Joseph Chamberlain: 'The One Who Made the Weather'? Graham Goodlad Surveys the Career of One of the Most Controversial Figures in Late Victorian and Edwardian Politics

Article excerpt

In a collection of essays, Great Contemporaries, Winston Churchill described Joseph Chamberlain as 'incomparably the most live, sparkling, insurgent, compulsive figure in British affairs' at the beginning of the twentieth century. 'Joe', he wrote, 'was the one who made the weather'; he shaped the political agenda at a time when the British Empire stood at the pinnacle of its power. This tribute was in some respects surprising. In spite of his evident ambition Chamberlain never became Prime Minister, nor did he attain the leadership of one of the two main parties. Indeed, in a parliamentary career which stretched from 1876 to 1914, he never held a Cabinet post senior to that of Colonial Secretary. For the last eight years of his life he was incapacitated by a stroke, which removed him from public life just at the moment when he was poised to take forward his last crusade, for tariff reform and imperial preference. One of his biographers, Richard Jay, described him as a 'misfit' who failed to adapt to the political structures of his time. Although he devised imaginative solutions to contemporary problems, ultimately an 'aura of failure' surrounded the great causes that he championed.

Nonetheless Chamberlain has assumed considerable importance in the eyes of historians. In his biography of Chamberlain, Peter Marsh hails him as the first industrialist to reach high office who sought to use the power of the state to arrest national economic decline. To Denis Judd, Peter Clarke and other historians, he was the first truly modern, professional politician. His legacy was the concept of organised democratic politics, in which disciplined parties sought to mobilise a mass electorate. Although his legislative record was thin, he displayed a consistent radicalism of method. In a more negative sense, he is commonly held responsible for a uniquely destructive achievement: the splitting of two parties, the Liberals in 1886 over Irish Home Rule, and the Unionists two decades later over tariff reform.

This article reviews Chamberlain's reputation, assessing his influence in the three main phases of his career:

* from 1869 to 1885, when he established himself as an important figure on the radical wing of the Liberal party, both in Birmingham and nationally;

* from 1886 to 1895, when his breach with Gladstone over Ireland led to his re-emergence as a Liberal Unionist, in uneasy alliance with his former opponents, the Whigs and Conservatives;

* from 1895 to 1906, when his identification with imperial expansion and consolidation made him the hero of the radical right in British politics.

Whilst not seeking to undervalue his energy and skill in political manoeuvre, this article draws attention to the very real frustrations faced by Chamberlain throughout his career. It argues that he had to struggle constantly to keep his political prospects alive. Certainly he demonstrated an ability to 'reinvent' himself at important junctures in his political life. Yet to a large extent, whether as radical Liberal or imperial-minded Unionist, he remained an outsider who found it hard to win the complete confidence of the political class, or indeed of the wider public.

A Radical Agenda

Chamberlain was a successful manufacturer, who embarked on a full-time political career after making a fortune in his adopted city, Birmingham. He was not the first individual to move from the world of business to national politics, but he was unusual in two respects. He was determined not only to be treated as an equal by the landowning elite which still dominated Victorian cabinets, but also to acquire a definite influence over policy making. Chamberlain was an effective organiser, first gaining national prominence in 1869 as the driving force behind the National Education League. This articulated the militant Nonconformist demand for state funded, universal, nondenominational primary schooling, and clashed with the first Gladstone government over the pro-Anglican bias of its 1870 Education Act. …