Chamberlain, Sir (Joseph) Austen 1863-1937, statesman, was born at Birmingham 16 October 1863, the only son of Joseph Chamberlain [qv.] by his first wife, Harriet, daughter of Archibald Kenrick, of Berrow Court, Edgbaston. His mother died at his birth, and his father subsequently remarried twice: (Arthur) Neville Chamberlain [qv.] was his half-brother. Austen Chamberlain was educated at Rugby and Trinity College, Cambridge; he took his degree in 1885. On leaving Cambridge he was sent to France for nine months, and it was then that he developed the love of that country which was to influence him so greatly for the rest of his life. In Paris he attended at the École des Sciences Politiques, and among those whose acquaintance he made was Clemenceau. In February 1887 he went to Germany for twelve months, and he never revisited the country, although he had arranged to do so in the summer of 1914. Chamberlain went regularly to Treitschke's lectures on Prussian history, but they disquieted him. Berlin did not attract him as Paris had done, and he found it slightly provincial. What was true of the German capital equally applied to the Germans themselves, and from these early days his preference was always for the French
When Chamberlain came home from Germany the first step that his father took was to find him a constituency, and he was duly adopted as prospective candidate for the Border Burghs. He nursed the seat for four years, when something more attractive, and nearer Birmingham, offered itself, namely, East Worcestershire, and he was returned unopposed as a liberal unionist at a by-election in March 1892. Parliament was dissolved shortly afterwards, and Chamberlain did not make his maiden speech until after the ensuing general election, when he was re-elected. In April 1893, however, Gladstone is found writing to Queen Victoria that Austen Chamberlain had delivered one of the best speeches which has been made against the bill [the second home rule bill], and exhibited himself as a person of whom high political anticipations may reasonably be entertained. The liberal unionists were returned forty-seven strong at the election of 1892, and Chamberlain was appointed their junior whip. When the conservatives came back to office in 1895 he was made a civil lord of the Admiralty, a post which he held until 1900 when he became financial secretary to the Treasury; as usual, that soon led to high office, in his case the postmastership-general with a seat in the Cabinet and a Privy Councillorship. In 1903 he was appointed chancellor of the Exchequer, when both his father and the free traders left Balfour's administration
This appointment had been very largely made in order that the breach between Joseph Chamberlain and Balfour should not be widened unnecessarily, and Austen was to be a link between his father and the prime minister. But the new chancellor found Balfour by no means easy to understand, and if he acted as a link, it was as one which often had to stand a very severe strain. He was responsible for two budgets during his first tenure of office as chancellor of the Exchequer, but the circumstances in which he was appointed precluded him from applying the principles of tariff reform and imperial preference in which he had come to believe, and he had to do the best he could with the existing fiscal system. Nevertheless, although neither of his budgets was sensational, they were both well received. In December 1905 the administration resigned, and at the general election of the following month its supporters were routed at the polls, although East Worcestershire remained faithful to Austen Chamberlain
Shortly afterwards, Joseph Chamberlain was incapacitated from taking any further active part in political life, and in opposition his son had now a difficult part to play. In theory, the conservatives and liberal unionists were still distinct, but as only a small number of the latter had survived the election Chamberlain's immediate following hardly mattered: his task was to leaven the conservative mass with the doctrine of tariff reform, and to ensure that when next the party obtained a majority protection would be carried into effect. This brought him into conflict with other sections of the party, and not infrequently with Balfour himself. In the fight against the parliament bill in 1911 he was numbered among the die-hards, although in later years he admitted that it had been a mistake for the House of Lords to throw out the budget in the first instance
In November 1911 Balfour resigned the leadership of the conservative party and Chamberlain and Walter Long (afterwards Viscount Long of Wraxall) [qv.] were rival candidates for the succession. However, as the voting was likely to be close, they both stood down in favour of Bonar Law, who was elected unanimously. Whether this compromise was really in the best interests of the party and the country is a moot point, and Chamberlain was to have differences at least as serious with his new leader as those which he had experienced with his old. At first Bonar Law relied upon him to a very large extent, but before long, to quote Chamberlain himself in Down the Years, he turned more and more to Sir Edward Carson and Chamberlain doubted the wisdom of concentrating the party's energies so largely upon opposition to the third home rule bill, to the exclusion of educational work for tariff reform. There was, in particular, a sharp difference of opinion between the two men over the advisability of postponing the imposition of taxes on food in the event of a conservative victory, a course advocated by Bonar Law
Chamberlain played a prominent part during the days immediately preceding the outbreak of the war of 1914-1918 in inducing the opposition leaders to bring pressure upon the government to stand by France and Russia, and to assure Asquith of conservative support. When the coalition was formed in May 1915 he became secretary of state for India, and he retained that office for two years. His resignation was brought about by the mismanagement of the campaign in Mesopotamia, for the commission which inquired into it revealed a very disquieting state of affairs, particularly where the medical services were concerned. There was never any suggestion that blame attached to Chamberlain, but he was secretary of state for India, and as it was his department which was involved he felt it to be his duty to resign in July 1917
Until April 1918, when he became a member of the War Cabinet, Chamberlain remained out of office, although his services were by no means wasted, for he did valuable work on a committee to control the dollar expenditure of all departments. When Lloyd George reorganized his government after the general election of 1918 he offered Chamberlain the post of chancellor of the Exchequer, which was accepted (January 1919) on condition that there should be an early return to the old Cabinet system which had been suspended during the war. During this second period at the Treasury Chamberlain was confronted with a very difficult situation, not least owing to the industrial unrest which was the aftermath of the war, and the three budgets for which he was responsible went a long way towards placing the national finances on a sound footing. For two years he remained chancellor of the Exchequer, with Bonar Law as lord privy seal and leader of the conservative party. In March 1921 Bonar Law retired on account of ill health, and Chamberlain succeeded him in the conservative leadership: the Exchequer he vacated in favour of Sir Robert Horne (afterwards Viscount Horne of Slamannan) [qv.]
Chamberlain was leader of the conservative party in the House of Commons from the spring of 1921 until the autumn of the following year, and his task was no easy one. The rank and file was showing every day a more marked desire to break away from the coalition, and was arguing that in view of the unpopularity of the government this was the only course for the conservative party to pursue if it was not to go down to disaster with Lloyd George at the next general election. Chamberlain did not share this opinion. He had no confidence in his party's ability to win an independent majority of its own, and in view of the strength of the disruptive forces up and down the country the fall of the existing administration might well be the prelude to revolution. From the beginning, therefore, there were sharp differences between the new leader and many of his followers
The great dissolvent of conservative unity was the problem of Ireland. Chamberlain was, in October 1921, one of the British representatives at the conferences which then began with Sinn Fein. He also signed the Irish treaty itself on 6 December. His next task was to obtain the assent of his followers to the settlement, and although he secured a substantial majority at the party conference in Liverpool his difficulties were increased rather than diminished. The die-hards, as the irreconcilable element was again termed, became increasingly dissatisfied with his continued support of Lloyd George, and during the year 1922 his position and that of the government was still further weakened by the murder of Sir Henry Wilson [qv.] and by the situation in the Near East where war with Turkey was narrowly averted
With the approach of autumn the crisis within the conservative party reached its height, and the head of the machine, Sir George Younger (afterwards Viscount Younger of Leckie) [qv.], was at open variance with his chief. Accordingly a meeting of conservative members of parliament was convoked at the Carlton Club on 19 October, and Chamberlain recommended that the existing government as then constituted under the leadership of Lloyd George should go to the country; it would be time to talk of changes when the victory had been won. A motion was at once proposed to the effect that the party should fight the election as an independent party with its own leader and its own programme, and this point of view was backed by Stanley Baldwin. It was, however, the reappearance of Bonar Law that decided the issue, for he gave his support to the motion, which was then carried by 187 votes to 87. Chamberlain refused, as he put it, to send to the prime minister a message of dismissal, and he consequently ceased to be leader of the conservative party
Chamberlain, in common with Lord Birkenhead and others who had supported him at the Carlton Club, did not take office under either Bonar Law or Baldwin, but assumed an attitude of benevolent neutrality. This attitude, so far as Chamberlain was concerned, was in no small measure due to the presence of his half-brother, Neville Chamberlain, in the administration, and he is found writing, If Neville had not joined this Government, I'd have had them out in six months. Chamberlain disapproved of the precipitancy of Baldwin in going to the country in 1923 on a protectionist policy without adequate preparation, but the labour victory at the polls soon reunited the conservative party. When, therefore, Baldwin, on the formation of his second government in November 1924, offered Chamberlain the foreign secretaryship he gladly accepted.Î-Î--ÿ-#?
Chamberlain took office in circumstances of peculiar difficulty, in view of the estrangement of France from Germany over the occupation of the Ruhr, although he had the advantage of enjoying that free hand which Baldwin gave to all his ministers. His first task was to denounce the protocol of Geneva, which had been approved by the previous government. The proposal had met with a hostile reception in many quarters in Great Britain and the Empire overseas, and was especially disliked by Chamberlain's own party. Something, nevertheless, had to be put in its place, and an offer by Stresemann, then German foreign minister, to guarantee the existing territorial position on the Rhine, gave Chamberlain an opportunity to initiate negotiations which later resulted in the Locarno pact. His patience in overcoming obstacles, both on the part of Germany and of France, was remarkable, for although the scheme was first envisaged in January 1925, it was not until the following 16 October that the Locarno pact was actually signed. It was very largely Chamberlain's work, and the recognition of this fact came in the form of the Garter, which was conferred upon him at this time, an honour bestowed upon only two commoners, Sir Edward Grey and A. J. Balfour, since the award to Castlereagh in 1814. If it be objected that the Locarno pact did not go far enough, especially where Germany's eastern frontiers were concerned, the answer must be that it was as far as Chamberlain could then have persuaded his fellow countrymen to go, and that it did give Europe a breathing-space.
Chamberlain was the first foreign secretary to make a habit of attending regularly the meetings of the Council of the League of Nations, and in 1926 his presence at Geneva was very necessary to ensure for Germany that seat on the Council which she had been promised at Locarno. It was not only in Europe that Chamberlain had difficulties to surmount. He had hardly taken office when he was confronted with the murder of Sir Lee Stack [q.v.], and during his tenure of the foreign secretaryship he was continually endeavouring to put the admittedly unsatisfactory Anglo-Egyptian relations upon a sounder footing. In 1927 matters got so far as a draft treaty, but these hopes were wrecked upon the rock of Wafd opposition. In China, too, the British position became extremely serious in face of an outbreak of xenophobia on the one hand and the refusal of the Japanese to co-operate on the other. Chamberlain was much criticized for making no effort to regain the British concession at Hankow, which had been captured by the Chinese in January 1927, but he knew that the country was not prepared for a campaign in the interior of China; nevertheless he persuaded the Cabinet to send a strong force to Shanghai to prevent a repetition there of the events which had taken place at Hankow.
During the greater part of 1928 Chamberlain was ill, and so was unable to be present at the signing of the Kellogg pact in Paris on 27 August of that year. At the general election of May 1929 the conservative government was defeated, and although Chamberlain urged Baldwin to meet parliament, the prime minister decided otherwise, and the administration resigned.
Of the various offices which Chamberlain held during the course of his career he is best remembered for his foreign secretaryship. In this connexion he would seem to have two claims to distinction; he never took a step without preparing the way very carefully indeed, and his historical sense rendered him profoundly aware of the mistakes of his predecessors. It has been said that he was little more than the mouthpiece of the Quai d'Orsay, and, alternatively, that he was the dupe of Stresemann. These accusations are mutually contradictory, and neither of them is true. As foreign secretary he was above all else a great realist; he never hankered after the unattainable, but he did his best with the tools that he had. When he laid down office the world was far more settled than it had been when he became foreign secretary four and a half years earlier.
For a time Chamberlain was under a cloud; he was returned for West Birmingham, the seat to which he had succeeded on his father's death in 1914, and which he never lost, by the narrow majority of 43: his policy of solidarity with France was temporarily unpopular in many quarters; and a number of conservative members of parliament had asked Baldwin for a promise that Chamberlain would not go back to the Foreign Office when their party returned to power. He had, however, no longer any ambitions for himself, and, the ties between himself and his brother being as strong as they were, all his political hopes were based upon Neville succeeding Baldwin in the leadership, and thus eventually becoming prime minister.
When the all-party government came to be formed in August 1931, and Chamberlain was asked to co-operate, he willingly agreed, but he was bitterly disappointed that it was the Admiralty and not the Foreign Office which was offered to him. He felt that at the latter he might have been of real assistance, whereas at the Admiralty ‘except to a few I appear not as someone who gives all he can to help in a crisis but as an old party hack who might be dangerous outside and so must have his mouth stopped with office’. His tenure of office as first lord of the Admiralty was not destined to be of long continuance, but it was marked by one important event, namely, the naval mutiny at Invergordon in September. It has, however, nowhere been suggested either that Chamberlain was in any way responsible for this incident, or that his attitude was other than scrupulously correct. After the general election of October 1931 he wrote to Baldwin to say that he waived all claim to inclusion in the new administration which was in process of formation. By no means the least cogent of the motives by which he was actuated was the desire to help his brother. ‘I hope’, he wrote, ‘that my elimination will make Neville's accession to the Chancellorship easier to secure.’
When Chamberlain left office for the last time he had still five and a half years to live, and his position, politically, recalled that of his father between 1886 and 1895 in that he exercised over the House of Commons a control which had not been his when he was a minister. Advancing years may have prevented him from that participation in the daily round at Westminster which had characterized him during the earlier part of his career, but he was rarely absent when foreign policy was the subject to be discussed. Nor did he treat the House of Commons as if it were a mere platform from which to address the country, for he listened to others with the courteous attention that he expected from his listeners. He refused to indulge in any factious criticism of the government of the day, but as the German danger became ever more manifest he neglected no opportunity of warning his fellow countrymen against it. Another task which occupied a good deal of his time was the work of the joint select parliamentary committee on Indian constitutional reform which was set up in 1932, and of which he was a member.
Chamberlain took part at this time in a number of non-political activities. He was chancellor of Reading University (1935-1937), and chairman both of the court of governors of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and of the governing body of the British Postgraduate Medical School; he was also chairman of the board of governors of Rugby School: in all of these capacities he worked extremely hard, for to the very end he displayed all his old zeal on behalf of any cause with which he was associated. In addition, he formed a number of business connexions, and also wrote from time to time for the British, French, and American press. It was during this period, too, that he published two books of an autobiographical character.
The last occasion on which Chamberlain appeared in the centre of the political stage was in December 1935, after the conclusion of the Hoare-Laval pact, which he criticized severely. It was said that at first the government had intended to stand by the pact, and that what decided Baldwin to take the opposite course, even at the price of dropping his foreign secretary, was the fear that Chamberlain would attack him, although in actual fact Chamberlain had not decided what line to adopt. In the ensuing debate Chamberlain supported the government, but he believed, with considerable justification, that ‘after S. B.'s miserably inadequate speech and the initial blunder’ he could ‘have so reduced his majority as to force his resignation’. On the following day Baldwin asked Chamberlain to join the administration as minister of state without a department, as he considered that he was too old to go to the Foreign Office again. Chamberlain refused, as he believed that all that Baldwin wanted was ‘the use of my name to help patch up the damaged prestige of his government’.
Chamberlain died suddenly in London 16 March 1937. To turn from the statesman to the man, all who knew him can bear witness to his devotion to his family and to his sociability. He married in 1906 Ivy Muriel, daughter of Colonel Henry Lawrence Dundas, of Datchet, and had two sons and one daughter. He was a devoted husband and father, and it was the happiness of his home life which enabled him to emerge unscathed from the storms of his public career. He was a scholar, and throughout his life he read widely, which was apparent in all that he did and said. He was also a lover of nature and of rural pursuits, and possessed a very considerable knowledge of flowers. Nothing gave him greater pleasure than to stroll through woods and fields in spring picking primroses and cowslips, and when he was able to cultivate a rock-garden in Sussex, he spent many hours attending to his precious Alpines on which he became quite an authority. Owing to his poor sight and immaculate attire Chamberlain often conveyed to strangers an impression of austerity which was very far from being the case. Actually, he was the most ‘clubbable’ of men, was naturally sociable, and delighted in company. He was an extremely interesting and agreeable talker, for he had stored up in a exceedingly retentive memory a host of reminiscences which he told well. He had an even temper which was always under control, and an inborne generosity which led him to acknowledge without reserve any mistakes which he had made. He delighted in travel and sight-seeing, especially if he had the opportunity of studying pictures and works of art, in which he took great pleasure. He spoke French easily and well, and although his German became rather rusty, he could understand most of a conversation in that language. He had a large acquaintance among people of many nations, and he liked to invite them to his house in London, and to exchange views with them upon international politics.
The chief portraits of Chamberlain are a full-length in Garter robes by I. M. Cohen in the Cordwainers' Company's hall; one as chancellor of Reading University by Sir William Rothenstein at Reading; and one by P. A. de László in the robes of chancellor of the Exchequer in private possession.
The Times, 17 March 1937;
Austen Chamberlain, Down the Years, 1935, Politics from Inside, 1936, and Seen in Passing, 1937;
E. Stern-Rubarth, Three Men Tried, 1939;
Sir Charles Petrie, Life and Letters of the Right Hon. Sir Austen Chamberlain, 2 vols., 1939-1940;
Contributor: Charles Petrie.