I have just finished reading two very well written biographies of Conservative Prime Ministers, Neville Chamberlain and Edward Heath, the first of whom held Prime Ministerial office in the 1930’s and the latter in the 1970’s.
“Neville Chamberlain’s legacy…Hitler , Munich and the path to war” was written by Nicholas Milton, published by Pen and Sword.
The other book is an autobiography , and is entitled “The Course of My life “ and is by Edward Heath, and published in 1998 by Hodder and Stoughton.
Chamberlain and Heath’s political lives span the entire period of British history from 1920 to 2000, and the two books are a good introduction to this long period of British history, and show how the priorities ( and “philosophy”) of a major political party adapts to changed circumstances.
Neville Chamberlain is, of course, remembered for his attempts to find a modus vivendi with Hitler by forcing Czechoslovak territorial concessions. But there was much more to Chamberlain than this.
He was Minister for Health in the 1920s, and was responsible for initiating a huge programme of social housing.
He introduced Widows Pensions.
He was a “Levelling up “ Prime Minister , who actually did some levelling up.
He was not impeded in this by any free market dogma. He had been a local councillor and Mayor in Birmingham before entering the House of Commons, and had seen poverty at first hand.
He was no pacifist. As Chancellor of the Exchequer, after the 1936 General Election, he imposed a 3p in the £ income tax increase to pay for more defence spending, particularly of aircraft. This investment proved important in the Battle of Britain.
But when it came to negotiating for peace, Chamberlain failed to understand Hitler, who was a gambler and utterly reckless. Chamberlain acted towards Hitler as if he was a normal calculating politician.
Chamberlains did buy significant extra time for British rearmament by appeasing Hitler in 1938.
The ”Irish Times” wrote in September 1938 of this that Chamberlain
“had done more than any other individual save mankind from another war”.
The paper added that this had required great courage. De Valera also admired Chamberlains policy in 1938.
If Chamberlain’s political life is to be evaluated on the basis of whether he achieved his goal, which was peace in Europe, he failed, and the failure was sadly evident to him before his death in 1940.
The great goal of Edward Heath’s political life also was peace in Europe. Heath sought to reach that goal by bringing the UK into the European Union, which he saw as a structure of peace in Europe, binding countries so closely together economically that they could never contemplate war with one another.
Fortunately for Edward Heath , he did not live to see his work partly undone, when the UK voted to leave the EU in the 2016 Referendum. He had died in 2005.
Edward Heath was an excellent writer, and his autobiography keeps the reader’s attention over its full 736 pages.
He gives a good account of his personal life.
He was brought up in a semi detached house on the Kent coast. His father was a qualified carpenter who made a living as a small builder.
Edward Heath became an undergraduate in Oxford University before the War, on the basis of his academic results. While there he became active in college politics, and in the student Conservative Party.
As a student politician, he opposed Chamberlains appeasement politics in 1938, having observed Hitlers Nuremberg Rally in person.
The book gives an entertaining account of Heath’s search for a parliamentary seat after the War, in which he had served bravely.
He gives an entertaining account of his conversations with different constituency associations.
One association wanted an assurance that he would reply to all correspondence personally , and in longhand, as the previous MP had done. Heath would not give that assurance, so he had to look elsewhere.
Another wanted an MP who might become a Minister.
This seat was Bexley in Kent, just on the eastern edge of London. He was elected to serve that constituency in the General Election of 1950. Heath served it loyally as its MP. And Bexley remained loyal to him too, despite his public differences with the leadership of Margaret Thatcher.
Heath devotes much of the book to his work in negotiating British entry to the EU.
He points out that the true political nature of the EU was set out for the British people. It was not presented as just an economic arrangement. This was done before their Parliament voted to join the EU and the people approved it on this basis in a referendum in 1975. They were not misled at the time of that referendum, as Brexiters tried to argue in 2016.
Heath gives his version of the difficult relationship he had with Margaret Thatcher.
Early in their career they had much in common, and were good friends. It is a pity she did not find an opportunity to bring him back into government at some stage after she replaced him as leader of the Party in 1977. On the other hand he may have expected too much too soon.
The breach between them, and their philosophies remains unhealed, with the Thatcher version of conservatism ultimately triumphant.
The title of the Chamberlain book suggests the book would reveal Chamberlain’s “legacy.” It does not do so.
My own assessment is that the actual legacy of Chamberlain’s efforts to avoid a Second World War was to give any form of “appeasement” a bad name. The perceived failure of what is called appeasement in 1938 has led to mistakes by British and American leaders negotiating with dictators since then…..for example by making the wrong assumption that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destructionin 1991 , when he did not, and then going to war on that false basis.
Hitler may not have been bluffing in 1938, but Saddam WAS bluffing in 1991.
Both Prime Ministers has outside hobbies which helped them keep their minds relaxed despite the pressures of Prime Ministerial office.
In Chamberlains case, his interests were angling, birdwatching and the study of moths and butterflies.
In Heath’s case, his outside interests were music and sailing, in both of which he reached a very high standard.
The Chamberlain book deals very slightly with his relations with Ireland.
He settled the economic war in 1938, on financial terms that were favourable to Ireland, something that is forgotten in Ireland.
He also gave Ireland back the Treaty ports, which enabled Ireland to remain neutral in the war.
These two very important developments are not explored in the book.
In his book, Edward Heath devotes a chapter to Ireland.
He approved the introduction of internment without trial by the Stormont government. This was justified that juries would be intimidated because juries would be intimidated. He seems to have given insufficient thought, then or since, to the outworking of this radical decision. He did not explore alternatives.
On the other hand, he was the first UK Prime Minister to say that the UK had no selfish interest in Ireland. He was the first UK PM to visit this state , when he met Liam Cosgrave in Baldonnel in 1973. Earlier Britsh PMs, in the previous 50 years, had expected their Irish counterpart to go to London.
He sought to negotiate a settlement to the conflict in the Agreement reached at Sunningdale. He claimed that , at Sunningdale in 1973, Liam Cosgrave lacked the courage to promise to hold a referendum to remove Articles 2 and 3 of the Constitution. These Articles included a territorial claim by Dublin to rule Northern Ireland. This was to be a price paid for setting up a Council of Ireland, with consultative functions.
Given that partition had been accepted in practice by Dublin as early as 1925, this territorial claim should never have been inserted in the Irish Constitution in 1937. But once it was there, removing it was bound to be divisive.
Heath seemed to have forgotten that Cosgrave headed a coalition government, and that some of his strong minded Ministers were quite nationalistic. The main opposition party, Fianna Fail, was even more nationalistic. The risk of defeat in such a Referendum, and a resulting government split , was vey very high.
Lack of courage was the last thing of which Liam Cosgrave could be accused..
This shows that even enlightened British leaders sometimes have a poor understanding of Ireland.