Joseph Chamberlain

Joseph Chamberlain (8 July 1836 – 2 July 1914) was a British politician and statesman, who was  first a radical Liberal then a leading imperialist. He opposed Home Rule for Ireland, and formed a Unionists faction that undermined Liberal Party power when he switched to supporting the Conservatives. Chamberlain was a businessman with a strong interest in the rights of the industrial worker and small farmer. Historians have especially hailed his work on the Education Act of 1870 and the Workmen's Compensation Act of 1897. He led the battle against home rule for Ireland, and became a dominating figure in governing the British Empire, he was one of the leading imperialists of his day. He had some responsibility for causing and directing the Second Boer War (1899–1902), and for Promoting tariff reform that divided the Unionist (Conservative) Party.

He made his career in Birmingham, first as a manufacturer of screws and then as a notable Mayor of the city. He was a radical Liberal Party member and a campaigner for educational reform. As a self-made businessman who never attended university, he had contempt for the aristocracy. He entered the House of Commons at thirty-nine years of age, relatively late in life compared to privileged young aristocrats. Rising to power through his influence with the Liberal grassroots organisation, he served as President of the Board of Trade in Gladstone's Second Government (1880–85). At the time, Chamberlain was notable for his attacks on the Conservative leader Lord Salisbury, and in the 1885 general election he proposed the "Unauthorised Programme" of benefits for newly enfranchised agricultural labourers, as shown by the slogan promising "three-acres and a cow." Nothing came of it. Chamberlain resigned from Gladstone's Third Government in 1886 in opposition to Irish Home Rule. He engineered a Liberal Party split and became a Liberal Unionist, a party which included a bloc of MPs based in and around Birmingham.

From the 1895 general election the Liberal Unionists were in coalition with the Conservative Party, under Chamberlain's former opponent Lord Salisbury. Chamberlain became Secretary of State for the Colonies, where he presided over the Second Boer War and was a dominant figure in the Unionist Government's re-election at the "Khaki Election" in 1900. He promoted a variety of schemes to build up the Empire in Asia, Africa, and the West Indies. In 1903, he resigned from the Cabinet to campaign for tariff reform (i.e. taxes on imports instead of free trade). He obtained the support of most Unionist MPs for this stance, but the Party's split led to its landslide defeat at the 1906 general election. Some months later, he was disabled by a stroke and played no further roles.

Despite never becoming Prime Minister, he was one of the most important British politicians of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as well as a renowned orator and divisive politician. Winston Churchill later wrote of him that he was the man "who made the weather". Chamberlain was the father of Sir Austen Chamberlain and Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain.

The Birmingham Civic Society


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