Salisbury: Victorian Titan by Andrew Roberts - review by Asa Briggs

Asa Briggs

He Discovered Who the Conservatives Are

Salisbury: Victorian Titan

By

Weidenfeld & Nicolson 833pp £25
 

It is possible to appreciate the unique contribution of the third Marquess of Salisbury to English, British (a word he did not use) and world history, without sharing his ‘principles’, as he judged them to be, principles which were often no more than opinions, sometimes no more than prejudices. Some of the opinions were cast aside as he transformed himself from a politician into a statesman. Yet there were abiding principles which survived. They transcended party, although, as Andrew Roberts shows in this long-awaited and meticulously researched biography, Salisbury, intelligent as well as principled, made democracy, which he despised, work for the Conservative Party. During the last decades of the nineteenth century he discovered in the ‘new suburbia and lower middle classes a whole new area of support for his brand of Tory Unionism’.

Salisbury had no illusions, however, about the implications of his success as a natural leader. After the ‘Khaki’ election of 1900, the third of his great electoral victories, when the Queen told him that the results had been ‘beyond expectation favourable’, he could tell his son that it might mean that the Reform Bill, digging deeper and deeper into the population, ‘has come upon a layer of pure combativeness. If this is the case, I am afraid the country has evil times before it.’ Margaret Thatcher, to whom Roberts dedicates his book, would never have said that.

Salisbury, congenitally pessimistic, his pessimism reinforced by his schooldays at Eton, was totally free from illusions. Eton taught him about ‘mobs’ long before there were riots in Trafalgar Square, which when faced with them he would have railed off. At Hatfield every issue was open to discussion, but in politics Salisbury never confounded discussion and calculation. Nor did he confound politics and statesmanship. Throughout his career he was, above all else, a private person, who, dependent on no one else, always distrusted popularity; when, in 1898, he was a pallbearer at Gladstone’s funeral, he found it ‘ridiculous’ that there were ‘rows of cameras which lined the pavement and the roofs’. He was prepared to salute Gladstone as ‘the most distinguished political name in this century’, but he disagreed with him profoundly, not only about policies but about the way in which history moved and was moving. There were no great social forces at work, not even ‘currents’ or ‘impulses’.

Salisbury’s relationship with Gladstone is just as interesting as his relationship with Disraeli. It is fascinating to recall that Gladstone, ‘an honester man’ than his rival, was staying at Hatfield in the second week of December 1868 when he formed his first government. Salisbury, who had resigned from Derby and Disraeli’s government when they carried their ‘unprincipled’ Reform Bill, was glad that the Liberal majority was so large.

The great strength of Roberts’s biography, which deals admirably with all the crucial episodes in Salisbury’s political career, including the Home Rule split and the fall of Randolph Churchill, is that a substantial part of it is devoted to the period before Salisbury could have been thought of as a ‘Titan’. Part I, called ‘Tory Tribune’, takes up 407 pages out of 834. It is well to be reminded at the outset that as a young man, Salisbury, dependent on the money, produced two million words of journalism on an immense range of topics. Much of what he wrote was unfair, some of it cruel, consciously so; none of it was boring. He might object in Parliament to Gladstone’s repeal of the paper duties on the ground that no person of any education could learn anything worth knowing from a ‘penny paper’, but he was aware that in the course of being wittily entertained any such person could learn much from the inimitable Saturday Review, where he wrote most of his own pieces.

An often quoted quip from later in his life was that Northcliffe’s Daily Mail was a newspaper ‘written by office boys for office boys’. Usually forgotten is the fact that Salisbury read it avidly. In 1887, Roberts points out, Salisbury spent more on newspapers than on books. He knew the political signifi­cance of the ephemeral as well as the impermanence, not only in politics, of much that then seemed eternal.

Another great strength of Roberts’s biography is that he has made the most of Salisbury’s speeches, which should be essential reading for any historian of Victorian Britain. They set perspectives. ‘No one reads old speeches any more than old sermons’, Lord Rosebery wrote in his biography of Randolph Churchill. Roberts does. So do I. Salisbury’s speeches can, and should, be compared with Winston Churchill’s, but they have more intellectual rigour and force.

One feature of Salisbury’s speeches, some of the most interesting of which dealt not with politics but with science and communications, was foresight. Thus, he foresaw a worse war in the twentieth century – an American century, he feared – than any war before, ‘a scientific war’. He also foresaw dangerous class struggles. Tory Titan, suspicious of a surfeit of imagination, he believed that one day, perhaps soon, there would be a wreck of the Titanic. In a provocative final chapter called ‘The Legacy’, Roberts raises almost every possible question about it. Often, it has been said that the Tory Party always has to choose between a Peel and a Disraeli. Salisbury, who considered Peel a traitor and Disraeli an opportunist, offered a different choice. I would not call it a third way. ‘Whatever happens will be for the worse, and therefore it is in our interest that as little should happen as possible.’ Perhaps there is more relevance in ‘it’s difficult enough to go around doing what is right without going around trying to do good.’

Roberts notes, too, what Salisbury said of biography:

A place in history is the reward of great men – a biography is the fitting commemoration of those who are remembered more for the love and respect they earned from their friends than for the mark they have left on the destinies of their fellow men.

Fortunately, he is prepared to ignore the advice. Because of his own political commitment and imagination, which enliven his scholarship, Roberts always has one foot in the late twentieth and one in the late nineteenth century. And for him as an historian there is the twenty-first century still to come.

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