Eminent English liberals in and out of Parliament/Joseph Chamberlain

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VIII.

JOSEPH CHAMBERLAIN.

"I am your mayor.
Few things have failed to which I set my will;
I do my most and best."

SIR JOHN FALSTAFF, in Ms days of rotundity, could recollect a time when he was slim enough to "creep through an alderman's thumb-ring." But there are aldermen and aldermen. The Cockney type, with which Shakespeare was, and we Londoners, alas! are, but too familiar, is an ignorant, obese, pompous being, "who struts and stares and a' that,"—a glutton and a wine-bibber, an inveterate jobber, and a Jingo.

The subject of this sketch. Alderman Chamberlain, M.P., the renowned ex-Mayor of Birmingham, is the exact reverse of this picture. Of all living Englishmen he has deservedly earned the highest reputation as a municipal administrator, and he remains a pre-eminently courteous and cultivated gentleman,—a lover of books, of paintings, and of flowers. Indeed I have heard an excellent judge say of the ex-dictator of Birmingham, with his lithe limbs and classical features, that he is perhaps the best bred man in Parliament; and, if he is not the most learned, he is certainly one of the most studious, members of the House. There is a certain "pale cast of thought" on Mr. Chamberlain's youthful, handsome face, which gives an added interest to his charm of manner.

Democracy, it has been alleged, both produces, and is partial to, coarseness in its representatives. The reverse is nearer the truth. Really good manners—the happy way of doing things—can never be acquired in an exclusive or aristocratic society, by reason of the paucity and uniformity of the models; and it is an indisputable fact that Radical constituencies, cœteris paribus, prefer to be represented by men of culture and refinement. Witness the choice by Paris of such representatives as Victor Hugo, Ledru Rollin, and Louis Blanc; and by Massachusetts, of Webster, Adams, Charles Sumner, and many others such. If in England the union of culture and Radicalism is less observable, the reason is not far to seek. Excepting Birmingham, which returns Bright and Chamberlain to Parliament, there are scarcely any genuinely democratic constituencies in this country. We are aristocratic, and therefore coarse in our preferences.

But this does not help me with the ex-mayor, who is not merely a thoughtful political student, but one with whom it is impossible to converse, however briefly, without discerning that he is a man of genuine good feeling, strict integrity, resolute purpose, and unquestioning belief in the people as the only legitimate source of authority. If he is admired by the men of Birmingham, the admiration is at least mutual. He is a singular example of a prophet who is honored in his own country, and who makes no concealment of his conviction that that country is "the hub of the universe."

His remarkable self-possession, his detractors in Parliament have been pleased to call overweening self-confidence. It is really nothing of the kind. There are more parliaments than that mongrel thing which assembles at St. Stephen's to do little but mischief. Is there not the town council of Birmingham, the threshold of which it is as difficult for a Tory to pass as for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven? and has not Mr. Chamberlain for years sat princeps inter pares in that Radical Witanagemot, playing the part of a terrestrial Providence to an entire community? If Parliament could be constituted as the town council of Birmingham is constituted, then Mr. Chamberlain might begin to respect it. As it is, he feels that it is below rather than above the level of his experience. The parliamentary machine is vaster than the municipal; but its mechanism is less perfect, and the results are every way less satisfactory. If he were asked whether the town council of Birmingham could not manage the affairs of the nation better than the entire paraphernalia of Queen, Lords, and Commons, I have little doubt what his answer would be; and I am not at all sure that he would be wrong.

Parliament has, in fact, reached an unparalleled state of incompetency and inertia: and it is only men like Mr. Chamberlain, who come to it with fresh eyes and with an undoubted capacity for the conduct of affairs, that are able to estimate its performances at their true value. Mr. Chamberlain has shown himself to be what I may call a great municipal statesman; and, being so, he has perpetually before him a valuable standard of comparison, such as is not possessed in an equal degree by any other member of Parliament. No one else stands exactly on the same political plane; and no one in so brief a space—it is scarcely ten years since he made his first speech in support of Mr. Dixon's candidature for Birmingham—ever contrived to attach to himself a more numerous and respectable following in the country.

Mr. Chamberlain was born in London in July, 1836. He is consequently in his forty-fourth year; but in appearance he is more like a man of thirty-four than of forty-four. The Chamberlains were originally a family of Wiltshire yeomanry, settled at Shrivenham; but, for a hundred years previous to the removal of the late Mr. Chamberlain to Birmingham, they had carried on, from father to son, on the same spot in Milk Street, Cheapside, and under the same name, an extensive business as leather-merchants and shoe-manufacturers. In religion the family was Unitarian, and almost, as a matter of course, Radical in politics. "Take a thorn-bush," said the once renowned Abd-el-Kader, "and sprinkle it for a whole year with water: it will yield nothing but thorns. Take a date-tree, leave it without culture, and it will always produce dates." And so it was with Mr. Chamberlain. He was not left without culture; for a Unitarian upbringing is generally an education in itself: but for one that has since evinced so marked a capacity for literary expression, both spoken and written, his scholastic training appears to have been but meagre. He was, indeed, a pupil of University College School for some time; but at the early age of sixteen he was put to business.

In his eighteenth j^ear his father became one of the partners of the great screw-manufacturing firm of Nettlefold & Chamberlain at Birmingham, and thither the future mayor went with the family. There he devoted himself assiduously to the development of the paternal industry, which ultimately assumed gigantic proportions, the firm employing as many as two thousand "hands." Throughout, employers and employed were on the best of terms; and when, in 1875, Mr. Chamberlain, after his father's death, finally retired from the business in order to devote himself exclusively to the public service, he did so with an ample fortune and the best wishes of the numerous operatives of the firm, who embraced the opportunity to bestow on him a handsome token of their regard in the shape of a valuable piece of plate. Mr. Chamberlain has oftener than once acted as an arbitrator in labor disputes, and always with the utmost fairness and good sense; his most notable award, perhaps, being one which substituted a sliding-scale for a fixed rate in the memorable coal-mining strike in Staffordshire in 1873-74.

Mr. Chamberlain was thirty-two years of age before he ever addressed his fellow-citizens; and he at once made his mark as a singularly clear, articulate, methodical speaker. The fact is peculiar, but not altogether inexplicable. For years before, he had been a diligent reader, utilizing all his spare time in his library the shelves of which are filled with some three thousand well-selected volumes. He had thus acquired much knowledge; and, what with a ready tongue and rare nerve, he felt fully equipped for the brilliant public career on which he entered in 1868.

Onerous and honorable duties were at once thrust on him. In 18G8 he accepted the chairmanship of the famous Education League, and in the same year he became a member of the town council. In 1870 he was returned as one of the members of the School Board of Birmingham; and in 1873, when the Secularists, so called, secured a majority on the board, he was elected chairman. In 1870 he was likewise unanimously elected mayor, and in 1874 and 1875 a similar honor awaited him. At the general election in 1874 he contested Sheffield in the Radical interest; but the town of Roebuck, Broadhead, and "The Sheffield Telegraph," knew itself better than to seek the services of so reputable a representative. He was at the bottom of the poll, the "frightful example" to all Radicals, Roebuck being at the top. An army of one thousand five hundred publicans worked night and day for this result. The whole town was given over to indescribable riot; and Mr. Chamberlain, who exhibited the greatest personal intrepidity and good humor, was oftener than once exposed to serious risks. Roebuck, singularly enough, was supported by "The Daily News." Not many months elapsed, however, before Mr. Dixon retired from the representation of Birmingham, and the mayor took his place in Parliament unopposed.

One event that occurred in Mr. Chamberlain's mayoralty I must not forget. In November, 1874, the Prince of Wales practically invited himself to Birmingham, and much curiosity was felt as to the manner in which the mayor would receive the heir-apparent. Mr. Chamberlain has never concealed his preference for republican institutions, and the visit was necessarily of a somewhat embarrassing character. Nay, more, the court party probably intended it to embarrass. They had scored an immense triumph, and they were determined to follow it up by bearding Radicalism at headquarters. They had succeeded in cementing the shattered reputation of his Royal Highness with surprising cunning. After the theatrical and almost blasphemous apotheosis of the prince at St. Paul's on the occasion of his recovery from an illness which it would take a great deal to convince me was not purposely exaggerated, it was evidently felt that almost any thing might be attempted in the way of humbugging the people. Vult populus decipi et decipiatur. The republican mayor was to be put on his metal; and what he did was this: he agreed to receive the prince as the guest of the town; but he voted against defraying any portion of the expenses of the royal visit out of the public rates. Rather than that, he would be host himself. For the rest, to have received the young man at all, Mr. Chamberlain could not have gone through the performance with less offence to republican feeling. His language was a miracle of dexterous steering between loyalty to the people and loyalty to the prince,—two interests forever incompatible. All the same his Royal Highness had the best of it. What royalty wanted was a big gratis advertisement at the expense of the Radical Mecca, and it got it. The British monarchy exists, as quack medicines exist, by dint of wholesale "puffing;" the only difference being that the first is gratuitously advertised by its dupes, while notices of the latter are paid for by the parties directly interested. Now the mayor unquestionably placed himself among the dupes of royalty; but I am free to admit he was in a strait place.

But Mr. Chamberlain's mayoralty was distinguished by more useful, if less ornamental, work than that of entertaining worthless princes. In the successive years during which he presided over the town council with consummate tact and administrative talent, he courageously grappled with three great questions affecting the welfare of the borough. Unlike most towns of more ancient date, Birmingham possessed no revenue but the rates when Mr. Chamberlain took office. He looked about, and soon found another source of civic income. He resolved that Birmingham should no longer be at the mercy of private companies for its gas-supply. He made up his mind that the corporation should possess itself of the undertakings of the Birmingham Gaslight and Coke Company, and of the Birmingham and Staffordshire Gaslight Company, and he was manfully backed by the council. And with what result? In three years' time four hundred thousand dollars have been appropriated in aid of the rates, two hundred and fifty thousand dollars allocated as a reserve fund, two hundred thousand dollars as a sinking fund; while the cost of gas to the consumers has been reduced twelve cents per thousand cubic feet, being equivalent to a saving of three hundred thousand dollars per annum.

Having thus disposed of the two gas companies' undertakings, Mr. Chamberlain next resolved to deal with that of the Birmingham Waterworks Company. It also, after the inevitable calculations, negotiations, and parliamentary action, became the property of the corporation; and, though it has not been deemed advisable to raise revenue out of such a primary necessary of life as water, a good reserve fund has been laid past, and a thoroughly efficient supply secured to the community.

Like other towns, Birmingham is not without its "slums;" and to these the mayor next turned his attention. Taking advantage of the provisions of the Artisans' Dwellings Improvement Act, and borrowing at the three and a half per cent rate, the corporation has already purchased for the sum of seven million five hundred thousand dollars the area covered by all the vilest habitations in the borough. The act empowers the municipal authorities to pull down, but not to re-erect. The private individuals, however, to whom the corporation may convey a title, will have to rebuild under conditions conformable to the health of the community and to the special convenience of the working-class. It need surprise no one if Mr. Chamberlain be yet found to have been a better sort of Haussman to Birmingham.

Nor are the daring schemes of this municipal innovator yet exhausted. Not content with giving the people light, water, and wholesome dwellings, he is the author of a scheme to make them the proprietors of their own public-houses; and, from the favorable manner in which the Lords' Committee on Intemperance have spoken of his proposals, it is not at all unlikely that Parliament will permit the capital of the midlands to make the experiment which her ex-mayor desires.

What he proposes is, that the corporation should possess itself of all the public-houses in Birmingham,—some eighteen hundred in number,—the owners having first been expropriated on a scale of compensation fixed by the legislature. Thereupon one thousand are to be abolished at a stroke, and the remainder equipped in such a manner as to supply all the legitimate wants of the community. And the scheme, he calculates, will pay, and pay well.

It has several obvious advantages. The servants of the corporation would, unlike the publicans, have no interest either in the insobriety of their customers or the adulteration of the liquor sold. The poor man's drink would be as good as the rich man's, which is far from being the case at present; the political power of the publican would be annihilated; and last, not least, the necessity for police espionage would be almost at an end. There is no one cure for drunkenness: but this seems as feasible as any for a great community; and, if the ratepayers of Birmingham are willing to risk their money in giving so bold an application of the Gothenburg system a fair trial, there can be no reason in the world why they should be restrained. It may be that Birmingham is destined to initiate a public-house reform as contagious as has been the example which she has set to other places in respect, for example, of education and Liberal organization.

As chairman of the School Board of Birmingham, and as president of the National Education League, Mr. Chamberlain has achieved nearly as great things in the educational as in the municipal world. Under his chairmanship of the Birmingham board, a complete separation was effected between secular and religious instruction, while fourteen thousand five hundred children were added to the board schools, and nine thousand seven hundred to the denominational. The league, of course, was not able to embody its ideal of a free, universal, compulsory, and secular system of education; but all the same it did a world of good in curbing the vagaries of Mr. Forster, and the insolent pretensions of churchmen.

In 1876 the league was dissolved; but its spirit yet liveth, and may perchance before long take unto itself a new body. Should this not be so, its programme is nevertheless as certain to be ultimately realized as has been the case with tho "points" of the "People's Charter."

It is unnecessary to enlarge further on Mr. Chamberlain's local achievements. He has a manifest genius for administrative detail, and, as President of the Board of Trade, it is universally acknowledged that he is in his right place. His speeches in Parliament on the County Boards Bill and the Prisons Bill would alone have stamped him as a master of every thing that pertains to a "spirited domestic policy," of which the country stands so much in need, and of which the evil spirit of Jingo has permitted it to hear so little.

Mr. Chamberlain, however, has greater claims on the Liberal party than any that I have yet adduced, and these are of a special and most important character. When our spirits have failed us, and the majority have seemed disposed to be "led,"—whither, our "leaders" would not or could not tell us,—he has always come cheerily up in the pages of "The Fortnightly" with a new "programme" to put in our hands. He has rallied us to the cry of free land, free church, free schools, and free labor; and, when that was not enough, he has set himself to "re-organize" and put us in marching order with our faces to the foe. Like all true men and brave spirits, he is greatest and most helpful in adversity. For why? Is he not the father of the much-derided, much-denounced "caucus," which is yet destined to be such an important factor in the political life of England?

Mr. Chamberlain, however, claims no special credit in connection with the so-called caucus. He simply regards it as in some form inevitable, and therefore he tries to make the most of it. With the old restricted franchise, when the electors were a select and privileged class, no such party discipline was required. A caucus in the English sense is simply an elected committee. Sixty voters may require no such committee to prepare their business for them, simply because they are practically a committee already. It is quite another matter when the numbers rise to six hundred, or six thousand, or sixteen thousand, as the case may be. Then some understanding must be come to, some suitable machinery must be devised to give effect to the general desires. In such circumstances the English race naturally and instinctively have recourse to popular election to rectify matters; and this, after all, is the worst sin that can be laid at the door of the "caucus." The great matter, Mr. Chamberlain insists, is to insure that your hundred, three hundred, or six hundred be truly representative of the party voters. If that is secured, all is well; if not, not. Whoever distrusts the caucus honestly worked, distrusts the people as the true source of power. The party vote need not be one whit less honestly recorded because it is informal. Such, as I understand it, is Mr. Chamberlain's position, and it seems wellnigh unanswerable. What then are the advantages of such an organization of the Liberal forces? They are various. One is, and it is perhaps the most obvious, that it tends to put a strong check on what Scotsmen call "divisive courses" at elections. At the general election of 1874 twenty-six votes on a division were lost to the Liberal cause through a suicidal multiplication of Liberal candidates at the polls! There is, however, it must be admitted, another and a much more certain method of preventing such disasters; viz., the French method of compelling by law a second ballot where no one candidate has secured a clear majority of the voters.

It is perhaps too much to expect that any such sensible rule will ever be adopted by the British legislature; but Mr. Chamberlain admits that is the true remedy, although that provided by the caucus is, of course, not inconsistent with it. But it is not on this ground so much that Mr. Chamberlain justifies the caucus. He regards it as an invaluable school for political instruction. Nor is that all. The National Liberal Federation, of which Mr. Chamberlain is president, has in more than one sudden emergency shown a promptitude in bringing pressure to bear on the Government by means of powerful deputations and concerted public meetings that never could have been rivalled by any conceivable isolated action. Mr. Bright, in introducing to Lords Hartington and Granville the great national deputation in favor of peace, summoned by the federation and the National Reform Union, pointedly described it as "a remarkable deputation, such a one as I have not seen before in my political experience." Of course, with a more constitutional Premier than Beaconsfield at the helm of the state, the occasions on which the federation will require to review its forces will be few and far between; but certainly, in the light of the late "imperial" menace, the Liberal party owes the president of the federation a deep debt of gratitude for the disinterested sagacity he displayed in striving to furnish it with such a potent weapon of defence ready to its hand.

The National Liberal Federation was constituted at Birmingham in May, 1877; and Mr. Gladstone, it will be remembered, was one of its sponsors. It then numbered forty-six associations; it has now risen to over a hundred, and every week adds to its strength and efficiency. At the late general election the caucus vindicated its power with such emphasis wherever it had taken root, that, from the election agent's point of view, the Liberal victory was its victory. It combines in a marvellous manner complete local autonomy with a capacity for concerted action something like that which existed amongst the Hanse Towns of the middle ages. Mr. Chamberlain has done surprising things as a party organizer; but this is distinctly his masterpiece.