Sir (Joseph) Austen Chamberlain (October 16, 1863-March 16, 1937), British politician and statesman, was the son of Joseph Chamberlain and the older brother of Neville Chamberlain. As architect of the Locarno Treaties, meant to preserve peace in post-World War I Western Europe, he was awarded the 1925 Nobel Peace Prize.
Austen was born in Birmingham, son of Joseph Chamberlain and his first wife, Harriet Kenrick. He was raised as a Unitarian at the Church of the Messiah, Birmingham. Although members of his family belonged to the Unitarian Church of the Messiah until the mid-20th century, Austen did not continue in membership after his school days. Nor did he take up Unitarian membership at chapels near where he lived. He did, however, continue to make modest donations to the Church of the Messiah Sunday school and the church’s benevolent work.
Following schooling at Brighton and Rugby, in 1882 Austen went to Trinity College, Cambridge to read history. After graduation in 1885, to prepare for the political career his father had designed for him, he attended the Ecole des Sciences Politiques in Paris and, in 1887, studied for a year in Germany. His early evaluations—positive with regard to France and a more negative one of Germany—later influenced his actions as Foreign Secretary.
In an 1892 by-election, Chamberlain became Member of Parliament for East Worcestershire. He stood for the Liberal Unionists, his father’s party. With the election of a Conservative and Unionist government in 1895, he became a civil lord of the Admiralty, in the same administration in which his father was the powerful Colonial Secretary. He presented himself in his father’s image, dressing in the same way, with a frock coat and monocle. In 1900 he was promoted to Financial Secretary to the Treasury, and in 1902 he joined his father in the Cabinet as Postmaster General. In late 1905 he was briefly Chancellor of the Exchequer.
In 1906 Chamberlain married Ivy Dundas. It was a happy marriage and they had three children. That year, when the Liberals were in power and the Chamberlains out of office, Joseph had a disabling stroke. Out of active politics, he sought to continue his influence through his son. Having to represent his father, Austen could neither pursue his own vision wholeheartedly nor act consistently. Consequently, he was attacked equally by those within his party who thought him too much, and those who thought him too little, his father’s man.
In 1911, following the departure of Arthur Balfour, Chamberlain, although a Liberal Unionist and a Unitarian, was a candidate for the leadership of the Conservative Party. Encountering entrenched opposition and wishing to avoid a split in the party, he stepped aside. With the death of his father in 1914, he was finally able to become his own man. He was out of office until the formation of the wartime Coalition Government in 1915 when he became Secretary of State for India, first under Herbert Asquith and then under David Lloyd George. Scandal associated with, and responsibility for, the Indian government’s disastrous military campaign in the Persian Gulf forced his resignation in 1917.
Too influential to be long left outside the Government, Chamberlain joined the War Cabinet in 1918. In the following year he again became Chancellor of the Exchequer. He applied a conservative policy, with some success, to the financial management of the British economy. He became a solid supporter of Lloyd George, affirming his belief in coalition government.
In 1921 Chamberlain succeed Andrew Bonar Law in the leadership of the Conservative Party. It was believed he would soon take over from Lloyd George as Prime Minister. He could see no reason to break up Lloyd George’s coalition, however. Moreover, breaking with his father’s old policy of opposing Irish Home Rule, Chamberlain was among the first to urge negotiations with Sinn Fein, and was a member of the delegation which met with them and signed the agreement of 1921. This alienated right-wing Conservatives.
Most Conservatives did not agree with Chamberlain about the value of the coalition. They felt that he had not been a success as a partisan party leader. In 1922 he was removed from office and Bonar Law was reinstated. In the ensuing General Election, Bonar Law became Conservative Prime Minister, to the deep disappointment of Chamberlain. Had he then adapted himself to the new Conservative Party strategy and entered the cabinet, he might have become Prime Minister in 1923 when Bonar Law again resigned. Instead Stanley Baldwin was elected leader. His younger brother Neville joined the government while he stood out—a bitter pill for Chamberlain to swallow. Baldwin’s government fell in 1923, but was returned to power with a large majority in 1924. Neville helped broker a new relationship between Austen and Baldwin. Austen became Foreign Secretary. His record is unique in that he sat with his father in the British Cabinet from 1902 and with his brother from 1924.
Foreign affairs became and remained Chamberlain’s absorbing interest. Believing that his country could stand not alone, he pushed for an active British role in Europe. He sought in particular to secure long-term peace. He did not care for the Geneva Protocol, created the previous year by the Labour administration, which gave Britain more tasks than it could reasonably undertake. Limiting these commitments, he sought stability in Europe by attempting to create security for France through multilateral pacts with France and Germany. This he seemingly achieved by the 1925 Locarno treaties, which guaranteed the border between Germany and France and allowed a rehabilitated Germany to become a member of the League of Nations. These treaties, thought at the time to guarantee permanent European peace, were considered Chamberlain’s creation. Accordingly, in that same year he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace.
Partly because of ill health, Chamberlain’s tenure as Foreign Secretary after Locarno, ending in 1929, was not a success: British relations with both the Soviet Union and the United States of America deteriorated and differences between Germany and France soon revealed weaknesses in the Locarno accords. Apart from a brief period in 1931 as a minister outside the cabinet, Chamberlain did not hold office again. He aspired to return to the cabinet as foreign secretary in 1935, but the post went to Anthony Eden. Winston Churchill commented, ‘Poor man, he always plays the game but never wins it.’
Having distrusted Germany since his student days, Chamberlain, along with Churchill, was one of the few anti-appeasers in the 1930s. Out of office, as a senior statesman, he had more influence on back-bench Conservative MPs than when he was a party leader. He was showered with honours, including the Chancellorship of the University of Reading, 1935-37, and many honorary degrees. He published his autobiography Down the Years in 1935. He died in London in 1937 following a heart attack.
Although he is often compared, to his disadvantage, with his father and his brother, Chamberlain was a major figure in his own right. Like his brother Neville, his reputation has suffered because of the unfortunate history that followed an initial, much-lauded diplomatic success. The expectations attached to the Locarno Treaties—that they would end the period of European warfare and usher in a long-lasting period of peace—were unrealistic. The agreements were, however, serviceable in their time and represented perhaps the most that diplomacy could have achieved.
Throughout his life Chamberlain remained a nominal Unitarian, above all in recognition of the family tradition of which he was most proud. In politics he was taken to be a Unitarian, following in the steps of his father; he did nothing to deny it. He had lived for decades in the same house as his magisterial parent, whose influence on him was all-embracing. In 1915, as a memorial for his recently deceased father, he assembled and had privately printed Notes on the families of Chamberlain and Harben. Affirming the family tradition, in 1912 he gave to the appeal for the refurbishment of the Upper Chapel (Unitarian) Islington in London, the chapel in which his father grew up. He became a member of the Unitarian Historical Society in 1922.
Chamberlain did not think in conventionally sectarian religious terms. His faith was bound up in a mixture of patriotism and family pietas, inescapably Nonconformist and Unitarian. His biographer David Dutton states, ‘Though born into the tradition of nonconformity, religion did not play a large part in his life and he found it difficult to conceptualise any notion of an afterlife.’ In later life he referred to religious allegiance only once, in a 1928 letter to his sisters: “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.” Towards the end of his life he wrote to Lady Askwith, ‘Do you know Cecil Spring Rice’s hymn? (I vow to thee my country). It is the perfect expression of the faith in which I have lived.’ It was sung at his funeral. The following is the text of the hymn:
I vow to thee, my country, all earthly things above,
Entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love;
The love that asks no question, the love that stands the test,
That lays upon the alter the dearest and the best;
The love that never falters, the love that pays the price,
The love that makes undaunted the final sacrifice.
And there’s another country, I’ve heard of long ago,
Most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know;
Her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering;
And soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase
And her ways are ways of gentleness and all her paths are peace.
Chamberlain’s funeral took place at St Margaret’s Westminster with the Archbishop of Canterbury giving the blessing. There was no mention of the Unitarian connection in the memorial service held at the Birmingham pro-cathedral. His immediate family had by this time moved away from Unitarianism. A short appreciation by Chamberlain’s cousin W. Byng Kenrick, which appeared in the 1937 Transactions of the Unitarian Historical Society, was the only obituary of substance to appear in a Unitarian publication. “Sir Austen Chamberlain could not have been described as a practising Unitarian”, said Kenrick, “although, if it had been necessary for him to accept some denominational designation, he would not have taken any other than that into which he had been born.”
The Chamberlain family papers are the centre piece of the archives of the University of Birmingham. Austen Chamberlain’s papers are published on microform by Thomson Gale in 129 reels (1996-2000). His correspondence and related papers can be found in numerous archives, a guide to which is at the end of the excellent article on him in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography by David Dutton. Like his brother Neville, Austen corresponded extensively with his sisters Hilda and Ida. The letters have been published as The Austen Chamberlain Diary Letters, 1916-1937, edited by Robert C. Self (1995). Biographies include Sir Charles Petrie, Life and Letters of Sir Austen Chamberlain, 2 vols. (1939-40); David Dutton, Austen Chamberlain: Gentleman in Politics (1985); and D.H. Elletson, The Chamberlains (1966).
Article by Alan Ruston
Posted March 9, 2006