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Cecil, Robert Arthur James Gascoyne-, fifth marquess of Salisbury (1893–1972), politician, was born on 27 August 1893 at Hatfield House, Hatfield, Hertfordshire. He was the elder son and second of the four children of the politician , who became the fourth marquess of Salisbury in 1903, and his wife, Lady Cicely Alice Gore (d. 1955), daughter of the fifth earl of Arran and a descendant of Lord Melbourne. As heir to the marquessate, he bore the name Viscount Cranborne. To his friends he was known all his life as Bobbety. His was a patrician inheritance, and his lengthy career in the Conservative Party and the House of Lords was nothing if not patrician. The irony was that the period in which he most famously defended his traditionalist values, the late 1950s and early 1960s, was also the time of his political marginalization within his own party.

Cranborne was educated at Eton College and Christ Church, but left Oxford for war service without completing his degree. Commissioned as a lieutenant in the Grenadier Guards, he saw action in France and won the Croix de Guerre. He was invalided home in September 1915 and on 8 December married Elizabeth Vere (d. 1982), daughter of Lord Richard Cavendish. In 1916 he served as personal military secretary to the earl of Derby, secretary of state for war.

After the war Cranborne joined a City billbroking firm, with which he stayed for some ten years. His entry to politics came at the general election of 1929, when he was returned as Conservative member for South Dorset. In 1934 he attained junior office, becoming parliamentary secretary to Anthony Eden (later the earl of Avon), who was at that time lord privy seal and minister without portfolio. Here began a long ministerial association. When Eden went to the Foreign Office in 1935, Cranborne accompanied him as under-secretary. When Eden resigned in February 1938 in protest against Neville Chamberlain's decision to parley with Mussolini, Cranborne resigned with him. In a personal statement to the Commons which angered Chamberlain, Cranborne described British policy towards Mussolini as a surrender to blackmail. The Munich agreement spurred him to a further attack; Chamberlain's achievement, he argued, was certainly not peace with honour, for the agreement had turned upon ‘throwing [Czechoslovakia] to the wolves’ (Hansard 5C, 339, 4 Oct 1938, 232–3).

Conservative peer

Not surprisingly, Cranborne was brought back into office by Winston Churchill, who made him paymaster-general in May 1940 and then dominions secretary with a seat in cabinet in October. He was effective at the Dominions Office and soon acquired further responsibility. Churchill and Eden wanted him to speak for the government on foreign affairs in the upper house, and for this purpose he was raised to the Lords in January 1941 in his father's barony of Cecil of Essendon (though he continued to use the courtesy title of Lord Cranborne). In February 1942 he was appointed colonial secretary and leader of the House of Lords; the latter position was one his father had occupied as recently as 1925–9. He became at the same time Conservative Party leader in the Lords. Both his father and grandfather before him had held this office; he would retain it for fifteen years, the longest term since his grandfather's in 1881–1902. In November 1942 Cranborne left the Colonial Office and was for ten months lord privy seal, while continuing as leader of the Lords. Having declined an invitation to succeed Lord Linlithgow as viceroy of India, he returned to the Dominions Office in September 1943. He remained in charge of both dominions and the Lords until the 1945 election.

Cranborne was an influential figure in the reformulation of Conservative policy that followed the Labour victory. He was quick to acknowledge that the Conservatives would have to come to terms with a changing Britain. The age of unrestricted democracy, he wrote to Eden in 1946, had arrived, and power now lay in the hands of ‘the small man’. The sensible option for the Conservatives was to give the voter ‘a stake in the country … that he himself knows he will lose if, as an elector, he acts irresponsibly’ (Ramsden, Age of Churchill and Eden, 175). He was thus an early advocate of the property-owning democracy, albeit for essentially paternalist and strategic reasons.

Throughout the Labour years Lord Salisbury (as he became in April 1947) was leader of the opposition in the Lords. Some have judged this the ‘most effective’ phase of his career (DNB). Leading a Conservative majority in the Lords but faced with the unprecedented situation of a Labour majority in the Commons, he devised guidelines, known unofficially as the Salisbury rules, under which the opposition would oppose while not rendering the system of government inoperable. In essence the Lords could choose to amend, but would not destroy or alter beyond recognition, the bills that comprised the government's declared programme. The gas and electricity nationalizations, for example, were treated in this way. But the government's plan to nationalize the profitable and efficient iron and steel industry was quite another matter. For Salisbury such a measure would constitute ‘a definite step towards Communism’ (Hansard 5L, 162, 24 May 1949, 1018), and was in any case in excess of the government's mandate since it had not been fully spelt out in the 1945 manifesto. Faced with intense Conservative opposition, the government in 1947 postponed the Iron and Steel Bill, and in January 1948 introduced a Parliament Bill with the aim of reducing the Lords' delaying power from two years to one. Having tried and failed to negotiate a compromise measure of upper house reform, Salisbury felt free to move the rejection of the Parliament Bill and did so in three successive sessions. It was eventually enacted against Conservative resistance in December 1949. The Iron and Steel Bill also became law late in 1949, but an amendment moved by Salisbury ensured that it would take effect only if Labour won the next election. Herbert Morrison spoke of Salisbury's intolerable interference; others said of Salisbury that he had political flair to match Morrison's, ‘with the advantage of four centuries' start’ (The Times).

Conservative cabinet minister

Back in power in October 1951, Salisbury was reappointed leader of the House of Lords. He was Commonwealth secretary, serving his third term with the dominions, from March to November 1952, after which he became lord president of the council. In June 1953 it was he who carried the sword of state at the queen's coronation. Salisbury spoke for the right in Churchill's cabinet. He opposed any merging of British interests with European, argued for curbing non-white immigration, deplored a colonial policy of ‘concessions under pressure’ (Goldsworthy, 2.5), and regretted the changes in the Commonwealth, particularly the precedent established by the 1949 decision to let India remain a member after becoming a republic—for this undercut a principle he held dear, that allegiance to the crown should be a necessary element of Commonwealth membership. In foreign affairs and defence he was an implacable cold warrior; his reaction to Churchill's notion of a summit with the Soviet leadership in July 1954 was a resignation threat.

From June to October 1953, when Eden was hospitalized, Salisbury was acting foreign secretary. Churchill's incapacitation by a stroke in the same period brought Salisbury into consideration as a potential caretaker prime minister who could, if need be, keep the seat warm for Eden. When he became premier at last in 1955, Eden did not feel able to appoint Salisbury foreign secretary, but chose to keep him on as lord president and leader of the Lords. But during the Suez crisis of 1956 Salisbury was a member of Eden's innermost group, the Egypt committee. The support he gave Eden's policy reflected both his determination to crush Egypt's challenge to Britain's great-power status and his personal loyalty to Eden. After the collapse of the invasion he urged Eden to stay on as leader. But in January 1957 Eden resigned, and the queen turned to Salisbury for advice on the succession. He and the lord chancellor, Lord Kilmuir, interviewed each cabinet minister in turn in Salisbury's office, an experience which several ministers likened to being summoned to the headmaster's study. Here it was that Salisbury put his famous question: ‘Well, which is it, Wab or Hawold?’ (Kilmuir, 28).

Under the new prime minister, Harold Macmillan, Salisbury retained his position as lord president and leader of the Lords. At the end of March, however, he abruptly resigned from the government. The immediate occasion was the cabinet's decision to release Archbishop Makarios from detention; another relevant factor, not disclosed at the time, was Salisbury's exasperation at the government's continued dithering on immigration (Hennessy and Seldon, 111). Macmillan, who was related by marriage to Salisbury but found him a difficult colleague, wrote in his diary: ‘The Cabinet, much as they all like him personally, feel like a man who has got rid of an inflamed tooth’ (Horne, 2.38). Privately, Macmillan was relieved that Salisbury had chosen to resign over a containable issue.

Opponent of imperial retreat

Two months later Salisbury took the government severely to task for agreeing to allow British ships to use the Suez Canal on Egypt's terms. His course as a die-hard opponent of the imperial retreat was now set. By the early 1960s he was increasingly focusing his attack on the government's policy of decolonization in Africa. To him this policy was doubly deplorable. First, in yielding to nationalist pressures it amounted to ‘our old friend the policy of Appeasement through weakness in a new form’ (The Spectator, 7 Feb 1964). Second, it entailed the betrayal of British settlers in Kenya and the Rhodesias. Early in 1961 he set up an informal ‘watching committee’ in the parliamentary party, with the aim of influencing the government's African policy in a rightward direction. His most biting public attack was launched in the Lords in March 1961, when he accused the colonial secretary, Iain Macleod, of setting out not to negotiate with the white settlers but to outwit them. He described Macleod as unscrupulous, and, in his most reverberant phrase, as ‘too clever by half’ (Hansard 5L, 229, 7 March 1961, 307). This was not just a political assault but a personal one; Sir Colin Coote may have had it in mind when he wrote later that Salisbury ‘embodied the definition of a gentleman as one who never gives offence unintentionally’ (Daily Telegraph).

Salisbury went on to resign from the presidency of his local Conservative constituency association in Hertfordshire, while accepting in 1962 the office of patron of the Monday Club, a group of younger Conservatives who shared his views on Africa. In the mid-1960s the Rhodesian rebellion became his last-ditch issue. He could not condone the illegal declaration of independence; he nevertheless sympathized with the Europeans' cause, and at the Conservative Party conferences of 1965 and 1966 spoke out against the imposition of penal sanctions. But although Salisbury had his following in the party's imperial wing and strong connections with the settlers, he did not now carry weight with the party's policy-making leadership, and indeed had not done so since his resignation. His convictions did not change, but the times did, and in most political quarters he came to be seen simply as a reactionary.

Certainly Salisbury was a deeply traditional Conservative. He was devoted to monarchy, church, country, and empire: institutions emblematic of order, hierarchy, and national pride. He defended his values with a strong will and, as his two resignations showed, independence of mind. If in the end it was the loss of empire that hurt him most, it was because empire was intrinsic to his notion of British identity. Empire signified national honour as well as national power. Further, he could not accept that its loss was inevitable. To him the essential problem, just as it had been in the appeasement era, was weakness at the core: a failure of British resolve.

Roy Jenkins judged Salisbury ‘sour and malevolent’ at the time of his attack on Macleod (Jenkins, 44). Generally Salisbury was known as a man of charm, wit, and courtesy. But when high principles were at stake, as his Times obituarist put it, ‘passion could galvanize his slight frame and lift his light voice to icy disdain’. It was a bitterly disdainful Salisbury that his opponents saw much of in his later years. What also needs to be noted is that to have patrician values is to be motivated by an ethic—a paternalist one, to be sure—of public service. Salisbury had this; it no doubt had much to do with his Cecil heritage; and it probably played at least as great a part as personal ambition in leading him into a political career.

Salisbury also led a busy life outside politics. He served as chair of the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments in 1957, and from 1959 to 1966 was a trustee of the National Gallery. He was chancellor of Liverpool University from 1951 to 1971, a fellow of Eton College from 1951 to 1966, and, because of his work for science while lord president, a fellow of the Royal Society from 1957. Other honours included the high stewardship of Hertfordshire from 1947, the chancellorship of the Order of the Garter from 1960 (he had been appointed KG in 1946), and eight honorary degrees. After leaving government he returned to the business world in which he had begun his working life, taking on directorships with the British South Africa Company and the Westminster Bank.

Salisbury and his wife had three sons, the second of whom died in 1934 and the third in 1944, while on active military service. The eldest son succeeded as the sixth marquess when Salisbury died at Hatfield House on 23 February 1972.

David Goldsworthy


Daily Telegraph (24 Feb 1972) · The Times (24 Feb 1972) · DNB · J. Ramsden, The age of Churchill and Eden, 1940–1957 (1995) · J. Ramsden, The winds of change: Macmillan to Heath, 1957–1975 (1996) · A. Horne, Macmillan, 2 vols. (1988–9) · J. Charmley, A history of conservative politics, 1900–1996 (1996) · Lord Carrington, Reflect on things past (1988) · P. Hennessy and A. Seldon, eds., Ruling performances (1987) · P. Murphy, Party politics and decolonisation: the conservative party and British colonial policy in tropical Africa, 1951–1964 (1995) · D. Goldsworthy, ed., The conservative government and the end of empire, 1951–1957, 3 vols. (1994) · Lord Kilmuir, Political adventure: memoirs (1962) · R. Jenkins, Portraits and miniatures (1993) · Burke, Peerage


Hatfield House, Hertfordshire, papers · TNA: PRO, corresp., FO 800/296 |  BL, corresp. with Lord Cecil, Add. MS 51987 · BL, corresp. with P. V. Emrys-Evans, Add. MSS 58240–58241 · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Viscount Addison · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with H. A. Gwynne · Bodl. Oxf., letters to Lady Milner · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Lord Monckton · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with third earl of Selborne · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Lord Simon · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Lord Woolton · Bodl. RH, corresp. with Sir R. R. Welensky · Borth. Inst., corresp. with Lord Halifax [copies in CAC Cam.] · CAC Cam., corresp. with Sir E. L. Spears · Carmarthenshire RO, Carmarthen, letters to J. P. L. Thomas · CUL, corresp. with Sir Samuel Hoare · King's Lond., Liddell Hart C., corresp. with Sir B. H. Liddell Hart · NL Scot., corresp. with Lord Tweedsmuir · Parl. Arch., corresp. with Lord Beaverbrook · U. Birm. L., corresp. with Lord Avon and Lady Avon · U. Durham L., corresp. with Evelyn Baring, first Baron Howick of Glendale · University of Cape Town Library, Cape Town, letters, incl. of his wife, to C. J. Sibbert




BL NSA, current affairs recording


W. Orpen, oils, c.1914–1919, Hatfield House, Hertfordshire · J. S. Sargent, chalk drawing, 1915, Hatfield House, Hertfordshire · J. S. Sargent, pencil drawing, 1915, Hatfield House, Hertfordshire · H. Coster, photographs, 1930–39, NPG · W. Stoneman, three photographs, 1936–54, NPG · H. Lamb, chalk drawing, 1950, Hatfield House, Hertfordshire · E. Halliday, group portrait, oils, 1951, Hatfield House, Hertfordshire · W. Bird, photograph, 1962, NPG · L. McKean, bronze bust, 1965, Hatfield House, Hertfordshire · D. Wynne, bronze head, 1966–7, Hatfield House, Hertfordshire · D. Hill, oils, 1967, Hatfield House, Hertfordshire · J. Ward, group portrait, line and wash, 1969 (Directors of Westminster Bank, 1968), National Westminster Bank, London · ivory miniature, Hatfield House, Hertfordshire

Wealth at death  

£1,486,724: probate, 28 March 1972, CGPLA Eng. & Wales