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.’