Monday, July 26, 2010

Salisbury: The Triumph of Reaction

I’ve just finished one of the best political biographies I’ve ever read (David Donald’s Lincoln is the only one I can think of that might be superior), about one of the greatest Conservative leaders in history: Andrew Roberts’ Salisbury. Roberts is a superb writer, and had the advantage of a subject who was just as superb a writer, spent 9 years in full-time political journalism and preserved a full set of correspondence and records.

Robert Cecil, the 3rd Marquess of Salisbury, won three general elections and was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom for almost 14 years between 1885 and 1902. Despite these accomplishments, Lord Salisbury never entered the Conservative pantheon. He was totally eclipsed in memory by the dashing and romantic Disraeli who was by comparison an electoral failure, leaving to Salisbury the job of putting Gladstone away for good His memory has been overshadowed even by such comparatively ephemeral figures as Lord Randolph Churchill, the artificer of “Tory Democracy”. Part of the cause of his obscurity is ideological. Both Disraeli and Churchill were figures from the left of the party, both solid examples of the classic “Red Tory”, in the original meaning of the term. Salisbury on the other hand was an outright reactionary, a High Tory of a kind that had disappeared in Canada decades before. Reaction, in its secondary or vulgar sense of opposition to and obstruction of change, was the essence of his philosophy. Disraeli ‘stole the Whigs’ clothes’ and broadened the franchise in the 1867 Reform Act, seeing increased enfranchisement as inevitable and not wanting all newly enfranchised groups to regard the Liberals as their friend and the Tories as their enemy forever; Salisbury resigned from Cabinet over the measure. (But few conservatives know that Salisbury had done minute calculations of the likely effect on Conservative fortunes of Disraeli’s proposed enfranchisement, finding the calculations Disraeli was passing on to be wrong. The next election after the Bill proved Salisbury right. In 1884, on the other hand, Salisbury was able to insist that the next major broadening of the franchise not be enacted until it was accompanied by a redistribution which made the package as a whole to the Conservatives’ betterment.) Change, he said, was “an evil, and we do not desire to give it any assistance…it occupies time and energies which are wanted for other purposes.’
He has an unlikely personality for a politician: a loner, affected permanently, Roberts thinks, by severe bullying at Eton, reserved, shy and unsocial, to the extent that in his later years there were a number of instances of his not recognizing members of his own Cabinet (they were after all in the Commons, while he governed from the Lords); as unconcerned as anyone could be about being liked, admired or honoured; notoriously sloppy and careless in dress; dismissive of political oratory, writing the Queen that extra-Parliamentary speaking engagements were “an odious addition to the burdens of political life in modern times…a bad fashion introduced by Mr Gladstone.” (Victoria greatly preferred Salisbury to Gladstone, to the extent of, quite unconstitutionally, forwarding Gladstone’s letters to her while prime minister on to leader of the opposition Salisbury, just for his information.) He could never have attained political leadership in our time (for which we are the losers.)
His claim to greatness has multiple supports. Among Conservative leaders in the Anglosphere, he was one of the greatest writers, thinkers and parliamentary and electoral tacticians. One could fill a sheaf of pages with his mordant, witty, sometimes cynical observations and sayings – and I may just do that for a while.

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