Nick Timothy: Our Joe. It is time for the Conservative Party to remember its historical debt to Radical Joe Chamberlain.
One hundred years ago, in 1912, the Conservatives merged formally with the Liberal Unionists, creating the Conservative and Unionist Party, which became the most successful political party in the western world. Nick Timothy, author of ‘Our Joe: Joseph Chamberlain’s Conservative Legacy’, explains why Joseph Chamberlain, the Leader of the Liberal Unionists, deserves his place amongst the heroes of Conservative history. Nick hails from Birmingham and is currently Special Adviser to the Home Secretary, Theresa May.
Joseph Chamberlain might sound like a surprising political inspiration for Conservatives. After all, he was never a Conservative himself. He started his political career on the Left of the Liberal Party. And he remains most famous for his mayoralty of Birmingham, which has been caricatured for decades as ‘town hall socialism’.
But Chamberlain is the Conservative Party’s forgotten hero. At the birth of mass democracy, he gave the Party an unambiguous mission: the betterment of Britain’s working classes. He believed that the state must remain small, capitalism must be preserved and private property protected, but working-class children needed to be educated, workers protected from industrial injuries and unscrupulous bosses, and the ownership of property extended to people of all classes.
Thanks to Chamberlain, these were not just empty slogans. With his help, the Salisbury and Balfour Governments of the 1890s and 1900s extended democracy to the county councils, provided free education, encouraged home ownership, restricted immigration, and introduced new rights for workers. If Chamberlain had had his way, an old-age pension system would have been added to the list, but even without it, the Unionists’ social policies were substantial, and they were down to him. As Salisbury told the House of Lords, on social policy, ‘Mr Chamberlain is the spokesman of our party.’
Chamberlain also deserves a place in history as one of the inventors of political parties and political organisation as we know them today. While the first manifesto was issued fifty years before Chamberlain’s Radical programme of 1885, the latter was a serious and detailed policy platform, and, particularly because it was published in book form, it resembles modern manifestos and campaign guides. Likewise, the structure of the National Liberal Federation – established by Chamberlain in 1877, with himself at its head – was copied by other political parties, and it became the basis of party organisation that still exists today.
But Chamberlain was not an insider’s politician. As the celebrations for his seventieth birthday show, when thousands of people lined the streets to cheer him, he was loved by the people, particularly in and around his adopted home of Birmingham. Chamberlain won this affection by acting consistently out of principle: he was always motivated by the elevation of the people and the greatness of Britain.
When the Conservative Party looks back to its progressive past, it likes to remember Disraeli’s One Nation, or sometimes Randolph Churchill’s Tory Democracy. Perhaps this is natural as both men were unambiguously and unquestionably Conservatives. But Joseph Chamberlain’s Radicalism is every bit as important to modern Conservatism and it was, in fact, more substantial and more enduring than his two rivals’ programmes. Although he himself was never a Conservative, it is time for the Conservative Party to remember its historical debt to Radical Joe.
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