Caroline Squire is a public affairs and communications consultant, having previously worked for the Conservatives in the House of Lords. She is the great, great grand-daughter of Joseph Chamberlain.
Few readers of this site will have failed to notice the renewed interest in ‘Radical’ Joe Chamberlain – and the comparisons being made between his values and those of our new Prime Minister. Perhaps this should come as no surprise when her co-Chief of Staff, Nick Timothy, cites him as a political hero. Joe was a late Victorian industrialist; a modernising Liberal Mayor of Birmingham turned MP; later a coalition Cabinet Minister – and political statesman of his day. He was a champion of democracy, a pioneer of social reform, an orchid lover…and my great-great-grandfather.
Much has been written over the years about his impact. With a legacy of dividing two great political parties under his belt, he is not without controversy – but is also the reason why the word ‘Unionist’ exists in the Conservative and Unionist Party today. The oft-cited quote from Churchill is that he was “the man who makes the weather”. Gladstone called him “the greatest Blackguard”; others, the “British Bismarck …. and the best hope for a secure future”.
As the head of a political dynasty, Joe and his two sons – Austen (my great-grandfather) and Neville – served and shaped politics for 64 years. There was always one, if not two Chamberlains in Westminster, and they never once lost a Parliamentary seat. Moreover, all three held a number of senior roles, including President of the Board of Trade, Foreign Secretary, Chancellor of the Exchequer and finally, in Neville, Prime Minister. Austen also received a joint Noble Peace Prize for his work on the 1925 Locarno Pact. Always a presence in my childhood through the de Laszlo portraits or many political cartoons hanging on the walls, they are part of a fascinating family history.
So what is Joe’s legacy to the Chamberlains of today? Aside from a penchant for orchids on formal occasions, and poor eyesight (leading to the use of modern day monocles by some), it depends on which one of us you ask. We have a large, expanding and carefully-chronicled family tree, and my husband regularly rolls his eyes as we count fourth cousins several times removed as the closest of relations.
Joe was one of eight children of Cordwainer ‘Old Joe’ Chamberlain and Caroline Harben. In turn, he had three marriages – and six children. The first marriage was to Harriet Kenrick (1835-1863), a fellow Brummagem nonconformist, who gave birth to Beatrice (1862-1918) and Austen (1863-1937). The second was to Florence Kenrick (1847-1875) (Harriet’s first cousin), with whom he had Neville (1869-1940), Ida (1870-1943), Hilda (1872-1967) and Ethel (1873-1905). Tragically, both Harriet and Florence died in childbirth. His third wife was Mary Endicott – daughter of the then US politician and later Secretary of War, William Endicott.
Peter Marsh has written in his biography of Joe that, bereft of a mother and a largely absent father, the children clung to each other to form strong lifelong bonds. You need only read their letters and Austen’s own words about ‘the family circle’ to see how important these relationships were. The tone rings true three generations later, and the emphasis on family is one that has been passed down. We are close, very aware of our roots and fiercely loyal. The family moto, ‘Je Tiens Ferme’, goes beyond what some might see only as Chamberlain negotiating tactics. It was the closeness of the family in Joe’s era that led critics to calling them ‘the clique’ (which in a Birmingham accent comes out as ‘the click’) – a toast that we still make today in their honour.
John O’Sullivan wrote recently that Joe was Theresa May’s “new lodestar”, but what would Joe make of our second female Prime Minister? I hope he would have moved with the times. However, while he was a dynamic campaigner for social reform and advancement of women through education, he was against the women’s movement. That said, he was not against strong women,with each wife a ‘power behind the throne’ at different stages of his career and his daughters, often overlooked, forces to be reckoned with in their own right. Beatrice made a name for herself in education and war work, Ida in local government and Hilda as a leader in the early years of the Women’s Institute. They also had influence as trusted confidants to Austen and Neville, something that would continue in the next generation, with my Great Aunt Diane acting as secretary to her father Austen.
The Chamberlain siblings were great supporters of civic philanthropy. For over 200 years, eight generations of the family have been Liverymen of the Worshipful Company of Cordwainers, which supports the British shoe industry through apprenticeships and numerous charitable initiatives. All three were involved, but only Austen became Master, followed more recently by his two grandson’s Sebastian and Oliver (my father). Today, there are eleven Chamberlains in the Company. We believe in ‘being of use’ to causes close to us – be it the reserve forces, school governor, local councillor or charity, putting in time and effort is a family trait.
In July 2014, it was the centenary of Joe’s death and, with the kind support of Robin Walker, MP for Worcester, 60descendants across three generations gathered in the House of Commons to commemorate his life. Are we still a political family? Yes: many of us are passionate about our heritage, our society and our democracy. We welcome this renewed hunt for Joe’s fingerprints in today’s politics. Is there a politician among us today? Labour MP Harriet Harmen is flying the flag as a distant cousin on the Arthur side of the family, descended from one of Joe’s brothers. Sometimes my young daughter asks what her ‘very old grandpa Austen’ did – so who knows what the future holds? But for now we are relying on what Chamberlains past might tell us about politics present.