A century ago Joseph Chamberlain was the Tony Benn of his time, the bogeyman of moderate and conservative opinion. The point is familiar to historians of the period, but never easy to convey. Why, after all, should the upper classes have been scared of a Liberal? Were the Liberals not a party of property and wealth? Indeed they were, and from the gallery of the House of Commons one could observe a multitude of well-fed, broad-bottomed types on the Liberal benches. But seen through the eyes of a true Tory, bred to the Church and the Land, these gentlemen appeared to be a pretty suspect crowd. Welshmen, Scots, Dissenters, tradesmen – there was something wrong with all of them. Many were in league with Irish agitators and the whole party was nothing but a confederacy directed against the traditional ruling class. Their leader, Mr Gladstone, was a dangerous old man and a firebrand at heart, and after him worse would surely follow. On the left of the Party, where the real crackpots and doctrinaires gathered, stood the lean, arrogant and transparently ambitious figure of Joseph Chamberlain.
Chamberlain had made a fortune in Birmingham from the manufacture of screws. His political position he owed to the support of Liberal Party constituency activists. A born agitator and organiser, he had welded the radical caucuses of the cities into a party machine, the National Liberal Federation. This he employed as a battering-ram to impose more radical policies, and of course his own claims to leadership, on the Parliamentary Party. Chamberlain’s doctrine was the Victorian version of the class war: not labour versus capital, but the productive classes against a parasitical aristocracy. Lord Salisbury, the Conservative leader, he attacked as the chief representative of a class ‘who toil not, neither do they spin’. ‘What ransom,’ he asked, ‘will property pay for the security it enjoys?’ – and his words were intended as a threat. Perhaps this was rhetoric only, but no one could be sure, and in the meantime Chamberlain was caricatured as the English Robespierre.
A second comparison with Tony Benn also presents itself. Chamberlain, too, abandoned in middle age the politics of his youth. But where Benn was born again as a socialist, Chamberlain was a convert to imperialism. That ‘Radical Joe’ would transform himself, in the words of Winston Churchill, from Fiery Red to True Blue was a change beyond the wit of political pundits to predict. But then, no one could possibly have predicted the explosive impact of the Irish question on political alignments. In 1886, Gladstone declared in favour of Home Rule and introduced into the House of Commons the first Home Rule Bill. The Liberal Party split. A radical section led by Chamberlain and a Whig section led by Hartington combined to defeat the Bill and broke away to form an independent group, the Liberal Unionists. Chamberlain was launched in a new direction.
A minor party, the Liberal Unionists were nevertheless a decisive force in their day. Claiming at first to be independent, they quickly developed an electoral alliance with the Conservatives which guaranteed a 20-year period of Tory supremacy. In 1895, they entered a coalition under Salisbury, with Chamberlain claiming the Colonial Office as his reward. At first sight, it was an eccentric choice: a ministerial backwater far removed from the mainstream of domestic affairs. But Chamberlain was now a new man, bitten by the bug of imperialism, and longing to put into practice his recently-proclaimed faith in the expansion and development of the Empire. It was he rather than Salisbury who led the Cabinet into the Boer War; and when the war was over it was Chamberlain, breaking with old orthodoxies, who sought to achieve through tariff reform Sir John Seeley’s vision of a Greater Britain equipped for the struggles of the 20th century.
Many efforts have been made to interpret Chamberlain and the great U-turn he performed in mid-career. Inevitably, the supporters of Mr Gladstone regarded him as a traitor who had sold out his friends for the proverbial mess of pottage. The weakness of this explanation is its failure to account for Chamberlain’s lifelong communion with the electorate of the West Midlands. Whether he was Radical Joe or the Jingo of the Boer War, no politician commanded greater loyalty at the grass roots. In the end he suffered for it: the celebrations laid on in Birmingham to mark his 70th birthday in 1906 brought on the stroke that ended his active career.
The fact that Chamberlain was a quintessential Brummy has encouraged historians to seek a unifying theme or purpose in his career. One theory is that his politics mirrored the changing role of the middle classes. In the mid-Victorian period, the argument runs, the middle classes were still to some degree hostile to the aristocracy, and closer in spirit to the artisans: hence Cobden, Bright and Chamberlain Mach I. But with the rise of organised labour threatening the middle classes from below, and the British Empire beginning to bring in dividends for investors, a merger of interests produced a new political alliance: hence Chamberlain Mach II. Another view is that Chamberlain’s career demonstrated an intellectual commitment to collectivism, a revolt against laissez-faire. By a logical progression, Chamberlain began with municipal socialism in Birmingham, moved on to social reform for Britain as a whole, and finally transferred his ambitions to the development of the entire British Empire.
In many ways Chamberlain’s career embodied the restless, forward movements of his era, ‘the spirit of the age’. In his new book Richard Jay has explained how and why this happened. There have been several biographies and studies of Chamberlain, but this is the best analysis of the public man, finely wrought and exact, and undoubtedly demanding of the reader. Old politics can be very stale and many dead controversies have to be exhumed, but at any rate Chamberlain himself slowly comes back to life. Mr Jay is too good a historian to neglect the larger trends of the time, but too shrewd a biographer to imagine that Chamberlain represented them in a straightforward or systematic way. The ground-rule of his book is that the activities of a politician have always to be located first in the context of the political game. His pages are redolent of smoke-filled rooms and the constant jostling for position of sharp and highly polished operators. The atmosphere is perfectly captured in Lord Randolph Churchill’s verdict on the contest between Chamberlain and Gladstone: ‘diamond cut diamond.’
Questions of policy were necessarily enmeshed with strategies of ambition, and Chamberlain himself revelled in the arts of manipulation. Quick to recognise the electoral dividends of gunboat diplomacy, he advised his fellow radical, Sir Charles Dilke: ‘Be a little jingo if you can.’ Searching in vain for an issue on which to break with Gladstone, he confided: ‘I cannot find a satisfactory boat to leave the ship in.’ As Colonial Secretary, he was deeply implicated in the abortive Jameson Raid on the Transvaal, and threatened with exposure by a committee of inquiry. His reaction was to rig the evidence and gerrymander the committee in what Mr Jay terms ‘a superb, if disgraceful, exercise in political survival’.
Another parameter of the political game was the foreshortening of time. In a world where reputations fluctuated like stock-exchange quotations, and the next Parliament was the undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveller had ever returned, long views were at a discount. ‘In politics,’ Chamberlain remarked, ‘there is no use looking beyond the next fortnight.’ But even the next fortnight was hazardous, and it was through miscalculating the short-term situation that Chamberlain bungled the Home Rule crisis. Chamberlain had always posed as Gladstone’s lieutenant, while actually working for the day when the Grand Old Man would be shunted aside. The Grand Old Man knew this full well and kept Chamberlain at arm’s length. In the Home Rule crisis – a complex episode splendidly elucidated by Mr Jay – the government of Ireland was never the decisive issue for Chamberlain. But he calculated that Home Rule would prove unpopular and Gladstone be forced to delay or retreat. Instead, Gladstone bore down relentlessly on his critics like a juggernaut, sweeping them into the ditch in a great party smash. When Chamberlain recovered consciousness he was wounded, bewildered and disorientated. Like Mr Toad after his first encounter with a motor-car, he could not understand what had hit him.
Toad was fundamentally a lovable character, caddish but weak, and affords an excuse for noting that Chamberlain was caddish but strong, an unlovable mix. Many biographers strain to communicate a deep humanity in their subject, but Mr Jay flatly admits that Chamberlain was not very nice. He exploited people, expected everyone to do his bidding, and upheld old-fashioned male supremacy. Of his third marriage (his first two wives died), Mr Jay remarks waspishly that, while in North America, ‘he took his pick of the choice American marriage market.’ But from another angle Mr Jay finds Chamberlain sympathetic and admirable. He applies to him a phrase of Hegel on the subject of great historical figures: ‘They were practical, political men. But at the same time they were thinking men, who had an insight into the requirement of the time – into what was ripe for development.’ This is high praise, and Chamberlain was worthy of it.
Chamberlain took from the ethos of Birmingham the idea that getting to the top meant getting something practical done. He was creative in the classic Victorian sense, glorifying the works of industry and the improvement of material standards. As Lord Mayor of Birmingham he took a straightforward pride in schemes of lighting and sewage, and the piping of gas and water into every citizen’s home. Never an original thinker or a political philosopher, he excelled at picking up the ideas of the day and converting them into a plan of action. If one of his projects failed or ran out of steam he would simply abandon it and start on something else. In 1885, his ‘unauthorised programme’ of old-fashioned radical measures turned out to be an electoral liability. By 1895, he had replaced it with a modernised scheme of social policy that anticipated the welfare state. Chamberlain resembled one of the inventors of the early Industrial Revolution, attempting by trial and error to find a technology that worked.
The greatest of his innovations was the Tariff Reform campaign. It may be that Chamberlain’s imperialism developed out of his alliance with the Conservative Party, but it was also a genuine exercise in statecraft. At the close of the 19th century Chamberlain represented a new school of thought, conscious of the growing vulnerability of Great Britain. Her diplomatic isolation, economic decline and impoverished Armed Forces all rendered her a soft target. On the diplomatic front Chamberlain worked for an alliance with the other ‘Anglo-Saxon’ powers, Germany and the United States: a far-sighted scheme frustrated by the stupidity of Germany’s rulers. But the Tariff Reform campaign was the great panacea, or intended to be. Four great objectives would be achieved by a single master-stroke: Imperial unity, economic recovery, revenue for the Armed Forces and social reform for the working classes.
Chamberlain’s last great enterprise was, on balance, a failure, like so many of his other projects. Only as Lord Mayor of Birmingham did he achieve undiluted success. ‘Of course I shall be Prime Minister,’ he boasted in 1887. But he never was, nor did he reach the Home Office, the Treasury or the Foreign Office. At every turn he met his match in a formidable prime minister determined to keep him under control: first Gladstone, then Salisbury, then Balfour. But resistance to Chamberlain ran deeper than this. Chamberlain was always temperamentally a moderniser, but the natural modernising class of the 19th century, the middle class, was fragmented and compromised. Chamberlain’s whole life was a discovery of this fact. In his youth he burnt his fingers over republicanism. As Radical Joe he found that the middle classes were much less angry than he wanted them to be. Finally he took on the huge vested interests of free trade and lost. The genius of Chamberlain lay in his capacity to tap and mobilise hitherto unexploited sources of energy and enthusiasm. But the restless forces were never as strong in Britain as the laws of inertia and the politics of Sleepy Hollow. Contemplating the fate of Joseph Chamberlain, we can only speculate whether the working classes will let down Citizen Benn as badly as the middle classes let down Radical Joe.