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The greatest Prime Minister we never had
by Adrian Davies
Few politicians are remembered after their brief time in office. How many could name any of the
Prime Ministers of the last century save Gladstone, Disraeli and Lord Salisbury(1)? Their cabinet
colleagues are condemned to even greater obscurity. Perhaps some would recall Lord Randolph
Churchill, more by reason of his son’s fame than for his own achievements, which were admittedly
few. All the others are long forgotten, except for one who never held any position higher than the
colonial secretaryship, yet was for perhaps a quarter of a century at the same time the most loved and
the most hated figure in public life. He was Joseph Chamberlain, who might have led either great party
and won the premiership, but instead split first the Liberals and then the Conservatives.
Was he hero or villain, selfless patriot or “stirrer up of strife”?
Let us begin at the beginning. Joseph Chamberlain was born on 8th July, 1836 in Camberwell,
the eldest son of an old City of London family, long established at no. 36 Milk Street, in business as
shoemakers for six generations and much involved all that time in the affairs of the Cordwainers’
Company(2), one of the great livery companies.
As a boy, Joseph Chamberlain was slightly built but tough. He had dark hair and grey-blue eyes,
that (rather ironically, as matters were to turn out) gave him a Celtic appearance, though, as he was
often to boast, he had no drop of any blood but English in his veins. He was sent to University College
School, in Gower Street, near Euston station. There he distinguished himself academically.
Unfortunately, however, his father could not afford to pay for all his children to go on to further
education. Being a man of rigid principles, he refused to favour his clever eldest son over the others by
sending him to the newly founded University College, London, the first new university in England for
more than five hundred years. Instead Joseph was put to work in the family shoe shop in Milk Street.
The work was hard and the hours punishingly long but the Chamberlains were a happy family and the
young man was contented enough with his lot.
His father, however, concluded that his eldest son’s business abilities were never going to be
fully employed in the Milk Street shop. Then an opportunity came for young Joseph to make his mark
in business in a big way.
Chamberlain’s paternal aunt had married into the Nettlefold family, formerly of Holborn, but
lately established in Birmingham as screw manufacturers. An American inventor offered the
Nettlefolds the chance of acquiring his patent for a new screw making machine. The Nettlefolds were
rich but not vastly rich and were hard pressed to raise the American’s price. They were, however, far-
sighted, realising that if they did not purchase the patent rights in Great Britain, some other
manufacturer would see the merit of the new machine, buy the rights and quite probably drive them out
Nettlefold resolved to ask Chamberlain’s father to come in with him on the new process for a
half share. With surprising boldness, Chamberlain senior agreed but on one condition: his eldest son
was to go to Birmingham to look after his investment.
So, at the age of eighteen, Joseph Chamberlain found himself jointly responsible for running a
manufacturing business that was in course of time to make his fortune and become the great firm of
Guest, Keen & Nettlefold. His energy and hard work were phenomenal, as was his attention to detail.
He masterminded the rationalisation and consolidation of what had been a cottage industry, organising
production according to the most modern methods. After establishing a dominant position in the
domestic market, Chamberlain built up a huge export trade. Nettlefold’s meanwhile became well
known for the high wages, relatively short hours and good working conditions that it offered to its
Chamberlain also enjoyed a full social life in the company of other Birmingham industrialists. In
1860 he met, fell in love with and in the next year married Harriet Kenrick, the daughter of one of his
The marriage and family life were to prove blissfully happy, but for all too short a time. Their
first child, a daughter called Beatrice, was born without complications of any kind. A year or so later
his wife found herself pregnant for a second time, but this time Harriet Chamberlain seemed far from
happy about the pregnancy. When her husband asked her why, she answered that she had a
presentiment that she would die in childbirth. On 16th October, 1863 Harriet Chamberlain was
apparently safely delivered of a healthy baby boy, Austen, one day to become Chancellor of the
Exchequer. Two days later, she became ill. Within three more days she died in fits of delirium.
Plunged into deep grief, Chamberlain sought escape in his work, to which he returned with redoubled
The municipal administration of Birmingham left much to be desired. The town had neither the
political institutions fit for a great industrial city, nor the men to run them. Birmingham had been little
more than a village in the eighteenth century and was still run by a parish council composed of
Conditions were appalling for the poor. The housing stock was jerry-built and grossly
overcrowded. The water supply was a serious danger to public health. The gas supply was in the hands
of competing undertakings that were constantly digging up the town’s streets to lay rival mains.
Determined to bring order out of this chaos and to do something to better the lot of his less
fortunate fellow citizens, Chamberlain plunged headlong into municipal politics. He successfully
sought election for St Paul’s ward in 1869. Within a few years he had sold his interest in the firm of
Nettlefold & Chamberlain and devoted himself full time to his political work. Moreover, he again
found private happiness, marrying his wife’s cousin, Florence.
In November 1873, he successfully stood as the Liberal candidate for mayor. Such a mayoralty
has never been seen in England before or since. “In twelve months, by God’s help, the town shall not
know itself!”, he swore and kept his promise!
First he had the borough purchase the two rival gas companies. Challenged at a public meeting
by a ratepayer doubtful of the financial merits of the scheme, he won the day by offering to purchase
the gas undertaking himself, if the ratepayers would not do so, and run it at a great profit. After gas,
water. It was intolerable that poor citizens should have to pay the water company’s extortionate
charges, else draw their water from contaminated wells. Unlike the gas companies, the water company
was not minded to sell. Chamberlain promoted an Act of Parliament for its compulsory
municipalisation. The water company was forced to negotiate. It was bought out at a fair price and soon
clean water was available to all citizens, rich and poor, at a very modest charge.
Then came slum clearance and rebuilding. Under Chamberlain’s guidance, the borough bought
up and cleared the slums, replacing them with fine new municipal buildings, and good quality housing
for the poor. The death rate plunged and figures for diseases of all kinds were greatly reduced.
Chamberlain involved private capital in these works, finding purchasers of long leases from the council
to recoup the monies laid out in the purchase of slums for clearance. Social reform was achieved
without socialism. By the end of the great mayoralty, Birmingham had not only proper street lighting
and clean water, but also courts, libraries, museums, galleries, parks, recreation grounds and swimming
baths and no significant increase in municipal debt.
Amidst the happiness that the success of his great work brought him, Chamberlain had for
seven years enjoyed a home life that he thought ‘perfect’. He was as happy with his second wife as he
had been with his first. They had four children, three daughters and one son, the future Prime Minister,
Neville. In 1875 however, disaster struck. On 13th February, a little before midnight, Florence
Chamberlain gave birth to her fifth child. At first all seemed well. Yet by five o’clock on the afternoon
of the next day, she and her child were dead. Crushed by this grievous second blow, Chamberlain was
to remain a widower for more than ten years. Despairing for a time of ever finding personal happiness
again, he redoubled his involvement in politics.
In 1876 he entered Parliament in the Liberal interest at the relatively late age of forty. He made
up for a late start by quick progress. Within four years he was President of the Board of Trade in a
Liberal government led by WE Gladstone.
Gladstone’s ministry was neither the first nor the last to face grave problems in Ireland. The
condition of that country was wretched indeed. Most of the land in the south and the west was in the
hands of absentee landlords who lived in London off the rents and profits of their Irish estates, worked
by a poverty-stricken and degraded peasantry. The difference in religion between the small minority of
predominantly Protestant land owners (the ‘Ascendancy’) and the mass of Catholic tenants exacerbated
the bitter divisions that would in any event have existed when disparities in wealth were so very great.
The downtrodden Irish masses found a leader. He was Parnell, an unlikely candidate, for he was
himself a Protestant and a landlord, but they took him to their hearts. While the Irish poor wanted
reform, their new leader had bolder and more dangerous plans. Independence, not tenants’ rights, was
his real objective.
By 1880, Ireland was in ferment. Three bad harvests in succession had left the tenantry in
desperate straits. Landlords were proceeding with evictions, and keeping the benefit of the tenants’
improvements for themselves with no compensation. Such improvements might be the work of several
generations of the same family. Desperate tenants opposed evictions by violent means. Stubborn
landlords foolishly refused all compromise, calling in the police to drive tenants off their holdings.
Wholesale insurrection was in the air.
In cabinet, Chamberlain fought for redress of grievances. He suggested a scheme of public
works to benefit Ireland, including improved communications, land reclamation and aid to industry.
The Chief Secretary for Ireland was enthusiastic about the plan, yet nothing was done. Parnell,
however, did act. He organised the tenants into a Land League, aiming to resist evictions by a
combination of force and art. Parnell invented the tactic of boycotting, a word that originates in the
name of an unpopular Irish land agent of this time. “When a man takes a farm from which another has
been unjustly evicted, you must shun him...as if he were a leper of old,” said Parnell in a famous speech
Meanwhile, the (Liberal!) government’s initial response was force, force, and more force.
Habeas corpus was suspended and arbitrary arrests followed. Slowly, however, policy shifted. The
government showed itself willing to consider land reform. Chamberlain opposed coercion unless
accompanied by reform. He also opposed Parnell’s policy of breaking up the United Kingdom.
Just as the first tentative proposals for land reform were beginning to improve the climate in
Ireland, Irish extremists committed a crime that was to embitter English public opinion against Ireland
for many years to come. On 6th May, 1882, the new Chief Secretary for Ireland, Lord Frederick
Cavendish, was walking in Phoenix Park, Dublin, with the permanent Under-Secretary, T.H. Burke, a
well-known figure in Catholic circles and grand nephew of the Catholic Primate of England, Cardinal
Wiseman. Assassins armed with surgeons’ knives attacked the two men, slashing them to pieces in
broad daylight. When the news got back to England, the people’s rage knew no bounds. Parnell himself
was as horrified as any man. Fist fights with bailiffs did not trouble him but (unlike some more modern
Irish ‘leaders’ who have been fêted in Downing Street) he had no stomach for sadistic murder. A wiser
government might have sought to win over Parnell and his more moderate followers by a conciliatory
policy of reform, accompanied by the crushing of the murder gangs. Yet now the Liberals returned to a
policy of repression with only minimal reform. The opportunity to win Parnell for a constructive
approach was lost. It was never to return.
Chamberlain meanwhile continued in office at the Board of Trade. Undoubtedly his most
important achievement at the Board was to stamp out the disgusting practice of overinsuring ‘coffin
ships’. Unscrupulous ship owners would take out insurance on a vessel for more than ship and cargo
were worth. They would then send it to sea overloaded and undermanned. If it got safely to port, they
made a good profit on the freight. If the ship went down, they made an even better profit on the
insurance. Chamberlain put an end to all this in the teeth of the shipping industry’s opposition by
making overinsurance illegal and introducing statutory controls on overloading. The men of the
Merchant Navy never forgot his tireless work on their behalf.
He showed the same zeal in the cause of the rural poor, saying:
“The agricultural labourer is the most pathetic figure in our whole social system. He is
condemned...to a life of unremitting and hopeless toil, with the prospect of the poorhouse as its only
“I am confident in the power of a wise government resting on, and representative of, the whole
people, to do something to add to the sum of human happiness and to lessen the evils of misfortune and
poverty. We are told that this country is the paradise of the rich; it should be our task to see that it does
not become the purgatory of the poor.”
Chamberlain’s views on social questions made him a man of the extreme left in the eyes of the
Tories. He even went so far as to advocate Republicanism. Lord Salisbury called him ‘a Sicilian
bandit’, while Lord Iddesleigh called him ‘Jack Cade’.
The General Election of 1885 left Parnell holding the balance of power. Gladstone had become
obsessed with the idea of solving the Irish problem before his final retirement from politics. Taking
office with the support of Parnell, he determined to give Parnell Home Rule for Ireland.
At first, Chamberlain could scarcely believe what Gladstone planned. It meant the break up of
the United Kingdom. The Home Rule Bill made this quite clear.
Chamberlain was the last man to be afraid of radical change. He was prepared to accept Home
Rule for Ireland but on terms that England, Scotland and Wales should have Home Rule too, with local
parliaments for each nation and an imperial Parliament at Westminster in which all four nations would
be fairly represented and to which foreign policy and defence would be reserved. All else would be
decided by the four national parliaments.
This plan for ‘Home Rule all round’ certainly deserved very serious consideration then and is
not without its merits to-day. It has the advantage of allowing each of the peoples of the British Isles to
run their own affairs in all matters that do not vitally affect the interests of the British Isles as a whole,
thus avoiding friction, while preserving their essential unity. Gladstone’s plan, on the other hand, meant
the separation of Ireland.
The stage was set for an epic confrontation of wills. Gladstone moved the second reading of the
Home Rule Bill in May 1886. Chamberlain was by then resolved to oppose his leader, knowing that it
would mean a final break with his party and believing that it would mean the end of his political career.
Fifty Liberal MPs said that they were prepared to go out with him. On 8th June the House voted on the
Bill. The votes of the Tories and the Liberal Unionists, as Chamberlain’s followers were known, carried
the day over the combined votes of Gladstone’s adherents and the Parnellites. Gladstone sought a
dissolution and took his message to the country. Chamberlain rose to the challenge.
On the eve of the poll, he spoke in his beloved city of Birmingham in these words, calling upon
the English people not to betray the Irish unionists:
“These two islands have always played a great part in the history of the world...again and again,
outnumbered, overmatched, confronted with difficulties and dangers, they have held their own against a
world in arms. They have stubbornly and proudly resisted all their enemies and scattered them like
chaff before the wind...if now you are going to yield to the threat of obstruction and agitation; if you
tremble at the thought of responsibility, if you shrink from the duty which is cast upon you, if you are
willing to wash your hands of your obligations; if you will desert those who trust to your loyalty and
honour; if British courage and pluck are dead within your hearts; if you are going to quail before the
dagger of the assassin and the threats of conspirators and rebels, then I say indeed the sceptre of
dominion will have passed from our grasp, and this great Empire will perish with the loss of the
qualities which have hitherto sustained it.”
The national mood had turned against the Gladstonian Liberals. For all Gladstone’s superb
oratory and frenetic campaigning (he was in the seventy-seventh year of his life) his party took a
Chamberlain did not seek office in the new Conservative government under Lord Salisbury. He
was content to offer it qualified support only from the opposition benches, where he and his supporters
sat as Liberal Unionists, a curious state of affairs, in which he sat on the same side of the House as the
Gladstonians and the Parnellites, many of whom would gladly have seen him dead. Not so the people of
Belfast and Coleraine, who received him to a rapturous welcome. Ulster had a new defender, for
Chamberlain was well aware that Ireland was no harmonious unity. The province of Ulster had no wish
for Home Rule. Its people were tied by sentiment and interest to the Union. Speaking in the House of
Commons, he said “Ireland is not a homogeneous community...it comprises two races and two
Though distinctly underemployed in the early years of Lord Salisbury’s predominance,
Chamberlain was a happy man, for in 1888, having passed the age of fifty, he married for the third time.
His new wife was a Miss Endicott, the daughter of a famous American judge, whom he had met while
on a government mission to the United States to resolve a fisheries dispute between that country and
Newfoundland (not then nor for sixty years after a part of Canada, but rather a self-governing British
Nor did his association with a Conservative government cause him to abandon the cause of
social reform. On 17th March, 1891, he became the first major British political figure to advocate old
age pensions. From that time onward, a constant theme of Chamberlain’s was that the Liberals’
obsession with Ireland was holding up social reform.
1892 was a General Election year. Gladstone returned to office at the age of eighty-two. Even
with Irish support, he had but a small majority, “too small, too small” as he himself said.
Straightaway, Gladstone introduced a second Home Rule Bill. It was peculiarly objectionable,
for it would have allowed the Irish influence over the affairs of the United Kingdom by continued
representation at Westminster, while enjoying the benefit of Home Rule. The struggle was bitter. The
Irish nationalist members loathed Chamberlain with a passion, which redoubled when he described
them as men “nominated by priests, elected by illiterates and subsidised by the enemies of our country.”
One of his old radical Liberal friends reproached him for his friendship with Tory grandees after
Chamberlain was seen taking tea on the terrace of the House of Commons with two duchesses! How
could the friend of oppressed agricultural labourers hob-nob with landowners? How could the once
republican mayor of Birmingham enjoy the special favour of the notoriously reactionary monarch
herself? Chamberlain answered that he had not abandoned his old friends, the poor, by allying himself
with patriotic elements in the upper classes. He continued in this vein: “if I have found new friends,
why, so have you. While mine are English gentlemen, yours are Irish murderers!”
The Home Rule Bill passed through the Commons, but failed in the Lords. The appropriate
response for a thwarted Prime Minister was to seek a dissolution and put the point at issue squarely
before the country. Gladstone was by now half blind and his health was rapidly failing. He knew that
he could not lead his party in another campaign. He declined to seek a dissolution and instead retired in
favour of Lord Rosebery.
Lord Rosebery took office in the confident belief that he would in due course win an election on
the cry of ‘the peers against the people’. The people were, however, of strongly unionist sentiments and
cared little for Home Rule. The Liberals failed to carry an important motion in the House of Commons,
an election ensued and the two unionist parties between them carried the country with a huge majority.
Lord Salisbury became Prime Minister, at the head of a justly famous government that was to rule
England and the Empire for many years to come, at perhaps the height of our national glory.
Lord Salisbury was willing to offer Chamberlain almost any position in the government. To
Salisbury’s surprise, Chamberlain declined both the Home Office and the Exchequer, preferring to take
the Colonial Office, in the hope of furthering closer union between the Colonies(3) and the United
Within the constraints of space of this essay it is impossible to do justice to his time at the
Colonial Office. The subject is too vast. In the very broadest outline, Chamberlain believed that
federation of the British Empire was “the dream of every patriotic man”(4). He saw the potential of the
new nations of British stock. He was anxious to maintain, indeed to strengthen, the links of blood and
sentiment that tied the Mother Country to Canada, Australia, New Zealand and, more controversially,
Nor did Chamberlain confine his activities in the field of foreign policy to colonial and imperial
issues. Lord Salisbury had taken the Foreign Office as well as the Premiership and held both for many
years. Even for a man of Salisbury’s gifts the double burden was too heavy. In the age of the European
‘scramble for Africa’, Chamberlain inevitably became involved in foreign policy issues. As Colonial
Secretary he had to tread a delicate path, seeking to expand the British sphere of influence, while
avoiding clashes with other ambitious imperial powers.
Initially, Chamberlain favoured a German alliance. He was concerned about France’s ambitions
in Africa(6) and Russia’s growing power in central and east Asia, threatening India and British
commercial interests in China. Moreover, he was anxious to tie the Germans into an alliance that would
preclude Germany from supporting the Boers in any eventual struggle for South Africa.
Chamberlain had first floated the idea of a comprehensive Anglo-German understanding in
1889, when he met Herbert Bismarck, the son and trusted confidant of the Iron Chancellor. In 1898 he
revived the idea. The German Emperor William II was initially keen but was dissuaded by Admiral
Tirpitz, who was unwilling to abandon his policy of a naval build up. Tirpitz’s policy was bound to
appear threatening to any British government of whatever political complexion. Germany, as a land
power, had no need of a great navy for her own defence, just as we, a sea power, had no need for a large
standing army. A German naval build up directly threatened the lines of communication and the food
supply of the British Empire.
In 1901, Chamberlain tried again. At first the omens seemed propitious. Again, however,
protracted and delicate negotiations came to nothing. There was fault on both sides.
On the British side, there were many who adhered slavishly to the traditional ‘balance of power
theory’, which held that it was in Great Britain’s interests to ensure that no one power should ever
dominate the continent. It followed that we should always ally ourselves with the second strongest
power against the strongest. In the conditions prevailing at the turn of the century, that meant an
alliance with France against Imperial Germany, perceived as the latest in a series of dangerously great
continental powers beginning with Philip II of Spain, who had sent the great Armada against Queen
Elizabeth, and continuing with Louis XIV and Napoleon. Business interests, hard pressed by German
competition in many markets, had their own reasons for wanting war with Germany. Yet the interests of
the two countries were not necessarily opposed, contrary to the short- sighted view of the ‘balance of
power’ school. Lord Stanley, Foreign Secretary in 1866, had thought that the establishment of a great
German Empire in Central Europe caused neither injury, menace, nor detriment to British interests.(7)
The Germanophobes were too blinded by prejudice and hatred to see that there was no essential clash
of interests between the two powers that could possibly justify a bloody conflict.
The Germans for their part pressed too hard for the United Kingdom’s immediate guarantee of
Austria’s borders as a term of alliance. Only an unqualified undertaking by Germany to come to our aid
anywhere in the world could have justified such an engagement. Yet Germany was unwilling to give
such an undertaking, though prepared to be helpful in certain areas.
The Germans were no less suspicious than the French of ‘perfidious Albion’, but they too were
capable of Machiavellian intrigues. The German Chancellor Bülow said “we must let hope shimmer on
the horizon”, encouraging the British to believe that a general understanding was attainable, while
never committing Germany to onerous reciprocal obligations. Above all, the Germans were not, in the
last resort, prepared to abandon their naval ambitions as the price of securing Great Britain’s goodwill.
So it was that, for no want of trying on Chamberlain’s part, a general understanding with
Germany was not reached and a million men from Great Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and
the rest of the Empire went to their deaths to gain the most Pyrrhic of victories with which our decline
as a nation began in earnest.
Karl Marx was wrong about most things and even more wrong than usual when he said that
history always repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. History was to repeat
itself as tragedy the second time too. As Joseph Chamberlain had tried valiantly but failed to preserve
peace between Great Britain and Germany, so, a generation later, his son Neville was to try again. He
also failed, his good intentions brought to nothing by the intrigues of the war party in Great Britain and
the bellicosity and unreasonable territorial demands of Adolf Hitler, who repeated the Kaiser’s errors to
the common ruin of two great nations and the benefit only of those who desired war between Great
Britain and Germany in the furtherance of their personal ambitions and sectional interests.
So we come to the final and perhaps the most important chapter of Chamberlain’s political life,
the struggle for protection, or tariff reform as it was rather euphemistically termed.
Chamberlain had always believed in imperialism and social reform. “The two”, he once said,
“must always go together, as Disraeli saw. In his novels there is always the double idea, Social and
Imperial.” He saw that the dogma of free trade was an obstacle to both.
Historically, free trade was an aberration in British economic policy. From the Middle Ages to
the 1840s, protection had held sway. By the second quarter of the nineteenth century, commercial
interests represented by the Liberal Party saw protection as an obstacle to their chief aim of keeping
down wages. They sought the abolition of the duties on imported food not out of benevolence for the
poor, but rather so that they could reduce the wages of their workpeople, on the pretext that money
would go further if there were no tariff on corn.
So effective was the propaganda of the Anti-Corn Law League that not only were tariffs
abolished but many accepted the fanatical pronouncement(8) of The Economist (always an enemy of any
patriotic and national cause) that:
“Free Trade itself is a good, like virtue, holiness and righteousness, to be loved, admired,
honoured and steadfastly adopted, for its own sake, though all the rest of the world should love
restrictions and prohibition, which are of themselves evils, like vice and crime, to be hated and
abhorred under all circumstances and at all times.”
In the third quarter of the nineteenth century, the rapid increase in commerce and wealth
appeared to justify the free traders’ policy, but by the end of the century the position was no longer so
clear. Other countries had industrialised and were challenging our commercial position. Both the
United States and Germany had probably surpassed England economically by 1900, building up their
industries behind high tariff barriers. Foreign manufactured goods were penetrating British markets,
first in the colonies, then in Great Britain herself. Agriculture was in long-term decline, to such an
extent that by 1914 we produced little more than one-third of our food. The rest was imported, in large
measure from the United States. In the meanwhile, English agricultural labourers were paid a pittance
by farmers themselves in crisis, as land prices slumped ever lower. In the days of protection, investment
had been directed to the colonies which developed rapidly in consequence. Free export of capital meant
investment in the industries of our competitors to the harm of our kinsfolk. Individuals made fortunes,
but national strength was not increased. So Lord Elgin, the Governor-General of Canada, complained:
“All the prosperity of which Canada is robbed is transported to the other side of the line, as if to
make the Canadian feel more bitterly how much kinder England is to the children who desert her than
to those who remain faithful.”
1902 was the year of a great imperial conference in London. Sir Wilfrid Laurier, the Canadian
premier, urged a policy of mutual trading between Great Britain and Canada upon Chamberlain, whose
own mind had in any event been working upon similar lines. He became the prophet and preacher of his
last and greatest cause.
The Trade Union leadership, always more devoted to the cause of international socialism than
the interests of the British working classes, opposed protection because it was a nationalist policy, and
the TUC was internationalist. With devastating logic, Chamberlain pointed out the flaw in this
“...what can be more illogical than to raise the cost of production in this country in order to
promote the welfare of the working classes, and then to allow the products of other countries, which are
not surrounded by any similar legislation...freely to enter our country in competition with our goods,
which are hampered in the struggle? If these foreign goods come in cheaper, one of two things must
follow: either you will have to give up the conditions you have gained, either you will have to take
lower wages, or you will lose your work. You cannot keep your work at this higher standard of living
and wages if at the same time you allow foreigners at a lower standard and lower rate of pay to send
their goods freely in competition with yours.”
What of the free traders’ contention that we should buy in the cheapest market?
“Think how that affects different classes in the community. Take...the man living upon his
income. His interest is to buy in the cheapest market, because he does not produce. The cheaper he can
get every article he consumes, the better for him. He need not buy a single article in this country: he
need not make a single article. He can invest his money in foreign countries and live upon the
interest...But what about the working men? What about the class that depends upon having work in
order to earn wages or subsistence at all? They cannot do without work; and yet the work will go if the
article is not produced in this country. This is the state of things against which I am protesting.”
Free market dogma has always maintained that it matters little if jobs disappear in one industry;
replacement jobs will become available in another as the market clears the temporary surplus of labour.
Yet ought skilled men to be content with hamburger flipping jobs? Chamberlain thought not:
“What becomes of the men who lose their employment? They are always supposed...to find
other employment. Well they do not...In many cases the only employment they find is at the workhouse.
In other cases they emigrate. In others they go into inferior employments. The other day, I had a story
told me by a railway servant, and it seemed to me rather pathetic. He was at a station near Birmingham,
and he saw three men unloading trucks, and the trucks contained German wire. As he passed, one of the
men said: ‘this is rather hard; we used to make these.’ These were men who had been in Birmingham or
elsewhere as wire makers. They formerly got good wages, and had acquired a special aptitude...they
have been transferred to other employments, now being engaged like common labourers, all their skill
thrown away and no longer of the slightest advantage to them, as they worked at unloading German
wire. Who profits by this?”
The early years of this century saw a flood of refugees from Tsarist persecution reaching these
shores. In December 1904, Chamberlain made a speech at Limehouse in the East End of London in
truly prophetic vein:
“You are suffering from the unrestricted imports of cheaper goods. You are suffering also from
the unrestricted immigration of the people who make these goods...The evils of this immigration have
increased during recent years. And behind those people who have already reached these shores,
remember there are millions of the same kind who, under easily conceivable circumstances, might
follow in their track, and might invade this country in a way and to an extent of which few people have
at present any conception(9)...But the party of free importers is against any reform. How could they be
otherwise? They are perfectly consistent. If sweated goods are to be allowed in this country without
restriction, why not the people who make them? Where is the difference? There is no difference either
in the principle or in the results. It all comes to the same thing - less labour for the British working
Though Lord Salisbury’s nephew, Arthur Balfour, had succeeded his uncle as Prime Minister in
1902, Chamberlain was at this time probably the first man on the Right of British politics. It seemed
that he might carry the country for protection and imperial unity. Only his wife knew his secret fear.
Chamberlain was an old man in a hurry, for he knew that his health was failing. The Victorians did
have a tendency to overindulge at the table. On 25th June, 1906, Chamberlain made a major speech
after a banquet of gargantuan proportions. He was sixty-nine. A friend who was present recollected the
“...I was in the chair and, of course, he as principal guest sat next to me on my right. He had
quite recently recovered from a prolonged and severe fit of gout and I could not but wonder at the
freedom with which he ate, drank and smoked large cigars. ‘My friend’, I thought to myself, ‘It is
hardly possible that you can escape paying smartly for this’.”
On 7th July, 1906(10) Chamberlain celebrated his seventieth birthday, which was coincidentally
also the fortieth anniversary of his becoming a Member of Parliament for Birmingham. He denounced
the Labour Party and appealed to the patriotism of the working classes in these words:
“There are men in the House of Commons who profess in a special sense to be the
representatives of labour, who would not allow me, who represented a great working class
constituency...the claim to represent you. In order to do that, according to their theories, I should have
to be a man who did some work thirty years ago, and never did any after...it is these men who are at this
time blackening the character of those who are upholding the British dominions and the British flag
throughout the world...They have no word of sympathy for the men who suffer for the Imperial
cause...But one thing I will say, and I say it in your name: these men do not represent the working
classes of England, and never yet in our history of the British race, has the great democracy been
“If these were the last words that I were permitted to utter to you, I would rejoice to utter them in
your presence and with your approval. I know that the fruition of our hopes is certain. I hope I may be
able to live to congratulate you upon our common triumph, but in any case I have faith in the people. I
trust in the good sense, the intelligence, and the patriotism of the majority, the vast majority of my
‘Others I doubt not, if not we,
the issue of our toil shall see’.”
On the next day, his seventieth birthday, at the very height of his greatness Joseph Chamberlain
suffered a serious stroke. For a while he could neither speak nor walk. Though he recovered his powers
of speech, he never walked again, lingering broken in body until his death in July 1914.
Yet his spirit was not broken. Shortly before Chamberlain’s death, Sir Edward Carson went up
to Birmingham to seek the old man’s advice. Ireland was on the brink of civil war between Unionists
and Home Rulers. The Liberal Prime Minister Asquith was threatening to prosecute the Unionist
leaders for treason and sedition if they refused to back down. What ought the Unionists to do?
“Do you know what I would do?”, Chamberlain asked. “I do not, sir”, Carson replied. The old
man could only speak with great difficulty, but he thumped the floor with his walking stick to help the
words out. Carson listened intently, as Chamberlain continued: “I would fight it out to the end”.
The classic work is the massive six volume Life by Garvin and Amery. More readable, but not easy to
find, is Enoch Powell’s Joseph Chamberlain.
1.Few would know that the Duke of Wellington became Prime Minister after retiring from the
Army; all remember him as perhaps our greatest soldier but almost no-one knows of his
2.The cordwainers’ name derives from the Spanish city of Cordoba, whence the finest shoe
leather was shipped to London in the Middle Ages.
3.At this time only Canada as yet enjoyed Dominion status.
4.Speech at the Fishmongers’ Hall on 24th October, 1900.
5.When Chamberlain took office in 1895, only the Cape Colony and Natal were under British
rule. The British government officially claimed suzerainty, which it tactfully defined rather
vaguely, over the Transvaal and the Orange Free State but they enjoyed de facto independence.
Chamberlain’s role in the events leading to the Boer War remains very controversial and
cannot be analysed in the very limited confines of this essay.
6.The Fashoda incident brought Great Britain and France to the brink of war.
7.See K. Bourne’s The Foreign Policy of Victorian England (1970) at pp. 389 to 390.
8.On 2nd December, 1843.
9.Well, we do now.
10.His actual birthday was 8th July, a Sunday. In those days it would have been thought
inappropriate to hold public celebrations on a Sunday.
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