Birmingham needs a new political figurehead with the profile of the great Joseph Chamberlain.
This was the key finding at a conference held to recognise the 100th anniversary of the death of a man many consider to be the city’s greatest leader.
Speakers at the Newman University conference included Sir Albert Bore, leader of the city council, and Professor Peter Marsh, honorary professor of history at the University of Birmingham.
Guests at the debates included MPs Gisela Stuart, Greg Clark, Cabinet Minister for Cities, Nick Timothy, special adviser to Teresa May, Lord Carrington of Fulham and Michael Meadowcroft from the Liberal Democrats, who has written extensively about liberal philosophy.
More than 100 people attended the two-day event, split between Newman University’s Bartley Green campus and the Library of Birmingham Studio Theatre. Among the guests were the great great grandsons of both Joseph Chamberlain and George Dixon – co-founders of the Birmingham Education League and both MPs in the city.
Chamberlain is recognised as being the man who transformed Birmingham during his time as mayor by forcibly buying gas and water utility companies on behalf of residents and his vigorous campaigns for educational and social reform. He also overcame protests from landlords to launch a slum clearance programme across the city.
In his conference speech Sir Albert Bore said: “Chamberlain’s brand of municipal leadership had an impact which is out of proportion to his three short years as Mayor. It has cast a long influence over the political culture of the city.
“So what was his real contribution? At the heart of Chamberlain’s programme was finance: the decision to secure a significant income stream for the city council through buying up and investing in local utility companies. The income would then be re-invested in improvements and the creation of new services, without the need to raise the rates.
“Whatever it has been called over the years, this was not socialism, more like ‘municipal capitalism’ and Chamberlain himself described it as ‘a joint stock or co-operative enterprise in which every citizen is a shareholder’. He simply believed that where a monopoly such as the supply of water or gas exists it should be accountable through elected representatives.
“It was this initial decision that enabled him and those that followed to transform the role of the city council and the city with it.”
Stephen Roberts, visiting research fellow at Newman University, spoke about the private world of Joseph Chamberlain at the event.
“Chamberlain spent most of his time at Highbury (his Birmingham home) engaged in political work in his study, smoking cigars almost without a break as he did so.
“He would don an apron and smoke a pipe as he inspected his orchid houses – the only interest he had outside politics.
“One estimate of the value of the orchid collection at Highbury was put as high as £20,000. Each evening a selection of orchids were sent by rail from Birmingham to London so Chamberlain could appear with a fine specimen in his lapel the next morning.
“After Joe’s death in 1914 the family left Highbury – it was always his house.”
In his keynote address Prof Marsh, author of The Discipline of Popular Government, Joseph Chamberlain: Entrepreneur in Politics and The Chamberlain Litany, said: “The renewal of Joseph Chamberlain’s civic gospel in these opening decades of the twenty-first century must be based upon an understanding of the transformation that the economy of this region is undergoing and of its potential social consequences, an understanding comparable to that which Chamberlain displayed in the third quarter of the 19th century.
“His first step before he won election to the town council was to draw attention to the woefully inadequate provisions in the town for even the most basic education, inadequacy that damaged his industry as well as the town which he had taken to heart.
“So too must we begin with a demand for education both in the classroom and on the job fitted to meet the needs of our economy and our people.”
The video accompanying this article was made by History West Midlands which can be followed on Twitter at @HistoryWM
The Birmingham Post has launched a free app for iPad and iPhone. Download it here.