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Joseph Chamberlain

(1836—1914) industrialist and politician

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(b. London, 8 July 1836; d. London, 2 July 1914)

British; Secretary of State for Colonies 1895–1903 Joseph Chamberlain was famous more for the causes for which he campaigned than for offices which he held. He is also notable for helping to split the two major political parties.

Chamberlain was born into a family of boot and shoe manufacturers and entered the family firm after leaving school at 16. He soon moved to work for an uncle who was a screw manufacturer in Birmingham. He was so successful in the enterprise that he was able to retire at the age of 38, in 1874, and devote himself to politics.

Chamberlain is for ever associated with Birmingham. He rose to prominence as a local councillor and Liberal MP for the city, and his provincial base lent an extra edge to his radical politics. He was elected to the Birmingham council in 1869 and supported many of the radical Liberal and nonconformist policies. He became mayor in 1873 and was re-elected for two further years. He was a reforming leader and his schemes of civic improvement made Birmingham a model city. He also helped to form the remarkable Liberal caucus, the most notable example to date of machine politics in Britain. Through the clever deployment of votes, efficient organization, and campaigning the Liberal Party dominated Birmingham politics. In 1876 he was returned at a by-election as an MP for the city.

The Liberal leader, Gladstone, disliked Chamberlain's mix of populism and radicalism. Chamberlain could not be ignored and entered the Cabinet in 1880 as president of the Board of Trade. He supported such radical policies as manhood suffrage, graduated taxation, pre-primary education, and the disestablishment of state churches. He was anathema to many Conservatives and even the Whigs in his own party.

Gladstone's support for Home Rule for Ireland led to Chamberlain's break with the party. The latter was opposed to a measure that he was sure would lead to the breakup of the United Kingdom. Yet he was not unsympathetic to the Irish demands and proposed a federation with separate parliaments for the constituent parts of the United Kingdom. He also could see that Home Rule would stifle the cause of social reform. In the short-lived 1886 Liberal government he was a member of the Cabinet and president of the Local Government Board. He then resigned and broke with Gladstone. He risked his political future because he was regarded as a likely successor to Gladstone as party leader. There was some irony that Chamberlain was joined by the Liberal Whigs, given the troubled history of their relations. Eventually the breakaway Liberal Unionists were to fuse with the Conservative Party. His local power was shown by the fact that Birmingham followed him when he broke with the Liberal Party.

In the Conservative government of 1895 he was made Secretary of State for Colonies. He was still a supporter of social reform, notably the introduction of old-age pensions, but was able to do little. In spite of his nonconformist appeal he was prepared to accept the Education Act of 1892. His support for the Boer War furthered his break with radical Liberals.


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