Joseph Chamberlain Resigns as Colonial Secretary

September 14th, 1903

After making a fortune in industry in Birmingham and building a power base there, Joseph Chamberlain entered national politics as a Liberal MP in 1876. He served under Gladstone, but in 1886 broke with him over home rule for Ireland, led the Liberal Unionists into the Conservative camp and in 1895 joined the Conservative cabinet under Lord Salisbury as secretary of state for the colonies. He then broke the Conservatives in their turn on the issue of imperial preference.

Free trade had made Britain rich. It was practically a religion and it was the Treasury’s ark of the covenant, but now ‘the workshop of the world’ was threatened by competition from Germany and the United States, which shielded themselves behind tariff walls. So far had things gone by 1900 that buttons made in Germany were on sale at competitive prices in Birmingham itself!

Chamberlain had begun to consider a system of free trade within the British Empire protected by tariffs against foreigners. The matter was extremely complicated, but in May 1902 he denounced ‘adherence to economic pedantry, to old shibboleths’ which hindered ‘opportunities of closer union which are offered us by our colonies’ and ‘our power to keep British trade in British hands’. Some encouraging noises emerged from the Colonial Conference in July. Salisbury retired that month, succeeded by Arthur Balfour, and at a cabinet meeting in October Chamberlain suggested remitting the corn tax in favour of Canada and the other self-governing colonies, to help coax them towards imperial preference. He went off to South Africa believing his colleagues had agreed, but returned next spring to find that he had been outmanoeuvred by the Treasury and the chancellor of the exchequer, C.T. Ritchie, who refused to tolerate imperial preference and had successfully bullied Balfour.

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