Adrian Lee is a Solicitor-Advocate in London, specialising in criminal defence, and was twice a Conservative Parliamentary Candidate.
This year the Conservative Party Conference returns to Birmingham. If you get the time, I recommend a visit to a couple of sites of political heritage in the city.
Firstly, visit the Council House, Birmingham’s seat of local government. This took five years to construct, being completed in October 1879. The foundation stone was laid by one Joseph Chamberlain. Within the building you are confronted by the giant portraits of two former Mayors: Joseph Chamberlain and his younger son Neville. Outside is Chamberlain Square, where one can view the Chamberlain Memorial. The inscription reads:
“This memorial is erected in gratitude for public service given to this town by Joseph Chamberlain who was elected Town Councillor in November 1869, Mayor in November 1873, and resigned that office in June 1876 on being returned as one of the representatives of the Borough of Birmingham in Parliament. And during whose Mayoralty many great public works were notably advanced. And mainly by whose ability and devotion the Gas & Water Undertakings were acquired for the town to the great and lasting benefit of the inhabitants.”
Arguably a touching and fitting tribute to a departed hero, but look a little closer and you will discover that the Chamberlain Memorial was inaugurated in October 1880, 34 years before the death of Joseph Chamberlain in 1914. In fact, in 1880 “Our Joe” was just embarking on his political career – one of the most extraordinary in British political history.
Chamberlain entered Parliament on the Radical wing of the Liberal Party. Within four years he would join Gladstone’s Cabinet as President of the Board of Trade. In 1885, Chamberlain authored the preface to the Radical Programme, which argued for land reform, increased direct taxation, greater trade union protection and disestablishment of the Anglican Church. Detested by both the moderate Whigs in his own party and his Conservative political opponents alike, Chamberlain was marked down as a future Radical Prime Minister.
Then Gladstone experienced his conversion to the cause of Irish Home Rule. Chamberlain’s career in the Liberal Party came to a shuddering halt. In March 1886, Chamberlain launched a crusade in defence of the Union. By May, the split with Gladstone was formalised with the establishment of the Liberal Unionist Association. Ironically, Chamberlain’s Radicals were joined by the Whigs he had so detested as a Liberal M.P.
At the subsequent election, the Liberal Unionists forged a pact with the Conservatives. Combined, the two parties took 393 seats. However, Chamberlain entered a wilderness period on the backbenches. Whilst it was easy for the Whigs to integrate with Lord Salisbury’s Conservatives, Chamberlain’s Radical faction was still beyond the pale. Eventually, time proved the greatest healer and, following the 1895 election, Chamberlain entered Salisbury’s Cabinet as Colonial Secretary.
The second phase of Chamberlain’s Parliamentary career saw him forge a reputation as Britain’s greatest imperialist since Disraeli. He developed a vision of an imperial federation of English-speaking peoples and spoke of “…the greater Britain beyond the seas.” He became the living manifestation of patriotism in politics. By the turn of the century, commemorative postcards, prints and plates of Chamberlain were sold in large quantities. His personal cult had spread from Birmingham, through the West Midlands and eventually throughout England.
As Colonial Secretary, Chamberlain was a man of huge ambitions. He was determined that the French would not dominate West Africa, attempted to lay the foundations for an Anglo-German alliance, and secretly cooperated with a plan to spark a rebellion of British workers in the Transvaal against the Afrikaner government. The outbreak of the Second Boer War in October 1899 elevated Chamberlain’s ministerial status to the highest rank. But the war proved costly, and impacted upon Britain’s international reputation.
The final stage of Chamberlain’s political odyssey came shortly after the war’s end. At the post-war Colonial Conference in London, Chamberlain encouraged a resolution supporting Imperial Preference in trade within the British Empire. Initially, the Conservatives were split over the issue, with the majority of the Cabinet favouring free trade. Convinced that the only way of keeping the Empire together was through a single market with an exclusionary tariff, Chamberlain established the Tariff Reform League, his own nationwide grassroots campaigning organisation.
With membership growing rapidly and branches being established throughout the land, the Conservative Party was gradually won over to the cause. But this came at a cost. Conservative Free Traders MPs had to be purged by their local Associations and some, notably Winston Churchill, defected to the Liberals. At the subsequent 1906 General Election, the Conservatives suffered their worst electoral defeat in history. Shortly afterwards, Joseph Chamberlain experienced a massive stroke. He would never speak in public again.
At the heart of the Chamberlain story was the political machine that he developed in Birmingham. Whether standing for election as a Radical Liberal or as an Imperialist Unionist, the West Midland’s voters supported Chamberlain and his approved candidates for almost 40 years. Even during the Liberal landslide of 1906, Chamberlain’s candidates retained all of their seats and miraculously increased their majorities. Some argue that Chamberlain’s influence only came to an end with the Labour’s 1945 landslide.
Historian Andrew Reekes, in his excellent study “The Birmingham Political Machine – Winning Elections for Joseph Chamberlain” (History West Midlands, 2018), provides some clues as to why this was so. Chamberlain established a strong team of prominent Non-Conformist supporters who came to be known as the “Caucus”.
Lord Randolph Churchill commented of them: “…the whole governing power of Birmingham is in the hands of the Caucus…which owns the gas works, owns the water supply, controls the lunatic asylum and the grammar school, as well as the drainage farm. Every one of their employees knows that he holds his office, his position, his employment, upon the distinct understanding that in all political and municipal matters he must submit himself and upon the slightest show of independence he will lose his employment.”
The Chamberlain era coincided with that of the Peaky Blinder street gangs and political opponents often faced violence. In October 1884, Birmingham Conservatives organised a rally within the grounds of Aston Manor, to be addressed by Churchill and Sir Stafford Northcote. The Caucus responded instantly. Firstly, they ensured that the gathering would be disrupted. Thousands of forged tickets were distributed to Liberals and Trade Unionists. Secondly, a 15,000 strong demonstration was staged immediately outside the Manor, with many protesters carrying pieces of wood. Ladders were provided to facilitate scaling the walls. At the appropriate moment, the signal was given to storm the venue. Conservative members were beaten, and stones and chairs were flung at the platform speakers.
The Aston Manor riot was not an isolated incident. By December 1901, Chamberlain had joined the Conservatives. When Birmingham’s Liberals invited David Lloyd-George, an opponent of the Boer War, to speak, a mob of 50,000 angry Liberal Unionist demonstrators bombarded the building with bricks and stones. Revolvers were fired by members of the crowd. The moment Lloyd-George appeared on stage, the buildings, windows and doors were smashed, and the hall was stormed. Police were injured and one member of the public was killed. Lloyd-George had to be smuggled out disguised as a policeman.
A few years later, a young Winston Churchill and Lord Hugh Cecil received a similarly warm welcome when they attempted to address a meeting of the Free Food League in the Tariff Reform citadel. Political opponents were to be beaten in more ways than one in Joseph Chamberlain’s Birmingham.