It was Chamberlain who really won us the war… For years he has been painted as a naïve


Book of the week

Sing as We Go: by Simon Heffer (Hutchinson Heinemann £35, 960pp)

Criticising Sir Neville Chamberlain for failing to stand up to Hitler’s rapacious territorial demands in September 1938, one cabinet minister, Sir Thomas Inksip, remarked, ‘Mr Chamberlain descended into the thieves’ kitchen as though he was walking into the Carlton Club.’

That’s an all-too-accurate image of what it was like when the 69-year-old Prime Minister, a true English gentleman who expected other men to behave like gentlemen, flew to Munich at the end of September 1938 and tried to extract a promise from Hitler.

He believed — or desperately wanted to believe — that if he and Hitler were alone together in a room, having a clubbable, gent-to-gent chat, a relationship of genuine trust could be established, and war could be averted.

Hitler promised: if he was allowed to take over the Sudetenland without Britain and France declaring war to defend it, that would be the end of his territorial claims in Europe.

Criticising Sir Neville Chamberlain (pictured with Hitler in 1938) for failing to stand up to Hitler¿s rapacious territorial demands in September 1938, one cabinet minister, Sir Thomas Inksip, remarked, ¿Mr Chamberlain descended into the thieves¿ kitchen as though he was walking into the Carlton Club.¿

Criticising Sir Neville Chamberlain (pictured with Hitler in 1938) for failing to stand up to Hitler’s rapacious territorial demands in September 1938, one cabinet minister, Sir Thomas Inksip, remarked, ‘Mr Chamberlain descended into the thieves’ kitchen as though he was walking into the Carlton Club.’

When Chamberlain flew back to England and announced ‘peace for our time’ to a profoundly relieved population, he wrote to his sister Hilda, ‘I came home nearer to a nervous breakdown than I have ever been’. But he was sure Hitler had told him the truth. ‘This time is different,’ he said to her. ‘This time, he has made his promises to me.’

That was pure delusion. Hitler’s promises meant nothing. Within five-and-a-half months he had invaded the whole of Czechoslovakia, rightly guessing that no one would stop him. And that was the moment when the British public started to feel a deep sense of shame about the policy of appeasement that had thrown Czechoslovakia to the wolves.

As Simon Heffer writes in his persuasive overview of the previous two decades, ‘the journey to the Second World War, begun at Versailles, accelerated by the rise of Bolshevism and sent headlong by Hitler, had reached the point of no return.’

That’s what this whole sprawling 960-page book covers: those two roller-coaster decades sandwiched between one world war and the next — a turbulent time of unrest, unemployment, anxiety, anger, denial, fun, jazz, radio-listening, cinema-going and road-building.

Its title, Sing As We Go, is inspired by the 1934 Gracie Fields film of that name. ‘Our Gracie’, born in 1898 over her grandmother’s chip shop in Rochdale, summed up what Heffer sees as the British national character, which saved us from the kind of revolution that had engulfed Russia and the Right-wing extremism that would engulf Germany.

That character consisted of ‘a sense of humour, resilience, and an absence of pity’, making it possible to pull through whatever life threw at you. As soon as P. G. Wodehouse invented the absurd character of Sir Roderick Spode, the Fascist who happened to be an underwear magnate, it punctured the pomp of Fascism and Britain could never quite take it seriously.

Hitler (pictured with Chamberlain in 1938) promised: if he was allowed to take over the Sudetenland without Britain and France declaring war to defend it, that would be the end of his territorial claims in Europe

Hitler (pictured with Chamberlain in 1938) promised: if he was allowed to take over the Sudetenland without Britain and France declaring war to defend it, that would be the end of his territorial claims in Europe

I measured this book against a brick in our garden, and it’s precisely the same thickness. At times, I got bogged down in its seemingly unending 80-page chapters, and its never-ceasing onslaught of statistics about unemployment figures and whether sterling was up or down.

But Heffer’s knowledge and his deep research are impressive, and he clearly couldn’t bear to leave anything out, as every detail, every cabinet meeting, every ripple of unrest in towns across the land, adds something to the larger picture, and in order to understand (say) the General Strike, you need to live through every political and industrial event that led up to it. But gosh, it can be heavy-going. Certain details shine out, bringing the interwar years vividly to life. Dame Nellie Melba did the first live broadcast from a studio in a disused packing shed in Marconi’s factory, using a microphone made from a telephone receiver, a cigar box and a hat stand.

There were still 875,000 horses working the land in 1935. George V’s final words were either ‘How’s the Empire?’ or ‘Bugger Bognor!’ (someone suggested he might need to go to Bognor to convalesce, and he was having none of that). And when Chamberlain flew to Munich in 1938 it was his first-ever flight, apart from one brief demonstration flight over Birmingham.

Sing as We Go: by Simon Heffer (Hutchinson Heinemann £35, 960pp)

Sing as We Go: by Simon Heffer (Hutchinson Heinemann £35, 960pp)

One of the most enriching aspects of this book is that it makes us re-evaluate Chamberlain, whose reputation was ‘crucified’ after the failure of Munich. Watching the agonies he went through as he took the country utterly unwillingly towards the one thing everyone most dreaded, another war, is like watching a tragedy unfold both for a man and for a nation.

His letters to his sisters Hilda and Ida are really touching, and show us a man doing all he can to save his beloved nation from destruction. That first week of September 1939, Heffer writes, ‘was Chamberlain’s personal moment of confronting the failure he had manufactured’.

Yet Heffer argues that Chamberlain could be seen to have been deft and full of acute foresight. His chiefs of staff had made it clear to him that Britain was not yet armed enough to fight a war in 1938, so his staving-off of war through appeasement was perhaps a vital tactic to give the country time to rearm.

And whose fault was it that the British military was in such a decrepit state in the early 1930s, with not nearly enough aircraft or a large enough Army or Navy?

It was Winston Churchill’s, says Heffer. When he was Chancellor of the Exchequer from 1924 to 1929, he made deep cuts in defence spending and was not (back then) exactly Mystic Meg when it came to predicting a war. ‘Why should there be a war with Japan?’ he said. ‘I do not believe there is the slightest chance of it in my lifetime.’

As Heffer writes, ‘these underfunded, moribund forces were an invitation for potential enemies to throw their weight around, but in the mid-1920s no one seemed to notice’. And you can hardly blame them for not noticing, or not wanting to notice — they’d only just buried their own fathers, sons and brothers, and the thought of another war was anathema.

Churchill’s other great mistake, Heffer believes, was to go back to the Gold Standard in 1925, which made British industries less competitive and caused a huge rise in unemployment, later exacerbated by the Wall Street Crash and the ensuing slump — although Heffer reminds us that Britain didn’t suffer nearly as badly as America did as a result of the Crash — ‘no jumping out of windows in the Square Mile’. At its worst, the decline in real income for Americans was 37 per cent; in Britain it only ever reached 0.8 per cent.

This is a richly persuasive portrait of interwar Britain and its politicians, reminding us just how hard it is for anyone to run a country. Headache follows headache. It seems to be the human condition.

‘Give us a moment’s peace!’ I found myself begging, when the book opens in 1919, and looters were already burning down Luton Town Hall, furious about the plight of war veterans, just months after the end of World War I.

But no — it was straight back into strife: domestic and international fury, wrangling and protesting, which never stopped and perhaps never will.



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