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Sir Joseph Austen Chamberlain, KG (16 October 1863 – 17 March 1937) was a British statesman and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.

Early life and career

Austen Chamberlain was born in Birmingham, the second child and eldest son of Joseph Chamberlain, then a rising industrialist and political radical, later Lord Mayor of Birmingham and a dominant figure in Liberal and Unionist politics at the end of the 19th Century. His mother, the former Harriet Kenrick, died in childbirth. Austen's father was so shaken by this event that for almost twenty-five years, he maintained a distance from his firstborn son. In 1868 he married for the second time, to Harriet's cousin, Florence, and had further children, the oldest of whom, Neville, would become Prime Minister in the year of Austen's death.

Austen was educated first at Rugby Schoolmarker, before passing on to Trinity College, Cambridgemarker. Chamberlain made his first political address there in 1884 at a meeting of the Political Society of his university, and it would appear that from an early age his father had intended for politics to be his Austen's future path. He was Vice-President of the Cambridge Union Societymarker.

With this in mind, Austen was dispatched first to France, where he studied at the Paris Institute of Political Studiesmarker (best known as the Sciences Po). Whilst there, Austen developed a lasting admiration (some would say love) for the French people and their culture. For nine months, he was shown the brilliance of Paris under the Third Republic, and met and dined with the likes of Georges Clemenceau and Alexandre Ribot.

From Paris, Austen was sent to Berlin for twelve months, there to imbibe the political culture of the other great European power, Germany. Though in his letters home to Beatrice and Neville he showed an obvious preference for France and the lifestyle he had left behind there, Chamberlain undertook to learn German and learn from his experience in the capital of the Kaiserreich. Among others, Austen met and dined with the “Iron Chancellor” Otto von Bismarck, an experience which was to hold a special place in his heart for the duration of his life.

While attending the University of Berlin, Austen also developed a suspicion for the pronounced nationalism then arising in the German Empire. This was based upon his experience of the lecturing style of Heinrich von Treitschke, who opened up to Austen "a new side of the German character - a narrow-minded, proud, intolerant Prussian chauvinism", the consequences of which he was later to ponder during the First World War, and the crises of the 1930s.

Though he was again upset to leave his newfound friends and return to the constraints of life under his father’s roof, Austen returned to the United Kingdom in 1888, lured largely by the prize of a parliamentary constituency.

He was first elected to parliament as a member of his father's own Liberal Unionist Party in 1892, sitting for the seat of East Worcestershire. Owing to the prominence of his father and the alliance between the anti-Home Rule Liberal Unionists and Conservative Party, Chamberlain was returned unopposed on 30 March, and at the first sitting of the new session, Austen walked up the floor of the house flanked by his father and his uncle Richard.

Owing to the dissolution of parliament and the August general election, Chamberlain was unable to make his maiden speech until April 1893. This speech, when delivered, was acclaimed by the four-time Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone as “one of the best speeches which has been made”. That Chamberlain was speaking against Gladstone’s Second Home Rule Bill does not seem to have dampened the enthusiasm of the Prime Minister, who responded by publicly congratulating both Austen and his father Joseph on such an excellent performance. This was highly significant, given the bad blood existing between Joseph Chamberlain and his former leader.

Appointed a junior Whip of the Liberal Unionists after the general election, Austen’s main role was to act as his father’s “standard bearer” in matters of policy. Upon the massive Conservative and Unionist landslide win in the election of 1895, Chamberlain was appointed a Civil Lord of the Admiralty, holding that post until 1900, when he became Financial Secretary to the Treasury. In 1902, following the retirement of Prime Minister Robert Arthur Talbot Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury, Chamberlain was promoted to the position of Postmaster General by the new premier, the Conservative Arthur James Balfour.

In the wake of the struggle between his father and Balfour, Austen Chamberlain became Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1903. Austen's appointment was largely a compromise solution to the bitter division of the two Unionist heavyweights, which threatened to split the coalition between supporters of Chamberlain's free-trade campaign and Balfour's more cautious advocacy of protectionism. While Austen supported his father’s programme, his influence within the cabinet was diminished following the departure of the senior Chamberlain to the back benches. Facing a resurgent Liberal opposition and the threat of an internal party split, Balfour eventually took the Unionists into opposition in December 1905, and in the ensuing rout in the election of 1906, Austen Chamberlain found himself one of the few surviving Liberal Unionists in the House of Commonsmarker.

Following his father's stroke and enforced retirement from active politics a few months later, Austen became the effective leader of the Tariff Reform campaign within the Unionist Party, and thus a contender for the eventual leadership of the party itself.

Leadership questions

With the Unionists in disarray after the two successive electoral defeats of 1910, Arthur James Balfour was forced from his position as party leader in November 1911. Chamberlain was one of the leading candidates to succeed as Conservative leader - even though he was still technically only a member of the Liberal Unionist wing of the coalition (the two parties merged formally in 1912). Chamberlain was opposed by Canadian-born Andrew Bonar Law, Walter Long and the Irish Unionist Sir Edward Carson, though given their standing in the party, only Chamberlain and Long had a realistic chance of success. Though Balfour had intended Chamberlain to succeed him, it became clear from an early canvass of the sitting MPs that Long would be elected by a slender margin. After a short period of internal party campaigning, Chamberlain determined to withdraw from the contest for the good of the still-divided party. He succeeded in persuading Long to withdraw with him, in favour of Bonar Law, who was subsequently chosen by unanimous vote as a compromise candidate.

Chamberlain's action, though it prevented him from attaining the party leadership, and arguably ultimately the premiership, did a great deal to maintain unity within the Conservative and Liberal Unionist parties at a time of great uncertainty and strain.



Years of crisis and the First World War

In the last years before the outbreak of the Great War, Chamberlain was concerned with one issue above all others: Home Rule for Ireland. The issue which had prompted his father to split the Liberal Party in the 1880s now threatened to spill over into outright civil war, with the government of Herbert Henry Asquith committed to the passage of a Third Home Rule Bill. Chamberlain was resolutely opposed to the dissolution of the Union with Ireland, and to the strain of these years was added the death of his father in July 1914, only a few days after the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand began the train of events which led to the First World War.

Pressure from the Conservative opposition, in part led by Chamberlain, eventually resulted in the formation of the wartime coalition government, in 1915. Chamberlain joined the cabinet as Secretary of State for India. Chamberlain remained at the India Office after Lloyd George succeeded Asquith as Prime Minister in late 1916, but following the failure of various British campaigns in Mesopotamia (undertaken by the separately-administered Indian Army), Chamberlain resigned his post in 1917. This was despite any wrongdoing on his part, and it is widely believed that Austen acted according to his principles: he was the minister ultimately responsible; therefore the fault lay with him. He was widely acclaimed for such a selfless act.

Later he returned to government and became a member of the War Cabinet in 1918. Following the victory of the Lloyd George coalition in the elections of 1918, Chamberlain was again appointed to the position of Chancellor of the Exchequer. Chamberlain immediately faced the huge task of restoring Britain’s finances after four disastrous years of wartime expenditure.

Leadership

Citing ill health, Bonar Law retired from the leadership of the Conservative branch of the Lloyd George government in the spring of 1921. Due to his seniority and the general dislike of Lord Curzon, his counterpart in the House of Lordsmarker, Chamberlain succeeded Bonar Law as leader of the party in the House of Commonsmarker and also took over in the office of Lord Privy Seal. He was succeeded at the Exchequer by Sir Robert Horne, and it seemed that after ten years of waiting, Austen would again be given the opportunity of succeeding to the premiership. The Lloyd George coalition was beginning to falter, following numerous scandals and the unsuccessful conclusion of the Anglo-Irish War, and it was widely believed that it would not survive until the next general election. Strangely, though he had had little regard for Lloyd George in preceding years, the opportunity of working closely with the “Welsh Wizard” gave Chamberlain a new insight into his nominal superior in the government (by now, the Conservative party was by far the largest partner in the government).

This was an unfortunate change of allegiance for Chamberlain, for by late 1921 the Conservative rank-and-file was growing more and more restless for an end to the coalition and a return to single-party (and therefore Conservative) government. Conservatives in the House of Lords began to publicly oppose the coalition, and disregarded calls for support from Chamberlain. In the country at large Conservative candidates began to oppose the coalition at by-elections and this discontent spread to the House of Commons. In the autumn of 1922, Chamberlain faced a backbench revolt (largely led by Stanley Baldwin) designed to oust Lloyd George, and when he summoned a meeting of Conservative MPs at the Carlton Clubmarker on 19 October, a motion in favour of fighting the forthcoming election as an independent party. Chamberlain resigned the party leadership rather than act against what he believed to be his duty, and was succeeded by Andrew Bonar Law, whose views and intentions he had divined the evening before the vote at a private meeting. Bonar Law formed a government shortly thereafter, but Chamberlain was not given a post nor, it would seem, would have he accepted a position had it been offered. Chamberlain therefore was the only Commons leader of the Conservative Party in the twentieth century not to attain the post of Prime Minister until William Hague.

Foreign Secretary and the triumph of Locarno

With Stresemann and Briand at Locano
At the second resignation of Bonar Law in May 1923 (Law would die from throat cancer later the same year), Chamberlain was passed over again for the leadership of the party in favour of Stanley Baldwin. Baldwin offered Chamberlain the post of Lord Privy Seal, but Chamberlain insisted that other former ministers from the Coalition should be included as well and Baldwin refused. However Chamberlain did return to government when Baldwin formed his second ministry following success in the election of October 1924, serving in the important office of Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs from 1924 to 1929. In this office, Chamberlain was largely allowed a free hand by the easygoing Baldwin.

It is as Foreign Secretary that Chamberlain’s place in history was finally assured. In a difficult period in international relations, Chamberlain not only faced a split in the Entente Cordiale occasioned by the French invasion of the Ruhr, but also the controversy over the Geneva Protocol , which threatened to dilute British sovereignty over the issue of League of Nations economic sanctions.

Despite the importance to history of these pressing issues, Chamberlain’s reputation chiefly rests on his part in the negotiations over what came to be known as the Locarno Pact of 1925. Seeking to maintain the post-war status quo in the West, Chamberlain responded favourably to the approaches of the German Foreign Minister Gustav Stresemann for a British guarantee of Germany’s western borders. Besides for promoting Franco-German reconciliation, Chamberlain's main motive was to create a situation where Germany could pursue territorial revisionism in Eastern Europe peacefully. Chamberlain's understanding was that if Franco-German relations improved, France would gradually abandon the Cordon sanitaire, as the French alliance system in Eastern Europe was known between the wars. Once France had abandoned its allies in Eastern Europe as the price of better relations with the Reich, this would create an situation where the Poles and Czechoslovaks having no Great Power ally to protect them, would be forced to adjust to German demands, and hence in Chamberlain's view would peacefully hand over the territories claimed by Germany such as the Sudetenland, the Polish Corridor and the Free City of Danzigmarker (modern Gdańskmarker, Poland) In this way, promoting territorial revisionism in Eastern Europe in Germany’s favor was one of Chamberlain's principal reasons for Locrano, and thus Locarno was from the British viewpoint an early instance of Appeasement.

Together with Aristide Briand of France, Chamberlain and Stresemann met at the town of Locarnomarker in October 1925 and signed a mutual agreement (together with representatives from Belgium and Italy) to settle all differences between the nations by arbitration and never resort to war. For his services, Chamberlain was not only awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, but was made a Knight of the Order of the Garter. Chamberlain also secured Britain's accession to the Kellogg-Briand Pact, which theoretically outlawed war as an instrument of policy. Chamberlain famously said that Italian dictator Benito Mussolini was "a man with whom business could be done".

Later career

Following his less-satisfactory engagement in issues in the Far East and Egypt, and the resignation of Baldwin’s government after the election of 1929, Chamberlain resigned his position as Foreign Secretary and went into retirement. He briefly returned to government in 1931 as First Lord of the Admiralty in Ramsay MacDonald's first National Government, but soon retired after having been forced to deal with the unfortunate Invergordon Mutiny.

Over the next six years as a senior backbencher he gave strong support to the National Government but was critical of their foreign policy. In 1935 the government faced a parliamentary rebellion over the Hoare-Laval Pact and Austen’s opposition to the vote of censure is widely believed to have been instrumental in saving the government from defeat on the floor of the House. Chamberlain was again briefly considered for the post of Foreign Secretary, but it is safe to assume that he would have refused if ever asked. Instead his advice was sought as to the suitability of Parliamentary Private Secretary Anthony Eden for the post. Winston Churchill claims in his memoirs that had this crisis ended differently Chamberlain may have been called upon as a respected statesman to form a government of his own, but this view is not widely supported, and may be in part due to Chamberlain’s position as the first public champion of what later became Churchill’s great cause – opposition to the German Nazi government of Adolf Hitler.

Last great service

During the period 1934 to 1937, Chamberlain was, with Winston Churchill, Roger Keyes and Leo Amery, the most prominent voice calling for British rearmament in the face of a growing threat from Nazi Germany. In addition to speaking eloquently in Parliament on the matter, he was the chairman of two Conservative parliamentary delegations in late 1936 which met with the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, to remonstrate with him about his government’s delay in rearming the British defence forces. More respected in this period than Churchill, Chamberlain became something of an icon to young Conservatives, as the last survivor of the Victorian Age of high politics.

Though he never again served in a government, Sir Austen Chamberlain survived in good health until March 1937, dying just ten weeks before his half-brother Neville Chamberlain finally became the first (and only) member of the distinguished Chamberlain dynasty to become Prime Minister.

Chamberlain died on 17 March 1937 aged 73.

His estate was probated at 45,044 pounds sterling, a relatively modest sum for such a famous public figure. Much of his father's fortune had been lost in an attempt to grow sisal in the West Indies in the early 1890s, and unlike his younger brother, Neville, Austen never went into business to make money for himself.

Chamberlain owned a country home with the unfortunate name of "Twytts' Ghyll".

The personal and political papers of Sir Austen Chamberlain are housed in the Special Collections of the main library of the University of Birminghammarker.

See also



Further reading

For such a prominent historical figure, Chamberlain has had very little attention from academics. The official biography, by Sir Charles Petrie is still quite readable, though the most recent work – by David Dutton – is a far more balanced account. Dutton is widely regarded as the expert in the field, though he disagrees somewhat with Richard Grayson’s assessment of Sir Austen’s views on France and Germany respectively. Some current work is being undertaken on the Chamberlain family by Peter Marsh - author of the most recent biography of Joseph Chamberlain - and Richard Scully is currently working on Sir Austen’s year in Germany and its subsequent effect on his opinions and politics.
  • David Dutton, Austen Chamberlain – Gentleman in Politics, Bolton: R. Anderson, 1985.
  • Richard Grayson, Austen Chamberlain and the Commitment to Europe: British Foreign Policy, 1924-1929, London: Frank Cass, 1997.
  • Sir Charles Petrie, The Chamberlain Tradition, London: Lovat Dickson Limited, 1938.
  • Sir Charles Petrie, The Life and Letters of the Right Hon. Sir Austen Chamberlain, London: Cassell & Co., 1939.
  • Robert C. Self (ed.), The Austen Chamberlain Diary Letters: The Correspondence of Sir Austen Chamberlain with his Sisters Hilda and Ida, 1916-1937, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.


References

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