Sir Joseph Austen Chamberlain

The English statesman Sir Joseph Austen Chamberlain (1863-1937) held a number of high offices, most notably that of foreign secretary. He received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1925.

Austen Chamberlain was born in Birmingham, England, on Oct. 16, 1863. His father, Joseph Chamberlain, was the famous reforming mayor of Birmingham and a powerful figure in the Liberal and then the Conservative party. His mother, Helen, died in childbirth. Neville Chamberlain, Conservative prime minister of Great Britain from 1937 to 1940, was his younger half brother. Austen was educated at Rugby and at Trinity College, Cambridge, and then studied in France and Germany.

Given his family background, it was inevitable that Chamberlain should enter politics. But as his contemporary Lord Birkenhead put it, "Austen always played the game and always lost it." In 1892 Chamberlain was elected to the House of Commons as a Liberal Unionist. When the Tories took office under Lord Salisbury in 1895, he rose rapidly from civil lord of the Admiralty (1895-1900), to a Cabinet seat as postmaster general (1900), to the chancellorship of the Exchequer (1903-1905). He later served as secretary of state of India (1915-1917), as a member of the coalition War Cabinet under David Lloyd George (1918), and again as chancellor of the Exchequer (1919-1921).

Chamberlain's most important work was done during the postwar years. In 1921 he succeeded Bonar Law as leader of the Conservative party. That year he also accompanied Prime Minister Lloyd George to a conference with the Sinn Fein and signed the Irish Treaty. But because of his stand on the "Irish question" and because many Tories wished to dissolve the coalition with Lloyd George, he was ousted from the leadership in 1922.

A Labour victory in 1924, however, did much to heal the split in the Conservative party. When the Tories returned to power later that year Chamberlain was named foreign secretary, a post which he held until 1929. In 1925 he negotiated the Locarno Pact, a series of mutual defense and arbitration treaties among the major European powers. He was convinced that only respect for, and consultation with, Germany would win lasting peace. He also helped Germany secure a seat on the council of the League of Nations.

This was the last time Chamberlain held an important office. In the National government of 1931 he accepted the minor post of first lord of the Admiralty. He spent his last years as a backbencher, respected for his views on foreign affairs. Chamberlain died on March 16, 1937.


Further Reading on Sir Joseph Austen Chamberlain

Chamberlain's own writings are autobiographical: Down the Years (1935), Politics from Inside (1936), and Seen in Passing (1937). The standard biography is Sir Charles Petrie, The Life and Letters of the Rt. Hon. Sir Austen Chamberlain (2 vols., 1939-1940).