Joseph Chamberlain (July 8, 1836–July 2, 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 nineteenth century and early twentieth century, as well as a colorful character and renowned orator. As Colonial Secretary, he became known as the "Empire Builder." As Mayor of Birmingham, he pursued policies known as municipal socialism, bringing gas and water supply and garbage disposal under Council ownership. He built libraries, schools, public swimming pools, created parks and was the driving force behind the University of Birmingham, serving as its first Chancellor. The University is a member of the elite Russell Group, an association of the leading 20 research schools in the United Kingdom.
Several monuments honor his legacy in the City of Birmingham. Throughout his political career, Chamberlain was motivated by his Unitarian belief in human dignity and independence and wanted above all to improve the quality of life for the non-elite, opposing privilege based on birth or inherited power.
Two of his sons, Sir Austen Chamberlain winner of the 1925 Nobel Peace Prize and Chancellor of the Exchequer (1919 to 1921) and the future Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain followed him into public service.
Chamberlain was born in Camberwell in London to a successful shoemaker and manufacturer also named Joseph (1796–1874). He was educated at University College School (then still in Euston) 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 Birmingham 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 helped the company become a commercial success. When he retired from the firm in 1874, the company was exporting its products to the United States, Europe, India, Japan, Canada and Australia.
In 1860, Chamberlain met and fell in love with Harriet Kenrick, the daughter of a Unitarian family from Birmingham. They married in July 1861. Beatrice was born in May 1862. 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 in October 1863. Three days later, she died. Gripped with grief, Chamberlain devoted himself to the growing fortunes of Nettlefold and Chamberlain, whilst raising Beatrice and Austen with the Kenrick parents-in-law.
In 1868, Chamberlain married Harriet's cousin, Florence Kenrick, who bore him four children: Arthur Neville in 1869, Ida in 1870, Hilda in 1871, and Ethel in 1873. In 1875, the fifth child was born but mother and child died the next day.
Chamberlain's Unitarian church held a long tradition of social action. His father taught slum children and was active in Unitarian circles. For him, religion was 'the life within the life'. By the mid-1860s, he had become involved in the Liberal party The growth of the Victorian Era industrial cities left thousands of people disenfranchised by existing electoral law. In 1866, Lord John Russell's Liberal administration introduced a Reform Bill, aiming to create 400,000 new voters. Conservatives opposed the Bill for disrupting the social order, while Radicals criticized it for failing to concede the secret ballot or household suffrage. The Bill was defeated and Lord Derby formed a minority Conservative administration. On August 27, 1866, 250,000 people, one of whom was Chamberlain, marched in Birmingham in support of electoral reform. Subsequently, the Conservative government passed a Reform Bill in 1867, nearly doubling the electorate. Chamberlain campaigned on behalf of the Liberal Party in the 1867 election, when the Liberals took power.
That year, Chamberlain helped found the Birmingham Education League which lobbied for more schools in urban areas, where almost half of all school-aged children did not attend school. Chamberlain championed free, compulsory, secular, public education and pointed to the success that the United States and Prussia owed to public education. By 1869, the Birmingham League had evolved into the National Education League, which, by 1870, had more than one hundred branches, mostly in cities and drawing from trades unions and working men's organizations. Chamberlain was also prominent in the local campaign supporting Gladstone's Irish Church Disestablishment Bill against the House of Lords' obstructionism. Chamberlain seconded the motion in support of disestablishment at a debate held at Birmingham town hall, when he attacked the hereditary powers of the House of Lords. He was elected to Birmingham Council November 1869.
The Liberal government put forward proposals for an Elementary Education Bill in January 1870. Chamberlain and many nonconformists opposed the Bills provision of state funding for Church schools, and on 9 March 1870, a delegation from the League, headed by Chamberlain, met with the Prime Minister to voice their objections. During the Bill's second reading, Gladstone agreed to remove church schools from rate-payer to government control. Liberal MPs, exasperated by the compromises in the legislation, voted against the government but the Bill passed 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. 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.
In November 1873 Chamberlain was elected Mayor of Birmingham. As Mayor, he promoted many civic improvements, creating parks, building schools, libraries and swimming pools combining public and private funding. Many of the city's residents lived in poverty depending on well water, much of which was polluted. One of the reforms that Chamberlain initiated was establishing a city-wide water supply under Council control. The gas supply was at the time controlled by two rival companies, which caused disruption in the service. Chamberlain forcibly purchased both companies and established a municipal gas service. 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. Next he cleared the slums from the city center, rehousing residents in the suburbs. He personally contributed £10,000 to the cost himself. The scheme was expensive but greatly reduced the death-rate in the city The mayoralty helped give Chamberlain stature as a figure of both local and national renown, with contemporaries commenting upon his youthfulness and prominent dress - he wore a black velvet coat, a jaunty eyeglass, and a red neck-tie drawn through a ring. His allies in Birmingham included the Quaker philanthropist, George Cadbury and the advocate of the civic gospel, George Dawson (1821-1876). Voluntary service, public duty, poverty elimination, access to education and local control over services, were central concerns. These men believed that well-run cities that made provision for all citizens could resemble the type of communities in which God desires people to live.
In the 1874 general election, Chamberlain made his first attempt to enter the House of Commons on behalf of a Sheffield offshoot of the Liberal Party. He came third. During the election, he was accused of republicanism and atheism by opponents, who threw dead cats at him on the speaking platform. Then in 1876 a Birmingham seat became vacant, and he was returned unopposed. Almost immediately, Chamberlain began to organize the Radical component in the House of Commons, where he gave his maiden speech during a debate on education on August 4, 1876. On May 31, 1877, Gladstone addressed approximately 30,000 people in Birmingham to found the National Liberal Federation, an alliance of radical Liberals of which Chamberlain 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 organization was undergoing effective reform. The Federation soon gave him enhanced influence within the Liberal Party as well as a nationwide platform to promote Radicalism .
Oddly for a radical, Chamberlain was not anti-imperialist, although he was critical of Benjamin Disraeli's handling of foreign affairs, arguing that the Conservative government's forward policy diverted attention from the requirements of domestic reform. He 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, he joined the Liberal denunciations of the Conservative Party’s foreign policy. The National Liberal Federation played an important part in ensuring a Liberal victory, so when Gladstone formed the new government Chamberlain was in a good position to be rewarded with a cabinet position, even though he had only been in the British Parliament for four years.
Gladstone invited Chamberlain on to assume the Presidency of the Board of Trade. Until 1833, Chamberlain was able to achieve little in this office because the Cabinet was preoccupied with difficulties concerning Ireland, Transvaal and Egypt. 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.
In Cabinet, Ireland was of special interest to Chamberlain. When a Home Rule Bill came up for debate, Chamberlain opposed this, reasoning that Ireland's separation from the United Kingdom would lead to the eventual break up of the Empire. Instead of Home Rule, Chamberlain wanted to strengthen local government so that the Irish would have a greater say in the running of their communities. Chamberlain was always supportive of communities exercising a large degree of self governance. 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 Gaol on October 13, 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. Having brokered the agreement, many including Parnell believed that Chamberlain would be offered a new post but instead Gladstone kept him at the Board of Trade, where his inability to introduce more creative legislation at the Board of Trade was the cause of much frustration. However, he saw the Board of Trade as little more than a stepping stone for the attainment for higher office, 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 laborers the vote. 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 Conservatives, 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. 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. Chamberlain resigned from the government on May 20, 1885 when the Cabinet rejected his 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 resignation was not made public, however, on June 9, Gladstone's government itself resigned following a Conservative amendment to the Budget that was passed with the support of the Irish Parliamentary Party.
In the 1885 general election, Chamberlain campaigned on the agenda of the Radical Programme in particular taking up the cause of rural laborers, offering to make smallholdings available to them via funds from local authorities. His campaign proved to be immensely popular, with large crowds gathering to listen to his espousal of the Radical Programme. Two future Prime Ministers, Ramsay MacDonald and David Lloyd George were enthralled by his espousal of Radical policies. The Conservatives denounced Chamberlain as an anarchist, with some even comparing him to Dick Turpin. In October, Chamberlain and William E. Gladstone sought to close ranks and eliminate a number of differences between their respective electoral programs in a meeting at Hawarden. The meeting, although good natured, was largely unproductive.
Gladstone was determined to settle the Irish question by a program of Irish Home Rule. Whilst 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. Chamberlain's renewed scheme for National Councils was not discussed in Cabinet, and only on March 13 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. His resignation was made public on March 27, 1886.
Chamberlain was now isolated but on April 9 he spoke against the Irish Home Rule Bill. He was then instrumental in forming the Liberal Unionist Association, originally an ad hoc alliance to demonstrate the unity of anti-Home Rulers. Chamberlain also founded the National Radical Union to rival the National Liberal Federation, which had since slipped from his grasp since many members supported Home Rule. During its second reading on June 8, the Home Rule Bill was defeated by 30 votes, with 93 Liberals, including Chamberlain and Hartington, voting against the government.
A general election was called. Chamberlain now found new allies among both Liberal and Conservatives who supported the Union with Ireland but given Conservative opposition to his radical policies cooperation with them was limited to the Irish question. When a Conservative-Liberal Unionist government was returned, Chamberlain stayed outside, not wishing to alienate his Radical support base. When he took his seat in the new parliament, he was denounced as a "Judas" and a "traitor" from the Liberal benches. Chamberlain refrained from reaching a broader settlement. In January, 1887 Chamberlain took part in a series of Round Table Conferences 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. Although a preliminary agreement was reached, Gladstone was unwilling to compromise further, and negotiations withered by March. In August 1887, the PM, Lord Salisbury invited Chamberlain to lead the British delegation in a Joint Commission to resolve a fisheries dispute between the United States and Newfoundland. 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 U.S. 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, at age 51, proposed to Mary, whom he married in November 1888. In Mary, Chamberlain found a suitable partner and a faithful supporter of his political ambitions. A portrait of Chamberlain by John Singer Sargent is held by the National Portrait Gallery in London; his portrait of Mary is at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.
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's son, Austen 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. Chamberlain now assumed the leadership of the Liberal Unionists in the House of Commons.
In February 1893, Gladstone again introduced a Home Rule Bill, which despite Chamberlain's opposition passed the House of Commons. The upper house rejected the Bill 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. Whilst 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. Chamberlain warned of the dangers of socialism in his 1895 play The Game of Politics, characterizing 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 June 21, the Liberal Government was defeated on a motion that criticized 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.
Having agreed to a set of policies, the Conservatives and Liberal Unionists formed a government on June 24, 1895. Salisbury offered four Cabinet posts to Liberal Unionists, including Chamberlain. He was offered any post except the Foreign Office or Leadership of the House of Commons. Instead of choosing a Treasury post of the Home Office, as many expected, he again asked for, and this time was given, the Colonial Office. 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 remolding of the empire on federal lines into a family of Anglo-Saxon nations.
With the empire at its zenith, Chamberlain's responsibilities at the department were vast, governing over ten million square miles of territory and 50 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 recognizing the need to treat the "new" tropical diseases being brought back by travelers and sailors from the colonies, helping to establish the London School of Tropical Medicine, the world's first centre for the discipline.
While in office, Chamberlain had interactions with M. 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.
In December, 1895 an incident in Southern Africa led to a Select Committee enquiry into Chamberlain's complicity in an illegal raid by the Cape Colony's private army into the Transvaal. Masterminded by Cecil Rhodes, leader of the colony, the raid's aim was to provoke an Uitlander revolt against Afrikaner domination, resulting in a British take over of South Africa . Chamberlain was sympathetic to this aim but opposed the raid because it breached the Charter of Rhodes' British South Africa Company, and because he did not think that the timing was right. The raid went ahead. When it was alleged that Chamberlain was implicated by cables, an enquiry was held. He was exonerated but the BSAC had to pay compensation to the Boer government.
In July 1885, the United States demanded that Britain submit a border dispute between British Guyana and Venezuela to impartial arbitration, at the request of the Venezuelan government. Chamberlain favored a belligerent approach but Salisbury did not want to provoke the U.S. War seemed to be a real possibility. Agreeing to arbitration by two British, two American and a Russian judge, the matter was eventually resolved with Britain gaining territory but not as much as she claimed. Gold had been discovered in the disputed area. Chamberlain visited the United States in the autumn of 1896 to negotiate with the U.S. Department of State. 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.
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 Ashanti in 1895, with Colonel Sir Francis Scott successfully occupying Kumasi and annexing the territory to the Gold Coast. Using the emergency funds of the colonies of Lagos, Sierra Leone and the Gold Coast, he ordered the construction of a railway for the newly conquered area. This strategy, however, conflicted with the interests of the Royal Niger Company, which possessed title rights to large stretches of the Niger but which had yet to assume its governing responsibilities in much of the territory. This allowed the French to expand from Dahomey into Bussa in the Niger. 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. In March 1898, the French proposed to settle the issue—Bussa was returned to Britain, and the French were limited to the town of Bona. Chamberlain had successfully imposed British control over the Niger and the inland territories of Sokoto, later fusing them together as Nigeria. He had also demonstrated his ability to influence and alter Salisbury's foreign policy, thereby enhancing his presence in international negotiations.
China had become a testing ground for a new imperial policy which used trade and treaties rather than conquest to extend British interests. In 1897, Britain's dominance in China was threatened when Germany seized Kiaochow and Russia occupied Port Arthur. Some feared a partition of China among the colonial powers, which undermine the country's value as a market for British goods. Salisbury and Chamberlain both recognized the value of maintaining China's integrity. Salisbury preferred a local agreement with Russia to reduce her concern for France in the Mediterranean, while Chamberlain preferred an understanding with another power, using the dramatic term 'alliance'. He first suggested Japan to counterbalance Russia. 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 favored 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, technically leased to Britain, as compensation. Chamberlain saw this as an empty gesture, and contemplated an understanding with Germany, an Anglo-German alliance.
March 29, 1898 Chamberlain met the German Ambassador Count Paul von Hatzfeldt in London for a strictly unofficial conversation about colonial matters and the subject of China. Chamberlain assured von Hatzfeldt by assuring him that Britain and Germany had common interests and that despite some disagreements a defensive alliance should be formulated between the two countries, with specific regards to China. When reported to Berlin, this met with a skeptical response. Cooperation with China was thought more desirable than that of Britain, which had been cited as a potential enemy in recent calls to strengthen the German navy. Hatzfeldt was instructed to ask for colonial concessions from Chamberlain as a precursor to warmer relationships, since Germany wanted to expand its modest overseas empire. Having won nothing concrete, Chamberlain rejected the proposal, thereby terminating the first talks for an Anglo-German alliance.
An 1888 treaty established an Anglo-US-German tripartite protectorate over Samoa, and when King Malietoa Laupepa died in 1898, a contest over the succession ensued, resulting in a civil war. Germany, who supported one of the candidates, wanted the U.S. and Britain to withdraw from Samoa in return for compensation elsewhere, leaving it clear to impose its will. 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. Initially, smarting from the dismissal of his alliance proposal with Germany, Chamberlain turned down the suggestion. Then, Salisbury took leave to attend to his ill wife in July 1899. By November, despite his earlier reluctance, Chamberlain reached an agreement with Germany in which Britain withdrew from Samoa in return for Tonga and the Solomon Islands, and the dropping of German claims to British territory in West Africa.
That month, Kaiser Wilhelm II spoke positively about relations with Britain. Chamberlain argued that Britain, Germany and the United States should combine to check France and Russia. Germany's Foreign Secretary, Berhard von Bülow (1849-1929) remained unconvinced that Britain could be much help in the event of a war with Russia, but agreed to make some favorable comments about Britain in the Reichstag in return for Chamberlain offering complimentary remarks about Germany in public. On November 30, Chamberlain grandiloquently spoke about how the new alliance between the Teutonic and Anglo-Saxon races would become an influence for good in the world: "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." However, On December 11, when von Bülow spoke in the Reichstag 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. The German Ambassador was assured by Chamberlain that the Foreign Secretary’s motivation was to fend off opponents in the Reichstag. However, Chamberlain's second attempt to formulate an Anglo-German agreement had been publicly rebuked.
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. By now, British public opinion fully supported 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 October 9, 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 October 12.
The early months of the war were disastrous for Britain. Chamberlain was 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 Canada, Australia and New Zealand. 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. 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. Chamberlain was the government's foremost figure in the defense 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. In January 1900 the government faced a vote of censure in the House of Commons over the handling of the war, and Chamberlain conducted the defense. On February 5, Chamberlain spoke effectively in the House of Commons for over an hour whilst referring to very few notes. He defended the war, espoused the virtues of a South African federation and promoted the empire, whilst speaking with a confidentiality 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, who succeeded in annexing the Transvaal September 3, 1900.
An election was called, during which, with Salisbury ill, Chamberlain dominated the Unionist campaign. Salisbury did not speak at all, and Balfour made few public appearances. 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 personalized campaign against Liberal critics of the war. Some Liberals also resorted to sharp campaigning practices, with Lloyd George in particular accusing the Chamberlain family of profiteering. Their companies were selling goods to the military. The Unionists won a huge majority in the House of Commons. 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. During the campaign, he supported Winston Churchill's candidacy.
Under pressure from Balfour and Queen Victoria, the ailing Salisbury surrendered the seals of the Foreign Office on October 23, whilst remaining as Prime Minister. Chamberlain's importance within the Unionist government grew further still and while the new Foreign Secretary was settling into his post, he took the opportunity to take the lead in British foreign affairs and attempt, yet again, to formulate an agreement with Germany. Victoria herself was now ill. Chamberlain became the last Cabinet minister to see her, when, on January 10 he informed her of the latest events in South Africa. On January 20, 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 January 22, Queen Victoria died. Amidst the bereavement, the Wilhelm II's regard for Britain increased markedly, making an Anglo-German alliance appear more likely. Wilhelm II was inclined to accept Chamberlain's proposal and sent a telegram to Berlin urging a positive response. 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 House on the eve of his departure.
By March, serious talks were in place but the Foreign Secretary, Lord Lansdowne (1845-1927) was now involved, and Chamberlain's role was sidelines. A five-year Anglo-German defensive alliance was proposed, to be ratified by Parliament and the Reichstag. However, Britain's participation would have been reduced to that of a junior partner, which Salisbury opposed. If the Prime Minister's intervention had not signaled the death knell of the alliance conversations, then a public announcement by Chamberlain certainly did. On October 25, 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 behavior of troops in the Franco-Prussian War, a statement directed at Germany. The German press was outraged, and when Berhard von Bülow demanded an apology, Chamberlain was unrepentant. With this public dispute, Chamberlain's hopes of an Anglo-German alliance, 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.'
Meanwhile, Chamberlain had been negotiating with the French Ambassador with the aim of settling colonial differences. 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.
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. 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. Although he refused to criticize 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 spiraling costs of the war, Chamberlain maintained his insistence that the Boers be made to surrender unconditionally, and was supported by Salisbury. Whilst 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.
Salisbury, in declining health, finally contemplated resignation. The Prime Minister was keen that Balfour, his nephew should succeed him, but realized 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. 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.' July 7, 1902, Chamberlain was traveling in a cab from the Colonial Office to the Athenaeum Club when the horse drawing the cab slipped, 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 Hospital. Refusing an anesthetic, he had three stitches and left hospital the next day, with a black silk scarf characteristically concealing his bandages. Returning to his house, Chamberlain's doctors told him to stay in bed for two weeks. On July 11, Salisbury went to Buckingham Palace without notifying his Cabinet colleagues and resigned, with the King inviting Balfour to form a new government later that day. Before accepting, Balfour visited Chamberlain'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 harbored 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'.
Chamberlain again clashed with the government over a new Education Bill, which 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, Local Education Authorities would administer a state centered system of primary, secondary and technical schools. More controversially, the Bill would use ratepayer's money to support 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 controversy over the Education Bill imperiled 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. Nonconformist opposition followed. Many withheld their rates, and were either imprisoned or had property seized.
December 26, 1902 to February 25, 1903 Chamberlain toured South Africa, seeking to promote Anglo-Afrikaner conciliation and the colonial contribution to the British Empire, and endeavored to personally encounter people in the newly unified South Africa, including those who had so recently been his enemies during the Boer War. 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 29 towns, with the Colonial Secretary delivering 64 speeches and receiving 84 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.
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 program 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, to be replaced by imperial preference.
In July, the Colonial Conference was convened in London, and whilst 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 favorable towards Chamberlain's proposal when it was raised on October 21. In November, the Cabinet agreed, at Chamberlain's prompting, to remit the corn tax in favor 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, whilst 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 was shocked to find on March 17 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 April 23, during which Chamberlain was completely silent. Whilst Chamberlain had been surprised by the Cabinet's u-turn, the Colonial Secretary prepared to surprise his colleagues in return. On May 15, at the heart of his power base, in Birmingham, Chamberlain 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 May 28, 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 successfully stemmed debate on the subject whilst the Board of Trade compiled statistics on the matter. A Cabinet meeting convened August 13 failed to reach an agreement, and a final decision was postponed until September 14. 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. September 9, Chamberlain 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 September 14, 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 Chamberlain 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. Other resignations followed. When Balfour announced these resignations he included Chamberlain's as well. As a result, the Unionist government lost its most popular public figure and it’s Chancellor, leaving it bereft of heavyweight front-line politicians.
Chamberlain reasserted his authority over the Liberal Unionists and also increased his standing with the Conservative Party when the National Union of Conservative 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 October 6, 1903, Chamberlain opened the campaign with a speech at Glasgow. 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 addressed meetings at all the main industrial centers. At Liverpool on October 27, he 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.
Whilst Chamberlain toured the country, the Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, Herbert 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. By now, Chamberlain accepted that the Unionists were likely to lose the general election, and criticized Balfour for delaying the inevitable. 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 Office. 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.
With the Unionists divided and out of favor 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. Whilst 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 favorite to take over the leadership of the Unionists, or at least win a major concession in favor of tariff reform. 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.
In 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. On July 10th, tens of thousands of people crowded into the city while Chamberlain made a passionate speech promoting the virtues of Radicalism and imperialism. On July 13, while dressing in preparation for dinner, he collapsed. His wife, Mary, found the door locked and called out, receiving the weakened having suffered a seriously debilitating stroke that paralyzed his right side. In one swipe, Chamberlain's political career, then at its height, was effectively put to an end.
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. He made his first visit to the House of Commons since his stroke on February 16, 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. Having shaken hands with the Speaker, Chamberlain was paired with an absentee from the other side, before departing.
June 30, he suffered a mild heart attack and soon became bedridden. On July 2, he appeared headed for a slight recovery, and Mary read to him the Times article detailing the assassination of Franz Ferdinand 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.
The offer of an official burial at Westminster Abbey was refused, and a Unitarian funeral ceremony was planned in Birmingham. On July 5, Chamberlain's body was taken to Paddington Station and sent to Birmingham by train. The next day, the coffin was carried through Birmingham's crowded streets to Key Hill Cemetery, where Chamberlain was laid to rest.
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