A good Mayor of Birmingham

Hillary Clinton is like Neville Chamberlain – not the way you’d think

A good Mayor of Birmingham in a lean year.

This classic put-down was made by David Lloyd George in 1917: the target was Neville Chamberlain, who had just resigned or been fired from Lloyd George’s wartime government. It’s a good all-purpose political insult, and could be applied to any of the three remaining US presidential contenders:

A good senator from {Arizona, Illinois, New York} in a lean year.

Of course they won’t use it, because of the Electoral College. Lloyd George was an extreme risk-taker, quite capable of throwing away a few thousand votes for a good line. His florid extracurricular sex life, cheating on both his wife and his mistress, is widely supposed to have included coitus on the Cabinet table. No Drudge Report in those days.

But at a deeper level, the jibe only fits one of them.

Not, I insist, because of the one-dimensional soundbite of appeaser. You have to look at the whole career of a pretty successful and impressive politician. Neville Chamberlain was the conscientious first son (hah!) of the maverick imperialist Joseph C. He did start out in politics as Lord Mayor of Birmingham, in the days when Britain still had real local government; and a very good one. In barely a year in wartime, he founded a successful municipal bank and symphony orchestra and saw off a couple of strikes. His wartime ministerial stint under Lloyd George was unsuccessful, but between 1922 and 1940 he was hardly out of government, as Minister of Health, Chancellor of the Exchequer, and finally Prime Minister.

Chamberlain was the kind of pragmatic conservative who assumes that it is both the duty and in the interest of the propertied to improve the lives of the working class through state action. As Minister of Health – a wide remit then – he introduced 21 pieces of legislation, including the final abolition of the deterrent workhouses of the Elizabethan Poor Law. He would have been quite at home in the modern US Democratic Party, or the defunct Rockefeller wing of the Republicans. His track record in foreign policy wasn’t bad either: he found the resources for rearmament in the 1930s, stood up to Hitler over Poland, and took Britain into war. As a member of Churchill’ s small War Cabinet, he staunchly backed Churchill in the politico-military crisis of May 1940 against Halifax’ attempt to open feelers to Hitler for a compromise peace.

But still: Munich. In the greatest challenge of his political life, Chamberlain failed, and catastrophically. There’s a huge literature on Munich and I’m not familiar with it, so I’m just channelling the CW which by and large follows Churchill’s view at the time:

We are in the presence of a disaster of the first magnitude … we have sustained a defeat without a war… And do not suppose that this is the end. This is only the beginning of the reckoning.

The CW has it that a general war in September 1938 would have been worse for the Germans than the one that broke out a year later: the capable Czech army, the unreliable but possibly valid Soviet guarantee, and the opposition of the German General Staff and Mussolini outweighed the slight shift in the rearmament balance. But suppose that’s wrong. You can certainly make a case that the pacifism of British and French public opinion in September 1938 and the military unreadiness of both countries made the sellout inevitable. But either way, Chamberlain exacted no price for it, bought little time, and lowered the barriers to further aggression.

His behaviour does not however strike me as that of a Talleyrandian cynic, buying time for an inevitable war, but of an honest man suckered by crooks. He even managed to leave Hitler with the false impression that he was a gutless wimp; quite wrong, as his behaviour a year later over the Polish guarantee clearly showed. But in the collective memory, Chamberlain’s long record of honest and solid achievement is outweighed by this one enormous failure, and he has gone down in popular history as the appeaser of Munich.

And this is what Senator Clinton did when she voted for the Iraq war. A long record of lesser good works are forgotten if you fail the big one. As the Obama campaign puts it:

Barack Obama has a very simple case. On the most important commander in chief test of our generation, he got it right, and Senator Clinton got it wrong.

Postscript 1: John McCain and Barack Obama

The Chamberlain analogy doesn’t fit either at all. McCain was as wrong on Iraq as Chamberlain was at Munich, but that’s it. Quite apart from his skimpy political achievement, John McCain is very far removed from Neville Chamberlain in personality. Unlike the hubristic Rudy Giulani, McCain does have something faintly Churchillian about him: the personal courage, reactionary views, disinterest in domestic policy, and erratic political career; but he entirely lacks Churchill’s gifts of insight and rhetorical power, let alone his workrate, And Barack Obama is a young and inspirational outsider – Lloyd George minus the sleaze – not a party workhorse.

Postscript 2: The failure of imagination

The idea that Chamberlain failed at Munich because of cowardice doesn’t fit the facts, and he wasn’t stupid either. He was certainly getting mixed advice from the Foreign Office – predominantly but not entirely pro-appeasement. Mainly I put it down to a failure of imagination. He, and even Vansittart, couldn’t help thinking of the Nazis as very unsavoury versions of nationalist statesmen like Bismarck or de Valera. They weren’t that at all, but a group of political psychopaths fanatically inspired by an insane millenarian racism. The Nazis entirely rejected the norms of international relations followed in Europe since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. It was the old reactionary Churchill who saw this: partly because he was a more imaginative and empathic person to begin with, but also because he’d knocked about the world in his youth, encountering such strange folks as the Mahdists of Sudan and the Boers of South Africa, and later on the Young Turks, the Fenians and the Russian Bolsheviks. So he was open to the perception that the Nazis were equally far outside the usual frame.

Al Qaeda isn’t the NSDAP but it is equally strange. As in the Protestant Reformation, you have a widespread movement in Islam (fundamentalism) challenging the existing political and social order over a big part of the world, with a small extremist fringe (jihadism, as in Chechnya and Palestine) and within that a tiny ultra sect of nihilistic terrorists (al-Q). By itself, the last would be a trivial foe; but the conflict is complicated by the strong feedbacks of recruitment and propaganda between the three layers. It’s an essentially new challenge to liberal democracies, even if it bears some relation to the national liberation struggles of the end of colonialism.

All the other challenges facing the next US president can be tackled by the existing tools of rational policymaking: the financial crisis and recession, climate change, health care, rebuilding the global diplomatic system. Both Obama and Clinton would do pretty well at these; if you want to, though I don’t, you can reasonably give Hillary the edge. McCain would be hopeless as he has shown no taste for rational policy analysis in the first place.

But on terrorism, there’s no contest. Hillary Clinton’s whole background and career has taken place in a cosy all-American womb. The only oddball thing she’s ever done was marrying Bill. Barack Obama’s background and career, shorter than hers though it is, has included a Churchillian variety of environments, stimuli, and human encounters. In character, she is a conventional achiever, like Chamberlain; he an unconventional and inner-directed one. It was no accident that she followed the conventional Beltway folly into Iraq, and that he was able to see the situation whole from Chicago. And that’s the way it will go on. If Americans want to defeat Islamic terrorism, they have to imagine what that victory would look like: and for this, only one of the three contenders offers them any hope at all.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web