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Austen Chamberlain

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Austen Chamberlain

The Right Honourable
Sir Austen Chamberlain
Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs
In office
3 November 1924 – 4 June 1929
Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin
Preceded by Ramsay MacDonald
Succeeded by Arthur Henderson
Chancellor of the Exchequer
In office
9 October 1903 – 4 December 1905
Prime Minister Arthur Balfour
Preceded by Charles Thomson Ritchie
Succeeded by Herbert Henry Asquith
In office
10 January 1919 – 1 April 1921
Prime Minister David Lloyd George
Preceded by Andrew Bonar Law
Succeeded by Sir Robert Horne
Secretary of State for India
In office
25 May 1915 – 17 July 1917
Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith
David Lloyd George
Preceded by The Marquess of Crewe
Succeeded by Edwin Samuel Montagu
Lord Privy Seal
Leader of the House of Commons
In office
1 April 1921 – 23 October 1922
Prime Minister David Lloyd George
Preceded by Andrew Bonar Law
Succeeded by Lord Robert Cecil
First Lord of the Admiralty
In office
24 August – 5 November 1931
Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald
Preceded by A.V. Alexander
Succeeded by Sir Bolton Eyres-Monsell
In office
11 August 1902 – 9 October 1903
Prime Minister Arthur Balfour
Preceded by The Marquess of Londonderry
Succeeded by Lord Stanley
Personal details
Born Joseph Austen Chamberlain
(1863-10-16)16 October 1863
Birmingham, Warwickshire, England
Died 17 March 1937(1937-03-17) (aged 73)
London, England
Nationality British
Political party Liberal Unionist
Religion Unitarian

Sir Joseph Austen Chamberlain KG (16 October 1863 – 17 March 1937) was a British statesman, recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, and half-brother of former British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain.


  • Early life and career 1
  • Leadership questions 2
  • His views on Irish Home Rule 3
  • First World War 4
  • Leadership 5
  • Foreign Secretary 6
  • The triumph of Locarno 7
  • Later career 8
  • Calls for rearmament 9
  • Personal life 10
  • See also 11
  • References 12
  • Further reading 13
    • Sources 13.1
    • Journals 13.2
  • External links 14

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 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, leaving his father so shaken that for almost twenty-five years he maintained a distance from his first-born son. In 1868, his father married 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 School, before passing on to Trinity College, Cambridge.[2] While at Trinity College, he became a lifelong friend of F. S. Oliver, a future advocate of Imperial Federation and, after 1909, a prominent member of the Round Table movement. Chamberlain made his first political address in 1884 at a meeting of the university's Political Society and was vice-president of the Cambridge Union Society.

It would seem that from an early age his father had intended for politics to be Austen's future path and with this in mind he was sent first to France, where he studied at the Alexandre Ribot.

From Paris, Austen was sent to Berlin for twelve months, 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 that was to hold a special place in his heart for the duration of his life.

While attending the University of Berlin, Austen developed a suspicion of the growing nationalism in the German Empire based upon his experience of the lecturing style of Heinrich von Treitschke, who opened up to him "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.

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 Conservatives, Chamberlain was returned unopposed on 30 March, and at the first sitting of the new session he 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.

Chamberlain caricatured by Spy for Vanity Fair, 1899

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. Following the 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 Salisbury, Chamberlain was promoted to the position of Postmaster General by the new premier, the Conservative Arthur 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 Imperial Tariff 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 Commons.

After 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 two successive electoral defeats in 1910, 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 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.

Given their standing in the party, only Chamberlain and Long had a realistic chance of success and 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.

His views on Irish Home Rule

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 that 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 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 that led to the First World War.

First World War

Pressure from the Conservative opposition, in part led by Chamberlain, eventually resulted in the formation of the wartime Curzon, Chamberlain supported the invasion of Mesopotamia to increase British prestige in the region, thus discouraging a German-inspired Muslim revolt in India.[3]

Chamberlain remained at the India Office after British campaigns in Mesopotamia (undertaken by the separately-administered Indian Army) in 1915, including the loss of the British garrison at Kut, Chamberlain resigned his post in 1917, because as the minister ultimately responsible, the fault lay with him. He was widely acclaimed for such a principled act.[4]

After Lloyd George’s Paris speech (12 November 1917) at which he said that “when he saw the appalling casualty lists he wish(ed) it had not been necessary to win so many (“victories”)” there was talk of Chamberlain withdrawing support from the government. Lloyd George survived by claiming that the aim of the new inter-Allied Supreme War Council was purely to “coordinate” policy, not to overrule the British generals who still enjoyed a good deal of support from Conservatives.[5] Later he returned to government and became a member of the War Cabinet in April 1918 as Minister without Portfolio, replacing Lord Milner, who had become Secretary of State for War.

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 in January 1919 and immediately faced the huge task of restoring Britain’s finances after four years of wartime expenditure.


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 Anglo-Irish War, and it was widely believed that it would not survive until the next general election. Though he had previously had little regard for Lloyd George, 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 meeting of Conservative MPs at the Carlton Club on 19 October, a motion was passed 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 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, his half-brother Neville and Iain Duncan Smith are the only Conservative leaders not to lead the party into a general election. Until William Hague in 1997, Chamberlain was the only twentieth century Conservative leader never to become Prime Minister.

Foreign Secretary

With Stresemann and Briand at Locarno

At the second resignation of Bonar Law in May 1923 (Law died from throat cancer later that 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 faced not only a split in the Entente Cordiale occasioned by the French invasion of the Ruhr but also the controversy over the Geneva Protocol (1924), which threatened to dilute British sovereignty over the issue of League of Nations economic sanctions.

The triumph of Locarno

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 promoting Franco-German reconciliation, Chamberlain's main motive was to create a situation where Germany could pursue territorial revisionism in Eastern Europe peacefully.[6] 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.[6] Once France had abandoned its allies in Eastern Europe as the price of better relations with the Reich, this would create a 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 Danzig (modern Gdańsk, Poland)[6] In this way, promoting territorial revisionism in Eastern Europe in Germany’s favour was one of Chamberlain's principal reasons for Locarno.

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 also made a Knight of the Order of the Garter; Chamberlain was the first ordinary Knight of the Garter since Elizabethan times (Sir Henry Lee) to die without having been made a peer. 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."[7]

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 was passed over once the crisis was over, on the grounds that he was too old for the job.[8] Instead his advice was sought as to the suitability of his former Parliamentary Private Secretary, now Minister for the League of Nations, 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.

Calls for rearmament

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 that met with the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, to remonstrate with him about his government’s delay in rearming the British defence forces.[9] 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 became the first and only member of the Chamberlain dynasty to become Prime Minister.

Chamberlain died on 17 March 1937 aged 73. He is buried in East Finchley Cemetery in London.

His estate was probated at £45,044, 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.

The personal and political papers of Sir Austen Chamberlain are housed in the Cadbury Research Library at the University of Birmingham.

Personal life

Chamberlain had a wife and three children. During the 1920s, Chamberlain lived at a house called Twytts Gryll in Fir Toll Road, Mayfield, East Sussex. He sold the house in 1929. R.C.G. Foster said "[h]e kept himself quite aloof from the village and was not popular with his neighbours". He had an interest in rock gardening.[10]

See also


  1. ^
  2. ^
  3. ^ Woodward, David R, "Field Marshal Sir William Robertson", Westport Connecticut & London: Praeger, 1998, ISBN 0-275-95422-6, pp113, 118-9
  4. ^
  5. ^ Woodward, David R, "Field Marshal Sir William Robertson", Westport Connecticut & London: Praeger, 1998, ISBN 0-275-95422-6, pp192-4
  6. ^ a b c Stephen Schuker, "The End of Versailles" in The Origins of the Second World War Reconsidered: A.J.P. Taylor And The Historians edited by Gordon Martel (Routledge: 1999) pages 48-49.
  7. ^
  8. ^ Douglas Hurd, Choose Your Weapons: The British Foreign Secretary; 200 Years of Argument, Success and Failure, Phoenix (2010), pp. 284-5
  9. ^
  10. ^

Further reading

For such a prominent historical figure, Chamberlain has had very little attention from academics. The official biography by Sir Charles Petrie is reputable although the more recent work by David Dutton is a far more balanced account. Dutton is widely regarded as the expert on Austen Chamberlain although he disagrees with Richard Grayson's assessment of Chamberlain's views on France and Germany. Peter Marsh, author of the most recent biography of Joseph Chamberlain, is currently studying the Chamberlain family. Richard Scully is investigating Sir Austen's year in Germany and its subsequent effect on his opinions and politics.


  • - argues that Crewe gave Chamberlain key ideas about French security and disarmament policy, the implementation of the Geneva Protocol, the Treaty of Locarno, and the Kellogg-Briand Pact.


External links

  • Hansard 1803–2005: contributions in Parliament by Austen Chamberlain
  • Nobel biography
  • Archival material relating to Austen Chamberlain listed at the UK National Archives
Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
George Woodyatt Hastings
Member of Parliament for East Worcestershire
Succeeded by
Frederick Leverton Harris
Preceded by
Joseph Chamberlain
Member of Parliament for Birmingham West
Succeeded by
Walter Frank Higgs
Political offices
Preceded by
Edmund Robertson
Civil Lord of the Admiralty
Succeeded by
E. G. Pretyman
Preceded by
Robert William Hanbury
Financial Secretary to the Treasury
Succeeded by
William Hayes Fisher
Preceded by
The Marquess of Londonderry
Postmaster General
Succeeded by
Lord Stanley
Preceded by
Charles Ritchie
Chancellor of the Exchequer
Succeeded by
H. H. Asquith
Preceded by
The Earl of Crewe
Secretary of State for India
Succeeded by
Edwin Samuel Montagu
Preceded by
Andrew Bonar Law
Chancellor of the Exchequer
Succeeded by
Sir Robert Horne
Preceded by
Andrew Bonar Law
Lord Privy Seal
Succeeded by
Lord Robert Cecil
Conservative Leader in the Commons
Succeeded by
Andrew Bonar Law
(as overall leader)
Leader of the British Conservative Party
with The Marquess Curzon of Kedleston
Preceded by
Ramsay MacDonald
Foreign Secretary
Succeeded by
Arthur Henderson
Preceded by
A. V. Alexander
First Lord of the Admiralty
Succeeded by
The Viscount Monsell
Academic offices
Preceded by
The Earl of Birkenhead
Rector of the University of Glasgow
Succeeded by
Stanley Baldwin
Preceded by
James Herbert Benyon
Chancellor of the University of Reading
Succeeded by
Sir Samuel Hoare, Bt
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