Open main menu

1922 Encyclopædia Britannica/Chamberlain, Joseph Austen

< 1922 Encyclopædia Britannica

CHAMBERLAIN, (Joseph) AUSTEN (1863-), English statesman, eldest son of Joseph Chamberlain (see 5.817) by his first wife, Harriet Kenrick, was born at Birmingham on Oct. 10 1863. He proceeded from school at Rugby to Trinity College, Cambridge, his father having determined to secure for the eldest son, whom he destined for politics, those academic advantages which early entrance on a business career had denied to himself when a young man. After a good degree at Cambridge and a useful apprenticeship in speaking at the Union, Austen Chamberlain completed his studies at the École des Sciences in Paris, and at the university in Berlin, where he attended the lectures of Treitschke. But valuable as this training was for the profession of politics, it was secondary to the advantages of daily contact with living issues which he enjoyed by growing up beneath the roof of perhaps the most compelling political personality of the day. He entered the House of Commons at a by-election in E. Worcestershire in 1892. He was returned again at the General Election in July, and in the following year, as junior Liberal Unionist Whip, he was to witness the slow slaughter of the Second Home Rule Bill after nearly 90 days' debate, in which Joseph Chamberlain was the protagonist. When Joseph Chamberlain became in 1895 Colonial Secretary under Lord Salisbury, his son became Civil Lord of the Admiralty. For five years, until 1900, Austen Chamberlain held this office, with Lord Goschen as First Lord; and although he was not called upon to speak often in the House, he succeeded in impressing his chief, and the permanent officials, with the integrity of his character and his solid grasp of mind. Wearing a single eye-glass like his father, and resembling him otherwise outwardly, critics would look for deeper resemblances too. But “Joe's” genius was his own; and Austen's strong gifts came to be recognized as none the less remarkable because they chanced to differ widely from his father's. The S. African War was virtually over when in Oct. 1900 the “Khaki” General Election took place; and upon Lord Salisbury's return to power Austen Chamberlain became Financial Secretary to the Treasury, with Hicks-Beach as Chancellor of the Exchequer. War finance explained the increased burdens of that year, and the 2d. rise in the Income Tax of the budget of 1901. But the most significant financial change appeared in the budget of 1902, when the 1s. a quarter duty upon imported corn was revived.

In the following summer Lord Salisbury resigned, and in the reconstruction following Mr. Balfour's accession to the post of Prime Minister, Austen Chamberlain ertered the Cabinet for the first time as Postmaster-General. Peace in S. Africa had been declared; a season of reconstruction had now set in; and Joseph Chamberlain took advantage of the lull to visit the S. African colonies, so recently won and secured. It was on his return in 1903, only to find that a majority of the Cabinet had been converted in his absence to a remission of the tax on corn, which had been destined by him and his son as a weapon, however elementary, for forging Imperial unity — for by reducing it upon corn from the Colonies they had hoped to inaugurate a fiscal preference with the Dominions overseas — that the Tariff Reform movement was initiated by Joseph Chamberlain, with the result that in Sept., after launching the Tariff Reform League in the summer, he resigned from the Government. His son, however, joined the Cabinet as Chancellor of the Exchequer, technically a higher office than his father had ever held.

Although the Tariff Reform controversy raged throughout 1904, only faint fiscal ripples disturbed the new Chancellor's budgets of 1904 and 1905, which remained mainly orthodox. But the split in the Government and the party upon this paramount issue, together with other political causes (see 3.254), led to their crushing defeat in the election of Jan. 1906. Austen Chamberlain was again returned to Parliament. Subsequently in this year he married Ivy Dundas, by whom he had a family of two sons and one daughter. The Unionists had dwindled to 158, against 512 Ministerialists under Campbell-Bannerman, in the new Parliament, and the task of this disheartened residue was formidable. Austen Chamberlain, however, encouraged them, not only by his industrious activity, especially among the younger Tariff Reformers, in assisting the propaganda work, but in the House of Commons by his spirited assault upon the budget of 1906, as well as by his bold denunciation of Mr. Asquith's high taxation in the budget of 1907. In the year following, Mr. Asquith succeeded Campbell-Bannerman as Prime Minister, and his introduction of old-age pensions some- what disarmed the critics of his finance. In 1909, however, Austen Chamberlain led the opposition against Mr. Lloyd George's “People's Budget.” In a brilliant impromptu speech he moved its rejection, arguing that the Government was welding a weapon for oppressive taxation; and for 40 days in committee he fought it clause by clause and line by line, until the proposed diversion of the old Sinking Fund was dropped, the duty on ungotten minerals had to be jettisoned, and the land taxes were whittled down into weapons of such weak revenue-raising capacity that they finally vanished (with Mr. Lloyd George's assent) in his own budgets of 1919 and 1920. In the period of constitutional crisis which followed the Lords' rejection of the budget, and after the breakdown of his father's health, he consolidated his own position in the Unionist party as the leader of the Tariff Reform movement in his father's absence; and when Mr. Balfour resigned the leadership of the Unionist party in 1911 he had established strong claims to the succession. But another section favoured Mr. Walter Long, his senior, and it was characteristic of both men that they would not put the party to any division in the matter. Austen Chamberlain gave his full loyalty to Mr. Bonar Law when he was unanimously adopted.

In 1913 he became chairman of the Royal Commission on Indian finance and currency, acting until March 1914. When the World War broke out, it had not proceeded long before a Coalition Government became necessary, and he then joined the Government as Secretary of State for India. In this capacity he inherited extensive military commitments in India and the conduct of a campaign in Mesopotamia, over which distance gave him spasmodic and scant control. When difficulties overcame the expedition in its advance upon Bagdad, a commission was appointed to inquire into the causes in Aug. 1916. It reported in June 1917, and, since it reflected upon the medical preparations in India, a debate followed in the House on July 11. To the general astonishment Mr. Chamberlain in his speech announced his resignation, admitting the truth of the breakdown of the hospital arrangements, but explaining that he was entirely ignorant of it until the damage had occurred. Although the Prime Minister urged him to remain, he insisted upon the constitutional duty of a responsible minister to resign when his office had been censured, and in doing so he confirmed his reputation for disinterested and high-minded independence.

In 1918 he returned to office in Mr. Lloyd George's Coalition Government, as minister without portfolio. At the general election in Dec. he was returned unopposed for W. Birmingham, for which, on his father's death in 1914, he had been returned at a by-election, and he was then appointed, at Mr. Lloyd George's invitation, once more Chancellor of the Exchequer. The Peace was being negotiated in the early months of 1919 in Paris, but Mr. Chamberlain's valuable contribution to the deliberations there of the Supreme Economic Council, over which he presided, did not prevent the introduction by him of the budget on the last day of April, in a speech reflecting the gigantic pecuniary sacrifices of the nation and the urgent need for economy. Taxation was increased to meet an expected deficit; but the distinc- tive departure of the budget was the reduction of existing duties by one-sixth upon articles of general consumption from the Colonies. The principle of Imperial Preference thereby became an integral element of the British financial system; and by a strange stroke of fate it was thus first introduced by the son of the statesman who had sacrificed everything to preach this principle and convert his countrymen 15 years before. A little later in the year, although private pockets were empty and the spirit of sacrifice temporarily exhausted, Mr. Chamberlain issued the Victory Loan. In the budget of 1920 he had the titanic task of attempting to make revenue and expenditure balance, with a deadweight debt of £7,835,000,000 and a floating debt of £1,312,000,000. But not content with £150,000,000 in hand for debt reduction, Mr. Chamberlain called upon the nation for further efforts and increased the excess profits duty to 60%, while introducing a corporation tax for the first time. When he had taken office as Chancellor late in 1918 the budget could not be balanced without borrowing, and currency inflation continued. But in this, his second year, the budget balanced, over 250,000,000 of debt was repaid out of revenue, and inflation took a downward course. This was done when trade prospects were favourable, and before it could be realized that wide economic dislocation on the Continent, aggravated by home labour disputes, was about to create a profound commercial depression. Criticism was, however, not wanting in later months that a less drastic policy of debt reduction would have left citizens better able to finance business, and as the year went on some concessions had to be made to this view, with which was combined a growing agitation for economy so as to reduce expenditure. The withdrawal of the excess profits duty next year was announced in Nov. in advance of the budget statement for 1921, and Treasury control was everywhere tightened.

On March 17 1921 the political world was startled by Mr. Bonar Law's resignation of the Unionist leadership, owing to ill-health. Instinctively the party turned for a successor to the man who might have led them 10 years previously, and whose accumulated experience and services were now his overwhelming credentials. There were no competitors to Mr. Chamberlain's candidature; even the usual lobbying seemed absent; and on March 21, in a packed party gathering at the Carlton Club, he was unanimously chosen Leader of the party. As such he became Leader of the House of Commons, and took office as Lord Privy Seal, being succeeded as Chancellor of the Exchequer by Sir Robert Horne. (O. L. L.)