Fast and fleeting fame

The Forgotten Prime Minister
January 4, 2008

He was Prime Minister three times, if only for short periods, and he led the Conservative Party for 22 years. Before crossing the floor to join the Conservatives, he was a member of the Government that passed the 1832 Reform Act and was, as Colonial Secretary, responsible for abolishing slavery in the British Empire. In his last ministry, he oversaw the introduction of the 1867 Reform Act. That the 14th Earl of Derby can be described as the "forgotten Prime Minister" proves the axiom with which Angus Hawkins begins this first of a two-volume biography: "Achievement and fame are fickle partners."

Historians of the Conservative Party have tended to see either Robert Peel or Benjamin Disraeli as their heroes and, as Hawkins argues, it became Derby's fate to be overshadowed by his predecessor and his successor. He has been portrayed as rash in his youth, detached in his later years and "not serious"; a man devoted to horse racing who could be found at the Derby surrounded by betting men of all classes, "shouting with laughter". Less often highlighted are his other distractions from politics, including the translation of the Greek classics and evangelical Christianity, and his conscientious approach to ministerial duties.

A scion of Grand Whiggery, he was no democrat and had little time for extra-parliamentary political activity, despising the Anti-Corn Law League and Chartism. His aims were consistent: the defence of property and the Church, sound government and the preservation of the social order. He was above all an aristocrat and, like his noble seat at Knowsley, which stood above encroaching industrial Lancashire, he epitomised an aristocracy still in charge while accommodating change.

The young Edward Stanley - he did not inherit the earldom until 1851 - resigned from Lord Grey's Government in 1834, considering that an administration that had begun by implementing necessary reforms had become captive to radicalism. His unsuccessful attempt to put himself at the head of a "middle way" government of disillusioned Whigs and moderate Tories has often been dismissed as a hopeless venture but, as Hawkins shows, rivals took it seriously. His initiative having failed, he joined the Conservative Party and served under Peel for a decade until the party's schism over the repeal of the Corn Laws.

Those Conservative historians who favour Peel blame Derby for his part in splitting the party in 1846, while Disraeli's admirers find him slow to recognise their hero's genius. In fact, it was largely due to Derby that the party survived. He felt Peel's conversion to repeal was a betrayal and an overriding of the views of the party, while it would do nothing to alleviate the effects of the famine in Ireland, Nevertheless, he worked to moderate the attacks of the Protectionists on the Peelites and sought to prevent his party becoming too narrowly based on defence of agricultural interests.

This fine work locates Derby in his natural habitat of high politics. In demonstrating the major role he played, it reassesses not only his influence but the nature of early Victorian political life. This first volume leaves him on the brink of his first ministry; the second volume is eagerly awaited.

A. W. Purdue is visiting reader at the Open University. As Bill Purdue, he is co-author, with Norman McCord, of British History 1815-1914 , Oxford University Press.

The Forgotten Prime Minister: The 14th Earl of Derby Volume One: Ascent, 1799-1851

Author - Angus Hawkins
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 528
Price - £30.00
ISBN - 9780199204403

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