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Joseph Chamberlain

A Most Radical Imperialist


Travis L. Crosby


London: I.B. Tauris, 2011

Hardback. ix-271 pages. ISBN 9781848857537. £59.50


Reviewed by Jane G.V. McGaughey

Royal Military College of Canada



Understatement is hardly the device one would use to describe the personalities from Britain’s age of High Imperialism. Of these men who “painted the world red”, Joseph Chamberlain supposedly is one of its notable failures, the most famous politician never to become prime minister. This was a man whose obstinacy strained his personal relationships and scuttled his political ambitions. Consequently, understatement is certainly not the theme of Travis L. Crosby’s new biography, Joseph Chamberlain: A Most Radical Imperialist. Power, Crosby argues, was what defined Chamberlain’s career—the quest to attain it led to triumph and disaster and a public life that continually fell short of the greater expectations of the man. However, this biography suggests that it is a departure from the familiar failure narrative. Crosby clearly states on p. 3 that his aim is not to focus on Chamberlain’s disappointments, but “to place power at the centre of Chamberlain’s private life and public behaviour”. Specific incidents from Chamberlain’s background and early life are to be our indicators to greater revelations regarding possible origins for the man’s drive to accomplish his political will and best others along the way.

This proposal suggests a psychoanalytical approach, which one might expect from the co-editor of Psychohistory: Readings in the Method of Psychology, Psychoanalysis, and History (1987), nearly a quarter of a century ago. It is a method which, given the careers of Chamberlain’s sons Austen and Neville, and the turbulent relationship Chamberlain had with his own party leaders, could reveal a great deal about how private lives impact public policies. However, this is one of many possible analytical avenues that Crosby never fully realises. What this biography does present is a meticulously researched narrative of Chamberlain’s involvement in the great debates and events that characterised the turn of the twentieth century in Britain: Irish Home Rule, the South African War, imperialist agendas, and tariff reform. As an introduction to high politics, the biography is a success; however when the text appears to set up new avenues of inquiry regarding Chamberlain the results become decidedly mixed.

There are several strengths in Crosby’s work, in particular his attention to detail, which is visible both in the rich footnotes he has provided, and in his descriptions of the Irish question and the context for war in southern Africa. Crosby deftly underscores the irony of Chamberlain’s efforts to destroy Gladstone’s plans for Ireland as both men wanted Home Rule, just different interpretations of what form it would take. Similarly, the possibility of Chamberlain’s involvement in the timing of the O’Shea divorce case and the downfall of Charles Stewart Parnell is given due attention [83-85]. Crosby carefully analyses William O’Shea’s motives for making his wife’s adultery with Parnell public just at the moment when it would hurt the Irish leader the most, but the analysis abruptly stops with the historiography of Chamberlain’s involvement in the case. Crosby, himself, does not venture an opinion regarding Chamberlain’s participation in the ruin of a key political rival, but instead sidesteps the issue with the remark that, whatever else, Parnell’s disappearance from parliament enhanced Chamberlain’s own pursuit of power.

Mentions of Joseph Chamberlain in today’s classrooms most often come through his role as Colonial Secretary at the time of the Second South African War (1899-1902), marshalling the forces of the British Empire against the Boers. Crosby stresses that Chamberlain “neither initiated nor provoked war” [147], preferring instead to see military force as an instrument of intimidation—rather like his own bullying tactics in parliament. The belief that war in the Transvaal could enhance the powers of imperial federation fed into Chamberlain’s vision of the empire as “one family”, strengthening British civilisation’s position around the world. The fact that this opinion predated the onset of guerrilla warfare in South Africa and Kitchener’s concentration camps did little to shake Chamberlain’s belief in the power of empire. One of the most memorable sentences in the entire work comes in the description of Chamberlain’s visit to South Africa in November 1902, after victory had been secured. Crosby suggests that it was “almost a royal procession: the colonial monarch viewing his possessions” [154].

The key weakness with the monograph is that this type of pithy analysis is often all one receives from Crosby’s rendition of Chamberlain’s life. When setting out the primary characteristics that informed Chamberlain’s demeanour, Crosby highlights the quest for power, his aggressive personality, and also the importance of Chamberlain’s interpretations of Victorian “manliness” [5]. Sadly, this reference is the only time that Crosby engages with what could have been a most revelatory analysis of Chamberlain’s private and public lives. He very correctly cites Davidoff, Hall, and Tosh to build the foundations for a gendered analysis, but then does not progress with this avenue of inquiry, ignoring the numerous times when a deeper investigation of Chamberlain’s understanding of masculinities and manliness could have added fresh insight to a well-known narrative. Most notably, this gendered analysis is missing from Crosby’s account of Chamberlain’s relationships with his children and third wife, Mary, and from the section on the South African War, when a study of imperial masculinities from the perspective of the Colonial Secretary would have been most intriguing.

Joseph Chamberlain: A Most Radical Imperialist is a mixture of high politics, personal ambition, and the pitfalls of power that engrossed one of Britain’s more belligerent public figures. As an introduction to Chamberlain’s importance at the turn of the century, and as a political narrative, it succeeds very well. That said, a ground-breaking cultural and gendered exploration of Chamberlain’s place in British history remains, frustratingly, unwritten.



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