Tory Leaders We Have Known: Austen Chamberlain

UGSP00416_mAs the son of Joseph Chamberlain and half-brother of Neville, Chamberlain was born into politics: in his father’s words, born into a red despatch box. Joseph Chamberlain was one of the giants of late Victorian and early Edwardian politics. In the words of DJ Dutton’s excellent DNB entry, Austen was ‘destined to be overshadowed at both the beginning and end of his life by a member of his own family’. Nonetheless, the Chamberlains were a remarkable family, and a particularly close one at that: they had been the most important family in Birmingham; they were Unitarians too. After Rugby School, he read History at Cambridge. He had held junior posts under Salisbury, notably as financial secretary to the Treasury in 1900. He then served in Balfour’s cabinet as postmaster general, alongside his father (the Chamberlain family, circa 1900, are pictured below).


ec5eade7f80ef3c2a925099b4d1fdbedWhen his father (pictured right, seated, with Austen) resigned to promote his beloved tariff reform, Austen became chancellor: he was thus a link to his father, and a gesture to his supporters as Balfour desperately tried to hold his bitterly divided government together.

He lost out to Bonar Law for the leadership of the Tory party in 1911 (see the blog article on Bonar Law, here). Come the war, he began to work with Lloyd George, and was given the India Office. He resigned in 1917, following criticisms of the conduct of the Mesopotamia campaign (for which the India Office was responsible), but was brought back in 1918, Lloyd George judging he was better off with Chamberlain inside the tent pissing out. He was now a minister without portfolio, but in the war cabinet.

When Bonar Law gave up the Treasury, Chamberlain was his natural successor. As chancellor, he faced dealing with first an overheating economy, then the 1920 recession. Tax increases and spending cuts in 1920 turned a budget deficit into a surplus (conventional economics at the time), but made the recession far worse. His acceptance of the Cunliffe Committee’s recommendation that the government should aim for a return to the gold standard also necessitated higher interest rates, which had a similar impact. He developed a close working relationship with Lloyd George, and that relationship became as important as the prime minister’s with Bonar Law.

When Bonar Law retired in 1921, Chamberlain was his natural successor: it was neither a happy nor a successful innings. Most importantly, his close association with and support for Lloyd George undermined his position in a party that was becoming increasingly disinclined to maintain their support for a coalition. Like Edward Heath, or even Theresa May, he also lacked the ability to work the commons corridors or win over backbenchers; despite being short sighted, he sported a monocle in the style of his father, which meant he often simply failed to recognize people. The Tory backbenches of 1918-22 featured a large and ambitious new intake. Chamberlain’s failure to seek out their support, along with the job opportunities denied them by coalition, also undermined him. He was also beset by private self-doubt: in leaders, that is infectious. He also alienated supporters thanks to his support for the deal with the Irish; as has sometimes been the case for Tory leaders, his statesmanlike role in that agreement lost him the goodwill of diehards on the backbenches.

Most of all, though, it was his desire to continue in coalition that finished him. By 1922, another general election was looming. It might even be that Chamberlain, as the leader of the largest party in the coalition (one with a majority of its own account), might even have expected to succeed Lloyd George in due course. Publicly, however, his continued loyalty to Lloyd George was fatal, as was his strong belief in fusion (the proposed merger of the Conservatives with the Lloyd George Liberals). With characteristic poor political judgement, he called the meeting at the Carlton Club that would unseat him. When Bonar Law made himself known, Chamberlain’s fate was sealed: he would become the first Tory leader to be unseated by his own backbenchers, in what Alan Clark nicknamed the peasants’ revolt.

Unsurprisingly, Chamberlain bitterly resented his defenestration. That bitterness led him to refuse to serve under Bonar Law. He was even offered the post of lord privy seal, effectively Bonar Law’s deputy, in March 1923: had he accepted, he would probably have succeeded the ailing prime minister. As it was, when Bonar Law resigned in May, the fact that he was not in the cabinet meant he was not considered for the succession.

423px-Bundesarchiv_Bild_102-00151A,_Joseph_Austen_ChamberlainWhen Baldwin opted for tariffs and lost office in 1924, Chamberlain returned to the front bench, but his relationship with his leader remained difficult, and he found it hard to disguise both his resentment and his belief that Baldwin was both inferior, and an imposter. Nonetheless, he became foreign secretary when the Conservatives returned to power in 1924. In many ways, these were the most productive years of his career, the culminating achievement of them being Locarno (see the entry in the Foreign Secretaries, to be posted), for which he was awarded a Nobel peace prize in 1926. By the last year of that government, however, Chamberlain’s health and energy were failing. The Conservative defeat of 1929 marked the end of Chamberlain’s cabinet career (though he did serve, outside cabinet, as first lord of the admiralty, briefly in 1931).

He now took up the role of elder statesman and critic of the National Government. Along with Churchill, he was one of the early critics of appeasement. Such was his status, his criticisms were seen as more threatening to the government than Churchill’s: Baldwin even dangled the carrot of a return to the Foreign Office in return for his support. It never came, and Chamberlain died in 1937, overshadowed by his stepbrother and his ally to the end.

If, as Enoch Powell put it, all political careers end in failure, Chamberlain is perhaps unique, for one with such a long and distinguished career, in encountering failure throughout. Perhaps, in the end, he lack political nous and, as they say, elbows. Nonetheless, Chamberlain is the only man since 1900 to have served in a cabinet with his own father; he also served in the 1924-29 cabinet with his half-brother Neville (the only brothers to have served in the same cabinet). Not only that, he is one of only three men to have been chancellor twice; another is his brother, once more. He is also one of twelve chancellors to go on to lead his party (one of seven to go direct from being chancellor to the party leadership). He is also one of four men to have been chancellor, party leader and foreign secretary, and one of only seven to have been both chancellor and foreign secretary (like him, Selwyn Lloyd, Butler and Howe never became prime minister). Less happily, he is one of only four Conservative leaders since Disraeli not to be prime minister; along with Ian Duncan Smith, he is one of only two Tory leaders not to contest a general election. Like IDS, in truth, he was patently not up to the job. The famous jibe still stings: ‘Austen always played the game and always lost it.’

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