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Charles Nettlefold

Charles Nettlefold read History at Trinity College Cambridge, after which he worked in the City. Now semi-retired and based in Wiltshire, ‘The Chamberlain Legacy’ is his second book.

When Theresa May heralded Joe Chamberlain as one of her heroes of the Tory Pantheon, the reaction in some circles was one of some surprise.

This political figure from the High Victorian age had drifted into relative obscurity since his death in 1914, with his family name being linked more often to that of his younger son, Neville.

May has, however, done the Chamberlain family a great service, as she has reopened the debate about the members of the most powerful political dynasty in England between 1876 and 1940 and the impact they had on Great Britain. During that period, possibly the most dramatic in English history, there was always one, but more usually two, of these men in the House of Commons, serving in the greatest Offices of State.

They dealt with issues that have a particular resonance today: geopolitical tensions; the needs of the underprivileged; housing and social welfare issues; debates over freedom of trade; party political manoeuvring and factions; handling large budget deficits and the National Debt; commitments to Europe and the Empire; and how to balance government spending with these competing domestic and international demands.

May has focused on a narrow part of Joe’s political legacy, namely his ‘Radical Conservatism’ and his crusade to improve the conditions for the poor in Great Britain, and gave this as an example of her own wish to make the economy “work for all”.

She spoke, echoing Joe, of how one of the principles of her government was to create ‘a country that works not for the privileged few but for every one of us… under my leadership, the Conservative party will put itself – completely, absolutely, unequivocally – at the service of ordinary working people.”

She chose, however, to ignore other important aspects of Joe’s legacy which might become more relevant to her political future.

I’m a distant relative of Joe and my book, The Chamberlain Legacy, is the first biography of Joe and his two sons that describes, in a continuous narrative, the full course of their lives from 1836 to 1940.

They represent one of the greatest dynasties in English political history, but their reputations have not benefited from the passage of time. My book seeks to determine if this is justified, and to understand the motives that drove each man as he dealt with the great personal and professional challenges that confronted him.

Joe would have approved of May’s speech, as he campaigned to improve the conditions of the poor and the underprivileged with enormous passion and commitment, earning the reputation as a firebrand and a quasi-Socialist. He made his first impact as a champion of education for underprivileged and Nonconformist children and then, as Mayor of Birmingham for three years, he initiated the municipal transformation of that city by his housing, social and commercial initiatives.

He was, however, greatly helped by Disraeli’s government passing the Artisan’s Dwelling’s Act, which encouraged municipalities to undertake slum clearance. His schemes for Birmingham were ambitious, and if only partially successful he did earn the admiration of its people who supported him and his family as Birmingham Mayors and MPs over the next sixty years.

He became an MP in 1876 and focused on creating a Radical Party in Parliament, allied to Gladstone’s Liberal Party, which would have significant influence on promoting national welfare schemes. He pursued this with great eloquence, passion and energy but his success was limited as he never succeeded in having any major piece of social legislation passed onto the Statute Book. Indeed, he complained that his political opponents passed more such legislation than did his allies.

A large literature exists on Joe: his first biography extended for six volumes. On becoming an MP, he strode across the political scene like a colossus, “making the weather” as Churchill so succinctly described it. However, his political life was marked more by destruction than creation.

He broke the Liberal Party by opposing Gladstone’s policy of Home Rule for Ireland. He then took the Liberal Unionists with him to ally with the Tories and eventually form the Conservative and Unionist Party. Yet he was never comfortable in this coalition and his passionate, but ill-judged, crusade for Tariff Reform and Imperial Preference split this Party also, allowing the Liberals to regain power in their great victory in 1906.

He was also deeply involved in the outbreak of the Boer War, which became known as ‘Joe’s War’, and after his death in 1914 his reputation fell steadily.

I believe it’s impossible to understand Joe’s career without understanding the psychological pressures that seemed to possess him. The tragedies of losing both his first and second wives in childbirth helped destroy his early strong religious belief and led him into actions, both personal and professional, that do him little credit. There was an inner anger in Joe that hardened him into actions that other men would have shied away from.

He desperately wanted his eldest son, Austen, to follow in his footsteps and to succeed in achieving the position that he never achieved: that of Prime Minister. Austen had the chance to become Premier but failed to grasp either opportunity. Indeed, his entire political career was overshadowed by that of his father – there are two photographs in the book that show Austen as a young man striving to look exactly like his father.

However, he served longer as an MP than either his father or brother, sitting in the Commons from 1892 until his death in 1937. He sat with his father in Balfour’s Cabinet in 1902 and was made Chancellor of the Exchequer a year later. He then served in Asquith’s and Lloyd George’s wartime cabinets, and was again appointed Chancellor in 1919, overseeing the great post-war restructuring of Britain’s finances. He was Foreign Secretary in Baldwin’s government in the crucial mid-war years from 1924 and 1929, winning international recognition with his award of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1926.

Whether Churchill’s accusation that he was “always losing” the political game was justified or not, however, Austen swill provie little inspiration for Mrs May.

Neville’s reputation is the most contentious of all. He considered himself a failure in his early life and Joe had little confidence in his abilities. Indeed, his career as a public figure seemed to have reached a peak when he was Mayor of Birmingham in 1916, aged 47. Nettlefold’s analysis of his career suggests, however, that Mrs May would have been better to have focused on Neville as a role model for her Government’s domestic policies.

Nobody would today admit such a focus because Neville is now largely known for his association with Appeasement. It was Neville’s misfortune to become Prime Minister in 1937, as the three years of his Premiership and the associated road to war have eclipsed the achievements of his earlier years.

He did not become an MP until 1918, when he was 49. He then rose rapidly in the Conservative Party, achieving great success as Minister of Health from 1924 to 1929, where he achieved more for the poor of Birmingham, and of England, than Joe ever did. He became Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1931, where he had to balance the needs of securing the nation’s financial position with the increasing calls for rearmament.

His term as Premier proved to be one of the most controversial in British political history and was certainly one of the most vilified, but I argue that Neville’s motives and his strategy when dealing with Hitler were based on a clear understanding of the political and economic realities of the situation in Europe and of Hitler and Germany.

It is fortunate for the historian that both Neville and Austen were prolific correspondents to their sisters, as the openness of their letters reveals the drivers of their personal and professional responses to the events unfolding around them. These are crucial documents, especially for understanding Neville’s policy towards Hitler. His responsibility for the tragic developments that led to war are unlikely to be ever finally resolved, but I hope that this book will help improve the understanding of Neville’s strategy and that more will come to regard him as a man and a politician who deserves to rank higher in the Tory pantheon than his father.

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