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Hotel Cecil (act. 1900) was a mischievous designation of the reconstructed ministry formed by Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, third marquess of Salisbury, after the general election of October 1900. Opponents and some disgruntled supporters borrowed it from the London hotel of that name, used on occasion for party gatherings. They accused Lord Salisbury, three times prime minister and at the head of a coalition of Conservatives and Liberal Unionists since 1895, of having gone against the trend towards a more democratic politics in putting together a new administration overfull of kinsmen, members and connections of his branch of the Cecil family, seated at Hatfield House in Hertfordshire. His nephew A. J. Balfour continued as first lord of the Treasury and leader in the House of Commons, and Balfour's younger brother Gerald Balfour entered the cabinet as president of the Board of Trade. Salisbury's son-in-law the second earl of Selborne [see Palmer, William Waldegrave] received promotion as first lord of the Admiralty. At the Foreign Office, which Salisbury had combined with the premiership, his successor, the fifth marquess of Lansdowne, had the prime minister's eldest son, Lord Cranborne [see Cecil, James Edward Hubert Gascoyne-, fourth marquess of Salisbury], as his under-secretary, representing the department in the Commons. Arthur Balfour had long since demonstrated that nepotism could be justified by performance, and Selborne, who had been Joseph Chamberlain's under-secretary at the Colonial Office and before that, as an MP, the Liberal Unionist whip, was an able man, but Gerald Balfour and Cranborne were less obviously qualified for their places. Salisbury was forced to defend the preferment of his relatives on the reasonable grounds that kinship ought not to debar people from political advancement if, in his seasoned judgement, they were good appointments. Behind the complaints of nepotism, however, there lay something more than predictable opposition tactics and the resentment of frustrated aspirants to office.

Salisbury is still frequently depicted as a survivor from pre-democratic politics whose electorally successful leadership of the Unionist alliance is largely explicable by his skilful exploitation of the Liberal rift over Irish home rule (Steele, Lord Salisbury, 383–4 n. 6). On this view the Hotel Cecil was a family connection of the eighteenth-century type, chiefly interested in holding on to power and place when political life had changed for the better. It was a caricature, although one that assailants found useful. In reality Salisbury's authority, which was to a considerable extent personal to himself and not inheritable by Arthur Balfour as his successor, had ‘consensual foundations’ (Cornford, 307) without which it could not have been sustained. Accommodating the different elements in the broad church he had constructed naturally exposed Salisbury to the discontent of those who thought others favoured at their expense. ‘The Party is full of murmurs at the marked preference reserved for Liberal Unionists and relatives’ (ibid., 309), Thomas Gibson Bowles, the boldest of Conservative back-bench critics, told the prime minister in the autumn of 1900. The disproportionate share of office enjoyed by Liberal Unionists after they entered government en bloc in 1895 was a persistent grievance with Conservative MPs, who heavily outnumbered them in parliament. Salisbury did not allow colleagues, Arthur Balfour included, to choose ministers for him, and in exercising his choice he acknowledged the qualitative importance of Liberal Unionists, and of one of them—Joseph Chamberlain—in particular. ‘He is literally in love with Chamberlain. I never heard him talk of any colleague as he does of him’, wrote Salisbury's niece by marriage, the clever Lady Frances Balfour, when the two men first sat in cabinet together (Steele, Lord Salisbury, 301).

The differences between Salisbury and Chamberlain over foreign and imperial policy were offset by their ideological affinity in another area of statecraft. From the 1880s Salisbury was as much an advocate of constructive radicalism as Chamberlain. ‘What we need above all in this country’, the tory declared, ‘is peace and a close attention to the terrible social problems which beset us’ (The Times, 20 April 1894). T. E. Ellis, the Welsh radical and Liberal chief whip, said of the resulting social legislation, modest though it may have been by later standards, that the Unionist government was ‘really the most advanced … there has ever been … with decided socialist tendencies’ (Steele, Lord Salisbury, 304). The Conservatives alarmed by this development were often those who complained of the Hotel Cecil, which had the effect of distracting them from the more serious topic. Few protested when, as part of the ministerial reconstruction in 1900, Salisbury removed two traditionally minded Conservatives (Henry Chaplin and Matthew White Ridley) from the cabinet, telling them that new blood was imperative to tackle the ‘social questions’ which he expected to loom larger when the current conflict in South Africa ended (ibid., 355).

The picture of the Hotel Cecil as the perpetuation of an outdated ascendancy may have carried more weight with historians than with contemporaries, who soon forgot about it. For one thing, the extended family had differing views of policy on a wide range of subjects. One can cite Arthur Balfour's increasing doubts about the viability of the independent position that Salisbury's diplomacy strove to maintain for their country among the great powers, and Cranborne's brand of churchmanship, more partisan than that of his father. For another thing, Salisbury had mastered the kind of political management that democracy demanded: the attempt to govern through an aristocratic clique would have been self-defeating in the conditions of the time. In his eyes the function of a modern party machine with its supporting bodies, and notably the very popular Primrose League, was to serve as ‘an interpreter between the educated classes, who think and read, and the working classes, whose time for reading and thinking is less, but with whom the power of the vote resides’ (The Times, 30 June 1898). This most cerebral of politicians, who was also an outstanding platform orator, did not seek office in order to conduct a prolonged rearguard action. His stated purpose was to adapt a class society to the pressures of an electorate greatly enlarged by the second and third Reform Acts of 1867 and 1884. Ideas mattered more to him than organization, deployed with the warning that the working class was strong enough to get, after discussion, whatever ‘they sincerely believe will conduce to their welfare’ (Steele, Lord Salisbury, 275). The legend of the Hotel Cecil cannot be made to fit the historical facts.

David Steele


D. Steele, Lord Salisbury: a political biography (1999) · D. Steele, Recovering power: the Conservatives in opposition since 1867, ed. S. Ball and A. Seldon (2005), chapters 3–4 · A. Roberts, Salisbury: Victorian titan (1999) · P. Marsh, The discipline of popular government: Lord Salisbury's domestic statecraft, 1881–1902 (1978) · M. Bentley, Lord Salisbury's world: conservative environments in late-Victorian Britain (2001) · J. P. Cornford, ‘The parliamentary foundations of the Hotel Cecil’, Ideas and institutions of Victorian Britain, ed. J. M. Robson (1967) · R. Blake, The Conservative Party from Peel to Thatcher (1985) · R. Shannon, The age of Salisbury, 1881–1902: unionism and empire (1996)