Winston Churchill versus Joseph Chamberlain

Colville noted that Chamberlain “likes to be set on a pedestal and adored, with suitable humility, by unquestioning admirers.”[1]  As Prime Minister, however, Chamberlain collected critics.  One Conservative ally of Chamberlain noted that the Prime Minister “engendered personal dislike among his opponents to an extent almost unbelievable.”[2]

Winston S. Churchill and Chamberlain had never been close, but their were similarities in their background.  Both came from families with long histories in British politics.  Both were sons of prominent Conservative Party politicians.  Churchill’s father had been Chancellor of the Exchequer.  Chamberlain’s father Joseph had been Secretary of State for the Colonies when Churchill first entered Parliament.   Neville’s older brother Austen had served with Churchill in the Cabinet in the 1920s – as had Neville.   After the 1924 elections in which Churchill returned to Parliament as a candidate of the “Constitutionalist Party,”  Austen Chamberlain had urged Stanley Baldwin to offer Churchill a position in the Unionist government – in order to prevent Churchill from causing trouble outside the government.  Neville Chamberlain turned down an offer to become Chancellor of the Exchequer, preferring to become Minister of Health.   Thus, Churchill got the job that Neville turned down, serving as Chancellor of the Exchequer for five years until the Conservatives were defeated in 1929.[3]

Over the next decade, Churchill became alienated from the Tories over issues like free trade, Indian Home Rule, the abdication of King Edward VIII, and Britain’s response to Nazi rearmament.  After concluding the Munich agreement in September 1938, Chamberlain had declared “Peace in our Time.”  Churchill completely disagreed.  He told the House of Commons that he would “begin by saying the most unpopular and most unwelcome thing.  I will begin by saying what everybody would like to ignore or forget but which must nevertheless be stated, namely, that we have sustained a total and unmitigated defeat.”  Churchill said of Chamberlain, his fellow Tory: “The utmost he has been able to gain for Czechoslovakia and in the matters which were in dispute has been that the German dictator, instead of snatching his victuals from the table, has been content to have them served to him course by course.”

In the House of Commons, Churchill and Chamberlain had frequently sparred.  Replying to Prime Minister Chamberlain on December 9, 1938, Churchill said:  “The Prime Minister said in the House of Commons the other day that where I failed, for all my brilliant gifts, was in the faculty of judging.  I will gladly submit my judgment about foreign affairs and national defence during the last five years, in comparison with his own.”[4]

After Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, Chamberlain brought Churchill into the government in Churchill’s old post as First Lord of the Admiralty.  The Board of the Admiralty announced Churchill’s reappointment by signaling: “WINSTON IS BACK.”[5]  One cabinet official noted: “From the beginning we speculated on his chances of becoming PM and on his behaviour at this time.  We were not happy at the prospect.  His drive and pugnacity were obvious, but we could not foresee how far, once he was in command, these would outweigh the disadvantage of his impulsive imagination.”[6]

Chamberlain had tried to established a coalition government, but had been rebuffed.   Chamberlain was not acceptable to most Labour MPs. Chamberlain biographer Keith Feiling wrote:  “Him they professed to blame solely for the failure of ‘collective security’ and the Russian negotiation, and were even so far-re-reading facts as to charge him, more than themselves, with the deficiency in armaments.  And even if they could have risen superior to the past, they held very different views about the future.  Their heart could only be in a war that massed democracy against Fascism, and whose end would be a social order akin to their desires.”[7]

One cabinet colleague – and critic – observed of Churchill’s first speech on BBC radio after the invasion of Poland:  “He certainly gives one confidence and will, I suspect, be Prime Minister before the war is over.  Nevertheless, judging from his record of untrustworthiness and instability, he may in that case lead us into the most dangerous paths.  But he is the only man in the country who commands anything like universal respect, and perhaps with age he has become less inclined to undertake rash adventures.”[8]

During the course of the “Phoney War” that prevailed until May 1940, criticism of Chamberlain grew — particularly as British efforts to block a Nazi takeover of Norway stalled and failed.   A Chamberlain’s star fell, Churchill’s star rose – much to the consternation of many in Britain’s elite.  Britain’s top general observed on May 3, 1940 of the movement to oust Chamberlain: “Naturally the only man who can succeed is Winston and he is too unstable, though he has the genius to bring the war to an end.”[9]

The failure of the British expedition in Norway triggered a crisis of confidence in the House of Commons.  Duff Cooper, one of the Conservative Party dissidents, wrote that it was “curious that Chamberlain’s first reaction should have been that this terrible event gave him an excuse for remaining at his post.  It is a proof of how men in very high office can acquire the sincere conviction that their services are indispensable and that in moments of crisis they cannot be.”[10]

In the debate in the House of Commons that took place on May 7-8, Chamberlain said: “I accept the challenge and I ask my friends, and I ask my friends, and I still have some friends in this House, to support the Government tonight in the Lobby.”  He added: “I take complete responsibility for everything that has been done by the Admiralty, and I take my full share of the burden.”[11]

As a member of the Chamberlain government, Churchill remained absolutely loyal to Chamberlain, defending him through the final House of Commons debate that brought down the government and made Churchill prime minister.  When on May 9, the votes were counted, 33 Conservatives voted for the no-confidence motion and 60 Conservatives abstained.  One Conservative rebel, Leo Amery,  electrified the House of Commons by citing Cromwell’s words: “In the name of God, go.”[12]

Although Chamberlain’s government prevailed, it did so only because Conservatives were loath to vote against Chamberlain, not because they supported his leadership.  On May 8, the lack of support for Chamberlain in the House became evident as members shouted “Go, go, go, go!” as he left the chamber after a vote in which 101 Tories either abstained or voted against him. Churchill was not among them and indeed comforted Chamberlain in an ante-room.  In response to the setback, Chamberlain’s first intent was to form a national government.

That proved impossible.  Chamberlain understood that the time had come for a coalition government but that the Labour Party would not support a government led by him.  Churchill’s allies meanwhile understood the political dynamics at play and worked hard overnight to assure that Labour would state its willingness to serve under Churchill.

When Chamberlain found he could not rally the Conservative rebels, he offered his job to Lord Halifax, the Foreign Secretary who had supported appeasement. Churchill’s allies drummed up opposition to Halifax among Labour leaders. That was key because when Clement Attlee and Arthur Greenwood visited Chamberlain on the afternoon of May 9, they told him that Labour would not be part of a Chamberlain-led government but might be part of a government led by another Conservative. The Labour Party was about to hold a conference at Bournemouth where such a decision might be ratified.

Chamberlain’s first intent was to form a national government. When he found he could not rally the Conservative rebels, he offered Halifax his job. Churchill’s allies drummed up opposition to Halifax among Labour leaders. That was key because when Attlee and Greenwood visited Chamberlain on the afternoon of May 9, they told him that Labour would not be part of a Chamberlain-led government but Labour might be part of a government led by another Conservative. The Labour Party was about to hold a conference at Bournemouth where such a decision might be ratified.

“I’m bound to tell you, Prime Minister, that in my view our party will not serve under you, nor does the country want you,” Attlee told Chamberlain on May 9.[13]   “That afternoon Chamberlain asked Churchill and Halifax to discuss the situation with him at 10 Downing Street,” wrote Martin Gilbert.    “According to the account of the conversation which Halifax gave to [his Foreign Office aide Alexander] Cadogan – and which Cadogan recorded in his diary – Chamberlain began the discussion by saying that the ‘main thing’ was national unity, that Labour must come into the Government, and that if Labour would not agree to serve under him, then he was ‘quite ready to resign.’”[14]


Even a key Chamberlain ally told him to step down. Lord Privy Seal “Kingsley Wood, upon whose advice he relied, convinced him that these vents only added urgency to his departure,” wrote Tory Duff Cooper.  Chamberlain’s “choice then lay between Halifax and Churchill, the same two that I had mentioned a year before in my letter to Baldwin as the only possible coalition Prime Ministers.  Churchill’s stock had risen since that date.  He had shown himself a highly competent First Lord of the Admiralty, his speeches in the House of Commons had been better than those of any of his colleagues, and everything that he had prophesied in the past had come disastrously true.  Halifax had merely remained the Foreign Minister of Munich.  So, on the very day when Hitler launched th real war upon Europe, Winston Churchill became Prime Minister of England.  It was high time.”[15]

Immediately after taking over as Prime Minister, Churchill wrote Chamberlain: “My first act on coming back from the Palace is to write and tell you how grateful I am to you for promising to stand by me and to aid the country at this extremely grievous and formidable moment.  I am under no illusions about what lies ahead, and of the long dangerous defile through which we must march for many months.  With your help and counsel and with the support of the great party of which you are the leader, I trust that I shall succeed.”[16]  The new Prime Minister wrote his predecessor: “In these eight months we have worked together I am proud to have won your friendship and your confidence in an increasing measure.  To a very large extent I am in your hands – and I feel no fear of that.  For the rest I have faith in our cause which I feel sure will not be suffered to fail among men.”[17]

Churchill decided – the King did not require – that he would form a national government. He told Attlee that he would grant Labour one third of the seats in the War Cabinet.[18]  Labour was not enthusiastic about serving in a government of Chamberlain was a part, but Churchill need to placate the large portion of Tory MPs who remained loyal to the former Prime Minister.  Chamberlain and other Tories himself objected to the inclusion of Clement Attlee and Arthur Greenwood in the War Cabinet; the ability and intelligence of Greenwood were especially questioned.[19]  Churchill was required to reach out to both Labour and Chamberlain loyalists at the same time.

Speaking on the BBC on May 29, Churchill said: “Having received His Majesty’s commission, I have formed an Administration of men and women of every Party and of almost every point of view.  We have differed and quarreled in the past; but now one bond unites us all — to wage war until victory is won, and never to surrender ourselves to servitude and shame, whatever the cost and the agony may be. this is one of the most awe-striking periods in the long history of France and Britain.”[20]

After much discussion about a position for Chamberlain, he was named Lord President, a post without specific responsibilities but which supposed general coordination of domestic issues.  Unusually, Chamberlain also remained leader of the Conservative Party – a position usually reserved for the Prime Minister or leader of the opposition.  On May 17, Chamberlain wrote in his diary: “All my world has tumbled to bits in a moment.  The national peril has so swamped all personal feelings that no bitterness remains.  Indeed I used to say to Annie before the war came that, if such a thing happened, I thought I should have to hand over to someone else, for I knew what agony of mind it would mean for me to give directions that would bring death and mutilation and misery to so many.”[21]

At the end of May, Lord Halifax pushed Churchill and the War Cabinet to open negotiations with Germany and Hitler through Italy and Mussolini – a position also favored by the French government.  Halifax’s position was generally backed in these contentious discussions by Chamberlain.  Chamberlain argued that although “he agreed that the proposed approach would not serve any useful purpose, he thought that we ought to go a little further with it, in order to keep the French in a good temper.  He thought that our reply should not be a complete refusal,” recorded the cabinet minutes.[22]  Although Churchill toyed with the concept of peace talks, he ultimately came down strongly against such negotiations in meeting with the wider cabinet on the afternoon of May 28.

Chamberlain meanwhile was facing a personal battle.  He was already deathly ill with stomach cancer.  Churchill remained courteous; he considered adding former Prime Minister  David Lloyd-George to the cabinet – but knowing that Chamberlain would be uncomfortable with the addition of an old enemy, he decided against the change.

Despite the failure of the 1938 Munich agreement, Chamberlain had no regrets about his policy of appeasement.  A few weeks before his death, Chamberlain wrote the Archbishop of Canterbury: “Few men can have known such a tremendous reverse of fortune in so short a time.  Only a few months ago I saw no limit to my physical strength and endurance, and until the Norway withdrawal…I seemed to have an unshakable hold over the H. Of C.  I could have survived my political fall and perhaps come back like others before me.  But the break-up of my physical health cannot be overcome or repaired.  And therefore as I say it is a solace to feel that I have no terrible blunder to reproach myself with.”[23]

After his illness forced Chamberlain to resign from the War Cabinet in September 1940, Churchill wrote the former prime minister to “to express to you my admiration for the heroic effort you have made to do your duty and to see this grim business through, and my sincere sorrow that, with nerve unshaken and mental prowess unimpaired, your physical strength no longer bears you up in a public station.  I trust indeed that having put down this burden you find life more endurable, and that a real improvement will set in.”  Churchill added: “I have greatly valued our comradeship and your aid and counsel during these five violent months, and I beg you to believe me your sincere friend.”[24]

Chamberlain’s doctor responded: “Your letter to Neville has so touched my heart that I am impelled to tell you so.  And I add that your gentle and skilful handling of a sick comrade during the vagaries through which his mind has been passing has put even me to shame!  You have greatly softened the blow and I want to thank you.”[25]  In the midst of German bombs and strategic difficulties that fall, Churchill wrote thoughtful updates to Chamberlain and offered to show him confidential documents about the war effort.

Two days after Chamberlain died on November 19, Churchill wrote Chamberlain’s widow: “During these long violent months of war we had come closer together than at any time in our twenty years of friendly relationship amid the ups and downs of politics.  I greatly admired his fortitude and firmness of spirit.  I felt when I served under him that he would never give in: and I knew when our positions were reversed that I could count upon the aid of a loyal and unflinching comrade.”[26]

In his eulogy for Chamberlain, Churchill declared: “The only guide to a man is his conscience; the only shield to his memory is the rectitude and sincerity of his actions.  It is very imprudent to walk through life without this shield, because we are so often mocked by the failure of our hopes, and the upsetting of our calculations; but with this shield, however the fates may play, we march always in the ranks of honour.”[27]  In private, however, Churchill could be harsh about his successor.  In June 1941, Churchill called Chamberlain “the narrowest, most ignorant, most ungenerous of men.”[28]

[1]  Piers Brendon, The Dark Valley: A Panorama of the 1930s, p. 611.

[2]  Ernest R. May, Strange Victory: Hitler’s Conquest of France, p. 171.

[3]  David A. Thomas, Churchill, the Member for Woodford, p. 30.

[4]  Martin Gilbert, Churchill: The Power of Words: His Remarkable Life Recounted Through His Writings and Speeches, p. 207.

[5]  Winston S. Churchill, The Gathering Storm, 320.

[6]  Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill: Finest Hour, 1939-1941, p. 47.

[7]  Keith Feiling, The Life of Neville Chamberlain, p. 420.

[8]  Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill: Finest Hour, 1939-1941, p. 51.

[9]  Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill: Finest Hour, 1939-1941, p. 286.

[10]  Duff Cooper, Old Men Forget, pp. 278-281.

[11]  Winston Churchill, The Gathering Storm, p. 594.

[12]  Robert J. Caputi, Neville Chamberlain and Appeasement, p. 61.

[13]  William Manchester, The Last Lion, Alone, p. 663.

[14]  Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill: Finest Hour, 1939-1941, p. 300.

[15]  Duff Cooper, Old Men Forget, pp. 279-280.

[16]  Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill: Finest Hour, 1939-1941, p. 314 (Letter from Churchill to Chamberlain, May 10, 1940).

[17]  Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill: Finest Hour, 1939-1941, p. 315 (Letter from Churchill to Chamberlain, May 10, 1940).

[18]  William Manchester, The Last Lion, Alone, p. 675.

[19]  Anthony McCarten, The Darkest Hour, p. 108.

[20]  Winston S. Churchill,  Never Give In!: Winston Churchill’s Speeches, p. 172.

[21]  Keith Feiling, The Life of Neville Chamberlain, p. 445.

[22]  Anthony McCarten, Darkest Hour, p. 207.

[23]  Keith Feiling, The Life of Neville Chamberlain, p. 455.

[24]  Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill Finest Hour, 1939-1941, p. 817 (Letter from Churchill to Neville Chamberlain October 4, 1940).

[25]  Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill Finest Hour, 1939-1941, p. 817.

[26]  Keith Feiling, The Life of Neville Chamberlain, p. 457.

[27]  John Colville, The Fringes of Power: The Incredible Inside Story of Winston Churchill, p. 292.

[28]  Robert Self, Neville Chamberlain: A Biography, p. 40 (June 22, 1940)

Posted in Essays