Joseph Chamberlain, Theresa May’s political hero

The key to understanding Prime Minister Theresa May’s core beliefs may lie in the career of Joseph Chamberlain. He was a radical reformer who, despite never becoming prime minister, pioneered the changes that distinguish Britain’s 20th century politics. Here are five things about May’s political hero.


  1. A self-made businessman, ‘Radical Joe’ entered politics in 1873 as the Liberal mayor of Birmingham and pioneered large-scale improvements in education, housing and social services. Queen Victoria thought his politics dangerous.
  2. He believed in a small but socially active state with a responsibility for all its citizens. May’s Birmingham-born joint chief of staff, Nick Timothy, has summed up Chamberlain’s credo this way:  ‘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’.
  3. Realizing in 1885 that the newly enfranchised working class would demand social reform, he used blunt language to alert the rich to the need to pay more taxes. ‘What ransom will property pay for the security which it enjoys?’ he asked. A week later he moderated his tone: ‘The interest of the rich will be found to consist … in a full and free acknowledgement of the rights of the poor.’
  4. Entering parliament as a Liberal he crossed the floor to join the Tories and ‘sought to transform the ramshackle British Empire into an efficient economic federation that would sustain Britain’s great-power status indefinitely’, according to John O’Sullivan, speechwriter to Margaret Thatcher.
  5. Chamberlain was the father, by different marriages, of Sir Austen Chamberlain, British foreign secretary and winner of the Nobel peace prize in 1925, and Neville Chamberlain, prime minister 1937-40, who signed the Munich agreement with Hitler as part of the pre-war appeasement policy. Joseph Chamberlain’s political career ended with a stroke in 1906 and he died in 1914.