This review is reproduced here by kind permission of the online inter-disciplinary journal Cercles, where it was first published. The original text has been reformatted and illustrated for the Victorian Web by Jacqueline Banerjee. Click on the images for larger pictures and more information.

Joseph Chamberlain has re-emerged as a late-Victorian and Edwardian politician of contemporary interest since it was revealed that he was an inspiration behind Prime Minister May, or at least her Conservative advisers. He seems, to these admirers, to be a symbol of what is, today, being called "Red Toryism" rejecting both the free-market economic liberalism of the Thatcher era and the social liberalism and metropolitan and cosmopolitan values of the Camerons. We do not yet have a fully-formed picture of what the Delphic Mrs May actually believes or of her vision of post-Brexit Britain. But the key elements — a strong, interventionist state; traditional patriotism; and a morality derived from Christian belief — were clearly recognisable in Chamberlain's approach to politics.

The book of essays on Chamberlain by Cawood and Upton is therefore timely as well as scholarly. The collection is however of uneven quality and interest. There is an excellent introduction by Peter Marsh, Chamberlain's most authoritative biographer, and a good, balanced, conclusion by Ian Cawood. But quite a few of the chapters are of little wider interest and some are seriously obscure, reflecting the recondite preoccupations of British academic research. I wanted for example to discover more about Chamberlain's one, mostly undisputed, claim to greatness, his municipal leadership of Birmingham, but the three chapters on the subject were quirky and tangential rather than enlightening.

The structure of the book does however helpfully guide us to the three things which we need to know about Chamberlain: icon and giant of municipal leadership and machine politics; a national politician who split the two main parties in turn, achieving little in the process; and a champion of British imperialism particularly over one of its less edifying projects, the Boer War. It also emerges that Chamberlain was a thoroughly unpleasant man: a bully, devious and a poor team player even in a notoriously egotistical profession.

Joseph Chamberlain. Portrait medallion by Thomas Woolner (1825-1892) on the south face of the Chamberlain Memorial Fountain in Birmingham.

Where being a bully helped achieve something constructive was in the leadership of Birmingham. His objective was to alleviate poverty, improve public health and education and create functioning, efficient, infrastructure. Today this might be called "municipal socialism." His methods however were to deploy his experience and insights as a manufacturer and to work in partnership with the city's business community: "municipal capitalism." In fact his politics defied our contemporary labels; he defined himself as a Radical Liberal. And he was a pioneer of machine politics of the kind later recognisable in Democratic New York or Chicago.

Where this aspect of his political life is of particular interest is in the current attempt to reverse decades of centralisation in the UK, which has reduced city councils to being outposts of national government with minimal powers to tax, spend and borrow independent of Whitehall. The experimental devolution to English cities led by Manchester (pioneered by an official, Howard Bernstein, rather than politicians) and London under Mayors Livingstone and Johnson suggests a wish to rediscover some of the energy and drive which transformed Birmingham into one of the great cities of the then Empire.

Joe Chamberlain by John Singer Sargent, 1896. Courtesy of the National Gallery, London (NPG 4030).

There is jarring contrast between his local triumphs and national failures. He was a protégé of Gladstone but then split with him and his party over Irish Home Rule, creating the Liberal Unionists, a split that had a lot to do with poor chemistry between two very difficult men. He then split the Liberal Unionists and moved across to the Conservatives, a somewhat improbable ally for someone who had been described as a latter-day Robespierre. His passionate imperialism did however appeal to and energise the Tories.

But he soon fell out with mainstream Tories over trade when he advocated Imperial Preference. As the chapter by Oliver Betts makes clear the arguments did not follow a neat protection-versus-free-trade alignment (his proposal was for free trade within the Empire but with tariffs on imports from outside, in large part for revenue reasons). The public appears to have been thoroughly confused by the debate. In any event it failed to persuade the electorate which in 1906 voted for the Liberals in a landslide, burying the Tories, and Chamberlain. Lloyd George, Churchill and others then came into power with the kind of radical social reform programme which an earlier Chamberlain would have enthusiastically endorsed.

There is a certain irony in the fact that the Conservatives have laid claim to the mantle of Chamberlain when his main achievements occurred when he was a Liberal and his main failures were as a Conservative.... The Foreword by the Liberal Democrat peer Lord Beith reminds us that his party (and mine) have an equal, or better, claim.


Book under review: Joseph Chamberlain: International Statesman, National Leader, Local Icon. Edited by Ian Cawood and Chris Upton. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016. Hardcover. xvii + 272 pp. ISBN 978-1137528841. £63.00.

Created 7 January 2017