Joseph Chamberlain: 'the one who made the weather'

Graham Goodlad surveys the career of one of the most controversial figures in late Victorian and Edwardian politics.

In a collection of essays, Great Contemporaries, Winston Churchill described Joseph Chamberlain as 'incomparably the most live, sparkling, insurgent, compulsive figure in British affairs' at the beginning of the twentieth century. 'Joe', he wrote, 'was the one who made the weather'; he shaped the political agenda at a time when the British Empire stood at the pinnacle of its power. This tribute was in some respects surprising. In spite of his evident ambition Chamberlain never became Prime Minister, nor did he attain the leadership of one of the two main parties. Indeed, in a parliamentary career which stretched from 1876 to 1914, he never held a Cabinet post senior to that of Colonial Secretary. For the last eight years of his life he was incapacitated by a stroke, which removed him from public life just at the moment when he was poised to take forward his last crusade, for tariff reform and imperial preference. One of his biographers, Richard Jay, described him as a 'misfit' who failed to adapt to the political structures of his time.

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