Chamberlain has dominated our perception of the man, it obscures a far more extensive career - one which saw him rise to the pinnacle of power in a comparatively short period of time. This is the subject of the first volume of Dilks' biography, an exhaustive account of Chamberlain's life and career. The younger son of the great nineteenth-century politician Joseph Chamberlain, Neville was steered by his father towards a career in business. After a failed attempt to establish a sisal-growing operation in the Bahamas, Chamberlain returned to his home town of Birmingham, where he found greater success in more traditional enterprises.

 

Though Neville's elder half-brother Austen was the one Joseph groomed to be his political successor, the younger Chamberlain soon found his way to elected office as well, first in municipal government, then at the advanced age of 49 to Parliament. A late-starter and a member of a party packed with political talent, Chamberlain benefited from the collapse of the Lloyd George coalition government in 1922, accepting office and a seat in the Cabinet. Chamberlain's star quickly rose, primarily due to his time as Minister of Health in Stanley Baldwin's second government, where he proved himself to be a minister of ability and competence. By the end of the period covered in Dilks' book, Chamberlain is on the verge of becoming the dominant political personality of the 1930s, the key figure in successive governments before finally succeeding to the premiership himself in 1937.

 

Dilks recounts this all in considerable detail, showing how Chamberlain's background and early years shaped both the man and the politician. Though some of this detail is excessive, there are many rich insights within these pages, leaving the reader to finish the book with a new respect for Chamberlain and his accomplishments. This book will continue to stand for decades to come as the definitive account of Chamberlain's formative years, leaving open to question only when the long-awaited (and crucial) concluding volume might be published to finish the tale.