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Why nothing can redeem Neville Chamberlain

There are few political moments as ingrained in the public mind as the sight of Neville Chamberlain at Heston Aerodrome, freshly returned from the Munich Conference, brandishing his piece of paper and declaring that peace with the Nazis had been secured.

Munich has become a byword for cowardice in the face of totalitarian aggression. Chamberlain and appeasement are terms of abuse to be hurled at any effort at diplomacy one wishes to disparage.

Winston Churchill’s analysis of appeasement is so universally accepted that all attempts to resurrect his predecessor’s reputation have failed. There is no politician anywhere inviting comparisons with Chamberlain, no conservative leader seeking to portray himself as the new Neville. Even this week one Tory MP seeking the departure of Boris Johnson taunted the PM by invoking the spirit of a predecessor who famously demanded Chamberlain’s resignation. The thing to be is Churchillian, not Chamberlainian.

The only Chamberlain with whom modern Tories want to be compared is Neville’s father, Joseph, and that is only because most people don’t know anything about his time as colonial secretary.

Historians have, for more than 50 years, laboured to offer a more nuanced picture of the former prime minister in which he is not the cowardly leader but the shrewd assessor of British weakness, playing for time while the nation rearmed and trying to spare a generation that lived through the first world war a second slaughter.

Yet it makes little difference. The appeasement story is too visceral. And since the Nazis turned out to be even more evil than they looked before the war, no one known to have pursued a deal with them is likely to come out of it well. However much one plays up other qualities, “sought peace with Hitler” is always going to bubble up to the top of your résumé.

Even so, a new attempt at redemption is hitting our screens with the release of the film Munich: The Edge of War, based on Robert Harris’s novel. Harris has long argued that history has done Chamberlain a disservice and wants us to see him as a “tragic hero” rather than a gutless dupe. To that end, he secured the services of Jeremy Irons to imbue the former premier with a charisma which the aloof and chilly Chamberlain lacked.

As an accomplished writer, Harris knows the value of a contrarian narrative. His was a good novel, and I’m looking forward to catching the film. But there is no way back for Chamberlain. He is simply too useful as he is.

The country, indeed the world, does not want a reappraisal of Munich because that sordid peace deal was not merely a historical event. It was an essential morality tale. Munich and appeasement are the perfect proof that one can never make deals with evil and that you must always stand up to bullies, because weakness only encourages them. It has been prayed in aid of almost every conflict since, even disasters such as Suez. We don’t want some best-selling novelist messing up the narrative.

It is also, incidentally and far less fashionably, the argument for liberal interventionism. Failure to stand against dictators and human rights abuse is routinely derided as appeasement. For what was Munich but the purchase of a temporary peace by selling out a people and a territory to fascist rule? But even those wishing to push back on western intervention don’t need Chamberlain rehabilitated. If we want a cautionary tale, well, Tony Blair’s got our backs.

The world does not want Neville Chamberlain courageous, charismatic and canny. It wants him craven, cold, vain and selling out the Czechs and the rest of Europe. We like the Churchill version of history in which Britain bravely stood firm against the greatest evil the world had ever seen. We do not actually want to be reminded of Chamberlain’s substantial body of achievements before he became prime minister. We like to remember our leaders for one thing only. So much simpler that way.

For Chamberlain to have been right, Churchill has to have been wrong and that’s just not the story we are going to tell. You could cast Daniel Craig or Ryan Reynolds in the role and have him defusing unexploded bombs inside Buckingham Palace, but he isn’t coming out on top in that tussle.

I’m all for nuance in history, but it’s not going to fly this time. It may be erudite but introducing shades of grey to perhaps the world’s most Manichean conflict is not only unwanted, it’s unhelpful. The country and the world has a myth and it’s serving us well, except on those occasions when it isn’t.

To quote the end of a famous Western: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” The nation doesn’t need its Nevilles nuanced and its Munichs masterful. Enjoy the film, but my bet is that we’re going to stick with the legend.

Follow Robert on Twitter @robertshrimsley and email him at robert.shrimsley@ft.com

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