Chris Game looks at the career of one of Birmingham’s greatest politicians who was nevertheless overshadowed by his father and his brother
To close the party conference season, an easy quiz question: who is this Conservative politician?
Eldest son of famous 19th century Conservative-Liberal Unionist politician; entered Parliament aged 29, and quickly embarked on a long string of ministerial posts, including Chancellor of the Exchequer, First Lord of the Admiralty, and Foreign Secretary. Served in Lloyd George’s War Cabinet and his post-war Coalition.
Joined the Conservatives only in mid-career, which almost certainly delayed his becoming party leader. Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and was an early, prominent opponent of appeasement with Nazi Germany during the 1930s.
Easy? It certainly should be for Birmingham Post readers, for it’s Austen Chamberlain. Most bits could also be Winston Churchill, but he was never Foreign Secretary and his Nobel Prize was, controversially, for literature, not peace.
By any standards, Chamberlain’s career was long, distinguished, selfless, and, compared with either Churchill or younger half-brother Neville, untarnished by major ministerial misjudgment.
Yet this exceptional man and his important political career are largely forgotten, even by many historians.
Austen, son of Joseph, is the neglected Chamberlain – of whom people would ask: ‘Wasn’t he Neville’s brother?’ Which prompts the inevitable thought: there must have been a moment, surely, while David Miliband contemplated his life-changing decision not to stand for the shadow cabinet, when he wondered whether people would ever whisper to each other: ‘Wasn’t he Ed Miliband’s brother?’
Will Mili-D’s obituaries open with his narrow failure to become party leader, just as Chamb-A’s fame today rests mainly on being a quiz question – the only Conservative leader, until Iain Duncan Smith, not to have been Prime Minister or to have led his party into an election, or the 20th century politician who came closest to the Premiership without securing it?
It’s like a zero-sum game. There’s only so much interest to be had in a political family. If your father and brother grab a lot, there’s not much left for you.
In fact, of the Chamberlain sons, it was Austen who was groomed to do the grabbing. It’s easy to think of Austen and Neville as being almost of different generations, yet their six-year age gap was only about a year greater than the Milibands’.
It was their parliamentary careers that differed dramatically – thanks to the formidable paterfamilias, Joseph.
He decided that the apparently more gifted Austen would have the glittering political career, while Neville could be the successful businessman and amuse himself in the less testing world of Birmingham municipal politics.
This he did with sufficient distinction to become a highly effective wartime Lord Mayor and be appointed by Prime Minister Lloyd George as Director of National Service.
By this time, 1916-17, Austen was a Conservative member of Lloyd George’s wartime Cabinet, as Secretary of State for India, with a substantial ministerial career already behind him. He had also passed up his first chance to become party leader and conceivably Prime Minister.
In 1910, following successive election defeats for the Conservative-Liberal Unionist coalition, Conservative leader Arthur Balfour resigned. He supported Chamberlain as his successor, even though he was technically still a Liberal Unionist and opposed by the Conservative, Walter Long. To avoid divisive deadlock, Chamberlain proposed they both stand down in favour of the little-known compromise candidate, Andrew Bonar Law.
True, he would probably have lost the leadership election, but undeniably Chamberlain’s action greatly assisted the eventual merger of the two parties in 1912.
There was similar selflessness in his 1917 ministerial resignation following the unsuccessful British Mesopotamian (Iraq) campaign. Unlike Churchill’s personal responsibility as First Lord of the Admiralty for the disastrous naval bombardment of the Dardenelles, the Mesopotamian campaign was undertaken by the separately administered Indian Army.
Chamberlain, however, took the old-fashioned view that, as the minister ultimately responsible, he should resign.
He was, though, soon back in the Cabinet and, as a Coalition Conservative, became for the second time Chancellor of the Exchequer, charged with rebuilding Britain’s calamitous post-war finances. When in 1921 Bonar Law resigned due to ill health, Chamberlain succeeded him as party leader.
Then, in 1922, came AC’s personal moment of truth. His Conservatives were the largest party in the Coalition, but increasingly wanted out (sound familiar?).
Facing a backbench revolt against Lloyd George, and in an extraordinary act of self-denying but misguided loyalty to the PM and the Coalition, Chamberlain resigned the party leadership and with it the Premiership to Bonar Law – a dying man, but able briefly to become the chief beneficiary of the Conservative rebellion.
When Law resigned again in 1923, the party leadership went, with the Premiership, to Stanley Baldwin. Chamberlain did return to government, however, following the Conservatives’ election win in 1924, and for five years was a conspicuously successful Foreign Secretary.
His outstanding achievement, bringing him the Nobel Prize, was his negotiation of the 1925 Locarno Pact, which supposedly secured the post-war territorial settlement between the Western European powers and the new states of Central and Eastern Europe.
His last political years were spent as the Conservatives’ Elder Statesman in the Commons – an overused term, but here supremely suited, as of course was Chamberlain himself.
With his immaculate attire, top hat and monocle – seeking apparently to recreate his father’s appearance – and his hitherto handicapping aloof superiority, he had found his natural role.
Unlike Churchill, the “failed politician” now vehemently opposed to Indian independence, Chamberlain’s vast ministerial experience included India, and his voice on this and other matters, including the growing Nazi threat, carried much the greater weight.
Finally, some parallels between Chamberlain and Miliband, in addition to being Foreign Secretary and failing – initially in AC’s case – to become party leader.
First, political prescience. Like Chamberlain on appeasement, and long before 9/11, Miliband warned very early – albeit mainly in private – about the foreign policy threat posed by President Bush and his neo-conservatives. Second, like AC, he has a sense of integrity that constrained his criticism for personal gain of a government in which he served.
However, as shown by his campaign’s disastrous failure to chase the second preference votes of his fellow candidates, he is a less instinctive politician than his brother.
Finally, again like AC, his personal style can tend towards the aloofness, with a capacity for downright rudeness to colleagues. Neither, in short, would win popularity contests, and it is popularity that wins leadership battles, and also makes people want to read books about you.