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  Archibald Philip Primrose (1847–1929), by Sir John Everett Millais, 1886 Archibald Philip Primrose (1847–1929), by Sir John Everett Millais, 1886
Primrose, Archibald Philip, fifth earl of Rosebery and first earl of Midlothian (1847–1929), prime minister and author, was born at 20 Charles Street, Berkeley Square, London, on 7 May 1847, the third child and first son of Archibald Primrose, Lord Dalmeny (1809–1851), and Catherine Lucy Wilhemina Stanhope (1819–1901), daughter of [see under ].


Primrose became Lord Dalmeny on the death of his father in January 1851; his mother married Harry Vane, fourth duke of Cleveland, in August 1854. In 1855 Dalmeny was sent to his first school, Bayford House, near Hertford; five years later he entered Eton College. There he became a protégé of William Johnson (later William Cory), whose letters to the duchess of Cleveland on her son's progress provide a vivid account of Dalmeny's Etonian idyll. Johnson's letters to Dalmeny's mother show an initial enthusiasm for his pupil's intellect yielding to frustration at his laziness: he ‘could not give him a good character for industry’ (Rhodes James, 32). He feared that the ‘fashionable triflers, gamblers, loungers, and cricketers’ at Christ Church, which the thirteen-year-old Dalmeny had precociously selected as his Oxford college in 1861, would encourage his idleness. Dalmeny none the less matriculated at Christ Church in January 1866, surrounding himself with Etonians. In the event his examination performance was impressive, but he was noted more for his involvement in horse-racing—his extravagantly unsuccessful bets and his purchase of a racehorse, Ladas, in 1868. The college authorities held racehorse ownership to be incompatible with undergraduate status and requested him to dispose of his acquisition. Misguidedly calling their bluff, he was sent down, without a degree, at Easter 1869.

Peerage and early political life

Dalmeny had already succeeded to the earldom of Rosebery on the death of his grandfather , in March 1868. With the title came 21,000 acres of land in Midlothian and Linlithgow, the medieval Barnbougle Castle, and the Gothic-revival Dalmeny House, built by his grandfather in 1819 (Rosebery later purchased The Durdans, near Epsom, in 1872, and spent much of his life at the Rothschild house at Mentmore, near Aylesbury, after his marriage to Hannah de Rothschild in 1878). A total income probably above £30,000 p.a. gave Rosebery enormous wealth; the peerage assigned him to the House of Lords. This elevated him effortlessly to a political stage which had always attracted him, but it confined him to a ‘gilded dungeon’, in his words, which would become increasingly constricting. Though courted as a possible parliamentary candidate by the Darlington Conservatives in 1867, Rosebery had inherited his father's Liberalism, and he found himself in the first generation of Liberal peers for whom a position in the Lords was a political drawback, even before the mass defection of Liberal peers over Irish home rule in 1886. After a quarter of a century in the Lords, Rosebery claimed that he could remember once voting in the majority, though not, he thought, on a vital question. In 1890 he considered ‘unfrocking’ himself as a peer and running for a parliamentary seat in order to test at law the barriers assumed to stop peers standing for the Commons. For most of his political career he advocated the reform of the Lords to produce a more balanced and more plausible second chamber. The recurrent crises triggered by the Lords' anomalous position gave Rosebery a platform: his first reform proposal, the motion for a select committee to examine the house's composition, coincided with the Lords' resistance to franchise extension in the summer of 1884; his last, the motions in 1910 to reduce the representation of the hereditary peerage and introduce ex officio and nominated peers, were mooted during the constitutional battle over the 1909 budget, but such crises, while illustrating the case for Lords reform, provided the worst moments to propose it. Twenty-five years of sporadic devotion to this cause yielded nothing, and Rosebery spent his entire career in what he once described as the political equivalent of the Tower of London.

In common with most of the peerage in this period, Rosebery mixed eclectically with the leaders of both parties. Disraeli fascinated him, and in later life, disenchanted with the Liberal Party, Rosebery expressed his regret at not having followed him, but if he was attracted to toryism at all in his youth it was to the evanescent Young England idealism of Disraeli, or the quixotic tory democracy of Lord Randolph Churchill, an Eton contemporary whose biographical sketch Rosebery published in 1906. His earliest political expressions—his concern that the French Revolution had resulted from the estrangement of classes, his interest in working-class political organizations, his exposure of the condition of children in the Glasgow brickfields, and his presidency of the Edinburgh United Industrial School from 1871—reflect something of this paternalist spirit, as does his call in 1871 for ‘a union of classes without which power is a phantom and freedom a farce’ (Lord Rosebery, The Union of England and Scotland: an Inaugural Address to the Edinburgh Philosophical Institution, 1871). The emergent toryism of resistance and the protection of property—the toryism of Salisbury and Balfour—appeared to him ungenerous and short-sighted, at least until his embittered twilight years. Burke he thought ‘completely, though naturally and accountably, in the wrong’ (ibid., 1.189). Rosebery came from a whig background, was said by his sister to have ‘taken a very strong Radical turn’ by 1867, and affirmed his commitment to Liberalism in 1869 even in declining Granville's invitation to second the address on behalf of the Gladstone government in the Lords. His acceptance of a further invitation in 1871 made public his allegiance and brought his maiden speech in the Lords.

Subsequent interventions in Lords debates were, though, infrequent and largely inconsequential in the 1870s. Rosebery preferred to develop his public career by means of platform speeches, mostly in Scotland, where he gained an enthusiastic public following. His growing political stature north of the border was confirmed by his leading role in the overhaul of Scottish Liberalism in the mid-1870s. Alongside the then Liberal leader, Hartington, he attended the birth of the two federal associations created in 1877, becoming president of the Edinburgh-based East and North of Scotland Liberal Association (ENSLA). The aim of the leadership in sponsoring these bodies was to improve the organizational efficiency of the Scottish party without creating vehicles for the critics of party policy. Rosebery was suited to this delicate task: a whig aristocrat who could sway a public meeting, he had voiced radical views on social reform and foreign policy (he had supported Gladstone's campaign against Ottoman atrocities in Bulgaria in 1876) but was at best agnostic on—and apparently uninterested in—church disestablishment, the most divisive issue in Scottish Liberal politics. Chairing the inaugural meeting of the ENSLA he stressed that the new body should not become ‘a sickly and despotic society [demanding] an exact profession of faith from every member that enters it’. He defined Liberalism whiggishly as ‘the principle in politics that neither class nor creed nor privilege shall hinder the progress of our national development’ and cited corn law repeal, Catholic emancipation, and the Reform Act as the party's defining moments (The Scotsman, 7 Nov 1877). The Scottish radical press remained unconvinced by such archaisms, and doubted that the ‘blank shield’ of policy could be maintained for long (Scottish Reformer and Weekly Review, 10 Nov 1877), but the Scottish caucuses remained more tolerant of whiggery than their English equivalents. Rosebery went on to become the first president of the newly united Scottish Liberal Association in 1881, and the Scottish leadership succeeded in containing radicalism until the damaging battles over disestablishment in 1885.

Rosebery's reputation as Scottish Liberalism's leading crowd-puller was confirmed by his speeches in support of Gladstone's Midlothian campaign of 1879–80, when Dalmeny became the base for Gladstone's operations and Rosebery, in effect, his manager. The campaign's success underlined Rosebery's claim to office in the subsequent Liberal government which Gladstone formed. It was less clear, though, what sort of preferment Rosebery was entitled to expect. He had been a peer for more than a decade and had become a regional magnate within the party, but Gladstone did not consider these attributes to exempt a man still in his early thirties from the normal apprenticeship of junior office. The next five years saw a succession of efforts to tempt Rosebery into offices which he clearly considered inadequate. In 1880 he declined an under-secretaryship at the India Office for characteristically fastidious reasons: publicly because the appointment would be seen as a political reward for his work and money in the election campaign, privately from annoyance that he had not been offered a cabinet post. Such self-denial would become a familiar feature of his later career, but he did agree to become under-secretary at the Home Office in August 1881, attracted by a brief to handle Scottish business. His reasons for resigning from this office in June 1883 combined the principled and the petty: his belief that London habitually neglected Scottish business and his fear that this neglect would spawn a Scottish home-rule movement; his overreaction to criticism of the Home Office in the Commons; his difficult relationship with the home secretary, Sir William Harcourt; and the fact that he was bored with the work. It is a sign of the general belief that Rosebery was the ‘man of the future’ that neither the difficulty in inducing him to accept office nor the speed with which he had left it prevented his being offered the projected post of minister for Scotland under the Local Government Board (Scotland) Bill of 1883. Again he refused on the two grounds, uncomfortably conjoined, that he had lobbied for the ministry himself and that the post was not in the cabinet, and stilled all argument by departing in September 1883 on an Australian tour. The eventual offer of a cabinet post as commissioner of works in November 1884 brought another display of reluctance, attributable either to Rosebery's disapproval of the government's Egyptian policy or to the unglamorous nature of the post. Gladstone, still sceptical about Rosebery's administrative capacity and reluctant to allow any cabinet newcomer to dictate his terms, stood firm, ensuring a stalemate which lasted until February 1885, when the death of Gordon at Khartoum allowed Rosebery to swallow his misgivings at a moment of national crisis. The pill was sugared by his concurrent appointment as lord privy seal, which he held until June 1885.

Foreign secretary

Rosebery thus assumed a position of limited importance only four months before the second Gladstone ministry fell, but his inexperience did not prevent his being seen as the natural successor to the failing Granville at the Foreign Office when the Liberals returned to power in January 1886. His first period of office lasted until June 1886. His appointment as foreign secretary allowed him to demonstrate an executive talent which validated the hopes long vested in him. Entrusted with policy making for the first time, he acclimatized himself rapidly to the mores of a department more aristocratic in tone than most of Whitehall and better insulated from party politics. As foreign secretary the former critic of Beaconsfieldism became an advocate of bipartisanship in foreign policy. Over time he would elevate the doctrine of continuity to the level of principle—‘the second rate foreign policy which is continuous’, he asserted in 1905, ‘is better than the first rate foreign policy which is not’ (Matthew, 196)—but he had not entered office in 1886 with a clear determination to perpetuate second-rate tory diplomacy. Rosebery was anxious that the complex problem of protecting Britain's interests should not be complicated further by deference to a separate radical ethical standard in foreign policy. This determination was reinforced by the inclinations of a predominantly tory set of officials and ambassadors, but the continuity evident in Rosebery's treatment of the problem which dominated his brief first tenure of the Foreign Office, the Bulgarian crisis, was facilitated by Salisbury's earlier revision of British Near Eastern policy when the crisis erupted in September 1885.

Salisbury's decision to support moves for the union of Bulgaria and Eastern Roumelia, thereby endorsing another blow to the authority of the Porte, reflected his growing realization that the enfeebled Ottoman empire no longer provided the best guarantee of British interests in the region. It meant that raison d'état no longer required Britain to turn a blind eye to Ottoman misbehaviour, and consequently allowed Rosebery to cope with the ramifications of the Bulgarian revolt undistracted by radical pressure. He was also undistracted by Gladstone, now preoccupied by Irish home rule, though in fact the new Foreign Office orthodoxy, favouring the yoking of Bulgaria and Eastern Roumelia under Prince Alexander, was consistent with Gladstone's earlier advocacy of a united Bulgaria and with traditional Liberal support for nationalist movements. It may be that an inherited Liberal belief in the robustness of free peoples induced Rosebery to leave the new Bulgaria with fewer safeguards against Russian designs than Salisbury would have allowed: Russian agreement to Turkish military guarantees to Bulgaria was bought at the cost of preventing the eventual agreement from naming Alexander personally as governor-general of Eastern Roumelia (leaving open the possibility that he could be supplanted by a Russian puppet) and limiting his initial appointment to five years. With these concessions, though, Rosebery was able to engineer a great power agreement in Europe's most volatile region which proved acceptable to domestic opinion, and to do so within weeks of his appointment. Gladstone could not ‘remember an instance of such an achievement carried through in the first quarter of a Foreign Secretaryship’ (Gladstone to Rosebery, 28 April 1886, Gladstone, Diaries, 11.541). Two subsequent measures arising from the crisis, the co-ordination of a naval blockade of Greece to deter her from exploiting the situation and a stern dispatch to Russia to dissuade her from abrogating the free port status (under the 1878 Berlin treaty) of Batum on the Black Sea, demonstrated that Liberal diplomacy would not be distorted by the party's previous pan-Hellenism or its Russophilia. Rosebery was aware that his success in defusing the crisis owed much to the fact that the issue had not been the subject of partisan debate within the cabinet or within the country at large. His subsequent anxiety to take foreign policy out of party politics, which later prompted idiosyncratic musings that the foreign secretary and the service ministers should be made fixed-term appointments to shield them from electoral disfavour, was rooted in the events of 1886. So, by extension, was his eventual disenchantment with party politics.

Gladstonian Liberal

Crucially, Rosebery remained loyal to his party and its leader during the crisis over Irish home rule. To the Conservative Lord Birkenhead, surveying Rosebery's career in the 1920s, it was clear that Rosebery, bemused by Gladstone's magnetism, had imprisoned himself in the wrong party in 1886. If wealth and membership of the peerage are taken as predictors, Rosebery might indeed have been expected to join the whig secession over home rule. A whig by background and upbringing, his intellectual make-up was that of educated whiggery—a concern for the nation's literature, history, and constitutional traditions; a lack of interest in abstract philosophy, in mathematics, or in economics. He had inherited the whig faith in a measured progress towards democracy at a pace which did not threaten property or the social order, but he did not—in the 1880s at least—share whig anxieties about the direction of Liberalism. The weakness of toryism north of the border served generally to limit the number of defections from the Scottish Liberal peerage, and Rosebery was more of a Gladstonian than most of his colleagues. He displayed something of the populism that most whigs abhorred in Gladstone, and he was skilled in the platform oratory which most of them shunned. His speeches were characterized by an elegance of phrase and a refinement of construction that guarded him from appearing demagogic, but also by a scepticism towards irresponsible privilege that had been sharpened by criticism of the House of Lords and advocacy of Scottish land reform. In 1880 Dilke and Chamberlain had seen him as a potential recruit for radicalism. Rosebery never was a radical; the hope that he might be one derived rather from the fact that his whiggism was more elevated and idealistic than that which most of the 1886 defectors carried into alliance with the tories. His anxiety in 1888 that ‘if in the future there should again be encroachments of the Crown, the aristocracy would all be found on the side of the Crown; so unlike their forefathers’ (Diary, 1885–1906, 26 Feb 1888, 77) shows a Macaulayan concern for constitutional liberty that was at best dormant in most whig minds by the 1880s. Similarly, Rosebery's views on empire were drawn from an earlier whig tradition. His Australian visit of 1883–4 had imparted an enthusiasm for empire that he never shed, but it was at heart an enthusiasm for self-government in the white settler colonies, formed at a time when other whigs were citing the unicameral colonial parliaments to demonstrate the dangers of unfettered democracy. Rosebery argued for the voluntary confederation of largely self-governing colonial democracies—he became the first president of the Imperial Federation League in 1884—at a time when much whig and Conservative thought was moving towards imperial centralization. This determined his response to the home rule question in 1886. He shared whig distaste for concessions to militant nationalism, and resented the fact that Irish violence appeared to bring rewards while London continued to neglect the law-abiding Scots. He might have resigned from the government over Gladstone's dealings with Parnell in 1882 had he occupied a more exalted position. He none the less shared Gladstone's view that Irish grievances could be assuaged by statesmanlike devolution. Home rule was probably not his preferred option: in one of his earliest public speeches he had stressed the benefits brought to Scotland by the 1707 union—‘like nothing so much as a poor man marrying an heiress’ (The Union between England and Scotland, Address to Edinburgh Philosophical Institution, 1871)—and while fighting the Scottish corner in the 1880–85 government he had considered administrative devolution preferable to a Scottish parliament. He had inclined towards Chamberlain's scheme for enhanced local government in Ireland, but when Gladstone's home rule proposals killed the Chamberlain scheme Rosebery accepted that a Dublin parliament offered the only alternative to coercion, which, again faithful to the whig tradition, he rejected entirely. His later disenchantment with home rule developed pari passu with his disenchantment with the Liberal Party; in 1886 there is no sign that he contemplated joining the whig revolt.

In the wake of the Liberal split Rosebery convinced himself that the whole cathartic episode had given the party a clarity of purpose previously lacking. The years after 1886, however, saw Rosebery, like most Liberal leaders, reassessing the future of a party clearly substantially damaged. For the first time he began seriously to question Gladstone's judgement, and in 1889 he attempted unsuccessfully to induce him to establish a small front-bench committee to reassess the 1886 Home Rule Bill. By the summer of 1887 he had concluded that a major party realignment was almost inevitable—a view which he would hold for the next twenty years. Whatever the future of the policy, the departure of so many of the party's ruling cadre left Rosebery—still young but with a successful foreign secretaryship behind him—by some way the most plausible contender for high office among the next generation of Liberals. Having spent much of 1880–85 anxious not to lose ground in the scramble for preferment, Rosebery now had public prominence thrust upon him as a duty to his party.

The London county council and the Newcastle programme

The process began early in 1889 when Rosebery was urged by Harcourt and others to accept the chairmanship of the newly formed London county council. Despite the usual professions of incapacity, he was attracted by the challenge. His belief in local self-government as a means by which social politics could be pursued without state socialism had grown during the 1880s in parallel with his faith in imperial devolution. Initially anxious to stand for a division like Whitechapel ‘in order to show community of feeling between the lower classes and the aristocracy’ (Diary, 1885–1906, 6 Jan 1889), he was persuaded to run in the City of London, where a peer might be more acceptable. Deference duly carried him to the top of the poll, despite the weakness of Liberalism in the City, and to the chairmanship of the first council, despite a muted radical protest. The principal ground for opposition to Rosebery was his refusal to commit himself to support the taxation of land values—a prudent course in the City but one which many radicals found suspicious in a landed aristocrat. In reality the council lacked legal power to impose land taxes or any other innovations in local taxation, and while the question retained much totemic significance, it did not come before the council in any concrete form during Rosebery's chairmanship. Whatever his views on the issue, which are unclear at this point, it is unlikely that he would have sought to use the largely formal powers of the chair to restrain the council's (radical) Progressive majority. As chairman Rosebery was punctiliously impartial in his regulation of debates, and was not normally called upon to vote. Formal pronouncements such as the chairman's review of the first year's work were couched in magisterial terms, endorsing the LCC's programme of urban improvement and treating it, despite the council's increasingly partisan atmosphere, as the fruit of shared objectives. In fact his formal impartiality overlaid a broad sympathy with the council's social objectives which was clear from his public speeches at the time, with the result that the Progressive majority on the council felt more comfortable with his chairmanship than with that of his Liberal Unionist successor, Sir John Lubbock.

Rosebery, too, remained more comfortable with London's municipal ‘new Liberals’ than with the traditional radicals who dominated provincial Liberalism. Though he spoke at one time or another in support of most of the items in the Newcastle programme (the radical shopping list adopted at the National Liberal Federation's Newcastle conference in 1891) and would make the implementation of the programme his first commitment to the party as prime minister in 1894, he believed that programmatic politics encouraged axe grinding and the proliferation of minority causes. In particular Rosebery had little affinity for the representatives of political nonconformity, whose stock had risen in the party with the departure of the Anglican whigs. He did not share their evangelical temper or their sectarian outlook. His own religious attitude was eclectic: brought up in an Episcopalian household, he defined himself as an Anglican, but would attend kirk services on occasion when in Scotland and go to mass when abroad in a Catholic country. He married a Jewish woman. Ever fearful that the Christian ideal would be obscured by ‘the dust of warring faiths’, he contemplated optimistically the reunion of the Scottish church (Lord Rosebery, Dr Chalmers: an Address, 1915, 20). His son-in-law and biographer, Lord Crewe, believed that the kirk made ‘particular appeal to one side of his character’; John Buchan claimed in an obituary that ‘while to the world he seemed like some polished eighteenth-century grandee, at heart he was the Calvinist of seventeenth-century Scotland’ (Crewe-Milnes, 1.65; Glasgow Herald, 22 May 1929).

Marriage and bereavement

Buchan's simile was intended to depict Rosebery's cast of mind rather than to label him doctrinally. If Rosebery was a Scottish Calvinist he was an unusual one, who collected pornography and ran a racing stable. The former was a private hobby, the latter necessarily a public one, which aroused nonconformist disapproval in proportion to Rosebery's success. This was considerable: Rosebery twice won the Derby as prime minister, in 1894 and 1895 (with Ladas II and Sir Visto), and again in 1905 (with Cicero). His involvement in the turf was a committed and professional one—between 1875 and 1928 he won every major English race except the Ascot Gold Cup—but the sport still carried overtones of aristocratic debauchery. Rosebery's association with it was a sign that he lacked the moral earnestness that liberal nonconformity sought in its leaders, distinguishing him pointedly from Gladstone when he succeeded him as prime minister.

What Buchan had in mind was rather Rosebery's pervasive melancholia, his ‘haunting sense of transience’ and of the futility of human action, perhaps even the preoccupation with death that impelled him to inspect the corpses of deceased friends before burial. He was prone to depression throughout his life, but particularly during his lugubrious old age, when Crewe and Buchan knew him best. His was, indeed, a life scarred by many personal tragedies—the loss of his father when Rosebery was three and the deaths of his younger brother, Everard, in the Sudan in 1885, of his nephew in 1895, of his second son, Neil (b. 1882), killed in action in 1917, and above all of his wife in 1890.

Rosebery had been introduced to Hannah de Rothschild (1851–1890), only child of Baron and Baroness Mayer de Rothschild, by Disraeli in 1868. The couple married on 20 March 1878, despite the reservations of his antisemitic mother and those of Britain's Jewish community, reluctant to see the most prominent Jewish heiress marry out of the faith. ‘I do not know the young lady personally’, commented Rosebery's stepfather, the duke of Cleveland, caustically after the engagement, ‘but I am told that the family is well-to-do in the City’ (F. E. Smith, ‘Men of the hour: Lord Rosebery’, Sunday Times, n.d., Rosebery MSS); marriage into the Rothschilds augmented Rosebery's personal fortune. Hannah, tory-leaning but little interested in politics, accepted the role of statesman's wife without demur, though she disliked the official functions that were Rosebery's lot as foreign secretary. She provided Rosebery with the adulation that always reassured him and submitted uncomplainingly to his recurrent public teasing. Her death from typhoid fever in November 1890, at the age of thirty-nine, devastated him. Out of office at the time, he withdrew completely from public life for about eighteen months. He continued to use black-edged writing paper for his correspondence for four or five years after her death. During his protracted bereavement his innate melancholia deepened, and the misanthropy that was a part of his nature developed into a profound craving for solitude. This coloured his attitude towards public life and public office in a critical period when others looked to him to renovate post-Gladstonian Liberalism. Refusal of honours and appointments was habitual for him throughout his life, but before 1890 his refusals either reflected a contempt for the office on offer or were founded in an elaborate sense of etiquette which his colleagues found wearisome if they understood it at all; after Hannah's death, when he found the highest positions in the land being pressed upon him, Rosebery was genuinely reluctant to return to public life. In these years he was a better judge of his own incapacity than those who started from the premise that only he could restore the credibility of Liberalism. Bereavement exacerbated his insomnia, ‘the curse of his life’ that had afflicted him since his twenties, impairing his judgement and his patience. During the protracted effort to tempt him back to the Foreign Office when the Liberals regained power in 1892, John Morley found him ‘haggard-looking and distressed’, insisting that his political ambitions had been buried with his wife (Diary, 1885–1906, 6 Aug 1892).

Return to the Foreign Office: imperial problems

Morley considered Rosebery's reluctance to serve ‘a downright act of desertion of Mr G and his colleagues’. Hamilton believed that a Gladstone government without Rosebery would immediately fall to pieces, but that his joining the government would reassure the commercial classes and steady the markets. Harcourt maintained that ‘without him we should have been simply ridiculous … with him we are only impossible’ (Diary, 1885–1906, 6, 11, 15, 17 Aug 1892). Rosebery's prominence and the reputation derived from his previous Foreign Office term and his chairmanship of the London county council meant that his absence from a Liberal cabinet already low in ministerial experience would indeed have been conspicuous, making it morally difficult for him to abstain. Denied the private life he sought, Rosebery may have found the Foreign Office a substitute, accepting the office in August 1892. It remained an insular and independent department—‘we did not send too much information from the FO to the other side of the street’, Ronald Munro Ferguson recalled (Ferguson to Crewe, 22 Oct 1929, Crewe MS 10195)—staffed by solicitous permanent officials who had briefed him privately since 1886 in anticipation of his return. Rosebery's sense that he had been bullied into office reinforced his own determination to claim complete freedom of action, unaffected by the scruples of cabinet colleagues or radical back-benchers. The doctrine of continuity, developed pragmatically during his first Foreign Office term, now became more a dogma, invoked to justify overriding Liberal qualms about empire, than a guide to policy. In his handling of the inherited crisis over Uganda, Rosebery in fact adopted a stance more imperialistic than that of his Conservative predecessor.

The crisis was rooted in the bankruptcy of the Imperial British East Africa Company, the chartered company through which the outgoing Salisbury government had sought to exercise a vicarious British control over the upper Nile. This region was taken to be crucial to the security of Egypt, itself vital to the freedom of the Suez Canal and the short route to British India. Rosebery was doubtless as ready as most imperial enthusiasts in the 1890s to accept the alarmist argument that a foreign power on the upper Nile might dam the river or otherwise imperil Egypt, but Salisbury had not seen this possibility as justification for bailing out a speculative venture, let alone asserting a permanent British claim to a region which was, in itself, of little value. In fact Rosebery was virtually the only member of the Gladstone cabinet to advocate retention with any fervour, but his actions throughout the episode were founded on the premise that withdrawal was not an option. The compromise solution of placing Uganda under the control of the friendly sultan of Zanzibar appealed to him as a means of retaining British influence which did not require the trappings of formal rule, especially as this solution appeared to satisfy Harcourt, the chief opponent of retention, and Gladstone himself. The appointment of Gerald Portal, progenitor of the Zanzibar option, as special commissioner to report on the Uganda question, was apparently intended to lead to this solution. That Portal, generally taken to be a fervent retentionist, should be so impressed by the unpromising nature of the territory itself as to return reports which weakened the case for continued British influence was not anticipated. Faced with this outcome, Rosebery suppressed Portal's findings, aided by his unexpected death in January 1894, and in February presented the cabinet with a demand for a protectorate. Uganda was eventually annexed in April 1894, a month after Rosebery's accession to the premiership.

Rosebery's stance over Uganda was, in fact, an incongruous gesture towards expansionism on the part of one who was at heart a consolidationist rather than an expansionist. It sprang in part from his desire to make a point to his colleagues, affirming that he would be his own man at the Foreign Office and would not allow foreign policy to become the plaything of a fractious cabinet, as he believed it to have been during Granville's final foreign secretaryship in 1880–85. This carried the risk of antagonizing colleagues, and the risk became a certainty when Portal failed to endorse the anticipated compromise, leaving the cabinet with a stark choice between retention and withdrawal. Whether or not cabinet divisions disturbed Rosebery, they carried an ulterior benefit. Rosebery's policy towards the wider world was conducted with an eye to the European implications. In 1892 he was concerned to distance himself from the Francophilia of Gladstone and much of the Liberal cabinet. He shared Salisbury's view that French hostility towards Britain was inescapable, implying a need to cultivate Germany and her partners in the triple alliance, Austria–Hungary and Italy. At the same time Rosebery, like every nineteenth-century foreign secretary, was ‘anxious to obtain the full advantage of the insular position with which Providence has endowed us’ (Martel, 121), and determined that Britain should not become so dependent upon Germany as to be effectively drawn into the European alliance system, with attendant continental obligations. By taking a robust line on Uganda, Rosebery hoped to show Germany that British policy was not set by its largely Francophile cabinet, but at the same time that Britain could defend her position in Egypt without German aid. Similar arguments applied to Egypt itself, where Rosebery resisted Gladstone's attempts to end the quarrel with France which had simmered since the unilateral British occupation of 1882, arguing that concessions to France in that strategically sensitive area would only increase British dependence upon Germany.

Rosebery believed that Britain's foreign policy had necessarily become a colonial policy since the 1860s. He was very conscious of the extended and ultimately indefensible nature of Britain's empire and aware that any substantial military commitment in defence of one part of the empire might leave other parts open to attack. He considered the Crimean War to have been a mistake because it advertised the limits to British military power; during the Panjdeh crisis in 1885 he had warned that ‘if we have one hand tied down in Central Asia and another in Central Africa we may be practically danced upon in every other part of the world’ (Martel, 232). While refusing to acknowledge French claims to Siam during the crisis there in 1893, as possession of Siam would bring France to the borders of British Burma, Rosebery was careful that his rebuttal should not be so bellicose as to allow the Siamese to take British military support for granted. Rosebery's carefully weighted blend of tact and firmness secured a French withdrawal without necessitating a military commitment.

Crewe believed that no statesman of his generation was so reluctant to risk war. In a jingoistic age Rosebery was a cautious diplomat. His loose talk during the Uganda crisis of ‘pegging out claims’ for the future by acquiring barren territory was out of character; Rosebery considered imperial adventurism to be provocative and dangerous. Britain was a satisfied power, whose main concern should be to maintain her possessions within existing limits. Diplomacy was the means to that end, but Rosebery shunned the obvious diplomatic strategy, to be followed by his successors in the 1900s, of protecting the empire by reaching agreements with the powers most likely to threaten it. He saw formal alliances as a threat to Britain's freedom of action, carrying the danger of drawing Britain into conflicts irrelevant to her own interests. In many ways his diplomacy was Bismarckian in its suppleness, its attention to detail, and its lack of ideological preconceptions, but Rosebery never enjoyed the freedom of diplomatic invention central to the Bismarck system. To some extent he constrained himself with his reluctance to make any arrangements which depended upon ‘Gallic good faith’; his unvarying assumption of French enmity made negotiations with France over areas of potential tension—notably the upper Nile—more difficult and threatened to conflict with his objective of avoiding war. The provocative declaration of Edward Grey, under-secretary at the Foreign Office, in March 1895 that any French move into the Nile valley would be seen as an ‘unfriendly act’ was consistent with Rosebery's attitude; Rosebery might have inspired it and would endorse it three years later when the Fashoda crisis threatened to drag Britain and France into war. At that point, indeed, Rosebery, no longer in office, suggested privately that ‘a war with France now would simplify difficulties in the future’ (R. Brett, journal, 28 Oct 1898, Stansky, 260). The real obstacle to an unfettered foreign policy was, however, the polarization of the powers that had taken place since Bismarck's departure. Since 1890 the growth of Franco-Russian co-operation had divided Europe into two clear camps. France and Russia were the two powers which most directly threatened Britain's overseas possessions; the limited extra-European interests of the triple alliance powers posed little direct threat to the British empire. Rosebery's Francophobia and his aversion to dealing with the empire's potential enemies underlined his inclination towards the triple alliance; denied a completely free hand, his intellectual dexterity was devoted to maintaining friendly relations with the alliance without becoming a tool of German policy.

The alliance system

Rosebery's policy of, in effect, seeking the protection offered by the alliance system without making the commitments which it required of the other powers was an attempt to preserve the tradition of ‘splendid isolation’ in the altered circumstances of the 1890s. It was not cost-free. Britain's status as a naval power obliged her to offer something more than moral support to the triple alliance in view of Franco-Russian strength in the Mediterranean. Without a stronger British naval presence in the Mediterranean to bolster the alliance Italy might be tempted to deal with France, and Austria–Hungary with Russia. Where Gladstone had seen the chance to scale down Britain's Mediterranean Fleet as one of the benefits of an accommodation with France (it would later be an effect of the 1904 entente), Rosebery's policy entailed naval expansion, and was the principal reason for the £4 million programme which Spencer, first lord of the Admiralty, presented to an alarmed Liberal cabinet in 1894. The consequences were to be considerable: the navy programme entailed Gladstone's resignation as prime minister; Harcourt's redistributionary 1894 budget, which alarmed Rosebery; and in due course the imitative German naval build-up of 1897, which, by turning Germany into a maritime rival, would eventually undermine the Rosebery system.

Its essential fragility had been exposed before then, however. Rosebery's foreign policy was indeed a colonial policy, but it was always unclear how valuable was the understanding with the triple alliance in extra-European matters. Rosebery assumed that the existence of the alliance would act as a deterrent inhibiting France and Russia from extra-European adventurism. To some extent it may have done so, but it was equally true that the alliance members would not jeopardize European peace to defend British colonial interests while Britain remained no more than an associate member of the alliance. Britain remained obliged to make her own arrangements to protect her territory. Her greatest security lay in the fact that the Russians, at least, did not consider the Franco-Russian understanding relevant outside Europe. This became clear when Russia failed to endorse French objections to Rosebery's Anglo-Congolese agreement of 1894, by which territory on the upper Nile was leased to King Leopold of the Belgians in order to forestall any French advance into the area; it was rather unanticipated German objections to the implications of the arrangement for the future of German East Africa which necessitated its abandonment. Rosebery had, in fact, few inhibitions about antagonizing France; Russia was more problematic because a Russo-German rapprochement—increasing the likelihood of Russian interference in India—was feasible, where a Franco-German rapprochement was not. The question of Britain's attitude towards Russia became critical with the sudden emergence of Japan as a military power following her intervention to suppress the Tonghak rebellion in Korea in the summer of 1894. Rosebery had become prime minister three months before the crisis emerged, strengthening his ability to determine foreign policy, but his replacement as foreign secretary, Kimberley, was not simply a mouthpiece for the new premier. Kimberley in fact saw Japan as a ‘natural ally’ against Russia. Rosebery, who had worked to improve relations with St Petersburg since 1892, in the hope of limiting the Russian threat to India and dissuading Russia from supporting French expansion, could not agree, but nor could he offer the tsar much practical help in his efforts to coerce Japan to moderate its demands in Korea. Fearful that military escalation might lead to a European war in China, Rosebery ruled out British intervention where no British interest was at stake. Russia was left to ask what benefits could be derived from Britain's friendship. Seven years after Rosebery left office, the 1902 Anglo-Japanese alliance would begin the process by which his successors reversed his policy of relying upon reactive diplomacy to defuse threats to Britain's extended empire, and looked instead to agreements with potential imperial predators. Rosebery feared the consequences of this reversal: he warned that the 1902 alliance ‘may be the first Treaty of the kind for many years past, but having been made it cannot be the last’ (Rhodes James, 449), and advised Edward Grey in 1905 that the previous year's entente with France would lead to war. Events may have vindicated him, but the fact remained that his own sinuous diplomacy had been unsuited to the polarized power relations developing after 1890.

Prime minister, 1894–1895

Gladstone's retirement in March 1894 left Rosebery the leading contender for the succession, and he resisted this preferment less strenuously than usual. His only plausible rival, Harcourt, had the advantages of seniority and greater ministerial experience, but the drawback of being personally unacceptable to almost the entire cabinet. Harcourt's efforts in February to dictate the terms on which he could work, as Liberal leader in the Commons, with a prime minister in the Lords—freedom to act and speak on all issues, the right to be consulted on foreign policy and patronage questions—indicated his recognition of the inevitable even before Gladstone stepped down. They also presaged troubles to come. The position of a Liberal peer-premier was inevitably less comfortable than that of a Conservative one, and Rosebery's personal relations with Harcourt were far less secure than Salisbury's had been with his leader in the Commons, his nephew Arthur Balfour. The situation did require the terms of Harcourt's role to be spelled out, but given Harcourt's opposition to the principle of a peer as prime minister his demands implied that Rosebery held his position on sufferance. Rosebery, characteristically ready to feel slighted, claimed that the terms would make him ‘a dummy prime minister’ (Rhodes James, 313). Fractious relations with Harcourt blighted Rosebery's premiership, partly because of Harcourt's ungenerous behaviour, but partly because his performance as prime minister was open to real criticism. Rosebery had once likened the office to ‘a “dunghill”, on which the other ministers threw everything that was disagreeable’ (Diary, 1885–1906, 17 April 1887); he regretted losing the real power he had enjoyed at the Foreign Office. He complained repeatedly of his ‘inherited programme and … inherited Cabinet’ but did little to change either (ibid., 21 May 1894).

The succession question had been decided on the basis of the personal merits of the main candidates and their acceptability to their cabinet colleagues. It had not been necessary for Rosebery to promulgate anything resembling a manifesto and he entered office without giving any clear indication of his policy intentions. He had contributed little to the Liberal debates on future policy after the home rule débâcle; in the seclusion of the Foreign Office after 1892 he had done little to shape the domestic programme of the Gladstone cabinet. He kissed hands on 5 March 1894. On the previous day he was urged by G. E. Buckle, editor of The Times, to modify his party's domestic policy as he had modified its foreign policy. The task of educating his party appealed to him. He had already, in September 1893, voiced ostentatiously tepid support for Irish home rule when Gladstone's second bill was obliterated in the upper house, and his first speech in the Lords as prime minister reinforced that impression by maladroitly implying that home rule required the approval of a majority of MPs from England, as ‘the predominant member of the Three Kingdoms’ (Rhodes James, 338). He was now convinced of the depth of the damage done to the party in 1886. Three speeches in the City of London, in Birmingham, and in Manchester in April and May 1894 were interpreted as appeals to rank-and-file Liberal Unionists to return to the fold.

It was none the less unclear what Rosebery could offer to those Liberal Unionists who were worried less by home rule than by the Liberals' drift towards social radicalism. He was not anxious to reverse social policies either passed or pledged, such as hours limitation for government employees or the eight-hour day for miners, and was anyway powerless to do so. His impotence was emphasized by his failure significantly to modify the redistributionary budget proposed by Harcourt in 1894. In a pattern that would be repeated in 1909, a budgetary crisis largely due to increased naval expenditure became the occasion for a radical fiscal experiment, conducted with an eye to electoral benefit. Harcourt proposed to meet the largest ever peacetime army and navy estimates by raising duties on beer and spirits, increasing the basic rate of income tax while raising allowances for the poorest taxpayers, and above all overhauling the death duties. Higher death duties hit the wealthy, while the increased tax allowances were designed to benefit higher-paid workmen, clerks, struggling professionals, small shopkeepers, and agriculturalists. Rosebery, who continued to hope that Gladstone's retirement might encourage some Liberal Unionists to rejoin the party, believed that the budget would alienate the Liberals' few remaining wealthy supporters. He expressed his fears in a private memorandum to Harcourt in April 1894, receiving a dismissive and combative reply, after which the prime minister and the chancellor of the exchequer hardly spoke to each other for six months. He achieved only a limited modification of the scale of death duty graduation.

At the heart of the broader battle between Rosebery and Harcourt was the question of whether the Liberal Party should extend its electoral base by moving to the centre or to the left. This was a major strategic dilemma, not easily resolved, but Rosebery was unwise to pick a fight over the 1894 budget. Its redistributionary benefits were limited to the income-tax-paying classes; the beneficiaries were an electorally significant group whose disenchantment with unionism in 1892 was believed to have helped the Liberals regain office. The losers by the budget were wealthy but numerically insignificant; Harcourt was probably right to suggest that the few among them who contributed to Liberal Party funds could be appeased with honours. The surplus produced by the tax changes went not towards the free breakfast table, old age pensions, or any other social objective, as some Liberal back-benchers had urged, but to defray the increased naval estimates, largely a product of Rosebery's foreign policy. Rosebery himself offered no alternative means of funding naval expansion. None the less, his failure to defeat the cabinet's senior prize-fighter reinforced the sense of inadequacy which had clouded his accession to the premiership, and drove him into a seclusion which lasted for most of his first summer as prime minister.

This seclusion ended with Rosebery's re-emergence in October to revive his pet subject of House of Lords reform, proposing in a speech at Bradford to introduce a Commons resolution asserting the legislative supremacy of the lower house. Some kind of gesture against the Lords was necessary to reassure the Liberals' Irish nationalist allies after the peers had contemptuously disposed of home rule in 1893 and the Evicted Tenants (Ireland) Bill in 1894, but Rosebery had not discussed his proposal with the cabinet, most of whom preferred in principle to abolish rather than reform the Lords, and saw limitation of the Lords' veto as a more practical way of clipping their wings. In November this option was adopted in place of Rosebery's resolution, but no measure of Lords reform appeared in the 1895 queen's speech.

The failure of this initiative marked the end of Rosebery's serious efforts to shape the domestic policy of his own government. Without a dominant legislative aim, the government fell back upon the agenda of radical objectives such as Welsh church disestablishment, liquor licensing reform, and the abolition of plural voting. The simultaneous launch of measures of this sort—contentious and intricate and therefore vulnerable in parliament—by a government with a slender and dwindling majority indicated that most were being aired to encourage their supporters, with little prospect of success: the unionist Goschen depicted the 1895 agenda as a programme of ‘first nights’. Only the Welsh church measure made any substantial progress, but it had not passed the Commons when the government was defeated on a snap vote criticizing the War Office for shortages in army cordite in June 1895. Resignation, though constitutionally unnecessary, was grasped by ministers anxious to escape the ‘nightmare’ that government had become.

Breakdown and scandal

Rosebery himself was a distant figure for most of the 1895 session, victim of a comprehensive nervous and physical breakdown. Its outward symptoms—a severe influenza attack in February, followed by general debilitation and what his physician, Sir William Broadbent, described as a ‘long-continued derangement of the digestive organs’ (Crewe-Milnes, 2.501)—were probably induced by the recurrence of chronic insomnia over the preceding months, which Rosebery eventually contained by resort to the patent tranquillizer Sulfonell. Insomnia was doubtless prompted by the strain of presiding over a warring cabinet and a failing government, but also, almost certainly, by fear of emerging scandal.

On re-entering the Foreign Office in 1892 Rosebery had appointed Francis Douglas, Lord Drumlanrig, heir to the marquess of Queensberry, as his assistant private secretary, drawing himself thereby into the affairs of an eccentric and feud-ridden family. When Rosebery persuaded Gladstone to appoint Drumlanrig as lord-in-waiting to the queen, entailing his elevation to the English peerage, Queensberry, himself a former Scottish elective peer, objected not merely to the honour but also to Rosebery's ‘evil influence’ on his son. Queensberry pursued Rosebery on his rest-cure at Homburg in August 1893, seeking to dog-whip the foreign secretary, but was thwarted in this purpose by the local police, apparently in response to a request from the prince of Wales. Farce turned to tragedy in October 1894 when Drumlanrig shot himself on a shooting party in Somerset. The inquest recorded a verdict of accidental death; society rumour alleged suicide, prompted by fear of blackmail over homosexual relations with Rosebery.

Rosebery would doubtless have absorbed the easy toleration of male love prevalent at Eton, as at other major public schools, but in that he was hardly alone among the British governing class of the period; the nature of his relations with his tutor William Johnson, later dismissed on suspicion of homosexuality, cannot be determined. That Rosebery retained in adulthood an emotional attachment to young men is suggested by the highly charged tone of a note in one of his jottings books on the anniversary of the death of Frederick Vyner, ‘a pale, tall, beautiful English boy’ murdered by Greek brigands in 1870:
I locked the door and looked on it with dry sobs. Why had he gone? His life was beautiful and pleasant. He lived in an atmosphere of love … I can believe in no future state where we can be divided. I hardly think that death divides us now. (jotting books, 12 April 1871, Rosebery MS 10188, fols. 25–6)
Accusations of homosexual promiscuity appear all to relate to the years after Hannah's death: his ‘considerable fancy’ for Drumlanrig, his affection for the homosexual British consul in southern Italy, Eustace Neville-Rolfe, his reclusive holidays in the midst of the colony of homosexual English expatriates around Naples, and his purchase (with Neville-Rolfe) of the Villa Delahante at Posilippo in 1897. References to Rosebery in the diaries of the homosexual proselytizer George Ives and, however spuriously, in those of the fantasist Sir Edmund Backhouse suggest that Rosebery's homosexuality was taken for granted in homosexual circles. Queensberry took little convincing. His son's death made Queensberry much more dangerous to Rosebery than he had been in 1893. In the first place, convinced that Rosebery's high office made him immune to punishment—Ives later claimed that ‘Hyde Park Police had orders never to arrest Lord R. on the principle that too big a fish often breaks the line’ (Ives's journal, 21 May 1929, Ransom HRC)—and that ‘the Snob Queers’ would cover up the circumstances of Drumlanrig's death, he became still freer with charges which, even if false, Rosebery could not easily refute. Second, Queensberry became all the more determined to detach his youngest son, Lord Alfred Douglas, from his relationship with the playwright Oscar Wilde. Wilde was no more than an acquaintance of Rosebery, but the danger of collateral damage from any exposure of the Douglas family's sexual adventures was considerable. Exposure became more likely when Wilde responded to Queensberry's attacks with an ill-advised criminal libel suit. Rosebery's name was mentioned in the grand jury hearing preceding the main trial and leaked into the French press. The collapse of Wilde's libel action was followed by the prosecution of Wilde himself on the strength of the evidence of homosexuality adduced by Queensberry in his own defence. When the jury failed to agree upon a verdict the solicitor-general, , insisted upon a retrial for fear that any leniency towards Wilde would fuel rumours about Rosebery. Only when Wilde was convicted and imprisoned in May 1895 was Rosebery relieved of the daily fear that sexual allegations against him would surface in court, protected by privilege and guaranteed publicity.

The tension that built up steadily from the day of Drumlanrig's death virtually paralysed Rosebery during his last few months as prime minister. His memory of those months remained vivid eight years later:
I cannot forget 1895. To lie night after night, staring wide awake, hopeless of sleep, tormented in nerves, and to realise all that was going on, at which I was present, so to speak, like a disembodied spirit, to watch one's own corpse as it were, day after day, is an experience which no sane man with a conscience would repeat. (Crewe-Milnes, 2.586–7)
This breakdown, following his failure to alter the 1894 budget, the collapse of his initiative for Lords reform, and the unravelling of his foreign policy completed an ineffective premiership. Always afraid of failure, Rosebery reassured himself by acerbic denunciations of disloyal colleagues, particularly Harcourt, and of his own party. He became the sharpest critic of the ‘faddist’ programme of 1895 and welcomed the electoral catastrophe that arrived a month after his government's resignation. Gladstone's political re-emergence in September 1896 to advocate European action against the Turks following massacres in Armenia provided the occasion for Rosebery's resignation as Liberal leader in October. A week later he expressed to Hamilton his impatience with the role of ‘Mr G's political executor’: ‘the real fact was that he had been too tied to Gladstonian chains ever since he had taken a prominent part in politics’ (Diary, 1885–1906, 16 Oct 1896). Thus disavowing his party's household god, he began a nine-year effort to rescue Liberalism from the Liberal Party.

Liberal Imperialist

Another period of solitude ended with Rosebery's re-emergence in February 1898 with an effective intervention in support of the Progressive Party in the London county council elections. Over the next five years he developed a role better suited to his abilities and in some ways reminiscent of his successful period on the council—that of patron to a group of younger Liberals aiming to modernize their party. He cultivated the group of ‘Liberal Imperialists’, prominently H. H. Asquith, Sir Edward Grey, R. B. Haldane, Ronald Munro Ferguson, and Sidney Buxton—more cerebral, more metropolitan, and less sectarian than most of the party's rank and file, and untouched by ‘little Englander’ hostility to the spirit of empire. How far this group shared Rosebery's conviction that a party realignment was inevitable remains unclear, but they did display an independence of thought which Rosebery found refreshing. Their differences with the party mainstream were emphasized by the outbreak of the South African War in October 1899. Though Rosebery and his acolytes had misgivings about the provocative British diplomacy which hastened the conflict, they supported the war once it was under way and relished the embarrassment of the Liberal Party, with its substantial anti-war minority. Public reaction to early British reverses made fashionable the belief that Britain's liberal institutions were unfit for an age of competing empires. The vogue for ‘national efficiency’ which moved the nation in the wake of reverses in the South African War promised to rehabilitate Rosebery, a long-term iconoclast towards the House of Lords and now a vocal critic of party dogma and discipline. In 1900–01 he gained a renewed prominence, campaigning for Britain's political rejuvenation in a series of platform speeches, notably in his address as rector of Glasgow University, when he warned ‘It is beginning to be hinted at that we are a nation of amateurs’ (The Times, 17 Nov 1900).

Rosebery's broad objectives were clear enough: to ‘restore efficiency to our parliament, our administration and our people’, to attain ‘a condition of national fitness equal to the demands of our empire’, and to mobilize that ‘great volume of opinion not very expressive … which does not greatly sympathise with the extreme men of either party’ (Lord Rosebery, National Policy, 1902, 16; Lord Rosebery, Liberal Principles and Prospects, 1902, 31). How his objectives were to be achieved was less clear. At times his distaste for conventional politics inclined him towards some of the anti-democratic proposals which gave the national efficiency movement its illiberal aspect: in 1901 he advocated a cabinet of businessmen and was, indeed, said to ‘have the “business man” fad on his brain’ (Northbrook to Curzon, 12 Dec 1901, G. R. Searle, The Quest for National Efficiency, 1971, 88). At other times, notably in his much-trailed Chesterfield speech of December 1901, he appeared rather to be urging the Liberal Party to mend its ways—to drop Irish home rule, to love the empire, and to redraw policy on a ‘clean slate’. He continued to hanker after the return of the Liberal Unionists to the party. He was, moreover, tempted by press speculation that he might lead a coalition government, formed of the best men of both parties, though he could not ignore the scars left by his premiership. His characteristic response to this dilemma was to wait to be called, but it soon became clear even to the sympathetic Hamilton that there was ‘no great flocking of persons to the Rosebery standard’ (Diary, 1885–1906, 3 March 1902). His Gaullist stance annoyed his supporters—Grey warned him that there was no such thing as a political conscript, and although the Liberal League, formed by the Liberal Imperialist group in February 1902, served in part as a Rosebery vehicle, it emerged as a ginger group on the right of the Liberal Party rather than the independent political organization that Rosebery had wished to create. Rosebery's eclipse began with the revival of partisanship over the 1902 Education Bill. Initially sympathetic to the bill as an ‘efficiency’ measure of modernization, he was persuaded not to separate himself from Liberal criticism of it. His platform speeches concentrated upon the threat to the best urban school boards, while his speech in the House of Lords reiterated nonconformist objections to subsidizing Anglican education.


The launch of Joseph Chamberlain's campaign for tariff reform in May 1903—advocating a departure from Britain's free-trade tradition in order to confer tariff preference upon imperial goods—did subtler but deeper damage to Rosebery's claim to embody a modern, streamlined, and undogmatic politics. An awareness that his own enthusiasm for empire was shared by the mass of the British people had given Rosebery the confidence that his whiggish views were not unpopular. Liberal embarrassment over empire during the South African War had justified his claim that a party in hock to its activists had grown out of touch with the wider public. After 1903, though, Britain's imperial visionaries aligned themselves with a protectionist policy which Rosebery could not support. He was, like most whigs, a free-trader by habit. Uninterested in economics, he was impervious to protectionist arguments founded upon Britain's relative economic decline. He had attacked the protectionist groundswell for some years before Chamberlain's policy emerged, arguing that a British imperial customs union would weaken the empire internally by encouraging disputes over duty levels, that it would antagonize the rest of the world, and that food duties would turn the working classes against empire. After an initial hesitation he reiterated these arguments in 1903, intensified by his personal dislike of Chamberlain. In his defence of free trade he found himself at one with his party for the first time for a decade. Indeed he believed that ‘for the first time since 1886 the deliberate intellect and the highest intellect of the country … is beginning to turn slowly but surely in the direction of Liberalism’ (A Supreme Contest: a Speech, n.d. [1904?], 8), raising the possibility that Liberalism could recapture the centre ground lost by Gladstone, as he had hoped in 1894. In the event the Liberals probably did win the argument over free trade, but the number of tory defectors was small, and the effect of the debate was rather to polarize British politics around the free-trade issue. Rosebery was only one of many Liberal defenders of free trade, and neither the most original nor the most distinctive.

Rosebery's redundancy was demonstrated by the events of 1905. The ‘Relugas compact’ of September—the arrangement by which Asquith, Grey, and Haldane agreed to serve in a future Liberal government if Campbell-Bannerman could be removed to the Lords—made no reference to Rosebery and was not communicated to him. Nor was Asquith's agreement with Campbell-Bannerman on a step-by-step approach to home rule. Accustomed throughout his career to turning down offers of office, Rosebery did not take kindly to being ignored, and saw Relugas as a betrayal. Unaware of Asquith's steps towards a compromise over home rule, he called at Stourbridge in October for a clear statement of the party's Irish policy. When Campbell-Bannerman unfurled the step-by-step policy in November Rosebery responded with unexpected asperity at Bodmin, rejecting home rule for impairing the Liberals' hard-won unity and declining ‘emphatically and explicitly’ to serve in a government pledged to home rule. He was no longer likely to be asked. Campbell-Bannerman thought him ‘off his head’; even Hamilton thought Rosebery had ‘put his foot in it’ at Bodmin.

Last years

The last years of his political life saw Rosebery become a purely negative critic of the Liberal governments of Campbell-Bannerman and Asquith. His crusade ‘for freedom as against bureaucracy, for freedom as against democratic tyranny, for freedom as against class legislation, and … for freedom as against Socialism’ (The Times, 16 Feb 1910) was a lonely one, conducted from the cross-benches in the Lords. He did join the die-hard unionist peers in attacking Lloyd George's redistributive budget in 1909, but stopped short of voting against the measure for fear of bringing retribution upon the Lords. The crisis provoked by the Lords' rejection of the budget encouraged him to reintroduce his resolutions for Lords reform, but they were lost with the dissolution of parliament in December 1910. After assaulting the ‘ill-judged, revolutionary and partisan’ terms of the 1911 Parliament Bill (Rhodes James, 469), which proposed to curb the Lords' veto, he voted with the government in what proved to be his last appearance in the House of Lords. This was effectively the end of his public life, though he made several public appearances to support the war effort after 1914 and sponsored a ‘bantam battalion’ in 1915. Though Lloyd George offered him ‘a high post not involving departmental labour’ to augment his 1916 coalition, Rosebery declined to serve (Crewe-Milnes, 2.51).

The last year of the war was clouded by two personal tragedies—his son Neil's death in Palestine in November 1917 and Rosebery's own stroke a few days before the armistice. He regained his mental powers, but his movement, hearing, and sight remained impaired for the rest of his life. His sister, Constance, described his last years as a ‘life of weariness, of total inactivity, & at the last of almost blindness’; John Buchan remembered him in his last month of life, ‘crushed by bodily weakness’ and ‘sunk in sad and silent meditations’ (Rhodes James, 485). Rosebery died at The Durdans, Epsom, Surrey, on 21 May 1929, to the accompaniment—as he had requested—of a gramophone recording of the Eton boating song. He was buried in the small church at Dalmeny. Rosebery was survived by three of his four children: [see under ]; Lady Margaret Primrose, later the marchioness of Crewe (1881–1967); and , who became the sixth earl.

Author and historical biographer

Rosebery wrote a number of literary and historical essays, many of which were edited by John Buchan and published in his Miscellanies (2 vols., 1921). He published two essay-length lives—Sir Robert Peel (1899) and Oliver Cromwell (1899)—and four books. The first was a study of William Pitt the younger—a distant relative on his mother's side whose standard life was by Rosebery's grandfather Lord Stanhope; it was commissioned by John Morley for Macmillan's Twelve English Statesmen series and published in 1891. Three other biographical studies—Napoleon: the Last Phase (1900), Lord Randolph Churchill (1906), and Chatham: his Early Life and Connections (1910)—punctuated his semi-retirement. Each displays its author's wit and verbal fluency, though each has its longueurs, suggesting that Rosebery was ideally a miniaturist in prose. Frederic Harrison recalled that Macaulay was the model for Rosebery's character studies, which may account for their sometimes dated tone. Technically Rosebery's work certainly compares uncomfortably with the best professional history of the time. He did, though, enjoy the advantage conferred by his status of access to aristocratic houses and to collections of private papers not then generally available, an advantage conspicuous in the Chatham study and in his edition of The Windham Papers (1913). Reviewers enjoyed spotting parallels between Rosebery's subjects' careers and his own. His choice of subject for the two larger works was certainly revealing. Chatham and Napoleon both avoid their subjects' periods of high office and provide deeper character studies than Pitt. Chatham emerges as a ‘haughty, impossible, anomalous character … difficult to calculate and comprehend’, who ‘retires, distempered if not mad, into a cell’ after his premiership (Chatham: his Early Life and Connections, 1910, viii, 25). The anonymous Times Literary Supplement reviewer noted unkindly that Rosebery's Chatham owed his ascent to little more than his eloquence. Napoleon, like Cromwell, represented a type always appealing to Rosebery—‘the man of destiny, whose spirit attracts and unites and inspires’—but it is the defeated, exiled Napoleon that Rosebery portrays, a lost leader in premature retirement enduring ‘the monotony of a suppressed life’ (Napoleon: the Last Phase, 1900, 162). Even Churchill, personally unlike Rosebery, was depicted as victim of a party machine, ‘now so developed that no individual, however gifted, can fight against it’ (Lord Randolph Churchill, 1906, 119–20). In general the professional reception of Rosebery's books was reserved, but lay reviewers were enthusiastic, and the books sold well. Pitt, which disappointed Morley, went through twenty-seven printings between 1891 and 1962.


Few politicians have been the subject of such high hopes on the strength of so little political experience, and though Rosebery's career clearly was an unsuccessful one if success is measured by accomplishment—he was identified with no major legislative achievement except, indirectly, the creation of the Scottish Office, and his foreign policy was unravelled within a few years of his resignation—the impression of failure is enhanced by the unusually demanding expectations vested in him. The assumption of future greatness—‘there is perhaps no man of his age in either House whose political future is so assured’, Gladstone wrote in 1883 to James Donaldson (Gladstone, Diaries, 10.458)—hung over him from the start of his career. Even when he was prime minister his junior acolytes in the Liberal Imperialist circle discussed ‘how to make Rosebery great, which is really rather funny when you come to think about it’ (E. Grey to Lady Grey, 21 March 1894, Stansky, 174).

Most who lived to be disappointed in Rosebery put his failings down to an inscrutable personality—‘was there ever such a complex person?’, Crewe asked, in compiling the official biography (Crewe to the marquess of Huntly, 25 July 1929, Crewe MS 10195). Early in his career his closest political friend had feared that his ‘over-sensitive, thin-skinned nature will sadly stand in the way of a really successful political future’ (Hamilton to Ponsonby, 5 June 1883, Diary, 1880–1885, 1.xxvii). It certainly did not help him. During the second Gladstone government his conviction that first Granville then Gladstone himself had taken against him threatened to become self-fulfilling. His fear that any delay in his attaining offices for which he had been tipped in the press would be taken as a sign that he had been tried and found wanting led him to put himself forward in a manner which won him few friends. Gladstone ‘thought it marvellous how so clever a man as Rosebery could be so silly’ (ibid., 22 Nov 1882). His everyday actions were guided by a dated etiquette which some found charming, others frustrating. This was most evidently true of his ritual refusal, amid professions of inadequacy, of virtually every preferment offered him. The list of appointments initially declined by Rosebery is formidable: minister at the board of rating (1872), lord lieutenant of Linlithgow (1873), under-secretary at the India Office (1880), member of the Order of the Thistle (1881), trustee of the British Museum (1883), projected minister for Scotland (1883), lord lieutenant of Midlothian (1884), commissioner of works (1884), foreign secretary (1892), Liberal leader in the House of Lords (1892), chairman of the London county council for the second time (1892), high commissioner of the Church of Scotland (1915), unspecified high office in the Lloyd George war coalition (1916). There was generally a reason for refusal, but the fact that he eventually accepted all the more substantial offers except the last led colleagues to see the initial refusal as a tiresome and precious affectation—‘pretty Fanny's way’ in Harcourt's uncharitable phrase. That this ‘way’ was rooted in a genuine fear of inadequacy and of failure appears incontestable; a telling passage in Pitt describes how men wearied by office none the less dreaded the process of leaving it—‘the triumph of enemies and the discomfiture of friends’—as men weary of life still feared death (Pitt, 1891, 286).

Personal insecurity probably does explain the paradox that one clearly possessing immense personal magnetism and an easy ability to attract admirers could appear tetchy and defensive to those unready to defer to him. A. H. D. Acland found Rosebery ‘intolerable as head of the Cabinet, shy, huffy and giving himself the airs of a little German king’ (Rhodes James, 357), while his insensitive chairmanship of the Lords select committee on the reform of the upper house in 1907 helped thwart one of his lifelong projects. With hindsight the chairmanship of the London county council, in which he was a success, can be seen as a position ideal for him—raised somewhat above the party battle yet not merely ornamental, allowing him to act as a public advocate for a body in which his work was generally admired. It was a position with no equivalent in national politics.

There are identifiable moments in Rosebery's political career at which his personal shortcomings proved damaging—most obviously in the prolongation of his quarrel with Harcourt during and after his premiership. But the Victorian political world was crowded with complex and difficult individuals, many of whom enjoyed successful careers. That Rosebery did not, owed something to his personality but more to the problems facing a Liberal peer in a rapidly evolving democracy. Rosebery believed that by the extension of the urban franchise in 1867 ‘English public life received a shock from which it has scarcely recovered’ (Rosebery, ‘Sir Robert Peel, review of C. S. Parker's Peel’, Anglo-Saxon Review, 1899, 92). Like most of his contemporaries in the British political élite, he sought to comprehend democracy and to guide it. He admired Gladstone for a political style which was popular without being demagogic, and discovered in himself a skill in platform oratory virtually unique among Liberal peers. Yet the high point of Weberian charismatic leadership in Britain had been reached in the era of Gladstone and Disraeli; rhetorical skills remained valuable after 1880, but political leadership required also a mastery of the more modern democratic arts of party management and a sensitivity to the demands of the electorate. As a peer Rosebery was disadvantaged in these respects. He never had to ‘nurse’ a constituency, for instance: his only real experience of electoral work derived from his involvement with Gladstone's Midlothian campaign in 1879–80. This campaign was, of course, a pivotal episode in the democratization of late Victorian politics, but Rosebery's principal contribution to it—the expenditure of £50,000 to buy up property in the constituency in the hope of generating faggot votes—was a tactic from an earlier electoral age. Growing electorates and legal restrictions upon election expenditure gave greater prominence to the volunteer activist, who demanded in return, particularly in the Liberal Party, the opportunity to promote his own policy concerns. Political activity became, in the 1880s, less dependent upon the stump oratory at which Rosebery excelled and more dependent upon electoral organization.

Rosebery had little understanding of the mechanics of modern party organization and was irritated by his colleagues' readiness to defer to the party's rank and file. He believed that party politics worked to obscure the popular will and that ‘the great difficulty of the age as regards politics is the impossibility of ascertaining the real feeling of the country’ (Rosebery to Haldane, 1 April 1896, Hamer, 252). Never losing his ability to sway an audience—even the rancorous Bodmin speech of 1905 was punctuated by ‘wild applause’—he became convinced that he understood demos better than Liberal ‘faddists’. He was perhaps right, but his awareness of the weakness of his party's programme sometimes blinded him to the limitations of his own. Though lionized as a ‘modern’ politician by the Webbs and others on the strength of his detachment from party dogmas, his outlook was in fact rather dated by the 1900s. His Macaulayan ideals of enlightened aristocratic government, constitutional reform, and free-trade imperialism had bound him to the Gladstonian Liberal Party whatever his reservations about the Gladstonian style of politics, but he had little contact with the thinkers who refashioned Liberalism in the 1890s and 1900s, and was largely unreceptive to their doctrines of social and fiscal reform. He could support the social measures of the LCC as the fruits of local self-government, but proved resolutely hostile to the statist social reforms of the 1905–14 Liberal governments. As a peer—and a very wealthy one—Rosebery was also vulnerable to the revival of the fiscal debate. In 1894 he had been insensitive to the electoral dangers of loading the naval programme onto the existing fiscal system and the electoral advantages of a redistributive budget. After 1903 he was slow to appreciate that fiscal controversy would intensify partisanship, destroying his hope that in his detachment from party he could speak for a silent majority. He himself remained too much of a Gladstonian to stomach either the protectionist remedies of the Unionist tariff reformers or the wealth taxes enacted by the Liberals, but his agnosticism condemned him to political isolation. ‘Those who are neither Tariff Reformers nor Socialists nor Home Rulers have no refuge to look to,’ he complained in 1907 (Rosebery to Ernest Pretyman, 7 June 1907, Rosebery MS 10202, fol. 171). In the event he found refuge only in his long-promised retirement from politics.

John Davis


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Dalmeny House, Queensferry · NL Scot., corresp., literary MSS, and papers · NL Wales, letters · NRA, priv. coll., corresp. and papers |  Balliol Oxf., corresp. with Sir Robert Morier · BL, Add. MS 16926 · BL, corresp. with Arthur James Balfour, Add. MS 49692 · BL, letters to Lord Battersea and Lady Battersea, Add. MS 47909 · BL, corresp. with Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, Add. MS 41226 · BL, letters to Sir Charles Dilke, Add. MS 43876 · BL, letters to T. H. S. Escott, Add. MS 58790 · BL, corresp. with Lord Gladstone, Add. MS 45986 · BL, corresp. with Mary Gladstone and Catherine Gladstone, Add. MSS 46226, 46237 · BL, corresp. with W. E. Gladstone, Add. MSS 44288–44290 · BL, corresp. with Sir Edward Walter Hamilton, Add. MS 48612 · BL, corresp. with Lord Kilbracken, Add. MS 44902 · BL, corresp. with Lord Northcliffe, Add. MS 62154 · BL, corresp. with Lord Ripon, Add. MS 43516 · BL, corresp. with J. A. Spender · BL OIOC, letters to Lord Morley, MS Eur. D 573 · BLPES, letters to Henry Broadhurst · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Margot Asquith [some copies] · Bodl. Oxf., letters to H. A. L. Fisher · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Sir William Harcourt and Lord Harcourt · Bodl. Oxf., letters to Lord Kimberley · Bodl. Oxf., letters to Sir Henry Miers · CAC Cam., corresp. with Lord Randolph Churchill · CAC Cam., corresp. with Lord Esher · CAC Cam., corresp. with Lord Fisher · CAC Cam., corresp. with David Saunders · CAC Cam., letters to W. T. Stead · Chatsworth House, Derbyshire, letters to duke of Devonshire · CKS, letters to Stanhope family · CKS, letters to Edward Stanhope · CUL, letters to Lord Acton · CUL, corresp. with Lord Hardinge · Durham RO, letters to Cuthbert Headlam · Glos. RO, letters to Lord St Aldwyn · Hove Central Library, Sussex, letters to Lord Wolseley and Lady Wolseley · ICL, letters to Lord Playfair · King's AC Cam., letters to Oscar Browning · King's Lond., Liddell Hart C., corresp. with General Grant · Lincs. Arch., letters to Lord Monson · LMA, corresp. with Sir Willoughby Maycock · Lpool RO, letters to Sir Edward Evans · Mitchell L., Glas., Glasgow City Archives, letters to Arthur Jamieson · NA Canada, corresp. with Sir George Parkin · NAM, letters to Lord Roberts · News Int. RO, letters to Moberly Bell · NL Scot., letters to J. S. Blackie · NL Scot., letters to John Buchan · NL Scot., letters to W. M. Conway · NL Scot., corresp. with John Gribbel · NL Scot., corresp. with Lord Haldane · NL Scot., letters to Lord Kimberley · NL Scot., corresp. with H. P. Macmillan · NL Wales, letters to T. E. Ellis · NPG, letters to George Frederick Watts · NRA, priv. coll., letters to Lord Aberdeen · NRA, priv. coll., letters to ninth duke of Argyll · NRA, priv. coll., letters to Lord Elgin · NRA, priv. coll., corresp. with Sir John Ewart · NRA, priv. coll., letters to Lady Leconfield · Nuffield Oxf., corresp. with Lord Emmott · Parl. Arch., letters to Herbert Samuel · Parl. Arch., corresp. with John St Loe Strachey · PRONI, corresp. with Lord Dufferin, D 1071 · Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario, corresp. with John Buchan · St Deiniol's Library, letters to Catherine Gladstone · Surrey HC, corresp. with James Andrews · TNA: PRO, corresp. with Lord Cromer, vols. 6–7, 18, 23–4 · TNA: PRO, corresp. with Lord Granville, PRO 30/29 · TNA: PRO, corresp. with Sire Edward Malet, FO 343 · U. Birm. L., corresp. with Joseph Chamberlain · U. Birm. L., corresp. with Norris & Son, solicitors, relating to Matacong Island · U. Lpool L., letters to Sir Edward Russell · U. Nott. L., corresp. with Lord Galway · University of Bristol Library, letters to Charles Geake · Wilts. & Swindon HC, corresp. with Sir Michael Herbert  



BFINA, news footage


H. Weigall, oils, 1866, Christ Church Oxf. · A. E. Emslie, group portrait, oils, 1884 (Dinner at Haddo House, 1884), NPG · G. Jerrard, photograph, c.1884, NPG · J. E. Millais, oils, 1886, priv. coll. [see illus.] · Elliott & Fry, photograph, 1890–99, NPG · M. Beerbohm, drawings, c.1901–1912, AM Oxf., V&A · M. Beerbohm, drawings, c.1901–1912, Indiana University, Bloomington · M. Beerbohm, drawings, c.1901–1912, U. Texas · H. Furniss, pen-and-ink sketches, NPG · F. C. Gould, three pencil, pen, and ink sketches, NPG · J. H. Lorimer, oils (after J. E. Millais), Eton · B. Partridge, two caricature drawings, NPG; repro. in Punch · Spy [L. Ward], caricature, chromolithograph, NPG; repro. in VF (3 June 1876) · Spy [L. Ward], caricature, chromolithograph, NPG; repro. in VF (14 March 1901) · ink drawing, Scot. NPG · woodburytype photograph, NPG; repro. in University Magazine (1878)

Wealth at death  

£1,500,122 3s. 6d.—in England: resworn probate, CGPLA Eng. & Wales