Intellectual, pragmatist and great statesman

Salisbury - Splendid Isolation?
March 31, 2000

Vernon Bogdanor dissects the qualities of Victoria's first minister.

Lord Salisbury, so Queen Victoria believed, was her best prime minister, outranking even her beloved Disraeli. Clement Attlee too thought Salisbury the best prime minister of his lifetime. Yet there has been no full-length study of this great statesman since 1953, and nothing really satisfactory since the multi-volume biography by Salisbury's daughter, Gwendolen Cecil, left unfinished in 1932. Now Andrew Roberts has triumphantly filled this gap. Salisbury: Victorian Titan is an authoritative work, firmly based on a profound grasp of the complexities of 19th-century politics, and on massive archival research conducted in more than 140 collections of private papers. One of the book's many strengths, indeed, is that its very fullness of documentation allows for an interpretation of Salisbury quite contrary to that of its author.

For Victorian Titan is a biography with a purpose. Roberts seeks to resurrect Salisbury as the true founder of modern conservatism. For too long, he believes, the history of the late Victorian era has been dominated by Gladstone and Disraeli. Yet, for Roberts, it was Salisbury, not Disraeli, who transformed the Conservatives into the natural party of government - "If Gladstone and Disraeli won the people's hearts, Salisbury won their votes." That is the central contention of this biography, but it rests upon a misconception of how political creeds are formed.

Unlike Derby, who began as a Whig, or Disraeli, who began as a Radical, Salisbury began and ended his political career as a Conservative. Unlike Canning and Peel and Margaret Thatcher, to whom the book is dedicated, Salisbury was never repudiated by his party. He was not only the genuine article, a real Tory, but that much rarer phenomenon, a philosophical Conservative, and one whom Robert Blake regards as "the most formidable intellectual figure that the Conservative Party has ever produced". Yet, in office, Salisbury repudiated almost everything that, as an intellectual, he had previously defended. That, perhaps, was the secret of his success.

Salisbury's political ideas were developed in the hundreds of journal articles that he wrote between 1856 and 1883. There he developed a philosophy of Conservative "resistance" to social reform, there being "no firm resting place between the interference with the rights of property and confiscation". In office, however, he did much to improve conditions in housing and education. Indeed, in 1891, Joseph Chamberlain, Salisbury's Unionist ally, declared that the Conservatives had "done far more for the solid improvement of the masses of the population than any government has done before in the present century in a similar period".

In his journalism, Salisbury also opposed parliamentary reform, since the system of government as it was before 1867 encapsulated "the subtlest and the most complicated science in which the mind of man is conversant". Yet Salisbury succeeded in turning parliamentary reform to the Conservatives' advantage, becoming the prime beneficiary of the Villa Toryism, whose appearance was one major consequence of the extension of the franchise.

None of this, however, makes Salisbury the founding father of modern conservatism. For it was Disraeli, not Salisbury, who succeeded in creating a political creed, one to which men and women still profess allegiance, albeit, under the leadership of William Hague, in rapidly diminishing numbers. It was Disraeli who founded the new faith. All that Salisbury, the Lord Liverpool to Disraeli's Burke, did was to administer it.

As Tory intellectual, then, Salisbury put forward propositions that, as Conservative prime minister, he would later demolish. Only with regard to Ireland did he show consistency, but it was a foolish consistency. He never veered from his early opinion that the best thing for the Irish to do was to emigrate - "the sooner they are gone the better". For the Irish were fundamentally unsuited to the practice of self-government. "This which is called self-government," Salisbury declared with spectacular misjudgement in 1886, "works admirably well when it is confided to the people who are of Teutonic race, but it does not work so well when people of other races are called upon to join in it." What Ireland needed was first, "government that does not flinch, that does not vary", and second, the emigration of "another million of the Irish people - to Manitoba". Roberts shows himself far too charitable to Salisbury's unreconstructed prejudices: no more acceptable, surely, in the cultivated tones of a fellow of All Souls, to which college Salisbury was elected in 1853, than in the rougher accents of the saloon bar. Where Ireland was concerned, Salisbury, like so many English politicians, seemed to take leave of his senses.

Salisbury, however, was prepared to submerge his prejudices if it would help secure the Irish vote. In 1885, he cynically encouraged Lord Carnarvon, his Irish secretary, to meet with Parnell, the Irish leader. He did nothing to counter the impression that he was prepared to contemplate Home Rule, though, with the precedents of Canning and Peel before him, he was never going to risk Tory unity for the sake of Ireland. In fact, Salisbury played a crucial role in defeating Irish Home Rule in 1886, so ensuring that it became an issue that divided the parties. It was in no small part Salisbury's doing that the Irish Question plagued the British polity until 1921 and even beyond. "What fools we were," George V told Ramsay MacDonald in 1930, "not to have accepted Gladstone's Home Rule Bill. The Empire would not have had the Irish Free State giving us so much trouble and pulling us to pieces."

But of course, Salisbury's main claim to prescience lies in his handling of foreign policy, and here Roberts is in his element. For him, the essential principle of Salisbury's foreign policy lay not in "splendid isolation", a concept that he repudiated, but in non-alignment, freedom from entangling alliances and power blocs. The reversal of this policy by Lansdowne, in 1902, when the Anglo-Japanese Alliance was concluded, somewhat to Salisbury's chagrin, led directly, in Roberts's view, to the catastrophe of 1914, which, so he believes, Salisbury might have been able to prevent.

This theme is taken up by John Charmley, who argues in his provocative if wrong-headed book, Splendid Isolation? , that the balance of power, far from being the traditional foundation of British foreign policy, was a reaction against the more beneficent principle of isolation. For Britain's greatness depended on remaining aloof from Continental commitments, not in intervening to thwart the stronger side.

It was this traditional Tory policy, the policy of the Country Party and its prime representative, the 15th earl of Derby, which Disraeli's jingoism in the Eastern crisis of the 1870s subverted. Salisbury claimed to inherit Disraeli's mantle, while in practice reverting to the more cautious policy of the Country Party. Isolation, Charmley claims, was perfectly compatible with the later ententes with France and Russia, but not with Sir Edward Grey's military conversations with France and the commitment to coordinate policy in case of war. Like so many of Grey's critics, however, Charmley over-estimates his power. It was fear of British survival in a continent dominated by a single power that drove Britain to war in 1914, just as it had in Napoleonic times, not the machinations of the foreign secretary, however influential.

Hostility to Grey and to what Bright called that "foul idol", the balance of power, used to be the prerogative of historians and polemicists of the left, the men whom A. J. P. Taylor called in his book of the 1956 Ford lectures, The Troublemakers . It has now become a cause championed by the right, who find the key to Britain's decline in the two world wars of the 20th century. Charmley indeed has argued, in previous books on Neville Chamberlain and Winston Churchill, that Britain was wrong to go to war in 1939 as well as in 1914. Chamberlain, is, in fact, Charmley's hero, for, with Chamberlain's death in November 1940, there died also the traditional policy of isolation which, Charmley believes, "had been responsible for so much of England's greatness". Yet it was Chamberlain who had abandoned isolation in March 1939 following Hitler's occupation of Bohemia and Moravia, and it was Chamberlain who, in effect, made Churchill rather than Lord Halifax prime minister in May 1940.

Salisbury himself was never under any illusions about the dangers of German hyper-nationalism. Indeed, Roberts shows that he displayed considerable prescience in recognising as "the twin terrors of the next century", international communism and German nationalism. On no fewer than five occasions - in 1879, 1889, 1895, 1898, 1901 - Salisbury blocked an Anglo-German alliance, a project championed by Joseph Chamberlain at the end of the 19th century, as it was to be by his son Neville in the 20th.

In 1938, Salisbury's grandson, Lord Cranborne, was to resign, with Anthony Eden, rather than acquiesce in concessions to Mussolini. Salisbury would almost certain have rallied, in 1914, as did the rest of the Conservative Party, to support the foreign policy of Asquith and Grey. The Cecils would have been as little disposed to appeasement in 1914 as they were to prove in the 1930s.

For Salisbury was fundamentally a European statesman, believing that "the federated action of Europe is our sole hope of escaping from the constant terror of war, which weighs down the spirits and darkens the prospect of every nation in this part of the world. The federation of Europe is the only hope we have." Unlike other imperialists such as Joseph and Neville Chamberlain, he did not believe that the empire could remain secure once the balance of power in Europe had been fundamentally disturbed. In foreign policy at least, his outlook was less that of Roberts's heroine, Margaret Thatcher, than of Grey and Churchill. Like them, he was a great European as well as a great imperialist.

It is a measure of Roberts's achievement that he stimulates admiration and disagreement in almost equal measure. Salisbury: Victorian Titan is a great biography, magisterially proportioned, and fit to take its place with Gash on Peel and Blake on Disraeli, if not with Morley's Gladstone. Moreover, although constructed on a massive scale, Roberts's book is so beautifully written that one would not wish it a page shorter. It is unlikely ever to be superseded.

Vernon Bogdanor is professor of politics and government, University of Oxford.

Salisbury: Victorian Titan

Author - Andrew Roberts
ISBN - 0 297 81713 2
Publisher - Weidenfeld and Nicolson
Price - £25.00
Pages - 908

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