One hundred years ago, in 1912, the Conservatives merged
formally with the Liberal Unionists, creating the Conservative and Unionist
Party, which became the most successful political party in the western
world. Nick Timothy, author of
‘Our Joe: Joseph Chamberlain’s Conservative Legacy’, explains why Joseph
Chamberlain, the Leader of the Liberal Unionists, deserves his place amongst
the heroes of Conservative history. Nick hails from Birmingham and is currently Special Adviser to the Home Secretary, Theresa May.
Joseph Chamberlain might sound like a
surprising political inspiration for Conservatives. After all, he was never a Conservative himself. He started his political career on the
Left of the Liberal Party. And he
remains most famous for his mayoralty of Birmingham, which has been caricatured
for decades as ‘town hall socialism’.
But Chamberlain is the Conservative
Party’s forgotten hero. At the
birth of mass democracy, he gave the Party an unambiguous mission: the
betterment of Britain’s working classes.
He believed that the state must remain small, capitalism must be
preserved and private property protected, but working-class children needed to
be educated, workers protected from industrial injuries and unscrupulous
bosses, and the ownership of property extended to people of all classes.
Thanks to Chamberlain, these were not
just empty slogans. With his help,
the Salisbury and Balfour Governments of the 1890s and 1900s extended democracy
to the county councils, provided free education, encouraged home ownership,
restricted immigration, and introduced new rights for workers. If Chamberlain had had his way, an
old-age pension system would have been added to the list, but even without it,
the Unionists’ social policies were substantial, and they were down to
him. As Salisbury told the House
of Lords, on social policy, ‘Mr Chamberlain is the spokesman of our party.’
He is important, too, as the first
industrialist to reach the top of British politics, not just for being the
first to the landmark, but because of what his background
enabled him to contribute to government.
As mayor, he would have been unable to transform Birmingham in just two
and half years without his experience of running a major company. It’s unlikely he would have been among
the first politicians to see the signs of Britain’s relative economic decline
without understanding the nature of industry. And he wouldn’t have been a credible voice of social reform
without the life he had established in Birmingham.
Chamberlain also deserves a place in
history as one of the inventors of political parties and political organisation
as we know them today. While the
first manifesto was issued fifty years before Chamberlain’s Radical programme
of 1885, the latter was a serious and detailed policy platform, and,
particularly because it was published in book form, it resembles modern
manifestos and campaign guides.
Likewise, the structure of the National Liberal Federation – established
by Chamberlain in 1877, with himself at its head – was copied by other
political parties, and it became the basis of party organisation that still
But Chamberlain was not an insider’s
politician. As the celebrations
for his seventieth birthday show, when thousands of people lined the streets to
cheer him, he was loved by the people, particularly in and around his adopted
home of Birmingham. Chamberlain won
this affection by acting consistently out of principle: he was always motivated
by the elevation of the people and the greatness of Britain.
When the Conservative Party looks back
to its progressive past, it likes to remember Disraeli’s One Nation, or
sometimes Randolph Churchill’s Tory Democracy. Perhaps this is natural as both men were unambiguously and
unquestionably Conservatives. But
Joseph Chamberlain’s Radicalism is every bit as important to modern
Conservatism and it was, in fact, more substantial and more enduring than his
two rivals’ programmes. Although
he himself was never a Conservative, it is time for the Conservative Party to
remember its historical debt to Radical Joe.
Copies of ‘Our Joe’ are available from the Conservative
History Group for £7.99 (including delivery). To order a copy, please email firstname.lastname@example.org with your delivery
address and they’ll reply with payment details.