One name leapt off the text of Theresa May’s Birmingham speech, which began as the launch of her leadership campaign but morphed instantly into a programme for her government this week. It was that of Joseph Chamberlain, who was listed by the new Tory leader in her apostolic succession of great conservatives.
It became clear as May developed the themes of her new Conservatism, moreover, that Chamberlain senior wasn’t being praised just because she happened to be speaking in Birmingham — the city he made into a worldwide symbol of great municipal government. She intended to follow in the footsteps of ‘Radical Joe’. And that could take her along very different paths from those trodden by both David Cameron and Margaret Thatcher.
Chamberlain is little celebrated today. But he was the most brilliant, inventive, and unpredictable politician in late Victorian England, and his brilliance seems to be understood by May’s adviser Nick Timothy. Originally a successful businessman, Chamberlain became Liberal mayor of Birmingham while still young, and pioneered large-scale improvements in education, housing, and social services. He entered Parliament with an established reputation as a radical but effective social reformer; Queen Victoria thought him dangerous; Lord Salisbury described him as a ‘Sicilian bandit’.
From his position as leader of the radical Liberal caucus, he campaigned for major social reforms within the party from 1884 onwards, then, crossing the floor to the Tories, he sought to transform the ramshackle British empire into an efficient economic federation that would sustain Britain’s great power status indefinitely — and he might have succeeded if he had not been cut down by a stroke. He was ambitious in everything he did, being later described by Winston Churchill as a ‘man who made the weather’.
May’s speech had too many echoes of Radical Joe to be a coincidence. Chamberlain presented himself as a reliable friend of the working class in politics, an affection that was reciprocated. Chamberlain was known as ‘Our Joe’ to the workers, and he never neglected his links with them. He pushed the Salisbury Tories into a series of moderate social reforms even before crossing the floor, and one of his motives for tariff reform was to finance a larger welfare state.
May was no less clear in her declarations. The third of her principles of government was ‘a country that works not for the privileged few but for every one of us’. This was followed by a grim account of the difficulties facing a working class family in today’s economy (under George Osborne) that climaxed with: ‘…under my leadership, the Conservative party will put itself — completely, absolutely, unequivocally — at the service of ordinary working people’.
Chamberlain wasn’t averse to a strong dose of class war. In 1885 he made what became known as the ‘ransom speech’, which assumed that the new democratic electorate would demand social reform. How would that be financed? He argued that it must come from the rich — and continued ominously: ‘But then, I ask, what ransom will property pay for the security which it enjoys?’ May has similar things to say about people and companies that don’t pay their taxes (notably Google), that indulge in asset stripping (notably Pfizer), and who award each other vast salaries that don’t seem to be much related to performance, while keeping wages low. She wants shareholders to have the final say on what CEOs and boards earn.
Chamberlain was a firm believer in activist government for social improvement. His ‘ransom’ speech was a declaration that Liberalism was moving from a philosophy of restraint upon conservative (aristocratic) government towards one of support for activist (popular) government. May plainly wants Britain to move from a free market philosophy that restrains government to one of government activism, economically as well as socially. She feels that there is not enough dynamism in a UK economy marked by low productivity (sorry, George), wants lower prices and more reliable supply in energy policy (goodbye to greenery?) and favours an industrial strategy that will pick winners, keep a watch on foreign takeovers if they threaten job losses and create new Treasury mechanisms to raise more funds for infrastructure investment.
Unfortunately for May, Chamberlain and governments since him have done all the easy social reforms, which are now seen to create their own problems, such as dependency (not much addressed in May’s remarks). As for her economic reforms, some seem sensible. Others, such as appointing consumer and worker representatives to company boards, will add to regulation and weaken fiduciary responsibilities without contributing much to efficiency, or even fairness. And debt, however cheap, still has to be repaid, which is harder to do if the money goes into projects that promise political rewards but no decent return on capital. That sometimes happens too. There clings to these ideas some of the flavour of the Macmillan-Wilson-Heath years of incomes policy, indicative planning, participation, etc, which we know from experience doesn’t end well.
Chamberlain was famous, too, for seeking to transform the agglomeration of disparate British colonies into a coherent military and trading imperial federation — what he came to call ‘Greater Britain’. That isn’t what May has in mind by ‘Brexit must mean Brexit.’ But there are various ‘alternatives to Europe’ that no one considered while the EU was the status quo, varying from simple trade deals with other countries or the Commonwealth to complex schemes such as James C. Bennett’s Canzuk, which adds military co-operation, liberalised migration rules, and other co-operative measures to free trade with Canada, Australia, New Zealand and, in time, Singapore and India. May is going to have to consider these things if she is to give Brexit a positive, global, optimistic gloss rather than making it seem an extended damage limitation exercise. And she has a chance here to improve on Chamberlain, since his ideas of imperial federation were killed by the stroke that disabled him. It might also give her the central Big Idea that she currently lacks.
None of this will be easy. Her small retreats from the free market could be dangerous if they grow larger. But she seems a more interesting politician as a result of her Birmingham speech than she did before. And she can take comfort from Chamberlain’s reply when asked how he differed from his great rival, Balfour. ‘Arthur hates difficulties,’ he said. ‘I love ’em.’
John O’Sullivan was a speechwriter for Margaret Thatcher and is editor of Quadrant.