Several weeks ago, Egremont launched its first writing competition challenging readers to write an article comparing David Cameron to a past Tory leader other than either Edward Heath or Margaret Thatcher. The competition was prompted by the seeming ignorance of many Conservatives about their Party’s history before 1975. In our first entry, Andrew controversially argues that Mr. Cameron is most like Sir Neville Chamberlain – though not because of the Iran deal, as neocon pundits like Douglas Murray claim. For details about the competition, see here.
Congratulations to the TRG for organising this competition; it is an important exercise for enlightening many members, including myself, on where exactly we have come from. If we know our past, we can better plot a trajectory for our future. The trouble is that many of our detractors, and indeed supporters both within the Party are broadly ignorant of our history pre-1975.
I take this opportunity not only to state that David Cameron is a latter-day Neville Chamberlain, but also a little revisionism to the record of a leader whose achievements many moderate Conservatives ought to be proud of.
Sir Neville was a great social reformer – one very much in the mould of the One Nation Conservatism that we still champion today. Beginning his career in Birmingham Town Council, he directly alleviated that city’s dreadful housing shortage and abject poverty – a sign of the widespread welfare reform programme he was to go on and introduce at the Health Ministry in 1929.
The rhetoric surrounding the Unemployed Assistance Board that Chamberlain introduced could easily be mistaken from Mr. Cameron’s rationale for our welfare reforms, i.e. not just to alleviate true poverty, but also lift people from poverty of thought and of ambition. Indeed, of his reforms, Sir Neville said:
[We] saw the importance of providing some interest in life for the large numbers of men never likely to get work, and out of [this] realisation was to come the responsibility of the UAB for the welfare, not merely the maintenance, of the unemployed.
This unified Board replaced the locally administrated Poor Boards, which were usually Labour-dominated and had a tendency to overspend and subsidise those who otherwise could have worked rather than exclusively those who really could not stand on their own two feet. Set this against a backdrop of Sir Neville’s achievement of halving the Government’s debt servicing costs from 1932 to 1938, and as such lending security and confidence to the Britain’s credit rating.
His welfare reform programme was so successful that it attracted cross-party support. Opposition MPs are on a tighter rein than Sir Neville’s time, thus it is difficult to know the extent to which Labour agrees with Mr. Cameron’s welfare reform in the present day – but we can look to Frank Field’s proposals in 1997 as an indication that he is not a million miles off.
One of the hallmarks of Mr. Cameron’s premiership is his willingness to work with political opponents in the national interest. As Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir Neville Chamberlain served under Labour Prime Minister Ramsay Macdonald from 1931 to 1935.
Thankfully the only battles that the current Prime Minister fights on the continent concern only the extent to which the institutions of Europe should be competent over British sovereignty. Some hardline Eurosceptics in the Conservative Party may consider this a form of appeasement; others recognise an indirect, conciliatory approach can work when one is dealing with other rational human beings as compared to war-warmongering demagogues.
Ultimately, both David Cameron and Sir Neville Chamberlain were keen to put European issues to bed in order to press on with domestic policy issues. The scale of poverty and deprivation in 1930s Britain was of course far deeper and more severe than that which we face today. Indeed it is more a poverty of ambition and thought than poverty for the materials of subsistence which the current Prime Minister faces today. Nevertheless it is a battle fought against the backdrop of austerity and budget cuts following a Labour government which nearly bankrupted the country.
Sir Neville was a great social reformer and pioneered many items of legislation that would confound detractors of the modern Conservative Party: reform of factory working hours; restrictions placed on employers for the employment of women and children; introducing paid holiday entitlement for all workers; providing subsidies to accelerate slum clearance; and, of course, nationalisation of national coal stocks. Chamberlain was the first Prime Minister to legislate “[W]e are all in this together”, if not the first to say it.
Although the predicament touching the poor of Britain today is far less acute than those faced during the 1930s, the levels of poverty which the public are prepared to tolerate decreases.
No matter the level of revisionism Sir Neville’s legacy is subjected to, history will judge him much too unkindly due to foreign policy errors. There has been no comparable crisis against which Mr. Cameron could be compared against thus far, but certainly the present day has been kinder to Chamberlain than the period immediately following his premature death on 9th November 1940. I believe, for better or worse, if Mr. Cameron does not return as Prime Minister in 2015, he may well be subjected to the same treatment – history will judge him far more kindly in future than immediately following defeat.
If on the other hand he does return to No. 10, hopefully with a majority government, he shall be celebrated as the man who reformed his party, reformed Parliament, and reformed his country – all in the One Nation Conservative tradition exemplified by Sir Neville Chamberlain at a time before it was necessary to differentiate between One Nation versus any other form of Conservatism.
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