Like the imperial context within which he worked, many of the central concerns of Joseph Chamberlain's career - such as dynamic and autonomous local government, maintenance of the union with Ireland, fiscal protection of Britain's industrial heartland and the forging of the global unity of the Anglo-Saxon people - have been doomed to decline over the course of the 20th century. Yet to many late-Victorians, Chamberlain and all he stood for seemed to be the visible embodiment of the society of the future, the very quintessence of political 'modernity'. With his roots in radical nonconformity rather than Anglicanism, in heavy manufacturing rather than land, and in the civic culture of provincial Birmingham rather than the shires and the metropolis, Chamberlain in the 1870s and 1880s seemed to herald an inexorable social revolution in the structure and character of British politics. This revolution could be detected in Chamberlain's fondness for 'big government' and a 'strong state', in his commitment to public education and social welfare, in his mastery of machine electioneering and demagogic oratory, and - perhaps above all - in his penchant for launching new policies not through the conventional channels of Whitehall but by direct appeal to the new mass electorate.
Moreover, as a personality Chamberlain seemed to encapsulate the fin- de-siecle fashion for the 'will to power'. Beatrice Webb, who fell passionately in love with him, was consumed at least as much by his towering public presence as by his more private charms. In the 1880s many saw him as the natural heir to Gladstone as leader of a radicalised Liberal Party; he was the most dynamic force in the turn- of- the- century governing alliance of Conservatives and Liberal Unionists. During the celebrations and negotiations that accompanied the coronation of Edward VII it was Chamberlain, not the ailing Lord Salisbury or the ineffectual Arthur Balfour, who stood out as impresario of British imperial power.
Yet the highest reaches of power eluded him. The reasons for Chamberlain's failures have puzzled and fascinated historians, and attracted a long series of biographers, often themselves politicians like Leo Amery and Enoch Powell. The latest account comes from Professor Peter Marsh, whose ambitious study covers the whole of Chamberlain's public life - as provincial gas-and-water socialist, parliamentary radical, Liberal Unionist, Colonial Secretary and master-builder of empire. Despite its title, the focus of the book is on the thread of high politics, and the events of Chamberlain's relations with other political protagonists are chronicled in close, often remorseless, detail. Chamberlain's vision of a federal (and quasi-republican) Britain is well brought out (and appears as much more intelligent and attractive than Gladstone's hastily concocted and oligarchic model of Irish home rule). There are some sharp vignettes of Chamberlain's often troubled interaction with other imperial statesmen, and interesting details about his abortive attempts to form 'alliances' (a word he frequently misused) with the United States and with Imperial Germany. Marsh concludes, however (as did the obituary in the Times in July 1914), that Chamberlain's true significance and lasting monument was to be found in Birmingham, where he had 'preached and practised' a pride in his civic community 'such as the Greeks in classical times and the Italians in the Middle Ages felt in their cities'.
The story is an exciting one, in which the fortunes and foibles of a daemonic but flawed individual intersect with the unfolding of world history as in one of Shakespeare's Roman dramas. Marsh's study is admirably even- handed, combines chronology with analysis, and valiantly attempts to keep all the threads in the Chamberlain
story woven together. Yet the political narrative of Chamberlain's career is fairly well-known; I should have liked more about the ostensible theme of the book - namely, the relation between Chamberlain's politics and his entrepreneurial activities - or much more detail about his involvement as a departmental minister in social, industrial and financial policies, and less about the high political background in which policy-making took place. Chamberlain's Unitarianism is given short shrift; but, however minimal his theological beliefs, the moral and cultural ambience of Unitarianism was surely of major importance in his brisk and unsentimental vision of social reform. Overall, one is left with a sense of Chamberlain as a powerful but fundamentally parochial figure, struggling with global currents that were simply too much for him.
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