Austen Chamberlain

From New World Encyclopedia

The Rt. Hon. Austen Chamberlain

Sir Joseph Austen Chamberlain, KG (October 16, 1863 – March 17, 1937), was a British statesman, politician, and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize for 1925. The son and brother of successful politicians, it is said that Austen Chamberlain did not so much "choose a career, he accepted it."[1] Elected to Parliament in 1882, by 1902, he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, one of the most important posts in government. After a period as Secretary for India between 1915 and 17, he was again Chancellor in 1918, with the daunting task of leading the economic reconstruction of the war ravished nation, after World War I. However, it was as Foreign Secretary between 1924 and 1929, that he was most successful, this time contributing significantly to European reconstruction. In 1925, his intervention in border disputes between Germany and her Western neighbors resulted in eight treaties. War was avoided. Furthermore, the treaties committed all parties to arbitration and never resort to war. In addition, he was instrumental in allowing Germany to join the League of Nations, of which Germany became a member on September 8, 1926. As a back-bench member of Parliament in the 1930s, Chamberlain, although a man of peace, gave strong support to increase British military capability in the face of Germany's military rearmament under the Third Reich.

Although he never became Prime Minister, he served his nation and the wider European community with distinction. Unfortunately, Europe was unable to set measures in place that prevented the outbreak of World War II but Chamberlain can be said to have prolonged the post-World War I peace, even if he was unable to make it the permanent peace of which his brother, Neville Chamberlain, had dreamed.

Early life and career

It was shortly after the successful delivery of the infant Joseph Austen Chamberlain that his mother, Harriet (nee Kenrick) died of complications arising from the birth. Austen's famous father, Birmingham's Mayor Joseph Chamberlain, was so shaken by this event that for almost twenty-five years, he maintained a distance from his firstborn son, of which Chamberlain only later became aware. He wrote in later years that:

"It was one day in my 'teens that I spoke critically to him of a friend of his, left early a widower with an only child. 'He doesn't seem to care much for the boy,' I said, 'or to see much of him,' and my father, quick as always in a friend's defence, blurted out before he saw the implication of what he was saying, 'You must remember that his mother died when the boy was born,' and in a flash I saw for the first time, what he had so carefully concealed from me, that in my earliest years I had been to him the living embodiment of the first tragedy of his life."

The infant Austen was initially placed in the care of a maternal aunt, before Joseph Chamberlain married for the second time in 1868, to Florence Kenrick, a relative of his first wife. It was from this second marriage that Austen's half-brother and the future Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, was born (in 1869). Austen's stepmother died in turn in 1875 (prompting the further withdrawal of his father), and so the young boy's life revolved to a large degree around his female relatives, and most importantly his sister Beatrice. His brother Neville was also to be a close companion.

Austen Chamberlain was educated first at the prestigious Rugby School, before passing on to Trinity College, Cambridge, the largest of the constituent colleges of the Cambridge University. 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.

With this in mind, Austen was dispatched first to France, where he studied at the Paris Institute of Political Studies (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 March 30, 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 of 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 program, 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 Commons.

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 Ulster 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.

Last chance for the premiership

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 Lords, Chamberlain succeeded Bonar Law as leader of the party in the House of Commons, effective overall leader, and also took over in the office of Lord Privy Seal. He resigned the Exchequer to 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. In the autumn of 1922, Chamberlain faced a backbench revolt (largely led by Stanley Baldwin) designed to oust Lloyd George, and at a meeting of the Carlton Club in October of that year, Chamberlain resigned the party leadership rather than act against what he believed to be his duty. Chamberlain 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

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 favor of Stanley Baldwin. It is interesting to contemplate what effect Chamberlain’s presence in the Baldwin government would have had on the Conservative party's disastrous general election defeat of 1923. Nevertheless, 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 favorably to the approaches of the German Chancellor Gustav Stresemann for a British guarantee of Germany’s western borders. Together with Aristide Briand of France, Chamberlain and Stresemann met at the town of Locarno 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 when sailors refused to comply with orders to sail in protest over a rumored cut in salaries. This was at the start of the Great Depression, when Britain had a deficit of £170,000,000.

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 on what later became Churchill’s great cause—opposition to the German Nazi government of Adolf Hitler.

Other honors

Chamberlain received several honorary doctorates and served as Chancellorship of the University of Reading, 1935-37.

Religious convictions

Although, unlike most members of his family, Austen did not formally join a Unitarian Church he was nominally a life-long Unitarian. He was always assumed to be a Unitarian, and did not deny this. He also made regular contributions to Unitarian charity work. In 1922, he joined the Unitarian Historical Society. Like his father and brother, his commitment to public service owed much to the Unitarian emphasis on faith on praxis rather than on belief, on engagement with society in order to improve the quality of life that people enjoy. In a letter to his sisters dated 1928, he wrote: "Scratch me and you find the Nonconformist. I may not be a very orthodox Unitarian if there is such a thing as orthodoxy in that very heterodox body, but in every fibre of my being I am Protestant with the biggest 'P' that you can put to it."[2]

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 defense forces. More respected in this period than the largely discredited 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's estate was probated at 45,044 pounds sterling.

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


  1. Norwegian Nobel Prize Committee, Biography: Nobel Peace Prize, 1925. Retrieved June 16, 2007.
  2. Unitarian-Universalist Historical Society, Austen Chamberlain. Retrieved June 16, 2007.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Chamberlain, Austen. Down the Years. London: Cassell and Co., 1935.
  • Dutton, David and Austen Chamberlain. Gentleman in Politics. Bolton: R. Anderson, 1985. ISBN 9780863600180
  • Grayson, Richard. Austen Chamberlain and the Commitment to Europe: British Foreign Policy 1924-1929. London: Frank Cass, 1997. ISBN 9780714647586
  • Petrie, Sir Charles. The Chamberlain Tradition. London: Lovat Dickson Limited, 1938.
  • Petrie, Sir Charles. The Life and Letters of the Right Hon. Sir Austen Chamberlain. London: Cassell & Co., 1939.
  • Self, Robert C., 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. ISBN 9780521551601


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