Commercial Break; Andrew Lydon on How 1939 Spelled the End of the Chamberlain Dynastic Influence on the Business Classes

The Birmingham Post (England), August 28, 2009 | Go to article overview

Commercial Break; Andrew Lydon on How 1939 Spelled the End of the Chamberlain Dynastic Influence on the Business Classes


Byline: Andrew Lydon

All sides pulling together, and the supposed political truce is how wartime is usually now recalled. But September 1939 began the final breaking of Birmingham's Chamberlain dynasty to whom the business classes of middle England then looked to for political leadership.

Nineteen thirty nine became therefore a national turning point of greater consequence than is often attached to supposedly more revolutionary moments like 1945, 1979 or 1997. In 1939, Hitler repeatedly offered to commit Germany to the defence of the British Empire - in exchange for a 'free hand' in Europe. Many in Berlin had long seen how central the 'empire' was to the Chamberlains and their followers.

But within a couple of years of that fateful September, British forces in Asia sat humiliated in Singapore. Their position in Asia would never recover. Had Churchill been able to keep more than a nominal fleet there in 1942, all would not have collapsed quite so abruptly.

Such a collapse of the British empire in the face of Japan, or maybe Russia, was being anticipated by German naval leaders since 1900. Admiral Tirpitz calculated that this day could be brought forward, if Britain had to recall its fleets to patrol England's own essential supply lines. What Tirpitz miscalculated though, was how long this would all still take.

Invasion of England, had never been on Tirpitz's agenda. Forcing 'England' to open-up its empire markets to German firms, or face loosing that empire, was Germany's agenda. Their navy had been the totemic project of Germany's commercial classes, who had spotted in the Chamberlains' Imperial projects a plan to shut the new dynamic German indus-trieout of what were then the world's 'emerging markets'.

This was barely concealed as the rationale for Joseph Chamberlain's 'Tariff Reform League' which reshaped British politics between 1904 and 1932. Aims that emerged in discussions in and around Neville Chamberlain's factory in Digbeth.

British Canada would likely rope the US into this process. As chancellor in 1932, Chamberlain had finally got all the colonial governments to adopt the 'Empire free trade' project - with tariff surcharges on produce from outside. The dynastic legacy could now be much more than some grand buildings in Birmingham. Hence Hitler's offer would weigh more to any Chamberlain than to the duke's nephew who would displace Neville in No.10.

That Hitler made such an offer, proved how cowed Germany's commercial classes were by 1939. They never saw German domination of French and Polish markets as any sort of compensation for being shut out of the wider world.

The Kaiser's Germany had resorted to force to try to prize open its neighbour's empire-markets. …

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