Childhood & Early Years
Austen Chamberlain was born on October 16, 1863 in Birmingham. His father, Joseph Chamberlain, was a rising industrialist, who later became a renowned statesman. Austen’s mother, Harriet Chamberlain, was Joseph’s first wife. The couple had two children; Beatrice Mary and Joseph Austen.
Harriet died three days after giving birth to Austen. Five years later Joseph married Harriet’s cousin Florence Kenrik. From this marriage, Austen had four half siblings; Arthur Neville, Ida, Hilda and Ethel. Much later, Arthur Neville became the Prime Minister of Britain.
Florence had also given birth to another son; but both the baby and mother died soon after. Although Joseph got married once again, the union did not produce any offspring.
Austen Chamberlain had his schooling at Rugby, one of the oldest and most expensive public schools in England. Later, he joined Trinity College, Cambridge. There he joined the Political Society, where he made his first political address. Besides, he was also a member of Cambridge Union Society and later became its Vice President.
From the beginning, Joseph wanted his eldest son to join politics. Consequently, after graduating from Cambridge, Austen was sent first to France and then to Germany so that he could have direct knowledge about their political culture.
At Paris, Austen was enrolled at the École des Sciences Politiques and studied there for nine months. Later, he spent twelve months at the University of Berlin before returning to Birmingham in 1887.
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On coming back to England, Austen Chamberlain began to work closely with his father, who by this time had become a national leader. He soon gathered enough experience to contest 1892 general election. Austen won his first parliamentary seat from East Worcestershire representing his father’s Liberal Union Party.
On entering the House of Commons, Austen chamberlain was made a Junior Whip. It was his job to see that his father’s ideas were reflected in all policy matters. However, owing to parliamentary instability, he could not make his maiden speech until 1893.
In his maiden speech, Austen Chamberlain attacked W. E. Gladstone, the then Prime Minister of Great Britain, for his Government of Ireland Bill, 1893. In spite of such attack, the speech was highly praised by Gladstone and he publicly congratulated both the father and son for such a great performance.
When in 1895, a coalition of the Conservatives and Unionists won the general election with a thumping majority Austen Chamberlain was made the Civil Lord of Admiralty. He was around thirty two years old then. He worked in that position for five years.
In 1900, Chamberlain was appointed as the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, the fourth most important ministerial post within the Treasury. In 1902, he got his first cabinet berth and became the Post Master General.
In 1903, Austen Chamberlain was appointed as the Chancellor of Exchequer. By then, a friction between Joseph Chamberlain and Prime Minister Arthur Balfour had surfaced on the issues of tariff reforms. By the end of 1903, it reached its peak.
Joseph Chamberlain decided to resign from his cabinet post so as to be able to campaign for tariff reform. This weakened Austen Chamberlain’s position greatly. However, he continued to serve as Chancellor of Exchequer until the fall of the government in 1906.
The coalition of Conservative and Liberal Union Party fought the 1906 general election under the leadership of Arthur Balfour and lost more than half the seats. Austen Chamberlain was one of the few MPs who were able retain their seats.
Sometime now, the senior Chamberlain was forced to retire due to ill health. Austen Chamberlain took his place and began to lead the campaign for tariff reform within the party.
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The Conservative and Liberal Union coalition fought the 2010 election under Arthur Balfour once more, but lost. Chamberlain was forced to sit in the opposition until 1915. When War time coalition government was formed he became Secretary of State for India.
In 1917, Chamberlain resigned from his post taking responsibility of the failure of the Indian Army in the British campaign at Mesopotamia. Later in April 1918, he returned to the government and was inducted in the War Cabinet as a Minister without Portfolio.
In January 1918, Chamberlain was once again appointed as the Chancellor of Exchequer. He quickly earned distinction as he paid off the enormous debts that the country had incurred during the war, and was also able to maintain a stable currency and strengthen the national credit.
By the beginning of 1921, Chamberlain became the Leader of the Conservative Party, which was formed by merger of the previous coalition partners. At the same time, he was also chosen as the Leader of the House of Commons. In addition, he was appointed to the office of Lord Privy Seal.
However, his position was relegated when he went against the popular demand of breaking away from the war time coalition government. When a resolution was passed that the party would fight the forthcoming election alone, Chamberlain resigned from the post of the Leader of the Party.
He returned to the government in 1924 as the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs and served in that position till 1929. In this capacity, he had to solve many international crises.
In 1925, in a speech at the Council of League of Nations, he rejected the Geneva Protocol because it gave the Council an arbitrary power. Instead, he suggested that the covenant should be supplemented by making special arrangement to need special needs.
He was instrumental in the negotiations of ‘Locarno Pact’, formally signed in London on December 1, 1925 by Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Belgium. It provided for peace in post war Europe and Chamberlain was hailed for his role in this treaty.
Chamberlain was not that successful in his engagement with China and Egypt. Although he showed firmness in defending British interest vis-à-vis China, he could not provide any long term solution. In 1927, he drew up a draft that would have provided permanency in Anglo-Egyptian relation, but retired before he could translate them as treaty.
Chamberlain went into retirement as the government under Prime Minister Baldwin resigned in 1929. However, he still attended the House of Commons and spoke on different issues with authority.
In 1931, Chamberlain returned to government for a brief period as First Lord of the Admiralty in the first National Government. He resigned when Invergordon Mutiny took place in September 1931.
Chamberlain spent the remaining six years of his life active in politics; albeit as a backbencher. However, from 1934 to 1937, he was with Winston Churchill when the later gave a call for rearmament in the face of looming threats from the Nazis.