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Joseph Chamberlain resigns as colonial secretary: September 14th, 1903.

AFTER MAKING A fortune in industry in Birmngham 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 slate 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 firings 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 dm 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.

Chamberlain went on the attack in May 1903 in a speech in Birmingham which caused a sensation. Leo Amery compared it to Luther nailing his theses to the Wittenberg church door. The Liberals licked their lips with anticipation at the opportunity to rally in the sacred cause of free trade and cheap food lot the working classes, and H.H. Asquith said it was now only a question of time before they swept the country. He was right.

Rival pressure groups, the Free Food League and the Tariff Reform League, were formed in July. The issue threatened a Conservative split, as Balfour tried to find a middle way. On September 9th, Chamberlain wrote to Balfour, explaining that he could not promote his cause from inside the Cabinet and that, while remaining loyal to the prime minister, he must resign. On the 14th the two men reached an agreement that Chamberlain would leave the government and his son Austen would go to the exchequer in place of Ritchie. Chamberlain would mount a national campaign for tariff reform and Balfour would lead the rest of the party by the hand along the trail Chamberlain blazed. In cabinet that day Chamberlain announced his resignation. Nobody had told Austen the score and he nearly resigned as well. Ritchie was virtually sacked and Balfour subsequently announced the departure of both men.

'Radical Joe' now hurled himself into a rampaging campaign for tariff reform, which became an obsession. He was sixty seven and he knew it would be his last crusade. He addressed huge meetings as 'a missionary of Empire' with the slogan 'Tariff reform means work for all'. The country was deluged with leaflets and there were tariff reform music hall songs. Chamberlain was stalked round the country by Asquith, attacking his policies with lawyerly skill. The Conservatives and Liberal Unionists split and in 1906 the Liberals won the election in a landslide. In July that year Chamberlain suffered a stroke which left him a helpless invalid until his death in 1914 at the age of seventy-eight.
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Title Annotation:Months Past
Author:Cavendish, Richard
Publication:History Today
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Sep 1, 2003
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