No Gentleman

Jonathan Parry

  • Joseph Chamberlain: Entrepreneur in Politics by Peter Marsh
    Yale, 725 pp, £30.00, May 1994, ISBN 0 300 05801 2

‘Entrepreneur in politics’: how many aspirants for power – most recently Silvio Berlusconi, Ross Perot and Michael Heseltine – have traded under that description. On the basis of a successful business record, they have claimed to be equipped to perform startling political feats – cutting through red tape, banging heads together, turning the country round, getting us on the move again. But is business like politics? What can the businessman contribute, and what are his disadvantages? Joseph Chamberlain’s extraordinary career is one good source of answers to those questions.

Peter Marsh’s biography is the fifth substantial one in thirty years, but justifies itself on the grounds that it is the first to cover Chamberlain’s whole career in a single volume and to give adequate weight to his business background. Marsh has sought to be comprehensive and fair-minded, and it has taken him ‘more than a dozen years’ and a third of a million words – not an approach designed to communicate Chamberlain’s presence and panache. But the book has a marvellous story to tell, and an intelligent thesis about the impact of Chamberlain’s business experience on his political practice. Chamberlain was the first man consistently to apply the mentality of a successful industrialist to party organisation and the marketing of policy. He was attuned to the potential of the mass market, the benefits of innovative presentation and the necessity for continuous economic expansion in a way that his landed contemporaries were not. Yet, Marsh concludes, he failed to achieve the ends to which these novelties were means. The book’s message is simple: that Chamberlain’s methods and temperament were a fatal disqualification for achieving the political goals which he desperately sought.

Born into a fairly affluent and hard-headed Unitarian family in 1836, Chamberlain made enough money from screw-manufacturing to retire from it in 1874 with a comfortable annuity. One key to his business success was his aggressive, masterful personality, demonic when threatened or challenged, and motivated largely by resentment at the social dominance of the landed classes. A second was timing: his business prospered in the boom of the 1860s, thanks not least to the Opportunities in Continental markets opened up by the numerous free trade treaties of the first half of the decade. The Franco-Prussian War also helped; then he withdrew, just before a bad depression hit the metallurgical trades in the mid-1870s. A third key was a hunger for expansion, and the vision and marketing skill necessary to feed it. He forced out rivals and created a virtual monopoly by expanding his control over the chain of production, by great attention to the varying needs of his different markets, by efficient discounting arrangements, and by appreciating the benefits of a well-paid, skilled and educated workforce.

Chamberlain’s business career points up the negative and positive attributes that he was to transfer to the political arena. His major shortcoming was his combativeness. He was an entrepreneur, not a manager – indeed, he left business largely because he was bored with it. His mental turmoil and bitterness was exacerbated by the death of two young wives in childbirth, which destroyed the little spiritual comfort that his austere brand of Unitarianism had ever given him. Avowedly puzzled about the purpose of existence, he was driven on by the psychological need to pit himself against all comers. Gentlemen considered Chamberlain’s judgment and character unreliable. Sir Edward Grey called him ‘a dangerous man, because being very masterful, impulsive and sanguine, he always believes he can get through a tight place by pushing’. It was his personality, more than his ideas, which really threatened the traditions of Victorian politics.

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