Joseph Chamberlain: A Most Radical Imperialist

Joseph Chamberlain: A Most Radical Imperialist
Travis L. Crosby
IB Tauris 271pp £59.50

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Do we really need another biography of a man who, despite the drama of his political career and the impact of his creative ideas and powerful personality, already has a number of excellent biographies devoted to him? From Garvin, via Marsh (even Judd) there are quite a few authoritative, well-researched and well-received lives of ‘Radical Joe’.

The same question, however, might be applied to (say) Henry VIII, Charles Dickens or Queen Victoria. There is something so elemental and, in a way, timeless about the meteoric rise of Chamberlain: from his modest London Unitarian background, via his brilliant industrial and commercial career in Birmingham, to a position of almost supreme political power, where he could (and did) make and break the two major parties of late-Victorian and Edwardian England, destroy the immediate prospect of Irish Home Rule, reshape the British Empire, press for a restructuring of British economic policies and bestride the international stage as significantly as Rhodes or Bismarck. In brief, the life and impact of this extraordinary man demands and deserves periodic reassessment.

This, the latest biography, has many virtues: it is extremely well researched (the footnotes are sometimes an education in themselves), it is clearly written, it shows a fine mastery of the political ins-and-outs of the period, and it makes compelling reading. Above all, Chamberlain the man, rather than the politician and statesman is kept firmly in focus. The main thesis is: was Chamberlain’s political potency founded upon his extraordinary masculine power, a powerfulness that might be construed as both aggressive and excessively controlling and dominating? Was this quality, moreover, both a source of enormous strength, but also a deterrent to many of less authoritarian, or more liberal, views and opinions, people like Arthur Balfour on the political right or Beatrice Potter (Webb) on the left. It is clear that many women found his personal style offensive – above all, could he be trusted?

Certainly many felt that Chamberlain was not to be trusted; that he brooked no opposition and was always plotting and calculating. Lord Salisbury once said: ‘Mr Gladstone was greatly hated; but he was also greatly loved. Who loves Mr Chamberlain?’The increasingly critical Liberal MP, Henry Labouchère also remarked that if there was any skulduggery going on in late- Victorian politics all you had to do in order to discover the root cause was ‘cherchez le Chamberlain.’Many others felt there was ‘a whiff of sulphur’hanging about him.

Perhaps these are hardly a set of stunning revelations to any serious student of 19th and early 20th century British history. But Professor Crosby does stick valiantly to his thesis and the illustrations he uses to make his case are always succinct and often enlightening. If he repeats himself a little too much in the making of this case, what he says is always entertaining and frequently revealing.

There is, for good measure, much new material in the book. For instance: what we learn about the intensity of Chamberlain’s middleaged courtship of his third wife, the American ‘Puritan maid’Mary Endicott is a revelation; the ups and downs of his relationships with Gladstone, Salisbury, Balfour and others are finely drawn; the significance and impact of his postwar visit to South Africa is freshly analysed; Chamberlain’s profound and far-sighted commitment to the cause of imperial expansion is made plain and so on.

The book has a tension and a pace that makes it a significant addition to the historiography of the period. In fact it is now one of the best biographies of Chamberlain around. Both author and publisher should be delighted with their product.

Denis Judd is the author of Radial Joe: A Life of Joseph Chamberlain (1993; Faber Finds, 2010). His book Empire: The British Imperial Experience from 1765 to the Present will be issued in a revised edition later in 2011

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