Powell on Chamberlain

8 Feb

Its a book that has perhaps been read a lot less than it is misquoted ” All political lives end in failure bla bla …”. How many times have you read that or heard it and thought yes its true but its also a bit meaningless.

The book it comes from is a biography of Joseph Chamberlain, Birmingham’s most famous politician, by Enoch Powell, who wished he was. Well its not a biography it is according to Powell a biographical study. In reality its slim (150 pages) and has the feel of a magazine essay than a serious book. One of the greatest aspects of it is found in the illustrations. Over 100 of them from cartoons and postcards through to paintings and even the odd photo. Georgina Bruckner deserves a writing credit for the work she did.

This is very much a political work. In one short paragraph we find out that no only has Chamberlains wife died ( and Austens mother) but his second wife ( her cousin ) is also dead ( Neville’s mother). Theres enough in this for a book on it own, what impact did that have on him ?

Powell sees Chamberlain as a principled man, whose major political force is in 1886 not in 1900. He sees a logic running through his career where he is prepared to destroy his own parties chances to protect that logic …just like , well the author. Powell however is frustrated that Chamberlain waits a few months before resigning over tariff reform. This for Powell is unacceptable if your logic is right.

There is also a bizarre part where Powell points to a flood of jewish immigrants in 1884, lowering the standard of living. He doesn’t actually reference this to anything Chamberlain says but includes it as a footnote. He just can’t leave somethings alone can he!

The cartoons though do redeem this book, theres one of Balfour looking in the mirror and seeing Chamberlain. I suspect this would apply to Powell though for different reasons. Chamberlain achieved more political success than Powell and spoke perhaps more mundanely for the interests of the working man, his years as Mayor of Birmingham illustrated this well. Powell spoke for gut prejudice, but in trying to assure himself that logic couldn’t be silenced found a soul mate in Chamberlain…until of course he realised no one meets his standards.

Not a great book, a light one and more an introduction than an in depth assessment.



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