The English politician Joseph Chamberlain (1836-1914) influenced the fate of the Liberal party and then of the Conservative party. He has been described as one of Britain's first "professional" politicians.
Born in London on July 8, 1836, of a middle-class family, Joseph Chamberlain moved to Birmingham when he was 18 to join his uncle's engineering firm. He was so successful in business that he was able to retire with a large and assured income at the age of 38 and devote the rest of his life to politics. His first political position (1873-1876) was as the reforming Liberal lord mayor of Birmingham, where he promoted a "civic gospel." The city acquired new municipally owned services along with new buildings and roads, and it became a mecca for urban reformers. Chamberlain worked through a Liberal caucus, a more sophisticated form of party organization than existed anywhere else in Britain. When Chamberlain was elected to Parliament in 1876, his stated object was to do for the nation what he had already done for his local community.
Chamberlain's liberalism was different in tone and in content from that of his party leaders, particularly William Gladstone. Chamberlain was a radical in sympathy, with a Unitarian religious background, and he systematically set out to attract support not only from religious dissenters but also from workingmen. His proposals for social reform, entailing increased government intervention and expenditure, were attacked by old-fashioned radicals as well as by Conservatives and moderate Liberals.
When the Liberals were returned to power in 1880, Chamberlain became president of the Board of Trade and a member of the Cabinet. However, he was never at ease personally or politically with Gladstone, his prime minister. After pressing for his unauthorized radical program in the 1885 election, Chamberlain broke with Gladstone in 1886 over the issue of home rule for Ireland. Because of Chamberlain's vigorous opposition to Gladstone's Home Rule Bill, the Liberal party split and was unable to regain office, except for one brief interlude, for 20 years.
The nature of the Liberal split was important. There had always been an internal division between Whigs and radicals, and it had seemed on more than one occasion that the party would divide into a right and a left wing. Instead, as a result of the home rule crisis, many Whigs and radicals found themselves in league against Gladstone, who represented the middle. After 1886 there was little hope for accommodation between Gladstone and Chamberlain, and Chamberlain became the effective leader of a third force, the Liberal Unionists, of which the Whig S. C. C. Hartington (later the Duke of Devonshire) was titular leader. Chamberlain's position throughout the rest of his political life was greatly strengthened by the fact that Birmingham remained loyal to him. Indeed, many of the policies which he advocated had their origins in the politics of the city.
In 1895 Chamberlain became colonial secretary in a predominantly Conservative government led by Lord Salisbury. In his new position Chamberlain pursued forceful policies promoting imperial development. Although he was interested in the development of the tropics and in the transformation of the empire into a partnership of self-governing equals, his colonial secretaryship is associated mainly with the Boer War (1899-1902). His critics called this conflict "Chamberlain's war"; this description was a drastic oversimplification, despite Chamberlain's belief that British "existence as a great Power" was at stake. After the Peace of Vereeniging ended the war, he visited South Africa and supported measures of conciliation between South Africans of British and Boer descent. Throughout this period he was keenly interested in wider questions of foreign policy and argued for closer relations with Germany and the United States.
In May 1903 Chamberlain once again disturbed the pattern of British domestic politics by announcing his support of tariffs favoring imperial products and his abandonment of belief in free trade. His motives were mixed, but the effect of his conversion was to split the Conservatives as well as the Liberal Unionists. In September 1903 he resigned from the Cabinet and began a campaign to educate the British public. The leading Conservative free traders resigned with him, but his influence was perpetuated by the appointment of his son Austen as chancellor of the Exchequer. Chamberlain himself never held office again, and his protectionist campaign failed. The Liberals were returned to power in 1906, the year Chamberlain became 70. Immediately after the birthday celebrations in Birmingham, Chamberlain had a stroke, which prostrated him for the rest of his life. He died on July 2, 1914, a few weeks before the outbreak of World War I. It was left to his son Neville to lead Britain away from free trade in 1932.
Despite Chamberlain's switches of party alignment, his political career was more consistent than it seemed on the surface. He preferred deeds to talk and candor to equivocation. He looked for issues with extraparliamentary appeal and never lost his belief in active government.
Further Reading on Joseph Chamberlain
There are several collections of Chamberlain's speeches, including Charles W. Boyd, ed., Mr. Chamberlain's Speeches (2 vols., 1914). The standard biography, The Life of Joseph Chamberlain (1932-1969), consists of six volumes, the first three by James L. Garvin and the final three by Julian Amery. Two recent studies are Peter Fraser, Joseph Chamberlain: Radicalism and Empire, 1868-1914 (1966), and Michael Hurst, Joseph Chamberlain and Liberal Reunion: The Round Table Conference of 1887 (1967). For material on the Chamberlain family see Sir Charles Petrie, The Chamberlain Tradition (1938).
Additional Biography Sources
Jay, Richard, Joseph Chamberlain, a political study, Oxford: Clarendon Press; New York: Oxford University Press, 1981.
Judd, Denis, Radical Joe: a life of Joseph Chamberlain, London: Hamilton, 1977.
Marsh, Peter T., Joseph Chamberlain: entrepreneur in politics, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994.
Powell, J. Enoch (John Enoch), Joseph Chamberlain, London: Thames and Hudson, 1977.