The Foreign Secretaries (5): Austen Chamberlain

423px-Bundesarchiv_Bild_102-00151A,_Joseph_Austen_ChamberlainAusten Chamberlain, 1924-29

Conservative (under Baldwin)

In a long, distinguished if somewhat mixed career, Joseph Chamberlain’s years at the Foreign Office were probably his most successful and even happiest. When Baldwin won in 1924, he sought to reunite a party that had remained split after the fall of Lloyd George in 1922. To do this, it was natural to ask the senior ex-coalitionist and former leader to take a senior post. Despite his resentment of the upstart Baldwin, Chamberlain accepted the offer.

Unlike his brother Neville, Austen Chamberlain had no strain of isolationism in his body politic. He was naturally pro-French, but also believed that there would be no stability in Europe until the French felt themselves secure. He also, though, sought to carefully limit Britain’s commitments. To that end, he ditched MacDonald’s Geneva Protocol and mooted the idea of an Anglo-French pact. This was fiercely opposed in cabinet, and the opposition was heavyweight: Churchill, Amery and Birkenhead (for the Colonial Office and the India Office), along with the elder statesmen Balfour and Curzon. In the face of that opposition, Chamberlain put his weight behind proposals for a four-power pact guaranteeing the borders of France and Belgium. Even then, and only after he had threatened to resign did Baldwin come down on his side. Thus, Locarno was a political triumph for Chamberlain (pictured with Stresemann, left, and Briand, below).

Locarno, Gustav Stresemann, Chamberlain, BriandThe Locarno treaties were also hailed at the time as the great diplomatic achievement of the age. Chamberlain took the lead role in bringing the German foreign minister Gustav Stresemann and his French counterpart Aristide Briand to the table. Just as important was the degree of warmth, in large part generated by the relationship between Stresemann and Chamberlain. We know that the Locarno honeymoon was doomed, and there were elements of Locarno that portended ill for the future, but there is no doubting that the Spirit of Locarno was tangible at the time: at the signing ceremony Chamberlain and Briand hugged, weeping with joy, Mussolini kissed Ivy Chamberlain’s hand and bands played in the street. For his work in bringing about the Locarno treaties, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for 1925, sharing it with the American Charles Dawes (of the Dawes plan); they were awarded their prizes at the same time as the 1926 winners, Stresemann and Briand.

Like much about Chamberlain’s career, Locarno would not endure. Very clearly, it left open the question of Germany’s eastern borders. It also sidelined the League of Nations, something the subsequent meetings of the four Locarno powers (the so-called Geneva tea parties) illustrated all too well. This reflected Chamberlain’s own preference for great power diplomacy. It also helped establish Britain in the role of honest broker, something Neville was to take on board with gusto.

It was, nonetheless, the highlight of Chamberlain’s years as foreign secretary. In truth, much of what followed was neither as important, nor as happy. The admission of Germany to the League saw bitter disputes with Brazil, Poland and Spain (all of whom coveted the permanent seat on the council given to Germany). There were problems in a chaotic China. A clumsy Special Branch raid on the Soviet Trade delegation saw Chamberlain forced to break off relations. Relations were also poor with the United States, and were getting worse again with Germany. In truth, by 1928, Chamberlain was unwell, and running out of steam.

In 1929, when Labour won, Chamberlain left office for the last time. He was one of four party leaders since 1900 to have gone on to be foreign secretary: like Balfour, Home and Hague, he was probably better suited to the latter job, and found it more congenial. He was, therefore, one of ten men to have been both foreign secretary and to have led their party. He was one of nine men to be both foreign secretary and chancellor (in Chamberlain’s case, twice). He was also one of two British foreign secretaries to win an Nobel Peace Prize (one of six British politicians in total); he was the only one to win it whilst in office. In a long and pretty distinguished political career which was, however, marked as much by failure as success, it is somehow fitting that his greatest achievement, Locarno, was fated not to endure. In fairness, though, he can hardly be blamed for a failure to foresee the darker skies of the ‘thirties, let alone the rise of Adolf Hitler.

For the rest of his career, see the article on his leadership here.

You can read about his two spells as Chancellor here.

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