Hello and hi. Perhaps you are not familiar with Joseph Chamberlain. Well, hopefully I can help with this. And as always, you are welcome. I must admit, I had heard his name bandied about the place – and I had a vague sense notion of who he was and when he lived. But truth be told, I was not 100% familiar with the essence of the man who appears to be our PM’s political hero-in spite of being from a different party. Now that I have your attention…let’s get on with the getting on.
In Theresa May‘s first policy speech, she mentioned Margaret Thatcher and Robert Peel-if you are Tory, then you are going to be more than familiar with MT and RP. But when our Theresa mentioned Joseph Chamberlain…people’s mouths fell open like cod fish. Yes, yes they did.
Who was Joseph Chamberlain?
Chamberlain was probably Britain’s first modern political figure. He was a maverick and a Victorian chameleon. He was an industrialist and a businessman who made his way into the cabinet. Chamberlain made Birmingham his adopted home, although not a Brummie by birth. Born to Unitarian parents, he built a very profitable business manufacturing screws in the city. However, he was less than impressed by the conditions in which his workes had to live in.
At this point, Birmingham, post 30 years of rapid industrial expansion was practically choking on its own filth. This mean that this city was a warren of factories, slums and grime. In addtion, rival water and gas compaines competed with each other, yet each failed miserably to provide the population with a reliable water or power supply. Joseph Chamberlain changed all of that in 3 short years as mayor. As he transformed the city from an oversized slum to one of the most advanced cities in the world. Chamberlain took the gas and water supplies into city ownership and provided its residents with the cleanest and most effective water and power supplies anywhere in the country.
Chamberlain put the proceeds into new housing, sewes and civic buildings-in addition to a new museuam and art gallery. As well as a grand boulevard to rival any street in Paris. In short, Joseph Chamberlain was the man who built Birmingham. Chamberlain commenced his political career as a Liberal, but later split from the party over PM William Gladstone’s policy of Home Rule in Ireland. Chamberlain was a mighty and avoved imperialist-he ended up taking a big chunk of his party’s MPs with him, forming the Liberal Unionists. Eventually, the Liberal Unionists and the Conservatives came together and formed the…wait for it…the Conservative and Unionist Party-the name remains today. May referenced this in her speech, as she gently reminded the audience of her party’s full name.
Chamberlain and the Liberal Uninionists changed the Conservative Party, as they brought with them a committed focus on the working class and policies that would appeal to them. In fact, The Tory Party before Chamberlain hadn’t been a party of the aristocracy-Disraeli had been extremely instrumental in extending the right to vote to more working men-but without Chamberlain, they wouldn’t have had the municipal conservatism and social reform to draw from.
In fact, Chamberlain was extremely instrumental in persuading Tory PM Lord Salisbury and Althur Balfour in engaging ina many important social reforms which ultimately helped the Conservatives attract new working class support. The Liberal Unionists gave them direct access to part of the electorate with whome they otherwise would have had little contact with-the skilled working class. The working class Tory remained an important part of the Conservative coalition-which went on to govern Britain for 66 out of 100 years of teh 20th Century. However, by the 1990’s and 2000s, that support eroded. Even in the 2010 and 2015 elections, the Conservatives struggled to appeal in urban Britain and many felt ‘left behind’ by globalisation and free-market economics.
Chamberlain was known as a ‘economic interventionist’ and he was called a “gas and water socialist” by his enemies on the right. In short, Chamberlain took profit-making enterprises into public hands as he declared that “profit was irrelevant. ”
Chamberlain never became PM, but he and his sons, Austen and Neville, dominated politics in Birmingham and the Consevative Party up to the Second World War. He split with the Liberal Party over Ireland-and the Tories over trade. Pictured below is Neville Chamberlain-son of Joseph.
Perhaps Chamberlain seves as an inspiration to Theresa May. It was pretty unusual that she mentioned him in her policy speech. Don’t blame me-I am not her speechwriter. Yet. But if in fact, he is her inspiration, well the Tories up and down this not so small island better brace themsevles. Churchill once said of Chamberlain that he was a politician who “made the weather” meaning that he played a crucial role in shaping the political agenda of the day. It will interesting to see if Theresa May reawakens this strand of Conservative thinking and follows in Chamberlain’s footsteps.