History hero: Joseph Chamberlain (1836–1914)

Historian Denis Judd explains his admiration for a politician who was a radical on the municipal, national and international stages

Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain announces the outbreak of the Second World War in a BBC broadcast, 1939. (Fox Photos/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the May 2009 edition of BBC History Magazine

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Why have I chosen Joseph Chamberlain for my history hero? The main reason is I see him as a particularly decisive politician at a time of great change and uncertainty. I admire his capacity for confronting a series of problems – Britain’s economy, the empire, political organisation, social reform, Irish nationalism, the crisis in South Africa – head-on. He didn’t fudge: he proposed solutions, which is perhaps why his enemies accused him of ruthlessness.

Is he the type of politician we lack today? Certainly, there’s not been many like him. Among his qualities were the clarity of his vision and the indefatigable capacity to assess problems and do something practical about them.

I first began to study Chamberlain seriously in the early 1960s when I was at Birkbeck College, London, researching for my PhD on the evolution of the British empire. In that process, Joseph Chamberlain became a key player.

Chamberlain was born in London in 1836; his father was a relatively modest tradesman. His family were religious dissenters, in the Unitarian tradition, and Joseph went to University College School in London, though he never went to university. Throughout his life I think he regretted that.

What changed Chamberlain’s life was that his uncle, a Birmingham businessman, bought a patent in a new type of wood screw, on display at the Great Exhibition in 1851. Joseph’s father invested in the business, and sent him to work in Birmingham. That helped make the family fortune, and meant Chamberlain would come to prominence there as a successful industrialist, then as a radical Liberal, being elected lord mayor in 1873, and subsequently an MP in 1876.

“Chamberlain helped lay the foundations for modern local government”

Chamberlain helped lay the foundations for modern local government. He ensured regular gas and water supplies, taking these vital commodities out of the hands of private enterprise, launched slum clearance programmes and was an advocate of educational reform. Birmingham held up a torch for radical, municipal progress: contemporaries even dubbed it ‘the Athens of the Midlands’! The national stage soon beckoned. As an MP, his impact was equally marked, and he became a radical member of Gladstone’s cabinet in 1880.

Of course, what marked Chamberlain’s subsequent career was that he was twice instrumental in splitting the two major parties to which he belonged. He split with Gladstone in 1886 over Irish Home Rule, taking his ‘Liberal Unionist’ followers with him. Chamberlain was no reactionary, but arguably more radical than Gladstone. As such, he argued for ‘home rule all round’ for England, Scotland and Wales too, which he thought would preserve the United Kingdom.

Then, having allied himself with the Conservatives in 1895, and serving as an energetic, single-minded colonial secretary, he dramatically quit Arthur Balfour’s Unionist government over tariff reform. Chamberlain believed that only by taxing certain foreign imports, but not similar goods from the empire, could British economic and political preeminence be assured. The empire, he believed, was the future, and out of the profits of expanding commerce, social reforms could be financed without ‘socialist’ levels of direct taxation.

The Liberals won the 1906 general election on a free-trade policy, but Chamberlain was set to dominate the opposition. Then, days after his 70th birthday, he suffered a serious stroke, which effectively finished his career, even though his constituents continued to re-elect him until he died on the eve of the First World War.

He was a charismatic figure; a radical in almost every sphere in his pursuit of what he thought was right. I come from the East Midlands, not the West, but my grandmother often told me how influential Chamberlain had been. She called him ‘Joey’ and he still seemed a star in her eyes.

Denis Judd was talking to Greg Neale

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Professor Denis Judd’s biography of Chamberlain, Radical Joe, is published in the new Faber Finds series next year.