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Joseph Chamberlain (8 July 1836 – 2 July 1914) was an influential British businessman, politician, and statesman.

In his early years Chamberlain was a radically minded Liberal Party member, a campaigner for educational reform, and President of the Board of Trade. He later became a Liberal Unionist in alliance with the Conservative Party and was appointed Colonial Secretary. At the end of his career he led the tariff reform campaign. Despite never becoming Prime Minister, he is regarded as one of the most important British politicians of the late 19th century and early 20th century, as well as a colourful character and renowned orator.

He was the father of Sir Austen Chamberlain and Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain.

Early life, business career and marriage

Chamberlain was born in Camberwellmarker in Londonmarker to a successful shoemaker and manufacturer also named Joseph (1796–1874). He was educated at University College School (then still in Eustonmarker) between 1850 and 1852, in which he excelled academically, achieving prizes in French and mathematics. The elder Chamberlain was not able to send all his children into higher education, and at the age of 16, Joseph was apprenticed to the Cordwainers' Company and worked for the family business in the making of quality leather shoes. At 18 he was sent to Birminghammarker to join his uncle's screwmaking business, Nettlefolds (later part of Guest, Keen and Nettlefolds), in which his father had invested. In partnership with Joseph Nettlefold, Chamberlain was to help the screwmaking firm, soon known as Nettlefold and Chamberlain, to become a commercial success and by his retirement from the firm in 1874, the company was exporting its products to the United Statesmarker, Europe, Indiamarker, Japanmarker, Canadamarker and Australia. At the firm's height, Nettlefold and Chamberlain were producing approximately two-thirds of all metal screws made in England.

In 1860, Chamberlain met and fell in love with Harriet Kenrick, the daughter of a Unitarian family from Birmingham who originally occupied Wynn Hallmarker in Ruabonmarker, Wrexhammarker, Walesmarker. In July 1861, the couple married and a daughter, Beatrice, was born in May 1862. In October 1863, having had a premonition that she would die in childbirth, Harriet gave birth to a son, Joseph Austen, the future Chancellor of the Exchequer and Foreign Secretary. Two days after Austen's birth Harriet became ill. She died three days later. Gripped with grief, Chamberlain devoted himself to the growing fortunes of Nettlefold and Chamberlain, while raising Beatrice and Austen with the Kenrick parents-in-law.

In 1868, Chamberlain married for the second time, wedding Harriet's cousin, Florence Kenrick. The marriage was as successful and joyous for Chamberlain as the first, and bore four children: Arthur Neville in 1869, Ida in 1870, Hilda in 1871, and Ethel, born in 1873. On 13 February 1875, Florence gave birth to their fifth child. By the next day both she and her child had died. Florence's sister Louisa married Joseph's brother Arthur Chamberlain; their granddaughter was the author Elizabeth Longford and their great-granddaughter is the Labour politician Harriet Harman.

Early political career

Calls for reform

There were strong radical and liberal traditions among shoemakers in his adopted home city of Birmingham, while Chamberlain's Unitarian church held a long tradition of social action. Chamberlain duly became involved in Liberal politics, and the growth of Britain's urban population during the industrial revolution led to mounting national political pressure to redistribute parliamentary seats and to enfranchise a sizeable proportion of urban males. In 1866, Lord John Russell's Liberal administration put a Reform Bill before the House of Commons, aiming to create 400,000 new voters. While conservative supporters of the government, known as 'Adullamites', opposed the Bill for its disruption of the social order, Radicals criticised it on the basis that it failed to concede the secret ballot or household suffrage. The Bill was defeated and Lord Derby formed a minority Conservative administration. On 27 August 1866, a vast demonstration for reform was held in Birmingham, in which the Mayor marched alongside 250,000 people, one of whom was Chamberlain. John Bright addressed the huge middle and working-class crowd, Chamberlain recalling that 'men poured into the hall, black as they were from the factories…the people were packed together like herrings.' The Conservative government passed a Reform Bill in 1867, nearly doubling the electorate from 1,430,000 to 2,470,000 and in the 1868 General Election, the Liberal Party took power. Chamberlain was active in the election campaign, praising Bright and George Dixon, a Birmingham Member of Parliament (MP).

In 1867 he helped found the Birmingham Education League with Jesse Collings. The Education League noted that of around four and a quarter million children of school age, two million children, mostly in urban areas, did not attend school with a further million in uninspected schools. More contentious was the government’s aid to Church of England schools, embodying a connection between church and state that was bound to offend Nonconformist opinion. Chamberlain was enthusiastic about the requirement for the provision of 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.' He also pointed to the success owed by the United States and Prussia to public education. The Birmingham Education League evolved into the National Education League, which held its first Conference in Birmingham in 1869. The League called for a school system supported by local rates and government grants, under local authorities subject to government inspection. By 1870, the League had more than one hundred branches, mostly in cities and drawing from trades unions and working men's organisations. Chamberlain was also prominent in the local campaign in support of Gladstone's Irish Church Disestablishment Bill against the House of Lordsmarker' obstructionism. Chamberlain seconded the motion in support of disestablishment at a debate held at Birmingham town hall, and he addressed the large, restless crowd attacking the hereditary powers of the House of Lords. The meeting broke up amidst fighting, but Chamberlain had become a figure of prominence among Birmingham Liberals, and he was elected to Birmingham Council for St. Paul's ward in November 1869.

The Liberal government put forward proposals for an Elementary Education Bill in January 1870. W.E. Forster, Vice-President of the Committee of Council on Education was responsible for the Bill and came under attack from Nonconformists because of the legislation's proposal to maintain church schools within the structure of national education and to put them on the rates. The absence of school boards or the provision of free, compulsory education caused consternation in the National Education League, and Chamberlain arranged for a large delegation to visit 10 Downing Streetmarker to persuade Gladstone to remove the role of the church in national education. On 9 March 1870, the Education League's delegation arrived to meet the Prime Minister, consisting of 400 branch members and 46 M.P.s. In this first meeting between Gladstone and Chamberlain, the latter impressed the Prime Minister with his lucid speech, and Gladstone agreed during the Elementary Education Bill's second reading to make amendments that took church schools from rate-payer control and granted them support from government funds. 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 in particular clause 25, which gave school boards the power to pay the fees of poor children at voluntary schools, which theoretically allowed them to fund church schools. The Education League even 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 linked with industrial education.

Chamberlain broadened his campaigning to take up the cause of rural workers, promoting their enfranchisement and cheaper land prices. This was reflected in his subsequent slogan coined in an article written for the Fortnightly Review, the four 'F's' – 'Free Church, Free Schools, Free Land and Free Labour'. In another article entitled 'The Liberal Party and its Leaders', Chamberlain made a blistering attack on Gladstone's leadership and advocated a concerted Radical challenge to the direction of the party. By 1873, Chamberlain had made his reputation, especially in Birmingham, as a charismatic Radical politician, and sought to further his cause in the municipal arena.

Mayor of Birmingham

In November 1873 Chamberlain stood as a Liberal candidate for the mayoralty of Birmingham, with the Conservatives denouncing his political Radicalism and disparaging him as a 'monopoliser and a dictator.' The Liberal Party swept the municipal elections having campaigned under the slogan 'The People above the Priests', a clear swipe at the High Toryism of Chamberlain’s opponents. As mayor, Chamberlain promoted many civic improvements, leaving the town (in words to Collings) 'parked, paved, assized, marketed, gas & watered and improved'. Prior to his tenure in office, the city's municipal administration was notably lax with regards to public works, and many urban dwellers lived in conditions of great poverty. 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. Furthermore, piped water was only supplied three days per week, compelling the use of unhealthy well water and water carts for the rest of the week. Two rival gas companies, the Birmingham Gas Company and the Birmingham and Staffordshire Gas Company were locked in constant competition, in which the city's streets were continually dug up to allow for the laying of mains. Chamberlain established a municipal gas supply by forcibly purchasing the two companies on behalf of the borough for £1,953,050, even offering to purchase the companies himself if the ratepayers refused. The move was a success, and in its first year of operations, the municipal gas scheme made a profit of £34,000. Deploring the rising death rate from contagious diseases in the poorest sections of the city, in January 1876, Chamberlain forcibly purchased Birmingham's waterworks for a combined sum of £1,350,000, 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 burdensome bureaucracy, preferring to give local communities the responsibility to act on their own initiative.

With the city's gas and water supply under municipal control, Chamberlain undertook other schemes with the intention of improving the quality of life in Birmingham. In July 1875 Chamberlain tabled an improvement plan that involved a programme of slum clearance in Birmingham’s city centre. Chamberlain had been consulted by the Home Secretary, R.A. Cross during the preparation of the Artisan's and Labourers' Dwellings Improvement Act 1875, a prominent feature of the Disraeli ministry's programme of social improvement. Chamberlain proposed to build a new road (Corporation Streetmarker) through Birmingham's overcrowded slums, and bought 50 acres (200,000 m²) of property for such a purpose. Overriding the protests of local landlords and the Commissioner of the Local Government Board's inquiry into the scheme, Chamberlain appealed directly to the President of the Local Government Board, George Sclater-Booth. Having gained the support of central government and raised the funds for the programme, Chamberlain was able to implement the scheme, contributing £10,000 to the cost 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 let out as a business proposition on a 75 year lease. Those who had occupied the slums were eventually rehoused in the suburbs, not in the area of their previous residence, and the scheme as a whole lost local government £300,000. The death-rate in the newly christened Corporation Street dropped dramatically – from approximately 53 per 1,000 between 1873 and 1875 to 21 per 1,000 between 1879 and 1881.

Chamberlain's tenure in office was also notable for his promotion of cultural improvement. Public and private money was used for the construction of libraries, municipal swimming pools and schools. The Museum & Art Gallerymarker was enlarged and a number of new parks were opened. Construction of the Council Housemarker was begun while the Victoria Law Courtsmarker were built in Corporation Street.

The mayoralty helped give Chamberlain stature as a figure of both local and national renown, with contemporaries commenting upon his youthfulness and prominent dress, in which he sported 'a black velvet coat, jaunty eyeglass in eye, red neck-tie drawn through a ring'. His contribution to the city's improvement secured political allegiance of the so-called 'Birmingham caucus' for Chamberlain in return, a loyalty that would remain even with the shifts in his public career.

National politics

Member of Parliament and the National Liberal Federation

In the 1874 General Election, Chamberlain made his first attempt to enter the House of Commons. The Sheffieldmarker Reform Association, an offshoot of the Liberal Party in the city, invited Chamberlain to stand for election shortly into his tenure as Mayor of Birmingham. The campaign was a fierce one, and Chamberlain was accused of republicanism and atheism by opponents, with dead cats even being thrown at him on the speaking platform by angry spectators. Much to his displeasure, Chamberlain came in third place, a failure for someone considered as a leading spokesman for urban Radicalism. During his term as Mayor of Birmingham, Chamberlain continued to entertain the prospect of standing for Parliament, although he eventually rejected the possibility of standing in Sheffield. Predictably, Chamberlain maintained his focus on Birmingham and when George Dixon decided to retire from his seat in May 1876, an opportunity was presented for Chamberlain to enter the House of Commons. On 17 June 1876, Chamberlain was returned unopposed for the Birmingham constituency, after a period of anxiety following his nomination in which he delivered a blistering attack on the Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, accusing him of being 'a man who never told the truth except by accident.' Chamberlain subsequently apologised publicly.

When elected, Chamberlain resigned the mayorship 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 component in the House of Commons in an attempt to prompt the Liberal leadership, with the intention of displacing Whig dominance and providing a Radical opposition to the Conservatives. On 4 August 1876, Chamberlain delivered his maiden speech in the House of Commons during a debate on elementary schools. The maintenance of clause 25 prompted Chamberlain to intervene before the busy House, in which Disraeli was in attendance. Speaking for twenty minutes, Chamberlain utilised his experience on the Birmingham School Board to make an impressive speech. Hereafter, Chamberlain spoke on many subjects, but concentrated on the subject of free public education and female teachers. The issues of alcohol licensing and army discipline also occupied much of Chamberlain's time.

Early difficulties in creating a coherent group committed to Radicalism within the Liberal Party convinced Chamberlain of the need to establish a more effective organisation for the party as a whole, especially in the localities. The controversy surrounding Disraeli's policy during the Russo-Turkish War proved to be a catalyst for activity, for Chamberlain viewed the agitation surrounding the Bulgarian atrocities as a means of utilising public indignation for a Radical agenda. Chamberlain estimated that Radicalism could profit from Gladstone's increasing popularity, and he subsequently sought to close ranks with the returned Liberal leader. With the Liberal Party active in opposition to the Conservative government's foreign policy, it was a propitious moment to federate the country's Liberal Associations, and on 31 May 1877, Gladstone addressed approximately 30,000 people at Bingley Hallmarker to found the National Liberal Federation. The body was undeniably a creation of Chamberlain's brand of Birmingham Radicalism, reflected in the dominance of Birmingham's politicians in the Federation's administration – Chamberlain himself served as President. The Federation was designed to tighten party discipline and provide the Liberal Party with the apparatus for fighting the Conservatives in elections, whose party organisation was undergoing effective reform. Furthermore, the Federation subsequently engaged in numerous campaigning activities, including the enlisting of new members, the organisation of political meetings and the publishing of posters and pamphlets. Contemporary commentators made (often disparaging) comparisons between the techniques of the Federation and those employed in American politics. For Chamberlain, the Federation gave him much enhanced influence within the Liberal Party as well as a nationwide platform to promote Radicalism.

Chamberlain was largely critical of Disraeli's handling of foreign affairs, arguing that the Conservative government's forward policy diverted attention from the requirements of domestic reform. Unlike many Liberals, Chamberlain's attitude was not fuelled by anti-imperialism, for although he berated the government for its Eastern policy, the 1878 invasion of Afghanistan and the 1879 Zulu War, he had previously supported Disraeli's purchase of Suez Canalmarker 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. In the 1880 general election, Chamberlain joined the Liberal denunciations of the Conservative Party’s foreign policy, and the National Liberal Federation played an important part in seeing the Liberal Party take power. With Gladstone having returned as Prime Minister with notable assistance from the National Liberal Federation, Chamberlain was hopeful of being rewarded with a cabinet position.

President of the Board of Trade

Despite the fact that Chamberlain had sat in Parliament for only four years, his claims to a position in the cabinet were strong – he spoke nationally for Radicals and Nonconformists, and had a credible power base in the form of the National Liberal Federation. Although Gladstone did not regard the Federation highly, he recognised the part it had played in taking the Liberal Party to power, and appreciated the wisdom of not antagonising Chamberlain, who told Sir William Harcourt that he was prepared to lead a revolt and field Radical candidates in borough elections. Eager to reconcile Radicals to the Whig-heavy cabinet and having taken the counsel of Bright, Gladstone invited Chamberlain on 27 April 1880 to fulfil the post of President of the Board of Trade.

Chamberlain's scope for manoeuvre was restricted between 1880 and 1883 by the Cabinet’s occupancy with difficulties concerning Irelandmarker, Transvaalmarker and Egyptmarker. However, he was able to introduce the Grain Cargoes Bill, for the safer transportation of grain, an Electric Lighting Bill which enabled municipal bodies to establish electricity supplies and a Seaman's Wages Bill, which ensured a fairer system of payment. After 1883, Chamberlain’s period at the Board of Trade was more productive. A Bankruptcy Bill established a Bankruptcy Department at the Board of Trade responsible for enquiring into failed business deals. Meanwhile, a Patents Bill brought patenting under the supervision of the Board of Trade. More importantly, Chamberlain sought to end the practice of ship owners overinsuring their vessels – 'coffin ships' – while under manning them, thereby ensuring a healthy profit irrespective of whether the ship arrived safely or sank. Despite having the support of 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.

In Cabinet, Ireland was of special interest to Chamberlain. Representing Irish Catholic peasants, the Irish Land League pressed for fair rents, fixity of tenure and free sale in opposition to absentee Anglo-Irish landlords. Chamberlain supported proposals that a Land Bill would be effective in countering agitation in Ireland and Fenian outrages in the British Isles. Furthermore, he felt that a land settlement would quieten demands for Irish Home Rule, something that Chamberlain opposed with vigour, reasoning that Ireland's separation from the United Kingdom would lead to the eventual break up of the Empire. He was opposed to the policy of coercion advocated by the Chief Secretary, W.E. Forster, believing that strong arm tactics before the settlement of the land issue would provoke Irish malcontents. In April 1881, Gladstone's government introduced the Irish Land Act, but in response, Parnell, leading the Irish nationalists, encouraged tenants to withhold rents. As a result, Parnell and other leaders, including John Dillon, were imprisoned in Kilmainham Gaolmarker on 13 October 1881. Keen that there should be no more concessions, Chamberlain supported their imprisonment, and used their incarceration to bargain with them in 1882 in an attempt to reconcile them to the government. In the ensuing 'Kilmainham Treaty', the government agreed to release Parnell in return for his cooperation 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' in tatters. Having brokered the agreement, many including Parnell believed that Chamberlain was to be offered the Chief Secretaryship, however Gladstone passed him over and appointed Sir George Trevelyan instead. With the prominence of Ireland in British politics, it is not inconceivable that Gladstone was reluctant to appoint Chamberlain to a position that would have markedly enhanced his prestige and political cause. Nevertheless, Chamberlain maintained an interest in Irish affairs, and proposed to the Cabinet an Irish Central Board that would have legislative powers in land, education and communications. This was rejected by the Whigs in Cabinet on 9 May 1885.

Chamberlain's inability to introduce more creative legislation at the Board of Trade was the cause of frustration for someone who had proven to be so effective in municipal politics. However, Chamberlain viewed the Board of Trade as little more than a stepping stone for the attainment for higher things, seeing the post as a platform for the promotion of Radicalism. 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 parliament passed a major measure of franchise reform, the Reform Act, which gave hundreds of thousands of rural labourers the vote. This was followed by a Redistribution Act in 1885, negotiated by Gladstone and the Conservative leader, Lord Salisbury. Chamberlain sought to capture the newly enfranchised voters, and threw himself into a campaign of Radicalism. This took many forms, including public meetings, speeches and notably, articles written in the Fortnightly Review by Chamberlain’s close associates, including Jesse Collings and John Morley. Chamberlain earned a reputation for provocative speeches during the period, especially during debate surrounding the 1884 County Franchise Bill, which was opposed by the Whig Liberals, Lord Hartington (later the 8th Duke of Devonshire) and George Goschen as well as Lord Salisbury, who argued that the Bill gave the Liberals an unfair electoral advantage. The Conservative leader was prepared to use the powers of the House of Lords in order to block the Bill, much to Chamberlain’s dismay. At Denbighmarker 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 Lord Iddesleigh called him 'Jack Cade'. When Chamberlain suggested that he would march on London with thousands of Birmingham constituents to protest at the House of Lords' powers, Salisbury remarked that "Mr. Chamberlain will return from his adventure with a broken head if nothing worse." This verbal altercation was characteristic of the antagonism between Chamberlain and his Radical followers on the one hand, and the landed Conservatives and Whigs on the other. In July 1885, the Radical Programme, the first campaign handbook in British political history was published, with the preface written by Chamberlain himself. It called for land reform, more direct taxation, free public education, the disestablishment of the Church, universal male suffrage, and more protection for trade unions. The proposals in the Radical Programme earned the scorn of Whig Liberals and Conservatives alike, and it was on the former that Chamberlain had set his sights, writing 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 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 had no provision for the reform of Irish local government. The resignations were not made public, and the opportunity for Chamberlain to take his Radicalism to the country was only presented when the Irish Parliamentary Party supported a Conservative amendment to the budget on 9 June, which passed by 12 votes. Subsequently, the Gladstone ministry resigned, and Salisbury formed a minority administration.

Liberal split

In August 1885, the Salisbury ministry asked for a dissolution of Parliament. At Hullmarker on 5 August, Chamberlain began his election campaign by addressing an enthusiastic crowd in front of large posters declaring Chamberlain to be 'Your coming Prime Minister'. Until the campaign's closure in October, Chamberlain launched vociferous attacks on those in opposition to the proposals of the Radical Programme. In particular, he took up the cause of rural labourers and offered to make smallholdings available to workers via funds from local authorities, using the slogan Three Acres and a Cow. Chamberlain's campaign proved to be immensely popular, with large crowds gathering to listen to his espousal of the Radical Programme. In particular, the young Ramsay MacDonald and David Lloyd George were enthralled by Chamberlain's espousal of Radical policies, and leading Liberals noted with some discomfort the threat posed by what Goschen called the 'Unauthorised Programme'. The Conservatives denounced Chamberlain as an anarchist, with some even comparing him to Dick Turpin. In October, Chamberlain and Gladstone sought to close ranks and eliminate a number of differences between their respective electoral programmes in a meeting at Hawardenmarker. 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, arguing that Ireland had no more right to autonomy than London, 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." 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 in order to carry out a programme of Irish Home Rule, thereby flying what the press called the 'Hawarden Kite'. At first, Chamberlain was reluctant to act in accordance with the anti-Home Rule Whigs and Conservatives, for fear of losing his Radical followers, and preferred to await the development of events. While maintaining a low profile publicly, 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. In January 1886, a Radical-inspired amendment was moved by Collings in the House of Commons which was carried by 79 votes. The Liberals took power, although tellingly, Hartington, Goschen and 18 Liberals had voted with the Conservatives. Gladstone assembled his third administration and offered Chamberlain the Admiralty, a suggestion Chamberlain declined. Gladstone rejected Chamberlain's preference for the Colonial Office and eventually appointed him President of the Local Government Board, a suitable post considering Chamberlain's connections with municipal government. A row over the amount to be paid to Collings, Chamberlain's Parliamentary Secretary embittered relations between Gladstone and Chamberlain, although the latter was still hopeful that his membership of the Cabinet could result in Gladstone's Home Rule proposal being altered or abandoned, 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. A Land Purchase Bill would accompany a Home Rule Bill, and Chamberlain argued that the details of the latter should be made known in order for a fair judgment to be made on the former. 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 cooperation with the Whigs. His resignation was made public on 27 March 1886.

Despite Chamberlain's liking for political combat, the prospects that he faced in the aftermath of his resignation were far from promising. His chances of attaining the leadership of the Liberal Party in the short term 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 sprang the Liberal Unionist Association, originally an ad hoc alliance to demonstrate the unity of anti-Home Rulers. Meanwhile, to distinguish himself from the Whigs, Chamberlain founded the National Radical Union to rival the National Liberal Federation, which had since slipped from his grasp. During its second reading on 8 June, the Home Rule Bill was defeated by 30 votes, with 93 Liberals, including Chamberlain and Hartington, voting against the government.

Liberal Unionist

Parliament was dissolved, and in the ensuing general election, the Conservatives and Liberal Unionists agreed to a defensive alliance. Chamberlain's predicament was more awkward than Hartington's, for the former was intensely mistrusted by, and unable to influence the Conservatives, while he bore the brunt of Gladstonian ire 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." With the general election dominated by Home Rule, Chamberlain's campaign was characterised by a combine of Radicalism and intense patriotism. This proved to be immensely popular, and both the Conservatives and Liberal Unionists were able to benefit, taking 393 seats in the House of Commons and a comfortable majority.

Unlike Hartington and the Whigs, 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. Not wishing to alienate his Radical support base, Chamberlain refrained from reaching a broader settlement. The Liberal mainstream cast Chamberlain as a villain, shouting "Judas!" and "Traitor!" as he entered the House of Commons chamber. Unable to attach himself decisively to 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 Dartfordmarker, 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 put to an end, along with Chamberlain's hope of creating a powerful cross-party union of Radicals. The elevation of Goschen to the Treasury symbolised the increasingly close relationship between non-Radical Liberal Unionists and the Conservatives, thereby isolating Chamberlain further.

After January 1887, a series of Round Table Conferences took place between Chamberlain, Trevelyan, Harcourt, Morley and Lord Herschell, in which the participants sought to reach an agreement over the Liberal Party’s Irish policy. Chamberlain hoped that an accord would enable him to place a claim to the future leadership of the party and recognised the potential of leverage over the Conservatives that could result from the negotiations merely taking place. Although a preliminary agreement was reached over land purchase, Gladstone was unwilling to compromise further, and negotiations withered 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 Newfoundlandmarker. Chamberlain had grown increasingly disillusioned with politics, but the trip to the United States renewed his enthusiasm, and enhanced his standing vis-à-vis 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 at 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., while wearing white violets, as opposed to his trademark orchid. In Mary, Chamberlain found a suitable partner and a faithful supporter of his political ambitions.

Meanwhile, the Salisbury ministry was in the process of implementing a number of reforms that satisfied Chamberlain, in that Radicalism was making progress, surprisingly under a Conservative banner. Between 1888 and 1889, democratic County Councils were established in Great Britain. By 1891, measures for the provision of smallholdings had been made, and to Chamberlain's delight, 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.' Chamberlain also endeavoured to secure his Birmingham power base, for the Liberal Association in the city could no longer be relied upon to provide loyal support. He created the Liberal Unionist Association in 1888, associated with the National Radical Union, having extracted his supporters from the old Liberal organisation. Chamberlain's reformation of Birmingham's political structure was wholly successful, and in the 1892 general election, the Liberal Unionists swept the city, even making inroads into neighbouring towns in the Black Countrymarker. By now, Chamberlain's son, Austen had also entered the House of Commons having been returned unopposed for East Worcestershire in March 1892. With Gladstone returned to power and singularly unwilling to see Chamberlain back with the Liberal Party and the Liberal Unionists reduced to 47 seats nationwide, a closer relationship with the Conservatives was increasingly necessary. A step was made in this direction when Hartington took his seat in the House of Lords as the Duke of Devonshire, allowing Chamberlain to assume the leadership of the Liberal Unionists in the House of Commons, leading to a productive relationship with Balfour, leader of the Conservatives in the lower house.

Obliged to compromise with the Irish Nationalists, Gladstone introduced the Second Home Rule Bill in February 1893, legislation that Chamberlain opposed with predictable vigour. During the committee stage when he chastised the Gladstonian Liberals, a fist fight broke out in which Chamberlain remained unmoved. Although the Bill passed the House of Commons, the upper house rejected Home Rule by a huge margin. With his party split, 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, being replaced by Lord Rosebery. While Rosebery put Home Rule on ice, Chamberlain continued to build bridges with the Conservatives, and spoke warily about socialism and the Independent Labour Party, which had one member in the House of Commons, Keir Hardie. Chamberlain warned of the dangers of socialism in his 1895 play The Game of Politics, characterising its proponents as the instigators of class conflict. In response to the socialist challenge, he sought to divert the energy of collectivism and use it 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 1894, 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 generally sympathetic to the proposals, although somewhat guarded, yet his constructive response demonstrated how far Chamberlain and the Conservative leadership had come in settling the monumental differences that had separated them in the 1880s. On 21 June, the Liberal Government was defeated on a motion that criticised the Secretary of State for War, Henry Campbell-Bannerman, for shortages of cordite. Salisbury was invited to form a government, and prepared to include Chamberlain in his Cabinet.


Colonial Secretary

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, two of whom were Chamberlain and Devonshire. The latter became Lord President of the Council, and Salisbury and Balfour offered Chamberlain any Cabinet position with the exception of the Foreign Office or Leadership of the House of Commons. To the surprise of Salisbury and Balfour, Chamberlain declined a post at the Treasury, unwilling to be constrained by conservative spending plans, and also refused the Home Office. Instead, Chamberlain asked to be given the Colonial Office, a department that traditionally held little attraction to politicians.

Amidst European competition for territory and popular sentiment surrounding imperialism, Chamberlain saw the potential of using the Colonial Office as a platform for global prominence. Opportunities were present for the expansion of the British Empire and the reordering of imperial trade and resources. Furthermore, the Colonial Office would provide Chamberlain with the chance of pursuing the ambition of fostering closer relations between Britain and the settler colonies, aiming for the remoulding of the empire on federal lines into a family of Anglo-Saxon nations. Chamberlain had always been a keen imperialist and an advocate of a stronger empire – in 1887 while in Toronto, 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 regards 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. Chamberlain felt that there was "work to be done" as Colonial Secretary, and could be assured of support from Conservative backbenchers, traditionally keen proponents of Empire.

Chamberlain took formal charge at the Colonial Office on 1 July 1895, shortly before his fifty-ninth birthday. With victory assured in the 1895 general election, Chamberlain began his work in earnest. His first move was to alter the character of the Colonial Office building itself, ordering the removal of old carpets, furniture and wallpaper, the purchasing of new maps and the installation of electric lighting to end the department's reliance on gaslight. Having transformed the building from a dingy backwater to a worthy hub of the colonial empire, Chamberlain left for the Pyrenees to holiday for seven weeks, before returning in October. With the empire at its zenith, Chamberlain's responsibilities at the department were vast, governing over ten million square miles of territory and 450 million people of exceptional diversity. 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 which earned him the nickname 'Joseph Africanus' among the press.

He was instrumental in recognising the need to treat the "new" tropical diseases being brought back by travellers and sailors from the colonies. It is with his help to Patrick Manson that the London School of Tropical Medicine, the world's first centre for the discipline, was established in 1899 at the Albert Dock Seamen's Hospitalmarker; which itself had opened in 1890 and would later be known as the Hospital for Tropical Diseasesmarker that continues to this day.

While in office, Chamberlain had interactions with Mohandas K. Gandhi at the beginning of his political career. Although Chamberlain appears to have agreed with Gandhi that the treatment of the Indians was inappropriate, he was unwilling to take direct action against discriminatory legislation.

Jameson Raid

In November 1895, a piece of territory of strategic importance, the Pitsani Strip, part of the Bechuanaland Protectorate and bordering the Transvaal, was ceded to the British South Africa Company by the Colonial Office, overtly for the protection of a railway running through the territory. Cecil Rhodesmarker, the Prime Minister of the Cape Colony and managing director of the Company was eager to bring South Africa under British dominion, and encouraged the disenfranchised Uitlanders of the Boer republics to resist Afrikaner domination. Rhodes hoped that the intervention of the Company's private army could spark an Uitlander uprising, leading to the overthrow of the Transvaal government. Rhodes' forces were assembled in the Pitsani Strip for this purpose. Chamberlain informed Salisbury on Boxing Day that an uprising was expected, and was aware that an invasion would be launched, but was not sure when. The subsequent Jameson Raid was a debacle, leading to the invading force's surrender. Chamberlain, at Highburymarker, received a secret telegram from the Colonial Office on 31 December informing him of the beginning of the Raid. Sympathetic to the ultimate goals of the Raid, Chamberlain was uncomfortable with the timing of the invasion and remarked that "if this succeeds it will ruin me. I'm going up to London to crush it". He swiftly travelled by train to the Colonial Office, ordering Sir Hercules Robinson, Governor-General of the Cape Colony, to repudiate the actions of 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 during 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 Venezuelanmarker situation.

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, supporting 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 showing that Chamberlain was complicit in the Raid's planning, the Select Committee appointed to investigate the events surrounding the Raid had no choice but to absolve Chamberlain of all responsibility.

Venezuelan boundary dispute

In July 1895, the American Secretary of State Richard Olney demanded that Britain submit a boundary dispute with Venezuela to impartial arbitration, invoking the Monroe Doctrine. Chamberlain favoured a more belligerent stance, but Salisbury chose to tread tentatively, and even the Prime Minister's cautious reply to the American demand provoked President Cleveland to imply in December 1895 that war may be the result of British non-compliance. For Chamberlain, the United States' bellicosity was an embarrassment considering his marriage to an American and his professed admiration of the United States' system of government. Despite privately calling Cleveland a 'coarse-grained man' and a 'bully', Chamberlain gradually favoured the pragmatic approach undertaken by Salisbury. The Prime Minister calmed fears of war by agreeing to an arbitration treaty in February 1896, in which two American judges, two British judges and a Russian would decide the issue. Furthermore, Chamberlain endeavoured to visit the United States in the autumn of 1896 in order to negotiate with Olney. The discussions were conducted cordially, thereby improving Anglo-American relations, resulting in Britain's pro-U.S. neutrality during the Spanish-American War of 1898. In October 1899, the tribunal convened to settle the Venezuelan dispute agreed to an Award loosely based on the Schomburgk Line.

West Africa

Chamberlain believed that West Africa had huge economic potential, and shared Salisbury's suspicions of the French, who were manifestly Britain's principal rival in the region. Demonstrating his expansionist credentials, Chamberlain sanctioned the conquest of the Ashantimarker in 1895, with Colonel Sir Francis Scott successfully occupying Kumasimarker and annexing the territory to the Gold Coast. Using the emergency funds of the colonies of Lagosmarker, Sierra Leonemarker and the Gold Coast, he ordered the construction of a railway for the newly conquered area. 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 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 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 cut Lagos off 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." Under pressure from Chamberlain, Salisbury sanctioned Sir Edward Monson, leading the British delegation in Paris, to be more assertive in negotiations. The subsequent concessions made by the French encouraged Chamberlain, who arranged for a military force, led by Frederick Lugard, to occupy areas claimed by Britain, thereby undermining French claims in the region. In the 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, heightening the risk of war. Nevertheless, Chamberlain correctly assumed that French officers in the region were under orders 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 Sokotomarker, later fusing them together as Nigeriamarker. Furthermore, he had demonstrated his ability to influence and alter Salisbury's foreign policy, thereby enhancing his presence in international negotiations.


The seizure of Kiaochow by Germany in November 1897 and Russia's occupation of Port Arthurmarker signalled deepening western involvement in China and portended a scramble that perceivably threatened British interests in the country. Britain dominated China's foreign trade and was responsible for the supervision of its tariffs. In the event of China's partition, the country's value as a market for British goods would decrease – both Salisbury and Chamberlain therefore recognised the value of maintaining China's integrity. Though Salisbury sought a local agreement with Russia to reduce her concern for France in the Mediterranean, Chamberlain sought an understanding with another power, using the dramatic term 'alliance'. His first suggestion was for an understanding with Japan in order to counterbalance the growing influence of Russia. Viewing the issue in economic terms, Chamberlain saw the seizures by Germany and Russia not as part of military strategy, but as an attempt to encroach on Britain's Chinese market. When the issue was put before the cabinet early in 1898, Salisbury hoped to keep Port Arthur open to trade by cooperating with the Russians in granting a loan to the Chinese government. Arguing that British naval power could not stop Russia, Chamberlain favoured a coordinated policy with the United States and Japan, in which the three powers would demand that any concessions extracted from China by Russia should be shared among the other powers. The Cabinet agreed to the occupation of Weihaiwei as compensation, yet Chamberlain saw this as an empty gesture and regarding the fate of the Chinese Empire to be at stake, sought to strengthen Britain's position when Salisbury was weakened by illness in February 1898. Believing that Britain's difficulties in China were accentuated by her isolation, Chamberlain contemplated an understanding with Germany.

Anglo-German Alliance negotiations: first attempt

On 29 March 1898, a meeting was arranged between Chamberlain and the German Ambassador in London, Paul Count von Hatzfeld zu Trachenberg by Hermann von Eckardstein, who had described the Colonial Secretary as 'unquestionably the most energetic and enterprising personality of the Salisbury ministry.' The conversation between the two was strictly unofficial, nominally about colonial matters and the subject of China. Chamberlain surprised von 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. Von Hatzfeldt was placed in a difficult situation, for Admiral Tirpitz's First Navy Bill was being scrutinised by the Reichstag, which necessitated Britain being characterised as a threat to Germany. Secretary for Foreign Affairs, von Bülow did not believe that Britain would be a reliable ally because of the British Cabinet's ability to reverse the diplomatic policy of its predecessors, and because of the traditional problems presented by Parliament and public opinion with regards to firm alliance commitments. Furthermore, von Bülow regarded the cooperation of Russia in China more desirable than that of Britain. Unwilling to reach an agreement with Britain, von Hatzfeldt was instructed to make an agreement appear likely without ever conceding ground to Chamberlain. No commitments were made, and on 25 April Hatzfeldt asked for colonial concessions from Chamberlain as a precursor to warmer relationships. Having won nothing concrete, 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." When the Transvaal formally rejected the notion of British suzerainty as enshrined in the peace treaty of 1881, Chamberlain and Balfour prompted Salisbury to initiate discussions with Portugal regarding Delagoa Baymarker. In the event of war with Transvaal, Chamberlain and Salisbury wanted Portugal to halt arms shipments to the port bound for the Boer republics. Von Hatzfeldt intervened to insist on German participation in the negotiations, which resulted in the 30 August Anglo-German Convention, which agreed to the partition of the Portuguese Empire in event of her bankruptcy. This cordial settlement encouraged Chamberlain to keep hopes for a general Anglo-German agreement alive.

Samoa and Anglo-German Alliance negotiations: second attempt

An 1888 treaty established an Anglo-US-German tripartite protectorate over Samoamarker, 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 broke out. Salisbury rejected a German suggestion that they ask the United States to withdraw from Samoa. Meanwhile, Chamberlain, smarting from the dismissal of his alliance proposal with Germany, turned down 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 ill wife allowed Chamberlain to assume control of British policy in July 1899. In November, an agreement was reached with Germany over Samoa in which Britain agreed to withdraw in return for Tongamarker and the Solomon Islandsmarker, and the dropping of German claims to British territory in West Africa.

On 21 November 1899, at a banquet held in St. George's Hall, Windsor Castlemarker, Chamberlain reiterated his desire for an understanding between Britain and Germany to Wilhelm II. The Kaiser retorted that he did not want to upset relations with Russia, and pointed out that Salisbury's traditional strategy of not keeping peacetime commitments stood in the way of any Anglo-German agreement. Despite his reservations, Wilhelm II spoke positively about relations with Britain. Because of the death of Salisbury's wife, Chamberlain was given the responsibility of visiting von Bülow at Windsor Castle instead of the Prime Minister. Chamberlain argued that Britain, Germany and the United States should combine to check France and Russia, yet von Bülow regarded the assistance of Britain to be of little use in the event of war with Russia. Von Bülow gave Chamberlain some consolation by suggesting that the Colonial Secretary should speak positively of Germany in public. Chamberlain inferred from von Bülow's statement that the German Secretary for Foreign Affairs 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 Leicestermarker 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 rose in the Reichstag to speak in support of the Second Navy Bill, and made no reference to an understanding with Britain, instead portraying her as a declining nation jealous of Germany. Chamberlain was startled and von Hatzfeldt assured him that von Bülow's motivation was to fend off opponents in the Reichstag. Chamberlain's second attempt to formulate an Anglo-German agreement had been publicly rebuked, and although he was irritated by von Bülow's behaviour, he still harboured hope that an understanding could be reached.

South Africa

A cornerstone laid by Joseph Chamberlain during his South African tour
The growing wealth of the Transvaal was the cause of concern to the British government, and in particular, to Chamberlain. Having long wished for the federation of South Africa under the British crown, it appeared that the commercial attraction 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 to use the disenfranchised Uitlanders in the Transvaal and Orange Free State as a means by which to bring British domination over the Boer republics. By successfully pushing for Uitlanders' civil rights, British influence in the governance of the Boer republics would markedly increase, thereby warding off the prospect of Afrikaner supremacy in South Africa. Twinned with the strategy of championing the Uitlanders was the steady exertion of 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 over 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 Bloemfonteinmarker 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 fully supportive of a war in support of the Uitlanders, allowing Chamberlain to successfully press 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 9 October, the Transvaal sent an ultimatum demanding that British troops be withdrawn from her frontiers, and that any forces destined for South Africa be turned back. When the British government rejected the ultimatum, the Transvaal and the Orange Free State declared war on 12 October.

Boer War: early defeat and false dawn

The early months of the war were disastrous for Britain. Boer commandos besieged the towns of Ladysmithmarker, Mafeking and Kimberleymarker, and ten thousand Cape Afrikaner rebels joined the Boers in fighting the British. In mid-December 1899, during 'Black Week', the British Army suffered reverses at Stormbergmarker, Magersfonteinmarker and Colensomarker. In private, Chamberlain was critical of the British Army's military performance and was often vexed by the attitude of the War Officemarker. When the Boers bombarded Ladysmith with Creusot ninety-four pounder siege guns, Chamberlain pushed for the dispatch of comparable artillery to the theatre of 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 was also prominent in stiffening the country's resolve amidst the British Army's early defeats by making a number of speeches to reassure the public. Furthermore, he worked to strengthen bonds between Britain and the self-governing colonies, gratefully taking receipt of imperial contingents from Canadamarker, Australia and New Zealandmarker. In particular, the contributions of mounted men from the settler colonies helped fill the British Army's shortfall in mounted infantry, vital in fighting the mobile Boers (who were an entirely mounted force of skilled marksmen). Showing further sensitivity to the colonies, Chamberlain steered 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, a move that would have given Milner autocratic powers. Chamberlain was the government's foremost figure in the defence of the war's conduct, facing a barrage of abuse from 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 over the handling 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 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, Johannesburgmarker on 31 May and Pretoriamarker 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.


The Khaki Election

With Salisbury ill, Chamberlain dominated the Unionist election campaign. 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 lead to defeat in the war 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 M.P.'s 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 Oldhammarker, where Chamberlain spoke on his behalf. Churchill recalled that

' I watched my honoured guest with close attention. He loved the roar of the multitude, and with my father could always say "I have never feared the English democracy." The blood mantled in his cheek, and his eye as it caught mine twinkled with pure enjoyment. '

Churchill also commented on Chamberlain's status in British politics at the time of the election campaign, writing 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.

Anglo-German Alliance negotiations: third attempt

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 with the further eclipse of Salisbury, Chamberlain's importance within the Unionist government grew further still. While Lansdowne grew accustomed to his new post, Chamberlain took the opportunity to take the lead in British foreign affairs and attempt, yet again, to formulate an agreement with Germany. At Chatsworth Housemarker on 16 January 1901, Chamberlain and Devonshire made it known to Eckardstein that they still aimed to take Britain into 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. Meanwhile, Victoria's physical condition worsened, Chamberlain being the last Cabinet minister to see Victoria on 10 January, informing her of the latest events in South Africa. On 20 January, Wilhelm II arrived in England to be close to his dying grandmother, a gesture that was to win the affection of his English relatives. On 22 January, Victoria died, with Chamberlain later remarking in the House of Commons that "she was the greatest of Englishwomen – I almost said of Englishmen – for she added the highest of manly qualities to the personal delicacy of a woman." Amidst the bereavement, the Wilhelm II's regard for Britain increased markedly, making an Anglo-German alliance appear likelier, especially when the Kaiser was informed of the Chatsworth proposal. Wilhelm II was inclined to accept Chamberlain's proposal and sent a telegram to Berlin urging a positive response, yet von Bülow wished to delay negotiations until Britain was more vulnerable, pointing in particular to the ongoing war in South Africa. Urged by Paul Count Wolff Metternich zur Gracht, the senior diplomat serving in his entourage, the Kaiser neglected to see Chamberlain during his fortnight in England, but did speak about the prospect of a future Anglo-German alliance at Marlborough Housemarker on the eve of his departure.

On 18 March, Eckardstein called on Chamberlain to resume alliance negotiations, and although the Colonial Secretary reaffirmed his support, he was unwilling to commit himself, having remembered von Bülow's disdainful rebuke in 1899. Consequently, Chamberlain took a smaller role in the ensuing exchanges, and it was to Lansdowne that Eckardstein gave a proposal by von Bülow. A five year Anglo-German defensive alliance was presented to Lansdowne, 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. Unwilling to enter an alliance as a junior partner, Salisbury weighed in decisively against the proposal. If the Prime Minister's intervention had not signalled the death knell of the alliance conversations, then a public announcement by Chamberlain certainly did. On 25 October 1901, Chamberlain defended the British Army's tactics in South Africa against criticism by the European press, arguing that the conduct of British soldiers was much more respectable than the behaviour 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, diminished before Eckardstein's most recent offer in March, were finally dashed. Facing denunciation from von Bülow and a torrent of abuse from German newspapers, Chamberlain's credit soared, with the Times commenting that 'Mr. Chamberlain…is at this moment the most popular and trusted man in England.'

Chamberlain had undertaken negotiations with the French Ambassador, Paul Cambon, since March 1901, with the aim of settling colonial differences, although both Lansdowne and Cambon had not moved as quickly as Chamberlain would have liked. At Marlborough House in February 1902, at a banquet 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". With Chamberlain still seeking to end Britain's diplomatic isolation and the negotiations with Germany having been terminated, a settlement with France was increasingly attractive. Chamberlain had contributed to laying the cornerstone of the Anglo-French Entente Cordiale that would come to full fruition in 1904.

Boer War: victory

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 the forceful demands of two groups, with Unionists demanding for 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 running of the war. Chamberlain originally questioned the wisdom of establishing the camps, but tolerated them in deference to the military. In the autumn of 1901, Chamberlain took a firmer grip on proceedings when the scandal intensified, strengthening the hand of civilian governance. Although he refused to criticise the military in public, 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, overruling the army where necessary. By 1902, the death rate in the camps had halved, and was soon to drop below the usual mortality rate in rural South Africa. Despite the concerns of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir Michael Hicks Beach, at the spiralling costs of the war, Chamberlain maintained his insistence that the Boers be made to surrender unconditionally, and was supported by Salisbury. Though 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, Chamberlain insisted upon the loss of independence of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State to Boer negotiators, a term that was accepted. 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. Thus, the Treaty of Vereeniging was signed on 31 May 1902, thereby ending 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 two million pounds. 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.

Resignation of Salisbury

The end of the Boer War allowed Salisbury, in declining health, to finally contemplate resignation. 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 3 July, Salisbury's Private Secretary, Schomberg McDonnell, wrote to Lord Curzon informing him that Salisbury was about to retire. A few days later, 7 July 1902, Chamberlain was travelling in a cab from the Colonial Office to the Athenaeum Club when at Trafalgar Squaremarker, the horse drawing the cab slipped, pulling the carriage forward violently. Chamberlain was thrown out of his seat, and a pane of glass crashed onto his head, causing a deep three-and-a-half inch gash. Dazed, and having lost a pint of blood, Chamberlain was taken to Charing Cross Hospitalmarker. Refusing an anaesthetic, Chamberlain had three stitches administered and left hospital the next day, with a black silk scarf characteristically concealing his bandages. Returning to his house, Chamberlain was told by doctors to cease work immediately and remain in bed for two weeks. On 11 July Salisbury went to Buckingham Palacemarker, 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's home at Prince's Gardens to consult the Colonial Secretary, who was informed of Salisbury's resignation. Chamberlain was satisfied to acquiesce in the King's choice, for although he had harboured ambitions to occupy Downing Street, he was content with the prominence presented by his post at the Colonial Office, in which he was regarded informally as the 'First Minister of the Empire'. Furthermore, despite Chamberlain's organisational skills and his immense popularity, many Conservatives still mistrusted him for 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.

Chamberlain and the new Prime Minister, Balfour, were very different men. According to Chamberlain, "Arthur hates difficulties. I love 'em." However, Balfour and Chamberlain were both aware that the Unionist government's survival depended on their cooperation.

1902 Education Act

Chamberlain's support base was threatened by the introduction before Parliament of the Education Bill by Balfour. This legislation was framed with the intention of promoting national efficiency, a cause which Chamberlain thought worthy. However, the Education Bill proposed to abolish Britain's 2,568 school boards that were established under W.E. Forster's 1870 Act, bodies that were popular with Nonconformists and Radicals. In their place, Balfour proposed to establish Local Education Authorities that would administer a state centred system of primary, secondary and technical schools. Furthermore, the Bill would entail ratepayer's money being granted to voluntary, Church of England schools. Chamberlain was anxious about the Bill's proposals, aware that they would estrange Nonconformists, Radicals and many Liberal Unionists from the government. However, Chamberlain was in no position to oppose the Bill, owing his position at the head of the empire's governance to the support provided by the Conservatives. Chamberlain warned Robert Morant about the probability of Nonconformist dissent, asking why voluntary schools could not receive funds from the state rather than the rates. In response, Morant argued that the Boer War had drained the Exchequer of finances.

The furore over the Education Bill imperilled the Liberal Unionist wing of the government, with the prospect of Nonconformist voters switching allegiance to the Liberal Party. Chamberlain sought to stem the feared exodus 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.

Tour of South Africa

Chamberlain's visit to South Africa lasted between 26 December 1902 and 25 February 1903. The Colonial Secretary sought to promote Anglo-Afrikaner conciliation and the colonial contribution to the British Empire, and endeavoured to personally encounter people in the newly unified South Africa, including those who had so recently been his 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 warm, although he was engaged in a two hour argument with General Hertzog, who accused the British government of breaking three terms of the Treaty of Vereeniging. During his visit, Chamberlain became convinced that the Boer territories required a period of government under 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 step considering the hostile nature of the Cape Parliament since 1899. During the tour, Chamberlain and his wife had visited twenty-nine towns, with the Colonial Secretary delivering sixty-four speeches and receiving eighty-four deputations. Chamberlain's visit had contributed somewhat to the reconciliation of the British and the Boers, and had demonstrated the importance Chamberlain placed on South Africa to the British Empire.

The "Uganda Proposal"

When he first met Theodor Herzl on October 23, 1902, Chamberlain expressed his sympathy to the Zionist cause. He was willing to consider their plan for settlement near el Arishmarker and in the Sinai Peninsulamarker but conditioned his support on the gaining of approval with the authorities in Cairo. When it became evident that these efforts were coming to naught, Chamberlain, on April 24, 1903, offered Herzl a territory in East Africa. The proposal came to be known as the Uganda Plan (even thought 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 engaged them diplomatically and recognized a need to find a territory appropriate for Jewish autonomy under British suzerainty.

Tariff reform: Unionist split

A favourable view of Chamberlain's proposals for Tariff Reform in Punch, November 1903

Chamberlain made no secret of his desire to see 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 argued that with the empire consolidated as a single entity, Britain would automatically remain a great power, able to exert its influence in a world where the United States, Germany and Russia were expected to dominate. Essential for Chamberlain's objective was to have a system of preferential trade with the empire, necessitating tariffs on foreign imports coming into the empire. Tariff reform also had domestic objectives, for Chamberlain felt that finances could be generated from tariffs for a scheme of old-age pensions and other social improvements. Such a programme would help Chamberlain secure the Unionist's hold on the West Midlands, and enhance Chamberlain's power inside the government still further. Chamberlain prepared to break the Free Trade consensus that had dominated British economics since the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846, in order to push for Imperial Preference as an alternative for the good of what he perceived as Britain's imperial destiny and the welfare of the working class.

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

As [Chamberlain] rose to leave he paused at the door, and turning said with much deliberation, "You young gentlemen have entertained me royally, and in return I will give you a priceless secret. Tariffs! They are the politics of the future, and of the near future. Study them closely and make yourself masters of them, and you will not regret your hospitality to me."

In the same month, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Hicks Beach, levied a small duty on imported corn in order to raise revenue for the payment of the Boer War. Chamberlain was eager to use this as a starting point for the reordering 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, which suggested that reciprocal agreements with the colonies might be beneficial. 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 increasingly confident that his proposals were gathering pace, and he brought the matter before the Cabinet in advance of embarking on his tour of South Africa in December 1902. Problematically for Chamberlain, the new Chancellor of the Exchequer, C.T. Ritchie, under the guidance of leading economists such as Sir William Ashley, was vigorously opposed to any scheme of Imperial Preference. Although Ritchie made his opinions known, the Cabinet was generally favourable towards Chamberlain's proposal when it was raised 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. Having thought 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 in order to put the budget before the Cabinet. Balfour refused, and warned Chamberlain, using Austen as an intermediary, of Ritchie's continuing opposition. Chamberlain arrived in Southampton on 14 March, and prepared to do battle with Ritchie, 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 reached last November. Balfour chose not to take sides, but did not oppose Ritchie for fear of losing his Chancellor on the eve of the presentation 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. Consequently, the Chancellor presented a Free Trade orientated budget to the House of Commons on 23 April, during which Chamberlain was completely silent. Though Chamberlain had been taken aback by the Cabinet's u-turn, the Colonial Secretary prepared to surprise his colleagues in return. On 15 May, at the heart 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." Chamberlain proceeded to lament the demise of the corn tax to his audience and insisted that the greatness of the empire could be preserved by introducing a system of Imperial Preference, a matter he hoped would dominate the next general election. His impromptu speech stunned Balfour and the Cabinet, the Prime Minister having just publicly insisted 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, caught between Free Traders supportive of Ritchie and Tariff Reformers supportive of Chamberlain, hoped to calm the situation by devoting the summer to the question. In public, Balfour professed support for neither side, a stance which attracted much criticism from the opposition Liberal Party.

Balfour was successful in stemming debate on the subject while the Board of Trade compiled statistics on the matter. A Cabinet meeting convened on 13 August failed to reach an agreement, and a final decision was postponed until 14 September. Balfour hoped that Chamberlain would moderate his espousal of tariff reform in order 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 views. 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 reached an agreement, in which Chamberlain would resign and 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 lead the Unionists onto safe electoral ground and give full backing to Imperial Preference at the next general election. When the Cabinet meeting began, having failed to persuade the Cabinet to back his proposals, Chamberlain announced his resignation, but Balfour did not mention his letter to the Cabinet, impressing on many members the 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 on 16 September, Balfour not only announced the resignations of Ritchie and Hamilton, but of Chamberlain too. Though the Free Trade ministers were appalled that Chamberlain's letter of resignation had been kept secret, the Duke of Devonshire, having also resigned, rescinded his decision upon the revelation of Chamberlain's departure. When Balfour explained his fiscal policy on 1 October, Devonshire submitted his resignation again, much to the Prime Minister's annoyance — in a matter of days the Unionist government had lost its most popular public figure, its Chancellor, and a politician of Devonshire's respectable standing, leaving it bereft of heavyweight front-line politicians.

Tariff reform: Chamberlain's last crusade

Chamberlain asserted his authority over the Liberal Unionists in the wake of Devonshire's departure. Furthermore, he increased his standing with the Conservative Party when the National Union of Conservative and Unionist Associations declared majority support for tariff reform. With firm support from provincial Unionism and most of the press, Chamberlain hurled himself into the crusade for tariff reform with unbridled enthusiasm, addressing vast crowds and extolling the virtues of Empire and Imperial Preference, campaigning with the slogan 'Tariff Reform Means Work for All'. On 6 October 1903, Chamberlain opened the campaign with a speech at Glasgowmarker. The newly formed Tariff Reform League received vast funding, allowing it to wage an advanced democratic campaign involving the printing and distribution of large numbers of leaflets and even the playing of Chamberlain's recorded messages to public meetings via gramophone. The most prominent aspect of the campaign was Chamberlain himself, who made addresses at Greenockmarker, Newcastlemarker, Liverpoolmarker and Leedsmarker 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." At Liverpool on 27 October, Chamberlain was escorted to the Conservative Working Men's Association by mounted police amidst wild cheering. Aiming to enlist the support of the working class, Chamberlain assured his audience that tariff reform ensured low unemployment.

While the Liberal Party were able to heal their divisions and rally under the banner of Free Trade, the Unionist split became more apparent. Balfour was unwilling to move beyond the cautious protectionism that he had endorsed shortly after Chamberlain's resignation, and had no inclination to announce an early general election, for by-election results were comprehensively unfavourable for the Unionists. While Chamberlain toured the country, the Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, H. H. Asquith stalked him by preaching the virtues of Free Trade in the same venues that Chamberlain had appeared a few evenings before. To Balfour's benefit, the campaign for tariff reform underwent a brief intermission as Chamberlain's health began to fail. Suffering from gout and neuralgia, Chamberlain took a two month holiday in February 1904. In June, Chamberlain spoke at St. Helensmarker against his doctor's orders, and took another break in August, travelling to Aix-les-Bainsmarker. By now, Chamberlain had accepted 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 view of eventually leading the Unionists in opposition to the Liberals 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.' Chamberlain's attempt in this respect amounted to vigorous local action, and 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 Officemarker. Balfour adhered firmly to 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. Meanwhile, Chamberlain continued to campaign for tariff reform with a zeal and energy remarkable for a man of nearly seventy. Reconciliation appeared imminent when Balfour agreed to call a general election after the 1906 Colonial Conference, in which tariff reform would be discussed. However, threatened by a backbench revolt, Balfour rescinded the agreement and called for party unity. Chamberlain ignored this and intensified his campaign in November 1905, leading directly to Balfour's resignation on 4 December. The Liberal Party leader, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, subsequently took office and dissolved Parliament.

1906 General Election

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 shattered Unionists reduced to just 157 seats in the House of Commons. Though Balfour lost his seat in East Manchester, Chamberlain and his followers increased their majorities in the West Midlands. With approximately 102 of the remaining Unionist M.P.'s supportive of Chamberlain, it appeared that he was a favourite to take over the leadership of the Unionists, or at least win a major concession in favour of tariff reform. Chamberlain called for a Party meeting, and under immense pressure, the newly seated Balfour agreed on 14 February 1906 in the 'Valentine letters' to concede that

Fiscal Reform is, and must remain, the constructive work of the Unionist Party. That the objects of such reforms are to secure more equal terms of competition for British trade, and closer commercial union within the Colonies.

Although in opposition, it appeared that Chamberlain had successfully pinned the Unionists to 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. On 13 July, Chamberlain was dressing in the bathroom of his house at Prince's Gardens in preparation for dinner, when he collapsed. His wife, Mary, found the door locked and called out, receiving the weakened reply "I can't get out." While she fetched help, Chamberlain turned the handle from the inside, opening the door. Mary returned to find Chamberlain, exhausted on the floor, having suffered a seriously debilitating stroke that paralysed his right side. In one swipe, Chamberlain's political career, then at its height, was effectively put to an end.

After a month, Chamberlain was able to walk a small number of steps and resolved to overcome his disabilities. Although unaffected in mind, Chamberlain's sight had deteriorated, compelling him to wear spectacles instead of his monocle. Furthermore, his ability to read had diminished, leaving Mary with the responsibility of reading 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 regained his ability to walk, but did so with his right foot dragging behind, and only with the aid of a stick and the support of an arm. Chamberlain's family, particularly Mary, gave him constant support, and Austen in particular kept in close contact, with Chamberlain informing his son, now leading the tariff reform movement, of his opinions on contemporary affairs.

Chamberlain made his first visit to the House of Commons since his stroke on 16 February 1910, to be sworn in after the recent general election. When Chamberlain arrived, leaning on a stick and Austen's arm, the House was almost empty, and onlookers were shocked to see the decline in Chamberlain's condition as he slowly recited the oath. Austen signed on Chamberlain's behalf, and he touched the pen to confirm the signature. The Clerk then dutifully and emotionally announced "Mr. Chamberlain West Birmingham Sir". Having shaken hands with the Speaker, Chamberlain was paired with an absentee from the other side, before departing.

Though he had lost all hope of recovering his health and returning to active politics, Chamberlain maintained a keen interest in the subject, following Austen's career with interest and encouraging the tariff reform movement. He opposed Liberal proposals in the House of Commons to remove the House of Lords' ability to act as a check on the ruling government's legislative power, and gave his blessing to the Unionists to fight in order to oppose Home Rule for Ireland. In January 1914, Chamberlain decided to not seek re-election for Birmingham West, and the aged Jesse Collings, Chamberlain's long-serving lieutenant, also made public his desire to stand down. On 30 June Chamberlain suffered a mild heart attack and soon became bedridden. On 2 July, he appeared headed for a slight recovery, and Mary read to him the Times article detailing the assassination of Franz Ferdinandmarker in Sarajevo. Aware of the impending conflagration, Chamberlain stopped his wife from reading on. Later in the afternoon, he suffered a more serious 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

in that striking personality, vivid, masterful, resolute, tenacious, there were no blurred or nebulous outlines, there were no relaxed fibres, there were no moods of doubt and hesitation, there were no pauses of lethargy or fear.

The offer of an official burial at Westminster Abbeymarker was refused, and a Unitarian funeral ceremony was planned in Birmingham. On 5 July, Chamberlain's body was taken to Paddington Stationmarker and sent to Birmingham by train. The next day, the coffin was carried through Birmingham's crowded streets to Key Hill Cemeterymarker, where Chamberlain was laid to rest.


Winston Churchill called Chamberlain "a splendid piebald: first black, then white, or, in political terms, first fiery red, then true blue." This is the conventional view of Chamberlain's politics, that he moved rightwards across the political spectrum from the left of the Liberal party 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 views were not in great conflict with each other — in both he rejected "laissez-faire capitalism". For instance, after leaving the Liberals he remained a proponent of Workmen's Compensation and old-age pensions.

He was the driving force behind the foundation of the University of Birminghammarker and was its first Chancellor. His papers can be found in the Library there, and the University's clock tower is called the Joseph Chamberlain Memorial Clock Towermarker or more commonly 'Old Joe' or 'Big Joe'. He is also commemorated by a memorial in Chamberlain Squaremarker in central Birmingham. A large iron clock erected in his honour (1903, during his lifetime) stands in Birmingham's Jewellery Quartermarker. His Birmingham home, Highbury Hallmarker, is now a civic conference venue and a venue for civil marriages, and is occasionally open to the public.

Chamberlain holds the distinction of being the only individual to have split both major British political parties in the course of one generation: his decision to found the Liberal Unionists in defiance of Irish Home Rule split Gladstone's Liberals, ruining their chance of being returned with a workable majority after 1885 and allowing Salisbury's Conservatives to regain power. Less than twenty years later Chamberlain's campaign for tariff reform split the governing Conservative Party and allowed the Liberals to unite over the matter of Free Trade.

The Papers of Joseph Chamberlain, Austen Chamberlain, Neville Chamberlain and Mary Chamberlain are kept safe at the University of Birmingham Special Collections.

The Midland Metro has a tram named after him.


  1. Tristram Hunt Building Jerusalem: The Rise and Fall of the Victorian City, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson pp 232-265, 2004
  2. Chamberlains speech on proposed discriminatory legislation
  3. Andrew Roberts, Salisbury, 1999, p. 636
  4. Denis Judd, Radical Joe, 1977, p. 267


  • Julian Amery and J.L. Garvin, The life of Joseph Chamberlain, Six volumes, Macmillan, 1932–1969.
  • Harry Browne, Joseph Chamberlain: Radical and Imperialist, Longman Higher Education, 1974.
  • P.A. Howell, 'Joseph Chamberlain, 1836-1914'. In The Centenary Companion to Australian Federation, edited by Helen Irving, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1989.
  • Tristram Hunt Building Jerusalem: The Rise and Fall of the Victorian City, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson pp 232–265, 2004.
  • Denis Judd, Radical Joe: Life of Joseph Chamberlain, H Hamilton, 1977.
  • Peter T. Marsh, Joseph Chamberlain: Entrepreneur in Politics, Yale University Press, 1994.
  • J. Enoch Powell, Joseph Chamberlain, Thames and Hudson Ltd, 1977.

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