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Joseph Chamberlain in 1909.
Joseph Chamberlain in 1909.

Joseph Chamberlain (8 July 1836 – 2 July 1914) was a British statesman who was first a radical Liberal, then, after opposing home rule for Ireland, a Liberal Unionist, and eventually served as a leading imperialist in coalition with the Conservatives. He split both major British parties in the course of his career.

Chamberlain made his career in Birmingham, first as a manufacturer of screws and then as a notable mayor of the city. He was a radical Liberal Party member and an opponent of the Elementary Education Act 1870. As a self-made businessman, he had never attended university and had contempt for the aristocracy. He entered the House of Commons at 39 years of age, relatively late in life compared to politicians from more privileged backgrounds. Rising to power through his influence with the Liberal grassroots organisation, he served as President of the Board of Trade in Gladstone's Second Government (1880–85). At the time, Chamberlain was notable for his attacks on the Conservative leader Lord Salisbury, and in the 1885 general election he proposed the "Unauthorised Programme", which was not enacted, of benefits for newly enfranchised agricultural labourers, including the slogan promising "three acres and a cow". Chamberlain resigned from Gladstone's Third Government in 1886 in opposition to Irish Home Rule. He helped to engineer a Liberal Party split and became a Liberal Unionist, a party which included a bloc of MPs based in and around Birmingham.

From the 1895 general election the Liberal Unionists were in coalition with the Conservative Party, under Chamberlain's former opponent Lord Salisbury. In that government Chamberlain promoted the Workmen's Compensation Act 1897.[1][2] He served as Secretary of State for the Colonies, promoting a variety of schemes to build up the Empire in Asia, Africa, and the West Indies. He had major responsibility for causing the Second Boer War (1899–1902) in South Africa and was the government minister most responsible for the war effort. He became a dominant figure in the Unionist Government's re-election at the "Khaki Election" in 1900. In 1903, he resigned from the Cabinet to campaign for tariff reform (i.e. taxes on imports as opposed to the existing policy of free trade with no tariffs). He obtained the support of most Unionist MPs for this stance, but the Unionists suffered a landslide defeat at the 1906 general election. Shortly after public celebrations of his 70th birthday in Birmingham, he was disabled by a stroke, ending his public career.

Despite never becoming Prime Minister, he was one of the most important British politicians of his day, as well as a renowned orator and municipal reformer. Historian David Nicholls notes that his personality was not attractive: he was arrogant and ruthless and much hated. He never succeeded in his grand ambitions. However, he was a highly proficient grassroots organizer of democratic instincts, and played the central role in winning the Second Boer War. He is most famous for setting the agenda of British colonial, foreign, tariff and municipal policies, and for deeply splitting both major political parties.[3]

Early life, business career and marriage

Chamberlain was born in Camberwell to Caroline Harben, daughter of Henry Harben, and Joseph (1796–1874), a successful shoe manufacturer.[4] His younger brother was Richard Chamberlain, later also a Liberal politician. He was educated at University College School 1850–1852, excelling academically and gaining prizes in French and mathematics.[5]

The elder Chamberlain was not able to provide advanced education for all his children, and at the age of 16 Joseph was apprenticed to the Worshipful Company of Cordwainers and worked for the family business making quality leather shoes. At 18 he joined his uncle's screw-making business, Nettlefolds of Birmingham, in which his father had invested. The company became known as Nettlefold and Chamberlain when Chamberlain became a partner with Joseph Nettlefold. During the business's most prosperous period it produced two-thirds of all metal screws made in England, and by the time of Chamberlain's retirement from business in 1874 it was exporting worldwide.[6]

Chamberlain married Harriet Kenrick, the daughter of Archibald Kenrick, in July 1861 (they had met the previous year). Their daughter Beatrice Chamberlain was born in May 1862.[7] Harriet, who had had a premonition that she would die in childbirth, became ill two days after the birth of their son Austen in October 1863, and died three days later. Chamberlain devoted himself to business, while bringing up Beatrice and Austen with the Kenrick parents-in-law.[8]

In 1868 Chamberlain married Harriet's cousin Florence Kenrick, daughter of Timothy Kenrick.

Chamberlain and Florence had four children: the future Prime Minister Neville in 1869, Ida in 1870, Hilda in 1871 and Ethel in 1873. On 13 February 1875 Florence gave birth to their fifth child, but she and the child died within a day.[7] The teaching of these four children was taken on by their elder half sister Beatrice who was destined to make her mark as an educationalist.[7]

In 1888 Chamberlain married for the third time in Washington, D.C. His bride was Mary Crowninshield Endicott (1864–1957), daughter of the US Secretary of War, William Crowninshield Endicott. They had no children, but she eased his acceptance into upper-class society in the second half of his career.[9]

Early political career

Chamberlain became involved in Liberal politics, influenced by the strong radical and liberal traditions among Birmingham shoemakers and the long tradition of social action in Chamberlain's Unitarian church.[10] There was pressure to redistribute parliamentary seats to cities and to enfranchise a greater proportion of urban men. In 1866, Earl Russell's Liberal administration submitted a Reform Bill to create 400,000 new voters, but the Bill was opposed by the "Adullamite" Liberals for disrupting the social order, and criticised by Radicals for not conceding the secret ballot or household suffrage. The Bill was defeated and the government fell. Chamberlain was one of the 250,000, including the Mayor, who marched for Reform in Birmingham on 27 August 1866; he recalled that "men poured into the hall, black as they were from the factories...the people were packed together like herrings" to listen to a speech by John Bright. Lord Derby's minority Conservative administration passed a Reform Act in 1867, nearly doubling the electorate from 1,430,000 to 2,470,000.

The Liberal Party won the 1868 election. Chamberlain was active in the election campaign, praising Bright and George Dixon, a Birmingham MP. Chamberlain was also influential in the local campaign in support of the Irish Disestablishment bill. In the autumn of 1869 a deputation headed by William Harris invited him to stand for the Town Council; and in November he was elected to represent St. Paul's Ward.[11]

Chamberlain and Jesse Collings had been amongst the founders of the Birmingham Education League in 1867, which noted that of about 4.25 million children of school age, 2 million children, mostly in urban areas, did not attend school, with a further 1 million in uninspected schools. The government's aid to Church of England schools offended Nonconformist opinion. Chamberlain favoured free, secular, compulsory education, stating that "it is as much the duty of the State to see that the children are educated as to see that they are fed", and attributing the success of the USA and Prussia to public education. The Birmingham Education League evolved into the National Education League, which held its first Conference in Birmingham in 1869 and proposed a school system funded by local rates and government grants, managed by local authorities subject to government inspection. By 1870, the League had more than one hundred branches, mostly in cities and peopled largely by men of trades unions and working men's organisations.

William Edward Forster, Vice-President of the Committee of Council on Education, proposed an Elementary Education Bill in January 1870.[12] Nonconformists opposed the proposal to fund church schools as part of the national educational system through the rates. The NEL was angered by the absence of school commissions or of free, compulsory education. Chamberlain arranged for a delegation of 400 branch members and 46 MPs to visit the prime minister William Ewart Gladstone at 10 Downing Street on 9 March 1870, the first time the two men had met. Chamberlain impressed the Prime Minister with his lucid speech, and during the Bill's second reading Gladstone agreed to make amendments that removed church schools from rate-payer control and granted them funding. Liberal MPs, exasperated at the compromises in the legislation, voted against the government, and the Bill passed the House of Commons with support from the Conservatives. Chamberlain campaigned against the Act, and especially Clause 25, which gave school boards of England and Wales the power to pay the fees of poor children at voluntary schools, theoretically allowing them to fund church schools. The Education League stood in several by-elections against Liberal candidates who refused to support the repeal of Clause 25. In 1873 a Liberal majority was elected to the Birmingham School Board, with Chamberlain as chairman. Eventually, a compromise was reached with the church component of the School Board agreeing to make payments from rate-payer's money only to schools associated with industrial education.[13]

Chamberlain espoused enfranchisement of rural workers and a lower cost of land. In an article written for the Fortnightly Review, he coined the slogan of the "Four F's: Free Church, Free Schools, Free Land and Free Labour". In another article, "The Liberal Party and its Leaders", Chamberlain criticised Gladstone's leadership and advocated a more Radical direction for the party.

In November 1873, the Liberal Party swept the municipal elections and Chamberlain was elected mayor of Birmingham. The Conservatives had denounced his Radicalism and called him a "monopoliser and a dictator" whilst the Liberals had campaigned against their High Church Tory opponents with the slogan "The People above the Priests". The city's municipal administration was notably lax with regards to public works, and many urban dwellers lived in conditions of great poverty. As mayor, Chamberlain promoted many civic improvements, promising the city would be "parked, paved, assized, marketed, gas & watered and 'improved'".[14]

The Birmingham Gas Light and Coke Company and the Birmingham and Staffordshire Gas Light Company were locked in constant competition, in which the city's streets were continually dug up to lay mains. Chamberlain forcibly purchased the two companies on behalf of the borough for £1,953,050, even offering to purchase the companies himself if the ratepayers refused. In its first year of operations the new municipal gas scheme made a profit of £34,000.

The city's water supply was considered a danger to public health – approximately half of the city's population was dependent on well water, much of which was polluted by sewage. Piped water was only supplied three days per week, compelling the use of well water and water carts for the rest of the week. Deploring the rising death rate from contagious diseases in the poorest parts of the city, in January 1876, Chamberlain forcibly purchased Birmingham's waterworks for a combined sum of £1,350,000, creating Birmingham Corporation Water Department, having declared to a House of Commons Committee that "We have not the slightest intention of making profit...We shall get our profit indirectly in the comfort of the town and in the health of the inhabitants". Despite this noticeable executive action, Chamberlain was mistrustful of central authority and bureaucracy, preferring to give local communities the responsibility to act on their own initiative.

In July 1875, Chamberlain tabled an improvement plan involving slum clearance in Birmingham's city centre. Chamberlain had been consulted by the Home Secretary, Richard Assheton Cross during the preparation of the Artisan's and Labourers' Dwellings Improvement Act 1875, during Disraeli's social improvement programme. Chamberlain bought 50 acres (200,000 m²) of property to build a new road, (Corporation Street), through Birmingham's overcrowded slums. Over-riding the protests of local landlords and the Commissioner of the Local Government Board's inquiry into the scheme, Chamberlain gained the endorsement of the President of the Local Government Board, George Sclater-Booth. Chamberlain raised the funds for the programme, contributing £10,000 himself. However, the Improvement Committee concluded that it would be too expensive to transfer slum-dwellers to municipally built accommodation, and so the land was leased as a business proposition on a 75-year lease. Slum dwellers were eventually rehoused in the suburbs and the scheme cost local government £300,000. The death-rate in Corporation Street decreased dramatically – from approximately 53 per 1,000 between 1873 and 1875 to 21 per 1,000 between 1879 and 1881.

During Chamberlain's tenure of office, public and private money was used to construct libraries, municipal swimming pools and schools. Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery was enlarged and a number of new parks were opened. Construction of the Council House was begun, while the Victoria Law Courts were built on Corporation Street.[15]

The mayoralty helped make Chamberlain a national as well as local figure, with contemporaries commenting upon his youthfulness and dress, including "a black velvet coat, jaunty eyeglass in eye, red neck-tie drawn through a ring". His contribution to the city's improvement earned Chamberlain the allegiance of the so-called "Birmingham caucus" for the rest of his public career.

His biographer states:

National politics

The Sheffield Reform Association, an offshoot of the Liberal Party in the city, invited Chamberlain to stand for election as an MP soon after the beginning of his tenure as Mayor of Birmingham. Chamberlain's first Parliamentary campaign (the 1874 general election) was a fierce one; opponents accused him of republicanism and atheism, and even threw dead cats at him on the speaking platform. Chamberlain came in third place, a poor result for a leading urban Radical. Chamberlain eventually rejected the possibility of standing in Sheffield again, and when George Dixon retired from his Birmingham seat in May 1876, Chamberlain was returned unopposed (17 June 1876) for the Birmingham constituency, after a period of anxiety following his nomination in which he denounced the Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, accusing him of being 'a man who never told the truth except by accident.' After Chamberlain came under heavy attack for the insult he apologised publicly.[17]

When elected, Chamberlain resigned as mayor of Birmingham, and was introduced to the House of Commons by John Bright and Joseph Cowen, an M.P. for Newcastle upon Tyne. Almost immediately, Chamberlain began to organise the Radical MPs, intending to displace Whig dominance of the Liberal Party. On 4 August 1876, Chamberlain made his maiden speech in the House of Commons during a debate on elementary schools. He spoke for twenty minutes on the maintenance of clause 25, while Disraeli was present, and using his experience on the Birmingham School Board to make an impressive speech. Many of Chamberlain's other speeches were on the subject of free public education and female teachers, and on alcohol licensing and army discipline.

Early difficulties in creating a coherent Radical group convinced Chamberlain of the need to establish a more effective organisation for the Liberal Party as a whole, especially in the localities. Chamberlain hoped to harness the public agitation against Turkey's Bulgarian atrocities for a Radical agenda. Chamberlain closed ranks with Gladstone to profit from the returned Liberal leader's increasing popularity. With the Liberal Party actively opposing Disraeli's foreign policy during the Russo-Turkish War, Gladstone addressed approximately 30,000 people at Bingley Hall on 31 May 1877 to found the National Liberal Federation, a federation of the country's Liberal Associations. The body was dominated by Birmingham politicians, with Chamberlain himself as President. The Federation was designed to tighten party discipline and campaigning, and it subsequently enlisted new party members, organised political meetings and published posters and pamphlets. Contemporary commentators made (often disparaging) comparisons between the techniques of the Federation and those employed in American politics. The Federation enhanced Chamberlain's influence in the Liberal Party and gave him a nationwide platform to promote Radicalism.

Chamberlain criticised Disraeli's forward foreign policy for diverting attention from domestic reform. Unlike many Liberals, Chamberlain's was not an anti-imperialist, for although he berated the government for its Eastern policy, the Second Afghan War of 1878 and the Zulu War of 1879, he had supported Disraeli's purchase of Suez Canal Company shares in November 1875. At this stage of his career, Chamberlain was eager to see the protection of British overseas interests, but placed greater emphasis on a conception of justice in the pursuit of such interests. Chamberlain joined the Liberal denunciations of the Conservative Party's foreign policy in the 1880 general election, and Gladstone returned as Prime Minister with assistance from the NLF.

Despite having sat in Parliament for only four years, Chamberlain hoped for a cabinet position, and told Sir William Harcourt that he was prepared to lead a revolt and field Radical candidates in borough elections. Although Gladstone did not regard the NLF highly, he recognised the part it had played in winning the 1880 election, and was eager to reconcile Chamberlain and other Radicals to the mainly Whig cabinet. Having taken the counsel of Bright, Gladstone invited Chamberlain on 27 April 1880 to become President of the Board of Trade.

Chamberlain's scope for manoeuvre was restricted between 1880 and 1883 by the Cabinet's preoccupation with Ireland, Transvaal Colony and Egypt, but he was able to introduce the Grain Cargoes Bill, for the safer transportation of grain, an Electric Lighting Bill, enabling municipal corporations to establish electricity supplies, and a Seaman's Wages Bill, which ensured a fairer system of payment for seamen. After 1883, Chamberlain was more productive. A Bankruptcy Bill established a Board of Trade Bankruptcy Department for inquiring into failed business deals. A Patents Bill subjected patenting to Board of Trade supervision. Chamberlain also sought to end the practice of ship owners overinsuring their vessels – 'coffin ships' – while under-manning them, ensuring a healthy profit whether the ship arrived safely or sank. Despite being endorsed by Tory Democrats Lord Randolph Churchill and John Eldon Gorst, the Liberal government was unwilling to grant Chamberlain its full support and the Bill was withdrawn in July 1884.

Chamberlain took a special interest in Ireland. The Irish Land League promoted fair rents, fixity of tenure and free sale for Irish Catholic peasants, in opposition to (often absentee) Anglo-Irish landlords. Chamberlain agreed with suggestions that a Land Bill would counter agitation in Ireland and Fenian outrages in the British Isles and would quieten demands for Irish Home Rule, which he opposed strongly, reasoning that it would lead to the eventual break up of the British Empire. He opposed the Chief Secretary for Ireland, W.E. Forster's policy of coercion, believing that coercive tactics before a land settlement would provoke Irish malcontents. In April 1881, Gladstone's government introduced the Irish Land Act, but in response, Charles Stewart Parnell, leading the Irish nationalists, encouraged tenants to withhold rents. As a result, Parnell and other leaders, including John Dillon and William O'Brien, were imprisoned in Kilmainham Gaol on 13 October 1881. Chamberlain supported their imprisonment rather than further concessions, and used their incarceration to bargain with them in 1882.

In the ensuing 'Kilmainham Treaty', the government agreed to release Parnell in return for his co-operation in making the Land Act work. Forster resigned and the new Chief Secretary, Lord Frederick Cavendish, was murdered by Irish terrorists on 6 May 1882, leaving the 'Kilmainham Treaty' almost useless. Many, including Parnell, believed that Chamberlain, having brokered the agreement, would be offered the Chief Secretaryship, but Gladstone appointed Sir George Trevelyan instead. Nevertheless, Chamberlain maintained an interest in Irish affairs, and proposed to the Cabinet an Irish Central Board that would have legislative powers for land, education and communications. This was rejected by the Whigs in Cabinet on 9 May 1885.

After his success in municipal politics, Chamberlain was frustrated at his inability to introduce more creative legislation at the Board of Trade. Early into the Gladstone ministry, Chamberlain suggested without success that the franchise should be extended, with the Prime Minister arguing that the matter should be deferred until the end of the Parliament's lifespan. In 1884, the Liberals proposed a Third Reform Bill, which would give hundreds of thousands of rural labourers the vote.

Chamberlain earned a reputation for provocative speeches during the period, especially during debate on the 1884 County Franchise Bill, which was opposed by the Whig Liberals Lord Hartington and George Goschen, as well as the Conservative leader Lord Salisbury, who argued that the Bill gave the Liberals an unfair electoral advantage and was prepared to block the Bill in the House of Lords unless it was accompanied by redistribution of seats into the suburbs. At Denbigh, on 20 October 1884, Chamberlain famously declared in a speech that Salisbury was "himself the spokesman of a class – a class to which he himself belongs, who toil not neither do they spin." In response, Salisbury branded Chamberlain a "Sicilian bandit" and Stafford Northcote called him "Jack Cade". When Chamberlain suggested that he would march on London with thousands of Birmingham constituents to protest against the House of Lords' powers, Salisbury remarked that "Mr. Chamberlain will return from his adventure with a broken head if nothing worse."

The Third Reform Act of 1884 was followed by a Redistribution Act in 1885, negotiated by Gladstone and Lord Salisbury. Chamberlain campaigned to capture the newly enfranchised voters for Radicalism with public meetings, speeches and, notably, articles written in the Fortnightly Review by Chamberlain's associates, including Jesse Collings and John Morley.

Chamberlain wrote the preface to the Radical Programme (July 1885), the first campaign handbook of British political history. It endorsed land reform, more direct taxation, free public education, the disestablishment of the Church of England, universal male suffrage, and more protection for trade unions. It was much inspired by his friend Frederick Maxse's 1873 pamphlet The Causes of Social Revolt.[18] Chamberlain's utopian vision fell foul of practical politics, as in the education question. Chamberlain proposed to separate the goal of free education for every child from the religious question. His policy was rejected by groups on all sides, who were using education as a political weapon, including the National Liberal Federation, Nonconformists, Catholics and more generally, the taxpayers.[19]

The Radical Programme earned the scorn of Whigs and Conservatives alike. Chamberlain had written to Morley that with Radical solidarity 'we will utterly destroy the Whigs, and have a Radical government before many years are out.' Seeking a contest with the Whigs, Chamberlain and Sir Charles Dilke presented their resignations to Gladstone on 20 May 1885, when the Cabinet rejected Chamberlain's scheme for the creation of National Councils in England, Scotland and Wales and when a proposed Land Purchase Bill did not have any provision for the reform of Irish local government. The resignations were not made public, and the opportunity for Chamberlain to present his Radicalism to the country was only presented when the Irish Parliamentary Party endorsed a Conservative amendment to the budget on 9 June, which passed by 12 votes. The Gladstone ministry resigned, and Salisbury formed a minority administration.

In August 1885, the Salisbury ministry asked for a dissolution of Parliament. At Hull on 5 August, Chamberlain began his election campaign by addressing an enthusiastic crowd in front of large posters declaring him to be "Your coming Prime Minister". Until the campaign's end in October, Chamberlain denounced opponents of the "Radical Programme" and endorsed the cause of rural labourers and offered to make smallholdings available to workers by funds from local authorities, using the slogan "Three Acres and a Cow". Chamberlain's campaign attracted large crowds and enthralled the young Ramsay MacDonald and David Lloyd George, but disconcerted leading Liberals like Goschen who called it the "Unauthorised Programme". The Conservatives denounced Chamberlain as an anarchist, with some even comparing him to Dick Turpin.

In October 1885, Chamberlain and Gladstone met at Hawarden Castle to reconcile their respective electoral programmes. The meeting, although good natured, was largely unproductive, and Gladstone neglected to tell Chamberlain of his negotiations with Parnell over proposals to grant Home Rule to Ireland. Chamberlain discovered the existence of such negotiations from Henry Labouchere, but unsure of the precise nature of Gladstone's offer to Parnell, did not press the issue, although he had already stated his opposition to Home Rule, declaring that "I cannot admit that five millions of Irishmen have any greater right to govern themselves without regard to the rest of the United Kingdom than the five million inhabitants of the metropolis (i.e. London)". The Liberals won the general election in November 1885, but fell just short of an overall majority against the Conservatives and the Irish Nationalists, the latter holding the balance between the two parties.

On 17 December, Herbert Gladstone revealed that his father was prepared to take office to implement Irish Home Rule, an action termed "flying the Hawarden Kite" by the press. At first, Chamberlain was reluctant to anger his Radical followers by joining forces with the anti-Home Rule Whigs and Conservatives. He awaited the development of events while saying little about the topic publicly, but Chamberlain privately damned Gladstone and the concept of Home Rule to colleagues, believing that maintaining the Conservatives in power for a further year would make the Irish question easier to settle. The Liberals returned to power in January 1886, after a Radical-inspired amendment by Collings was carried by 79 votes in the House of Commons, although Hartington, Goschen and 18 Liberals had voted with the Conservatives.

Chamberlain declined Gladstone's offer of the office of First Lord of the Admiralty. Gladstone rejected Chamberlain's request for the Colonial Office and eventually appointed him President of the Local Government Board. A dispute over the amount to be paid to Collings, Chamberlain's Parliamentary Secretary, worsened relations between Gladstone and Chamberlain, although the latter still hoped that he could alter or block Gladstone's Home Rule proposal in Cabinet, so that his programme of Radicalism could be given more attention. Chamberlain's renewed scheme for National Councils was not discussed in Cabinet, and only on 13 March were Gladstone's proposals for Ireland revealed. Chamberlain argued that the details of the accompanying Land Purchase Bill should be made known in order for a fair judgment to be made on Home Rule. When Gladstone stated his intention to give Ireland a separate Parliament with full powers to deal with Irish affairs, Chamberlain resolved to resign, writing to inform Gladstone of his decision two days later. In the meantime, Chamberlain consulted with Arthur Balfour, Salisbury's nephew, over the possibility of concerted action with the Conservatives, and contemplated similar co-operation with the Whigs. His resignation was made public on 27 March 1886.

Chamberlain in March 1886 launched a ferocious campaign against Gladstone's Irish proposals. His motivations combined imperial, domestic, and personal themes. Imperial, because they threatened to weaken Parliament's control over the United Kingdom; domestic, because they downplayed his own programme; and personal because they weakened his own standing in the party.[20]

Chamberlain's immediate chances of attaining the leadership of the Liberal Party had declined dramatically and in early May, the National Liberal Federation declared its loyalty to Gladstone. On 9 April, Chamberlain spoke against the Irish Home Rule Bill in its first reading before attending a meeting of Liberal Unionists, summoned by Hartington, hitherto the subject of Chamberlain's anti-Whig declarations on 14 May. From this meeting arose the Liberal Unionist Association, originally an ad hoc alliance to demonstrate the unity of anti-Home Rulers.[21] Meanwhile, to distinguish himself from the Whigs, Chamberlain founded the National Radical Union to rival the NLF; it faded away by 1888. During the second reading on 8 June, the Home Rule Bill was defeated by 30 votes, by the combined opposition of Conservatives, Chamberlainite radicals and Whigs. In all 93 Liberals, including Chamberlain and Hartington, voted against Gladstone.[22]

Parliament was dissolved, and in the ensuing 1886 general election, the Conservatives and Liberal Unionists agreed to an alliance. Chamberlain's position was more awkward than Hartington's, for the former was intensely mistrusted by, and unable to influence, the Conservatives, while he was despised by the Gladstonians for voting against Home Rule. Gladstone himself observed that "There is a difference between Hartington and Chamberlain, that the first behaves like and is a thorough gentleman. Of the other it is better not to speak."[23] With the general election dominated by Home Rule, Chamberlain's campaign was both Radical and intensely patriotic. The Conservatives and Liberal Unionists took 393 seats in the House of Commons and a comfortable majority.[24]

Chamberlain did not enter the Unionist government, aware that the hostility to him in the Conservative ranks meant that an agreement with them could extend merely to Ireland and not wishing to alienate his Radical support base. The Liberal mainstream cast Chamberlain as a villain, shouting "Judas!" and "Traitor!" as he entered the House of Commons chamber. Unable to associate himself decisively with either party, Chamberlain sought concerted action with a kindred spirit from the Conservative Party, Lord Randolph Churchill. In November 1886, Churchill announced his own 'Unauthorised Programme' at Dartford, the content of which had much in common with Chamberlain's own recent manifesto, including smallholdings for rural labourers and greater local government. Next month, Churchill resigned as Chancellor of the Exchequer over military spending, and when the Conservative mainstream rallied around Salisbury, Churchill's career was effectively ended, along with Chamberlain's hope of creating a powerful cross-party union of Radicals. The appointment of Goschen to the Treasury isolated Chamberlain further and symbolised the good relationship between non-Radical Liberal Unionists and the Conservatives.[25]

After January 1887, a series of Round Table Conferences took place between Chamberlain, Trevelyan, Harcourt, Morley and Lord Herschell, in which the participants sought an agreement about the Liberal Party's Irish policy. Chamberlain hoped that an accord would enable him to claim the future leadership of the party and that he would gain influence over the Conservatives simply from the negotiations occurring. Although a preliminary agreement was made concerning land purchase, Gladstone was unwilling to compromise further, and negotiations ended by March. In August 1887, Lord Salisbury invited Chamberlain to lead the British delegation in a Joint Commission to resolve a fisheries dispute between the United States and Newfoundland. The visit to the USA renewed his enthusiasm for politics, and enhanced his standing with respect to Gladstone. In November, Chamberlain met 23-year-old Mary Endicott, the daughter of President Grover Cleveland's Secretary of War, William C. Endicott, at a reception in the British legation. Before he left the United States in March 1888, Chamberlain proposed to Mary, describing her as 'one of the brightest and most intelligent girls I have yet met'. In November 1888, Chamberlain married Mary in Washington, D.C., wearing white violets, rather than his trademark orchid. Mary became a faithful supporter of his political ambitions.[26]

The Salisbury ministry was implementing a number of Radical reforms that pleased Chamberlain. Between 1888 and 1889, democratic County Councils were established in Great Britain. By 1891, measures for the provision of smallholdings had been made, and the extension of free, compulsory education to the entire country. Chamberlain wrote that "I have in the last five years seen more progress made with the practical application of my political programme than in all my previous life. I owe this result entirely to my former opponents, and all the opposition has come from my former friends."[27]

The Liberal Association in Birmingham could no longer be relied upon to provide loyal support, so Chamberlain created the Liberal Unionist Association in 1888, associated with the National Radical Union, having extracted his supporters from the old Liberal organisation.

In the 1892 general election, the Liberal Unionists did well in Birmingham and made gains in neighbouring towns in the Black Country. By now, Chamberlain's son, Austen, had also entered the House of Commons unopposed for East Worcestershire. However the national returns showed the limits of the Liberal Unionist Party's strategy. In an age of increasingly well-organised, mass politics it was reduced to only 47 seats. Chamberlain's standing was accordingly weakened. Gladstone returned to power and did not want Chamberlain back. The Liberal Unionists realized that they needed a closer relationship with the Conservatives.[28] When Hartington took his seat in the House of Lords as the Duke of Devonshire, Chamberlain assumed the leadership of the Liberal Unionists in the House of Commons, resulting in a productive relationship with Balfour, leader of the Conservatives in the Commons.[29]

Obliged to compromise with the Irish Nationalists, Gladstone introduced the Second Home Rule Bill in February 1893. Although the Bill passed the House of Commons, the Lords rejected Home Rule by a huge margin. With his party divided, Gladstone prepared to dissolve Parliament on the issue of the House of Lords' veto, but was compelled to resign in March 1894 by his colleagues. He was replaced by Lord Rosebery, who neglected the topic of Home Rule. Chamberlain continued to form alliances with the Conservatives.

Chamberlain worried about the threat of socialism, even though the Independent Labour Party had only one MP, Keir Hardie. Chamberlain warned of the dangers of socialism in his unpublished 1895 play The Game of Politics, characterising its proponents as the instigators of class conflict.[30] In response to the socialist challenge, he sought to divert the energy of collectivism for the good of Unionism, and continued to propose reforms to the Conservatives. In his 'Memorandum of a Programme for Social Reform' sent to Salisbury in 1893, Chamberlain made a number of suggestions, including old age pensions, the provision of loans to the working class for the purchase of houses, an amendment to the Artisans' Dwellings Act to encourage street improvements, compensation for industrial accidents, cheaper train fares for workers, tighter border controls and shorter working hours. Salisbury was guardedly sympathetic to the proposals. On 21 June 1895, the Liberal Government was defeated on a motion that criticised the Secretary of State for War, Henry Campbell-Bannerman, for shortages of cordite, and Salisbury was invited to form a government.[31]


Having agreed to a set of policies, the Conservatives and Liberal Unionists formed a government on 24 June 1895. Salisbury offered four Cabinet posts to Liberal Unionists. Devonshire became Lord President of the Council, and Salisbury and Balfour offered Chamberlain any Cabinet position except Foreign Secretary, which Salisbury wanted for himself, or Leader of the House of Commons. To their surprise he declined the Exchequer, unwilling to be constrained by conservative spending plans, and also refused the office of Home Secretary, instead asking for the Colonial Office. Chamberlain had adjusted his political strategy after losing a dispute over a seat at Leamington Spa, agreeing to enter the cabinet in a subordinate role and putting his program of social reform on the back burner. Unexpectedly, he used the Colonial Office to become one of the dominant figures in politics.[32]

Chamberlain used the Colonial Office to gain international recognition amidst European competition for territory and popular imperialism. He wanted to expand the British Empire In Africa, the Americas and Asia, reorder imperial trade and resources, and foster closer relations between Britain and the settler colonies. He envisioned a remodeled empire as a federation of Anglo-Saxon nations; in this he had support from Conservative backbenchers.[33] Chamberlain had once been an outspoken anti-imperialist but now he reversed course. In 1887 he declared that "I should think our patriotism was warped and stunted indeed if it did not embrace the Greater Britain beyond the seas". Much had been proposed with regard to an imperial federation, a more coherent system of imperial defence and preferential tariffs, yet by 1895 when Chamberlain arrived at the Colonial Office, little had been achieved. His own proposals met resistance from Canada and other settler colonies and went nowhere.[34][35]

Chamberlain took formal charge of the Colonial Office on 1 July 1895, with victory assured in the 1895 general election. He had control of numerous colonies, but not of India nor Canada. He had once been an anti-imperialist but now strongly advocated imperial unity and promoted development projects.[36] Believing that positive government action could bind the empire's peoples closer to the crown, Chamberlain stated confidently that "I believe that the British race is the greatest of the governing races that the world has ever seen... It is not enough to occupy great spaces of the world's surface unless you can make the best of them. It is the duty of a landlord to develop his estate." Accordingly, Chamberlain advocated investment in the tropics of Africa, the West Indies and other underdeveloped possessions, a policy that earned him the nickname "Joseph Africanus" among the press.[37]

He was instrumental in recognising the need to handle the unfamiliar tropical diseases that ravaged his subjects. With Chamberlain's support, Patrick Manson founded the world's second medical facility dedicated to tropical medicine in 1899 (the Liverpool School having been established the previous year). The London School of Tropical Medicine was located in Albert Dock Seamen's Hospital, which itself had opened in 1890 and would later become known as the Hospital for Tropical Diseases.[38][39]

Chamberlain had not abandoned his dedication to social reforms designed to help the working man.[40] He was instrumental in adapting Bismarck's German model to set up a system of compensation for injuries on the job. His Workmen's Compensation Act 1897 was a key domestic achievement of the Unionists at the end of the century. It cost the Treasury nothing since compensation was paid for by insurance that employers were required to take out. The system operated from 1897 to 1946.[41][42] Chamberlain also tried to design an old age pension programme, but it was too expensive to pass Conservative approval. He came to realize that a new source of revenue, such as tariffs on imports, would be required. Further opposition came from friendly societies, which were funded by their own pension program for their members.[43]

Cecil Rhodes, Prime Minister of the Cape Colony and managing director of the British South Africa Company, was eager to extend British dominion to all of South Africa, and encouraged the disenfranchised Uitlanders of the Boer republics to resist Afrikaner domination. Rhodes hoped that the intervention of the Company's private army, assembled in the Pitsani Strip (part of the Bechuanaland Protectorate and bordering the Transvaal, which had been ceded to the British South Africa Company by the Colonial Office, officially for the protection of a railway through the territory, in November 1895), could initiate an Uitlander rebellion and the overthrow of the Transvaal government. Chamberlain informed Salisbury on Boxing Day that a rebellion was expected, but was not sure when the invasion would be launched. The subsequent Jameson Raid resulted in the surrender of the invaders. Chamberlain, at Highbury, received a secret telegram from the Colonial Office on 31 December informing him of the beginning of the Raid. Chamberlain, sympathetic to the ultimate goals but uncomfortable with the timing, remarked that "if this succeeds it will ruin me. I'm going up to London to crush it".[44]

Chamberlain ordered Sir Hercules Robinson, Governor-General of the Cape Colony, to repudiate the actions of Leander Starr Jameson and warned Rhodes that the Company's Charter would be in danger if it was discovered that the Cape Prime Minister was involved in the Raid. The prisoners were returned to London for trial, and the Transvaal government received considerable compensation from the Company. During the trial of Jameson, Rhodes' solicitor, Bourchier Hawksley, refused to produce cablegrams that had passed between Rhodes and his agents in London in November and December 1895. According to Hawksley, these demonstrated that the Colonial Office 'influenced the actions of those in South Africa' who embarked on the Raid, and even that Chamberlain had transferred control of the Pitsani Strip to facilitate an invasion. Nine days before the Raid, Chamberlain had asked his Assistant Under-Secretary to encourage Rhodes to 'Hurry Up' because of the deteriorating Venezuelan situation.[44]

In June 1896, Chamberlain offered his resignation to Salisbury, having shown the Prime Minister one or more of the cablegrams implicating him in the Raid's planning. Salisbury refused to accept the offer, possibly reluctant to lose the government's most popular figure. Salisbury reacted aggressively in support of Chamberlain, endorsing the Colonial Secretary's threat to withdraw the Company's charter if the cablegrams were revealed. Accordingly, Rhodes refused to reveal the cablegrams, and as no evidence was produced, the Select Committee appointed to investigate the Jameson Raid had no choice but to absolve Chamberlain of responsibility.

Chamberlain believed that West Africa had great economic potential, and shared Salisbury's suspicions of the French, who were Britain's principal rival in the region. Chamberlain sanctioned the conquest of the Ashanti in 1895, with Colonel Sir Francis Scott successfully occupying Kumasi and annexing the territory to the Gold Coast. Using the emergency funds of the colonies of Lagos, Sierra Leone and the Gold Coast, he ordered the construction of a railway for the newly conquered area.[45]

The Colonial Office's bold strategy brought it into conflict with the Royal Niger Company, chaired by Sir George Goldie, which possessed title rights to large stretches of the River Niger. Interested in the area as an economic asset, Goldie had yet to assume governing responsibilities, leaving the territory open to incursion by the French, who sent small garrisons to the area with the intention of controlling it. Though Salisbury wished to subordinate the needs of West Africa to the requirement of establishing British supremacy on the River Nile, Chamberlain believed that every territory was worth competing for. Chamberlain was dismayed to learn in 1897 that the French had expanded from Dahomey to Bussa, a town claimed by Goldie. Further French growth in the region would have isolated Lagos from territory in the hinterland, thereby limiting its economic growth. Chamberlain therefore argued that Britain should "even at the cost of war – to keep an adequate Hinterland for the Gold Coast, Lagos & the Niger Territories."

Influenced by Chamberlain, Salisbury sanctioned Sir Edmund Monson, British Ambassador in Paris, to be more assertive in negotiations. The subsequent concessions made by the French encouraged Chamberlain, who arranged for a military force, commanded by Frederick Lugard, to occupy areas claimed by Britain, thereby undermining French claims in the region. In a risky 'chequerboard' strategy, Lugard's forces occupied territories claimed by the French to counterbalance the establishment of French garrisons in British territory. At times, French and British troops were stationed merely a few yards from each other, increasing the risk of war. Nevertheless, Chamberlain assumed correctly that French officers in the region were ordered to act without fighting the British, and in March 1898, the French proposed to settle the issue – Bussa was returned to Britain, and the French were limited to the town of Bona. Chamberlain had successfully imposed British control over the Niger and the inland territories of Sokoto, later joining them together as Nigeria.[46]

In 1896 Britain extended its rule inland from the coastal colony of Sierra Leone. It imposed a hut tax; the Mende and Temne tribes responded with the Hut Tax War of 1898. Chamberlain appointed Sir David Chalmers as a special commissioner to investigate the violence. Chalmers blamed the tax, but Chamberlain disagreed, saying African slave traders instigated the revolt. Chamberlain used the revolt to promote his aggressive "constructive imperialism" in West Africa.[47]

On 29 March 1898, Hermann von Eckardstein, who had described Chamberlain as "unquestionably the most energetic and enterprising personality of the Salisbury ministry", arranged a meeting between the Colonial Secretary and the German Ambassador in London, Paul von Hatzfeldt. The conversation was strictly unofficial, being nominally about colonial matters and the subject of China. Chamberlain surprised Hatzfeldt by assuring him that Britain and Germany had common interests, that the rupture over the Jameson Raid and the Kruger Telegram was an abnormality and that a defensive alliance should be formulated between the two countries, with specific regards to China. This was difficult for Hatzfeldt, for the Reichstag was scrutinising Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz's First Navy Bill, which characterised Britain as a threat to Germany. The Secretary for Foreign Affairs, Bernhard von Bülow, did not believe that Britain would be a reliable ally because any future Cabinet could reverse the diplomatic policy of its predecessors, and because Parliament and public opinion often made difficulties about Britain's alliance commitments. Von Bülow preferred the co-operation of Russia in China to that of Britain.[48]

Hatzfeldt was instructed to make an agreement appear likely without ever conceding to Chamberlain. No commitments were made, and on 25 April Hatzfeldt asked for colonial concessions from Chamberlain as a precursor to a better relationship. Chamberlain rejected the proposal, thereby terminating the first talks for an Anglo-German alliance. Though Salisbury was unsurprised by the German attitude, Chamberlain was disappointed, and spoke publicly of Britain's diplomatic predicament at Birmingham on 13 May, saying that "We have had no allies. I am afraid we have had no friends ... We stand alone."[49]

An 1888 treaty established an Anglo-US-German tripartite protectorate of Samoa, and when King Malietoa Laupepa died in 1898, a contest over the succession ensued. The German candidate, Mataafa, was strongly opposed by the Americans and the British, and civil war began. Salisbury rejected a German suggestion that they ask the USA to withdraw from Samoa. Meanwhile, Chamberlain, smarting from the dismissal of his alliance proposal with Germany, refused the suggestion that Britain withdraw from Samoa in return for compensation elsewhere, remarking dismissively to Eckardstein "Last year we offered you everything. Now it is too late." Official and public German opinion was incensed by Britain's bullishness, and Chamberlain worked hard to improve Anglo-German relations by facilitating a visit to Britain by Kaiser Wilhelm II. Salisbury's decision to attend to his sick wife allowed Chamberlain to assume control of British policy in July 1899. In November, an agreement was made with the Germans about Samoa in which Britain agreed to withdraw in return for Tonga and the Solomon Islands, and the ending of German claims to British territory in West Africa.

On 21 November 1899, at a banquet in St. George's Hall, Windsor Castle, Chamberlain reiterated his desire for an agreement between Britain and Germany to Wilhelm II. The Kaiser spoke positively about relations with Britain but added that he did not want to exacerbate relations with Russia, and indicated that Salisbury's traditional strategy of reneging on peacetime commitments made any Anglo-German agreement problematic. Chamberlain, rather than Salisbury whose wife had just died, visited von Bülow at Windsor Castle. Chamberlain argued that Britain, Germany and the USA should combine to check France and Russia, yet von Bülow thought British assistance would be of little use in a war with Russia. Von Bülow suggested that Chamberlain should speak positively of Germany in public. Chamberlain inferred from von Bülow's statement that he would do the same in the Reichstag.

The day after the departure of the Kaiser and von Bülow, on 30 November, Chamberlain grandiloquently spoke at Leicester of "a new Triple Alliance between the Teutonic race and the two great trans-Atlantic branches of the Anglo-Saxon race which would become a potent influence on the future of the world." Though the Kaiser was complimentary, Friedrich von Holstein described Chamberlain's speech as a "blunder" and the Times attacked Chamberlain for using the term "alliance" without inhibition. On 11 December, von Bülow spoke in the Reichstag in support of the Second Navy Bill, and made no reference to an agreement with Britain, which he described as a declining nation jealous of Germany. Chamberlain was startled but von Hatzfeldt assured him that von Bülow's motivation was to fend off opponents in the Reichstag. Although Chamberlain was irritated by von Bülow's behaviour, he still hoped for an agreement.

Chamberlain and the British government had long wished for the federation of South Africa under the British crown, but it appeared that the growing wealth of the Transvaal would ensure that any future union of Southern African states would be as a Boer dominated republic outside the British Empire. Chamberlain sought British domination of the Transvaal and Orange Free State by endorsing the civil rights of the disenfranchised Uitlanders. Britain also exerted steady military pressure. In April 1897, Chamberlain asked the Cabinet to increase the British garrison in South Africa by three to four thousand men – consequently, the quantity of British forces in the area grew during the next two years.

The government appointed Sir Alfred Milner to the posts of High Commissioner and Governor-General of the Cape in August 1897 to pursue the issue more decisively. Within a year, Milner concluded that war with the Transvaal was inevitable, and he worked with Chamberlain to publicise the cause of the Uitlanders to the British people. A meeting between President Kruger and Milner at Bloemfontein in May 1899 failed to resolve the Uitlander problem – Kruger's concessions were considered inadequate by Milner, and the Boers left the conference convinced that the British were determined to settle the future of South Africa by force. By now, British public opinion was supportive of a war in support of the Uitlanders, allowing Chamberlain to ask successfully for further troop reinforcements. By the beginning of October 1899, nearly 20,000 British troops were based in the Cape and Natal, with thousands more en route. On 12 October, following a Transvaal ultimatum (9 October) demanding that British troops be withdrawn from her frontiers, and that any forces destined for South Africa be turned back, the Transvaal and the Orange Free State declared war.

Chamberlain was in charge of the war from his base in the Colonial Office. The Prime Minister rubber-stamped his decisions.[50] Boer regular army units outnumbered the British 3:1 on the front lines and quickly besieged the towns of Ladysmith, Mafeking and Kimberley. Some ten thousand Cape Afrikaners joined the Boers. In mid-December 1899, during 'Black Week', the British Army suffered reverses at Stormberg, Magersfontein and Colenso. Chamberlain was critical privately of the British Army's military performance and was often vexed by the attitude of the War Office. When the Boers bombarded Ladysmith with Creusot ninety-four pounder siege guns, Chamberlain asked for the dispatch of comparable artillery to the war, but was exasperated by the Secretary of State for War, Lord Lansdowne's argument that such weapons required platforms that needed a year of preparation, even though the Boers operated their "Long Tom" without elaborate mountings. Chamberlain made a number of speeches to reassure the public, and worked to strengthen bonds between Britain and the self-governing colonies, gratefully receiving over 30,000 troops from Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The slogan One Flag, One Queen, One Tongue expressed their loyalty to the Empire, although they each had some Opposition to the Second Boer War.[51] In particular, the contributions of mounted men from these settler colonies helped fill the British Army's shortfall of mounted infantry, vital in fighting the mobile Boers (who were an entirely mounted force of skilled marksmen).

Chamberlain managed the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act through the House of Commons, hoping that the newly established federation would adopt a positive attitude towards imperial trade and fighting the war. Wishing to reconcile the British and Afrikaner populations of the Cape, Chamberlain was resistant to Milner's desire to suspend the constitution of the colony, an act that would have given Milner autocratic powers. Chamberlain, as the government's foremost defender of the war, was denounced by many prominent anti-war personalities, including David Lloyd George, a former admirer of the Colonial Secretary.

When in January 1900 the government faced a vote of censure in the House of Commons concerning the management of the war, Chamberlain conducted the defence. On 5 February, Chamberlain spoke effectively in the Commons for over an hour while referring to very few notes. He defended the war, espoused the virtues of a South African federation and promoted the empire; speaking with a confidence which earned him a sympathetic hearing. The vote of censure was subsequently defeated by 213 votes. British fortunes changed after January 1900 with the appointment of Lord Roberts to command British forces in South Africa. Bloemfontein was occupied on 13 March, Johannesburg on 31 May and Pretoria on 5 June. When Roberts formally annexed the Transvaal on 3 September, the Salisbury ministry, emboldened by the apparent victory in South Africa, asked for the dissolution of Parliament, with an election set for October.[52]


With Salisbury ill, Chamberlain dominated the Unionist election campaign in 1900. Salisbury did not speak at all, and Balfour made few public appearances, causing some to refer to the event as 'Joe's Election'. Fostering a cult of personality, Chamberlain began to refer to himself in the third person as 'the Colonial Secretary', and he ensured that the Boer War featured as the campaign's single issue, arguing that a Liberal victory would result in defeat in South Africa.

Controversy ensued over the use of the phrase "Every seat lost to the government is a seat sold to the Boers" as the Unionists waged a personalised campaign against Liberal critics of the war – some posters even portrayed Liberal MPs praising President Kruger and helping him to haul down the Union Jack. Chamberlain was in the forefront of such tactics, declaring in a speech that "we have come practically to the end of the war... there is nothing going on now but a guerrilla business, which is encouraged by these men; I was going to say those traitors, but I will say instead these misguided individuals." Some Liberals also resorted to sharp campaigning practices, with Lloyd George in particular accusing the Chamberlain family of profiteering. References were made to Kynochs, a cordite manufacturing firm run by Chamberlain's brother, Arthur, as well as Hoskins & Co., of which the Civil Lord of the Admiralty, Austen, held some shares. Many Liberals rejected Lloyd George's claims, and Chamberlain dismissed them as unworthy of reply, although the charges troubled him more than he was prepared to make evident in public.

Twenty-six-year-old Winston Churchill, famous for his escape from a Boer prisoner of war camp and his journalism for the Morning Post, successfully stood as a Conservative candidate in Oldham, where Chamberlain spoke on his behalf. Churchill recalled that

Churchill later wrote that 'Mr. Chamberlain was incomparably the most live, sparkling, insurgent, compulsive figure in British affairs ... 'Joe' was the one who made the weather. He was the man the masses knew.' Chamberlain used his popularity and the cause of imperialism in the election to devastating effect, and with the Liberals split over the issue of the war, the Unionists won a huge majority in the House of Commons of 219. The mandate was not as comprehensive as Chamberlain had hoped, but satisfactory enough to allow him to pursue his vision for the empire and to strengthen his position in the Unionist alliance.

Under pressure from Balfour and Queen Victoria, the ailing Salisbury surrendered the seals of the Foreign Office on 23 October though remaining as Prime Minister. Lansdowne was appointed Foreign Secretary, and Chamberlain's importance in the government grew further still. Chamberlain took advantage of Lansdowne's inexperience to take the initiative in British foreign affairs and attempt, yet again, to formulate an agreement with Germany.[53]

On 16 January 1901, Chamberlain and Devonshire made it known to Eckardstein that they still planned to make Britain part of the Triple Alliance. In Berlin, this news was received with some satisfaction, although von Bülow continued to exercise caution, believing that Germany could afford to wait. The Kaiser, who had come to the UK to visit his dying grandmother Queen Victoria (Chamberlain had been the last minister to visit her, a few days before her death), sent a telegram from London to Berlin urging a positive response, yet von Bülow wished to delay negotiations until Britain was more vulnerable, especially from the ongoing war in South Africa. On 18 March, Eckardstein asked Chamberlain to resume alliance negotiations, and although the Colonial Secretary reaffirmed his support, he was unwilling to commit himself, remembering von Bülow's rebuke in 1899. Chamberlain had a lesser role this time, and it was to Lansdowne that Eckardstein gave a proposal by von Bülow. A five-year Anglo-German defensive alliance was presented, to be ratified by Parliament and the Reichstag. When Lansdowne prevaricated, von Hatzfeldt took firmer control of the negotiations, and presented a demanding invitation for Britain to join the Triple Alliance, in which Britain would be committed to the defence of Austria-Hungary. Salisbury decided decisively against entering an alliance as a junior partner.[54]

On 25 October 1901, Chamberlain defended the British Army's tactics in South Africa against European press criticism, arguing that the conduct of British soldiers was much more respectable than that of troops in the Franco-Prussian War, a statement directed at Germany. The German press was outraged, and when von Bülow demanded an apology, Chamberlain was unrepentant. With this public dispute, Chamberlain's hopes of an Anglo-German alliance were finally ended. Denounced by von Bülow and German newspapers, Chamberlain's popularity in Britain soared, with the Times commenting that 'Mr. at this moment the most popular and trusted man in England.'

With Chamberlain still seeking to end Britain's isolation and the negotiations with Germany having been terminated, a settlement with France was attractive. Chamberlain had begun negotiations to settle colonial differences with the French Ambassador, Paul Cambon, in March 1901, although neither Lansdowne nor Cambon had moved as quickly as Chamberlain would have liked. In February 1902, at a banquet at Marlborough House held by King Edward VII, Chamberlain and Cambon resumed their negotiations, with Eckardstein reputedly listening to their conversation and only successfully managing to comprehend the words "Morocco" and "Egypt". Chamberlain had contributed to making possible the Anglo-French Entente Cordiale that would occur in 1904.

The occupation of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State in 1900 did not subdue the Boers, who waged a guerrilla campaign throughout 1901 until the end of the war in May 1902. Chamberlain was caught between Unionists demanding a more effective military policy and many Liberals denouncing the war. Publicly, Chamberlain insisted upon the separation of civil and military authority, insisting that the conduct of the war be left to the generals.

The revelation of concentration camps increased pressure on Chamberlain and the government to intervene more effectively – and humanely – in the management of the war. Chamberlain originally questioned the wisdom of establishing the camps, but tolerated them in deference to the military. During the autumn of 1901, Chamberlain took more interest in proceedings when the scandal intensified, strengthening civilian governance. Although he refused to criticise the military publicly, he outlined to Milner the importance of making the camps as habitable as possible, asking the Governor-General of the Cape whether he considered medical provisions to be adequate. Chamberlain also stipulated that unhealthy camps should be evacuated, over-ruling the army where necessary.

By 1902, the death rate in the camps had halved, and was soon to decrease below the usual mortality rate in rural South Africa. Despite the concerns of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir Michael Hicks Beach, at the increasing costs of the war, Chamberlain maintained his insistence that the Boers be made to surrender unconditionally, and was supported by Salisbury. Though Lord Kitchener, commanding British forces in South Africa, was eager to make peace with the Boers, Milner was content to wait until the Boers sought peace terms themselves. In April 1902, Boer negotiators accepted Chamberlain's insistence upon the loss of independence of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. However, the Boers insisted that Cape Afrikaner rebels be given amnesty and that Britain pay the Boer republics' war debts.

Chamberlain overrode Milner's objections to accept the proposal, arguing that the financial costs of continuing the war justified the expenditure to relieve the debts of the Boer republics. The Treaty of Vereeniging (31 May 1902) ended the Boer War. The conflict had not been as decisive at Chamberlain had hoped, for the British had put nearly 450,000 troops into the field and had spent nearly £200 million. Nevertheless, the end of war and the inclusion of Boer territory as part of the British Empire presented what Chamberlain viewed as an opportunity to remodel Britain's imperial system.

The end of the Boer War allowed Salisbury, in declining health, to finally retire. The Prime Minister was keen that Balfour, his nephew should succeed him, but realised that Chamberlain's followers felt that the Colonial Secretary had a legitimate claim to the premiership. Chamberlain was the most popular figure in the government, and Leo Maxse, editing the National Review, argued forcefully that Chamberlain should be appointed Prime Minister when Salisbury retired. Chamberlain himself was less concerned, assuring Balfour's Private Secretary in February 1902 that 'I have my own work to do and...I shall be quite willing to serve under Balfour.' On 7 July 1902, Chamberlain suffered a head injury in a traffic accident. Chamberlain had three stitches and was told by doctors to cease work immediately and remain in bed for two weeks.

On 11 July, Salisbury went to Buckingham Palace, without notifying his Cabinet colleagues, and resigned, with the King inviting Balfour to form a new government later that day. Before accepting, Balfour visited Chamberlain, who said he was content to remain Colonial Secretary. Despite Chamberlain's organisational skills and immense popularity, many Conservatives still mistrusted his Radicalism, and Chamberlain was aware of the difficulties that would be presented by being part of a Liberal Unionist minority leading a Conservative majority. Balfour and Chamberlain were both aware that the Unionist government's survival depended on their co-operation.[55]

Balfour's Education Bill was intended to promote National Efficiency, a cause which Chamberlain thought worthy. However, the Education Bill abolished the 2,568 school boards established under W.E. Forster's 1870 Act, bodies that were popular with Nonconformists and Radicals, replacing them with local education authorities that would administer a state centred system of primary, secondary and technical schools. The Bill would also give ratepayer's money to voluntary, Church of England schools. Chamberlain was aware that the Bill's proposals would estrange Nonconformists, Radicals and many Liberal Unionists from the government, but could not oppose it as he owed his position as Colonial Secretary to Conservative support. In response to Chamberlain's warning about Nonconformist dissent, and suggestion that voluntary schools receive funds from central rather than local government, Robert Morant replied that the Boer War had drained the Exchequer.

Chamberlain sought to stem the feared exodus of Nonconformist voters by securing a major concession – local authorities would be given the discretion over the issue of rate aid to voluntary schools, yet even this was renounced before the guillotining of the Bill and its passage through Parliament in December 1902. Thus, Chamberlain had to make the best of a hopeless situation, writing fatalistically that 'I consider the Unionist cause is hopeless at the next election, and we shall certainly lose the majority of the Liberal Unionists once and for all.' Chamberlain already regarded tariff reform as an issue that could revitalise support for Unionism.

Chamberlain visited South Africa between 26 December 1902 and 25 February 1903, seeking to promote Anglo-Afrikaner conciliation and the colonial contribution to the British Empire, and trying to meet people in the newly unified South Africa, including those who had recently been enemies during the Boer War. In Natal, Chamberlain was given a rapturous welcome. In the Transvaal, he met Boer leaders who were attempting unsuccessfully to alter the peace terms reached at Vereeniging. The reception given to Chamberlain in the Orange River Colony was surprisingly friendly, although he was engaged in a two-hour argument with General Hertzog, who accused the British government of violating three terms of the Treaty of Vereeniging.

During his visit, Chamberlain became convinced that the Boer territories required a period of government by the British crown before being granted self-governance within the empire. In the Cape, Chamberlain found that the Afrikaner Bond was more affable regarding his visit than many members of the English speaking Progressive Party, now under the leadership of Jameson, who called Chamberlain 'the callous devil from Birmingham.' Chamberlain successfully persuaded the Prime Minister, John Gordon Sprigg, to hold elections as soon as possible, a positive act considering the hostile nature of the Cape Parliament since 1899. During the tour, Chamberlain and his wife visited 29 towns, and he delivered 64 speeches and received 84 deputations.

When he first met Theodor Herzl on 23 October 1902, Chamberlain expressed his sympathy to the Zionist cause. He was willing to consider their plan for settlement near el Arish and in the Sinai Peninsula but his support was conditional on the approval of the Cairo authorities. When it became evident that these efforts were coming to naught, Chamberlain, on 24 April 1903, offered Herzl a territory in East Africa. The proposal came to be known as the Uganda Scheme (even though the territory in question was in Kenya). The Zionist Organization, after some deliberations, rejected the proposal, as did the British settlers in East Africa. However, the proposal that Chamberlain made was a major break-through for the Zionists—Great Britain had engaged them diplomatically and recognised a need to find a territory appropriate for Jewish autonomy under British suzerainty.[56]

Zebel explains Chamberlain's position by noting that for two decades before the Boer War, he was not a blind supporter of free trade as a goal in itself. Instead his goal was to both tighten the bonds of Empire and, simultaneously, solve Britain's domestic economic and political problems. He therefore merged political and economic nationalism in coming up with a formula for imperial preference in trade and tariffs.[57]

Chamberlain desired an imperial federation formed on the model of Bismarckian Germany to allow Britain to maintain its global role amidst the growing economic challenge of the United States and Germany. He wanted Imperial Preference in trade with the empire and tariffs on foreign imports. Chamberlain also believed that tariffs would generate finance for a scheme of old-age pensions and other social improvements. Such a programme would help Chamberlain secure the Unionists' hold on the West Midlands, and further enhance his power within the government. Chamberlain prepared to end the Free Trade consensus that had dominated British economics since the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846.

In April 1902, Chamberlain dined with the Hughligans, a small parliamentary clique which included Lord Hugh Cecil and Churchill among its membership. Churchill recalled that

In the same month, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Hicks Beach, levied a small duty on imported corn to raise revenue for the Boer War. Chamberlain wanted to use this as a start for the reform of Britain's trade, and he was encouraged by a report submitted in June by the President of the Board of Trade, Gerald Balfour, the Prime Minister's younger brother, recommending reciprocal agreements with the colonies. In July, the Colonial Conference was convened in London, and though it rejected Chamberlain's suggestion that an Imperial Council should be established, it passed a resolution endorsing Imperial Preference. Chamberlain was confident his proposals were gathering popularity, and he brought the matter before the Cabinet before embarking on a tour of South Africa in December 1902. The new Chancellor of the Exchequer, Charles Thomson Ritchie, was vigorously opposed to any scheme of Imperial Preference but although he made his opinions known, the Cabinet was generally favourable towards Chamberlain's proposal when it was considered on 21 October.

In November, the Cabinet agreed, at Chamberlain's prompting, to remit the corn tax in favour of the self-governing colonies in the upcoming budget. Thinking that he had gained the agreement of the Cabinet, Chamberlain went to South Africa, while Ritchie worked to reverse the Cabinet's earlier decision. In March 1903, before Chamberlain's return, Ritchie asked Balfour to schedule a meeting to propose the budget to the Cabinet. Balfour refused and warned Chamberlain, using Austen as an intermediary, of Ritchie's continuing opposition. Chamberlain arrived in Southampton on 14 March, prepared to struggle with Ritchie and determined that the corn tax should be maintained in the imminent budget.

Chamberlain was shocked to find on 17 March that the majority of the Cabinet was in agreement with Ritchie, and that the Chancellor of the Exchequer had reversed the decision made the previous November. Balfour chose not to take sides, but did not oppose Ritchie for fear of losing his Chancellor on the eve of the budget. Chamberlain accepted that there was not enough time to debate the matter in Cabinet before the budget, and allowed Ritchie to have his way. The Chancellor presented a Free Trade on 23 April, during which Chamberlain was completely silent. Though Chamberlain had been taken aback by the Cabinet's switch, he prepared to surprise his colleagues in return. On 15 May, in the midst of his power base, Bingley Hall, Chamberlain remarked before his speech to the event's chief organiser, "You can burn your leaflets. We are going to talk about something else." He lamented the demise of the corn tax to his audience and insisted that the greatness of the empire could be preserved by introducing Imperial Preference, which he hoped would dominate the next general election. His impromptu speech stunned Balfour and the Cabinet, the Prime Minister having just insisted publicly that it was not yet time to implement a policy of Imperial Preference. Furthermore, on 28 May, Chamberlain reiterated his challenge to Free Trade orthodoxy in the House of Commons, amidst cheering from many Unionists. Balfour hoped to calm the situation by devoting the summer to the question and publicly professed support for neither policy, earning him much criticism by the opposition Liberal Party.

Balfour was successful in preventing serious debate on the subject while the Board of Trade compiled statistics on the matter. A Cabinet meeting convened on 13 August failed to agree, and a final decision was postponed until 14 September. Balfour hoped that Chamberlain would moderate his espousal of tariff reform to satisfy the majority of the Cabinet, and particularly the other prominent Liberal Unionist, Devonshire. The Prime Minister was content with the prospect of losing die-hard Free Traders, and prepared a memorandum which contained a number of radical, reforming economic opinions. On 9 September, Chamberlain dramatically sent a letter of resignation to Balfour, explaining his wish to campaign publicly for Imperial Preference outside the Cabinet. An hour before the Cabinet meeting on 14 September, Chamberlain and Balfour agreed that Chamberlain would resign and attempt to rally public support for Imperial Preference if the Cabinet could not be persuaded to adopt the new policy. Balfour agreed to promote Austen to the post of Chancellor of the Exchequer, who would then speak for his father inside the Cabinet. If the campaign was successful, Balfour could endorse Imperial Preference at the next general election.

When the Cabinet meeting failed to endorse his proposals, Chamberlain announced his resignation, but Balfour did not tell the meeting about Chamberlain's resignation letter, instead telling many members of his belief that Chamberlain was not serious about resigning. The Prime Minister then forced the resignations of Ritchie and Lord Balfour of Burleigh for having submitted memoranda advocating Free Trade. The next day, Lord George Hamilton resigned, and the following day, 16 September, Balfour announced the resignations of Ritchie, Hamilton and Chamberlain. The Free Trade ministers were appalled that Chamberlain's letter of resignation had been kept secret, and the Duke of Devonshire, who had also resigned, rescinded his decision. But when Balfour explained his fiscal policy on 1 October, Devonshire re-submitted his resignation. The resignations of Chamberlain, Ritchie and Devonshire left the government gravely weakened.

Chamberlain asserted his authority over the Liberal Unionists soon after Devonshire's departure. The National Union of Conservative and Unionist Associations also declared majority support for tariff reform, which meant an end to free trade.[59] With firm support from provincial Unionism and most of the press, Chamberlain addressed vast crowds and extolled the virtues of Empire and Imperial Preference, campaigning with the slogan "Tariff Reform Means Work for All." On 6 October 1903, Chamberlain began the campaign with a speech at Glasgow. The newly formed Tariff Reform League received vast funding, allowing it to print and distribute large numbers of leaflets and even to play Chamberlain's recorded messages to public meetings by gramophone. Chamberlain himself spoke at Greenock, Newcastle, Liverpool and Leeds within a month of the outset. Chamberlain explained at Greenock how Free Trade threatened British industry, declaring that "sugar is gone; silk has gone; iron is threatened; wool is threatened; cotton will go! How long are you going to stand it? At the present moment these industries...are like sheep in a field."[60]

At Liverpool on 27 October, Chamberlain was escorted to the Conservative Working Men's Association by mounted police amidst wild cheering. Intending to enlist the support of the working class, Chamberlain assured his audience that tariff reform ensured low unemployment. When the Liberal-supporting Daily News used official import prices to demonstrate that a loaf of bread under tariff reform would be smaller than a free trade loaf of bread, Chamberlain arranged for two loaves to be baked based upon free trade and tariff reform prices. On 4 November 1903, Chamberlain spoke at Bingley Hall, Birmingham and put the loaves on display, raising them aloft. "Is it not a sporting question ... as to which is the larger?" he asked the rapturous audience.[60]

While the Liberal Party healed its divisions and rallied for Free Trade, the division inside the Unionist ranks became more apparent. Balfour had endorsed cautious protectionism soon after Chamberlain's resignation, but was unwilling to go further or to announce an early general election, by-election results being comprehensively unfavourable for the Unionists. While Chamberlain toured the country, the Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, Liberal H. H. Asquith stalked him by preaching the virtues of Free Trade in the same venues in which Chamberlain had appeared a few evenings before. The campaign for tariff reform had a brief intermission as Chamberlain's health began to fail. Suffering from gout and neuralgia, Chamberlain took a two-month holiday in February 1904. Chamberlain decided that the Unionists were likely to lose the general election, and criticised Balfour for delaying the inevitable. Indeed, Chamberlain now hoped that Balfour would fail in promoting his guarded fiscal doctrine, probably with a strategy of eventually leading the Unionists on a purely protectionist platform after the expected defeat in the general election. He wrote to his son Neville that 'The Free Traders are common enemies. We must clear them out of the party & let them disappear.'

By the end of 1904, the Tariff Reform League's numerous branches were challenging the Conservative National Union. Chamberlain also attempted to secure the Tariff Reform League's representation inside Conservative Central Office. Balfour maintained his programme of retaliatory tariffs and attempted to minimise the obvious differences between Chamberlain and himself. Publicly, Chamberlain claimed that Balfour's stance was the precursor to a fuller policy of Imperial Preference. Now approaching seventy years of age, Chamberlain continued to campaign for tariff reform with zeal and energy. Reconciliation appeared imminent when Balfour agreed to a general election after the 1906 Colonial Conference, in which tariff reform would be discussed. However, threatened by backbench opposition, Balfour rescinded the agreement and demanded party unity. Chamberlain ignored this and intensified his campaign in November 1905, resulting directly in Balfour's resignation on 4 December.

With the Unionists divided and out of favour with many of their former supporters, the Liberal Party won the 1906 general election by a landslide, with the Unionists reduced to just 157 seats in the House of Commons. Although Balfour lost his seat in East Manchester, Chamberlain and his followers increased their majorities in the West Midlands. Chamberlain even became acting Leader of the Opposition in the absence of Balfour. With approximately 102 of the remaining Unionist MPs supportive of Chamberlain, it seemed that he might become leader of the Unionists, or at least win a major concession in favour of tariff reform. Chamberlain asked for a Party meeting, and Balfour, now returned to the Commons, agreed on 14 February 1906 in the 'Valentine letters' to concede that

Although in opposition, it appeared that Chamberlain had successfully associated the Unionists with the cause of tariff reform, and that Balfour would be compelled to accede to Chamberlain's future demands.


On 8 July 1906, Chamberlain celebrated his seventieth birthday and Birmingham was enlivened for a number of days by official luncheons, public addresses, parades, bands and an influx of thousands of congratulatory telegrams. Tens of thousands of people crowded into the city when Chamberlain made a passionate speech on 10 July, promoting the virtues of Radicalism and imperialism. Chamberlain collapsed on 13 July whilst dressing for dinner in the bathroom of his house at Prince's Gardens. Mary found the door locked and called out, receiving the weakened reply "I can't get out." Returning with help, she found him exhausted on the floor, having turned the handle from the inside, and having suffered a stroke that paralysed his right side.

After a month, Chamberlain was able to walk a small number of steps and resolved to overcome his disabilities. Although unaffected mentally, his sight had deteriorated, compelling him to wear spectacles instead of his monocle. His ability to read had diminished, forcing Mary to read him newspapers and letters. He lost the ability to write with his right hand, and his speech altered noticeably, with Chamberlain's colleague, William Hewins, noting that 'His voice has lost all its old ring. ... He speaks very slowly and articulates with evident difficulty.' Chamberlain barely regained his ability to walk.[61]

Though he had lost all hope of recovering his health and returning to active politics, Chamberlain followed his son Austen's career with interest and encouraged the tariff reform movement. He opposed Liberal proposals to remove the House of Lords' veto, and gave his blessing to the Unionists to fight to oppose Home Rule for Ireland. In the two general elections of 1910 he was allowed to return unopposed in his West Birmingham constituency. In January 1914, Chamberlain decided to not seek re-election. On 2 July, six days before his 78th birthday, he suffered a heart attack and, surrounded by his family, he died in his wife's arms.

Telegrams of condolence arrived from across the world, with the Prime Minister H. H. Asquith, Chamberlain's adversary a decade before, leading the tributes in the House of Commons, declaring that:

The family refused an offer of an official burial at Westminster Abbey and a Unitarian ceremony was held in Birmingham. He was laid to rest at Key Hill Cemetery, Hockley, in the same grave as his first two wives, and close to that of his parents. On 31 March 1916, the Chamberlain Memorial, a bust created by sculptor Mark Tweed, was unveiled at Westminster Abbey. Amongst the dignitaries present were former Prime Minister Arthur Balfour, Bonar Law, Chamberlain's sons Austen and Neville (then Lord Mayor of Birmingham), and other members of the Chamberlain, Hutton and Martineau families.[63]

Memory and historiography

Winston Churchill called Chamberlain "a splendid piebald: first black, then white, or, in political terms, first fiery red, then true blue".[64] This is the conventional view of Chamberlain's politics, that he became gradually more conservative, beginning to the left of the Liberal party and ending to the right of the Conservatives. An alternative view is that he was always a radical in home affairs and an imperialist in foreign affairs, and that these stances were not in great conflict with each other – with both he rejected "laissez-faire capitalism". For instance, after leaving the Liberals he remained a proponent of workmen's compensation and old-age pensions.

Historian J. A. R. Marriott says that in the 1870–1905 period Chamberlain was:

Historian Dennis Judd says:

Historian R. J. A. Adams writes: "A great patriot who burned to guarantee his country's future, Chamberlain's brilliance and impatience guaranteed that he would be judged a political messiah to some, but an unstable destroyer to many more."[67]

A. J. P. Taylor states:

He is commemorated by the large Chamberlain Memorial in Chamberlain Square, in central Birmingham, erected in 1880; and by the large cast-iron Chamberlain Clock in the city's Jewellery Quarter, erected in 1903 (in both cases, therefore, during his lifetime). His Birmingham home, Highbury Hall, is now a civic conference venue and a venue for civil marriages, and is open occasionally to the public. Highbury Hall is situated not far from Winterbourne House and Garden which was commissioned as a family home for Chamberlain's niece Margaret by her husband John Nettlefold: Winterbourne is now owned by the University of Birmingham.

The Midland Metro has a tram named after him. Joseph Chamberlain Sixth Form College in Birmingham is named after him. Chamberlain School, a pre-kindergarten-to-grade-12 public school in Grassy Lake, Alberta, Canada, is named in his honour: the name was chosen by William Salvage, a British immigrant and prosperous farmer, who donated land for its construction in 1910.

The University of Birmingham may be considered Chamberlain's most enduring legacy. He proposed the establishment of a university to complete his vision for the city, seeking to provide "a great school of universal instruction", so that "the most important work of original research should be continuously carried on under most favourable circumstances".[69] He is regarded as the University's main founder, was its first Chancellor, and was largely responsible for its gaining its royal charter in 1900, and for the development of the Edgbaston campus. The 100-metre tall Joseph Chamberlain Memorial Clock Tower ("Old Joe") is named in his honour: it is the tallest free-standing clock tower in the world.[70] The papers of Joseph Chamberlain, Austen Chamberlain, Neville Chamberlain and Mary Chamberlain are held in the University of Birmingham Special Collections.


Popular culture

Books by him

  • Joseph Chamberlain (1903). Imperial Union and Tariff Reform [96] . G. Richards.
  • Joseph Chamberlain (1885). The Radical Programme [97] . Chapman and Hall.
  • Joseph Chamberlain (1902). Mr. Chamberlain's Defence of the British Troops in South Africa against the foreign slanders [98] . John Murray.
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