Cecil, Robert Arthur Talbot Gascoyne-, third marquess of Salisbury
- Paul Smith
Robert Arthur Talbot Gascoyne- Cecil, third marquess of Salisbury (1830–1903)
Cecil, Robert Arthur Talbot Gascoyne-, third marquess of Salisbury (1830–1903), prime minister, was born at Hatfield House, Hertfordshire, on 3 February 1830, the fifth of six children and third of four sons of James Brownlow William Cecil, second marquess of Salisbury (1791–1868), and his first wife, Frances Mary, only daughter of Bamber Gascoyne of Childwall, near Liverpool. Lord Robert Cecil, as he was styled until 1865, was a direct descendant of Elizabeth I's ministers Lord Burghley and Robert Cecil, and his father revived the family's tradition of political service by holding office, respectively as lord privy seal and lord president of the council, in the Conservative cabinets of 1852 and 1858–9.
Childhood and youth
Having lost his mother before he was ten, and lacking a brother or sister nearer than four years in age, Cecil was a solitary and sensitive child, with a passionate temper. At Eton College, from 1840, he was well grounded in French and German in addition to the classics, and showed unusual aptitude for theology, but was so enthusiastically bullied that he had to be taken away from the school in 1845. He found botanizing and reading at Hatfield a more congenial form of education, until he went in December 1847 to Christ Church, Oxford, where, though poor health restricted him to an honorary fourth class in mathematics conferred by nobleman's privilege after only two years, he became secretary and then treasurer of the Oxford Union.
Preparation for the bar was cut short by a voyage undertaken for the sake of his health from July 1851 to May 1853, during which he visited the Cape, Australia, and New Zealand, the only places outside western Europe he would ever visit (with the exception, briefly, of Constantinople). Beneficial though the stimulus to his physical and mental vitality was, it did not generate any enthusiasm for the possible careers of politics, religion, the law, or even journalism, about which he wrote to his father in September 1852, with the conclusion: 'all modes of life are equally uninviting' (Cecil, Life, 1.37). In August 1853 the influence of his cousin, the marquess of Exeter, returned him to parliament as Conservative member for Stamford, for which he sat for fifteen years without a contest. In the same year he competed successfully for a fellowship of All Souls, where he could claim the privilege of founder's kin. Ill health dogged his early steps in the House of Commons, and until a late age he would be liable to the crises he called 'nerve storms', bringing depression, lassitude, and hypersensitiveness of touch and hearing.
Religion, marriage, and journalism
Low animal spirits and bruising early experience left Cecil with little expectation of influence or popularity. He was rescued by his religion and his marriage. The critical and sceptical temper of his intellect was laid aside in what his daughter and biographer, Lady Gwendolen Cecil, called 'that personal surrender in love and trust to the living Christ, which lay at the heart of his religion' (Cecil, Life, 1.122). The core of religion, he insisted, was a mystery. Yet, if his faith was at bottom unreasoned and intuitive, it was not formless. He regarded a determinate creed as a precondition of firm belief and active zeal. No accommodation with other doctrines was acceptable to him which involved the dilution of the distinctive tenets of the Church of England, on the Tractarian wing of which he chose to lodge (Pusey House was to be launched at his London home in 1882). Religion was a sheet anchor of his personality, as the punctiliousness of his observance throughout his life suggested, but it was not a softening agent or a repository of guidance for the political fray. Cecil's combativeness made it hard for him to swallow the charitableness of Christian moral teaching except as an act of faintly grudging deference to divine authority. He wrote that 'the common sense of Christendom has always prescribed for national policy principles diametrically opposed to those that are laid down in the Sermon on the Mount' (Saturday Review, 17, 1864, 129–30).
The other sheet anchor was domestic life. Very tall, thin, stooped, and short-sighted, very shy, very serious, and deplorably dressed, Cecil was fortunate to find in Georgina Alderson (d. 1899), daughter of the judge Sir Edward Alderson, a buoyant and forceful woman who could share his intellectual interests and encourage and facilitate his career. Married on 11 July 1857, they were to have five sons and three daughters, the eldest of whom, (Beatrix) Maud [see Palmer, (Beatrix) Maud, countess of Selborne], became president of the Conservative and Unionist Women's Franchise Association. The happiness of his family life at once enabled Cecil to work more effectively in the world and increased his tendency to seclusion from it. Almost all his intimacy was within his own home and family; few outsiders ever penetrated beyond the grave, courteous, but largely aloof exterior. Marriage estranged him from his father, who thought the Alderson connection a poor match. Since Cecil had only some £400 a year, mainly from the interest of his mother's fortune, and his wife £100 more, they were obliged to begin married life modestly, and the birth of a daughter in April 1858 increased the pressure on Cecil to supplement their income by the journalism on which he had embarked in December 1856, shortly after his engagement, in the weekly Saturday Review, owned by his brother-in-law Alexander Beresford-Hope. Between 1856 and 1868, he contributed 608 miscellaneous unsigned pieces to the paper, and he was soon adding to this output in the short-lived Bentley's Quarterly Review, in 1859–60, and the leading tory organ, Murray's Quarterly Review, to which he contributed twenty-four long, mostly political, articles between April 1860 and July 1866, with nine more to follow up to 1883 (his published writings, 1853–94, and speeches, 1848–68, are listed in Pinto-Duschinsky, 157–201). This grinding work raised his income probably by more than £300 a year in the early 1860s. Company directorships brought in more. Although in 1866 he was seriously embarrassed by the Overend Gurney crash, he had enough business acumen to make a successful chairman of the beleaguered Great Eastern Railway Company from 1868 to 1872.
Political ideas and polemics
Journalism elicited from Cecil a more extensive elaboration of his political ideas than almost any other British statesman has set down. He was not given to theorizing, but it was his bent always to set the issues of the moment in the context of the broader tendencies and historic experience of human society. His Conservatism was not of the mystical or sentimental variety, and he did not believe that it could rest safely on mere custom or complacency. The questioning nature of his mind required that established institutions and arrangements should be capable of justification in rational and empirical terms. The test was their capacity to further the stability, security, and prosperity which Cecil identified with the greatest happiness of the greatest number—not least the security and prosperity of landed society, which he, 'essentially a squire' in Lady Gwendolen's perception, saw as fundamental to the national well-being. The political supremacy of the classes possessing property and education was justified as a natural product of social evolution and a necessary condition of political stability. Every community, he wrote in 1862, threw up 'natural leaders' and instinctively deferred to them, unless 'misled by the insane passion for equality'. Cecil acknowledged that they had to be 'checked by constitutional forms and watched by an active public opinion lest their rightful pre-eminence should degenerate into the domination of a class' (QR, 112, 1862, 547–8). He did not think mid-Victorian constitutional forms perfect: he did not care overmuch for representative government. But he did come to think that the 'accidental equilibrium of political forces' obtaining after 1832 'presented the highest ideal of internal government the world had hitherto seen' (QR, 130, 1871, 279–80). The destruction of that equilibrium by the introduction of a more democratic franchise was his predominant nightmare in the discussions of parliamentary reform which absorbed a large part of his polemical energies in the 1850s and 1860s.
Cecil argued that working men should not be given an electoral preponderance overwhelming the voice of other classes of society. Believing that political power should be proportioned to 'the magnitude of interests' not 'the number of noses' (Bentley's Quarterly Review, 1, 1859, 28), he dismissed as absurd and unjust any scheme in which 'two day-labourers shall outvote Baron Rothschild' (QR, 116, 1864, 266). His fear was partly that democracy would lower the tone of politics: men of integrity and refinement would stand aloof and careerists and professional organizers would take over. It was still more that numerical majority would lead the poor into spoliation of the rich, not because they were more vulnerable to the promptings of self-interest than the classes above them, but because they were no less so. This expectation rested on a highly schematic and materialistic interpretation of history as a process of class struggle. Cecil liked to think of himself as a political scientist, proceeding strictly upon empirical evidence to investigate 'the pathology of states' (QR, 110, 1861, 249). His conclusions about the dynamics of society and politics were more trenchant than subtle, embodying an almost Marxian view of the relations between economic and social substructure and political and ideological superstructure. Except when religious enthusiasm supervened, human beings were driven mainly by considerations of material interest and shaped their moral argumentation accordingly. Political contests found their most dramatic modern form in the struggle for power 'between the classes who have property and the classes who have none'. The struggle was not capable of final resolution: indeed it was a sign of vitality in a free state. 'We might as well hope', Cecil wrote in 1866, 'for the termination of the struggle for existence by which, some philosophers tell us, the existence or the modification of the various species of organized beings upon our planet are determined' (QR, 120, 1866, 273). If the ‘comfortable classes’ could never eliminate the forces of innovation, however, they could at least temporarily halt their advance if they battled hard enough.
To frighten the ‘comfortable classes’ out of a fatal complacency was a main aim of Cecil's politics. The almost apocalyptic tone and the savage invective of some of his discourse served that purpose. They owed something, too, to the need to make a journalistic name so as to earn money. Most of all, they derived from the anger, only imperfectly modulated into sarcasm, produced in him by the wickedness of the enemies and the backsliding of the allies who imperilled his universe by their aggression or their cowardice. There was no desire to understand the alien force or argument, no inclination to concede virtue in opponents; only a determination to pulverize them with an intellectual violence that repaid the physical humiliation he had had to suffer in impotent rage as a boy. Some of Cecil's harshest words were reserved for those of the possessing classes who were laggardly in their own cause. The party system, he believed, prolonged a fatal division between Conservatives and whigs, natural allies in the defence of property, but in their attachment to historic antagonisms and their eagerness for office playing the game of the advanced Liberals and radicals, who could exact concessions from both. Their coalescence was Cecil's urgent political desire. The virulence of his feeling brought his language close to the scatological when he spoke of the rival party leaders' eating dirt and bearing the device of a rat before the radicals, and pictured Disraeli, whom he regarded as an unprincipled adventurer, as 'the grain of dirt' clogging the political machine (Bentley's Quarterly Review, 1, 1859, 346, 360).
This assault on his Commons leader, in July 1859, ensured Cecil's notoriety, but emphasized the dissonance between the latitude he could permit himself in formally anonymous articles and the demands of his party career. With his first child on the way, he had applied for a place to Derby when the latter came into office in February 1858, mentioning 'difficulty about the means of support' (Cecil, Life, 1.65). Refusal may have accounted for some of his acerbity in print, but he voted steadily with the ministry on major questions, even when it introduced a reform bill. Disraeli was sufficiently alive to the usefulness of a talented young Cecil to ignore his insults and, as the Conservative Party settled after 1859 into coexistence with Palmerston's essentially conservative regime, Cecil was able to devote his full combative vigour to resisting the advance of radicalism. His maiden speech, on 7 April 1854, had opposed interference with the ancient endowments of the universities. The land was defended against inequitable taxation, the Christian legislature against the admission of practising Jews, the Church of England against efforts to erode its privileges on the part of the nonconformists. The catastrophic results of democracy were sardonically illustrated from the experience of the United States. For Cecil, the American Civil War demonstrated how the despotism of a democratic majority would leave an oppressed minority with no alternative but rebellion. He pressed for Britain to recognize the Confederacy, and the emotional strain entailed by his passionate identification with its fortunes caused his wife to fear for his mental equilibrium. He was slow to come to the front in the Commons, but by 1864 he was making a mark with criticism of Palmerston's foreign policy, not least in its abandonment of Denmark in the Schleswig-Holstein crisis (he was for British intervention), and by his prominence in exposing the education department's censorship of school inspectors' reports, which led to the resignation of the responsible minister, Lowe, though the manner of it magnified the impression that he lacked 'kindly instincts or the spirit of fair play' (The Parliamentary Diaries of Sir John Trelawny, ed. T. A. Jenkins, 1990, 272). Awareness that the more hidebound tories were thinking of him as a possible Commons leader was perhaps an encouragement to his chiefs to take him into the inner councils of the party in that year, when Derby, anticipating office, put him down for the under-secretaryship for foreign affairs. Cecil's advance in political position no doubt helped, as it may have been helped by, the reconciliation with his father which in July 1864 brought him and his wife to Hatfield for the first time since their marriage, but still more effectual was the certainty, given the poor health of his unmarried elder brother, that he would eventually succeed to the title. He became Viscount Cranborne and heir to the marquessate when his brother died on 14 June 1865.
Parliamentary reform, 1865–1867
The revival of the parliamentary reform question in the mid-1860s brought Cranborne further into prominence. Although he was prepared to consider schemes of voting which offered working men 'a share of political power proportioned to the share which their labour gives them in the country's wealth' (QR, 117, 1865, 572), his fundamental instinct was not to move. 'The perils of change are so great', he wrote in 1865,
the promise of the most hopeful theories is so often deceptive, that it is frequently the wiser part to uphold the existing state of things, if it can be done, even though, in point of argument, it should be utterly indefensible.QR, 117, 1865, 550
He took an enthusiastic part in 1866 in the Conservative Party's resistance to the Franchise Bill brought in by Russell and Gladstone, Lord Stanley classing him among those who 'abhor the idea of compromise, and enjoy a fight for its own sake' (J. Vincent, ed., Disraeli, Derby and the Conservative Party, 1978, 251). When the ministry fell, he became, on 6 July 1866, secretary of state for India in Lord Derby's third cabinet. He at once impressed the House of Commons with his characteristic rapidity in mastering a brief by successfully introducing the Indian budget after less than a fortnight in office, but his main concern was soon the efforts of the government to settle the reform question, despite its lack of a Commons majority. Cranborne was initially prepared to agree to the apparently radical proposal of household suffrage in borough constituencies, so long as it was restricted by the requirement of personal payment of rates and counterpoised by extra votes according to rateable value or house-tax payments. By February 1867, however, he had become convinced that Disraeli was trying to hustle his colleagues into a dangerously large measure. He secured acceptance of a £5 rating franchise as the basis of the government's proposals, but three days later Derby and Disraeli reverted to the plan of rated household suffrage with plural voting as the likeliest ground of a settlement. When the cabinet discussed the plan on Saturday 23 February, Cranborne was already calculating its effects on the constituencies. Concluding on the Sunday that in the smaller boroughs plural voting would not counterbalance household suffrage, so that some three-fifths of the constituencies would be controlled by the new voters, he wrote a letter which obliged Derby to hold a cabinet next day, less than two hours before the proposed bill was to be outlined to a party meeting as a prelude to Disraeli's presenting it in the Commons. Threatened with the resignations of Cranborne, the earl of Carnarvon, and General Peel, the cabinet cobbled together a plan on a £6 rating basis; but it was soon clear that the Commons would not have it and that a substantial body of Conservative members thought household suffrage the only recipe for success. When household suffrage was reinstated at the cabinet of 2 March, Cranborne, Carnarvon, and Peel resigned.
Cranborne's fear that the exigencies of getting the bill through the Commons without a majority would lead Disraeli to whittle down its checks on household suffrage was fully realized, but the exhilaration of parliamentary triumph swept the Conservative Party along, and Cranborne made little attempt to organize a revolt. His gift was for the articulation of argument, not the leadership of men. In a lacerating Quarterly article in October 1867, he charged Derby and Disraeli with conspiring to betray their followers into a sweeping measure of reform in order to assure themselves of office. In precipitating an unparalleled experiment in 'placing a great empire under the absolute control of the poorest classes in the towns' (QR, 123, 1867, 534), they had ushered in a new political world in which Cranborne did not immediately see how he could function. There was no question of his responding to the feeler put out by Disraeli in February 1868, when the latter succeeded Derby as prime minister.
Hatfield and the House of Lords, 1868–1872
On his father's death on 12 April 1868, Cranborne became marquess of Salisbury and entered into the role of a great landed magnate, with restricted enthusiasm. The boy's distaste for outdoor exercise was translated in the man into a lack of interest in country pursuits, bar a little rabbit shooting, supplemented by occasional tennis. As lord of 13,000 acres around Hatfield, he learned what he had to about farming, but more than half his gross income of £50,000 to £60,000 a year was soon coming from the Cecil property in central London and from building development on the Gascoyne inheritance of land on the outskirts of Liverpool and on the Bifrons estate at Barking. Urban and suburban revenue cushioned Salisbury against the agricultural depression beginning in the late 1870s, and enabled him to pursue his paternalistic instincts by endowing Hatfield town with a variety of public buildings and improving the housing on his estate. Hatfield House underwent improvement too, driven not by its master's aesthetic taste, for he displayed none, but by his regard for practical convenience and his interest in science and gadgetry. From an early interest in photography, he had progressed to experiments in chemistry and electricity, and at Hatfield he established a laboratory with the guidance of Professor Herbert McLeod, and equipped the house with electric bells in 1869 and subsequently with electric lighting. Experiments with the telephone followed. Work on polarization, magnetism, and spectroscopy fed the appetite for precise empirical procedure often frustrated in politics, and in 1873 he published a paper entitled 'On spectral lines of low temperature' (London, Edinburgh and Dublin Philosophical Magazine, 45, 1873, 241–5). He became FRS in 1869, and as chancellor of the University of Oxford, a position he assumed in the same year, if his first anxiety was to preserve the Anglican character of the institution, his second was to encourage better provision for the physical sciences, new chairs for which were envisaged in the bill to establish a commission on Oxford which he introduced in 1876. Salisbury's imaginative interest in the social implications of science appears in his suggesting to the Institution of Electrical Engineers in 1889 that electricity, in enabling people 'to pursue in their own homes many industries which now require the aggregation of the factory', would help restore 'the integrity of the family upon which rest the moral hopes of our race' (The Electrician, 24, 1889, 13). He was president of the British Association in 1894, his address being printed in revised form as Evolution: a Retrospect.
At Hatfield and his London house in Arlington Street, Salisbury could insulate himself from the casual social intercourse which bored him (his excuse being that he would only bore others), and indulge his taste for working in soundless seclusion behind firmly shut double doors, often into the small hours. He not only felt no need of others' opinions but found them an annoying distraction from the business of thinking out his own. Paradoxically, this somewhat disdainful distancing, which might have seemed to unfit him for political leadership, formed a qualification for it. Aristocratic aloofness combined with ability and a reputation for integrity was what many Conservatives liked in a leader. When Disraeli's gamble with reform was followed in 1868 by electoral defeat, the tendency to look to Salisbury as a future leader was strengthened, despite the misgivings engendered by what Carnarvon in 1870 called his 'Wild elephant' mood (The Diary of Gathorne Hardy, ed. N. E. Johnson, 1981, 117). In 1869–70 strong support among Conservative peers for his taking the lead in the Lords was frustrated mainly because of the impossibility of his co-operating with Disraeli. Although he disclaimed any desire to come to the front, Salisbury's ambition was not insensitive to the expectations which centred on him, and translation to the House of Lords—which he had at first contemplated resisting—enabled him to take part in the politics of a more democratic era from a position detached from the necessity of intimate contact with the enlarged electorate or its representatives.
It was his concern that the House of Lords should be strong and self-confident enough to supply both an adequate platform for his exercise of high political authority and the essential Conservative brake on the activity of an otherwise unrestrained majority in the House of Commons. Salisbury argued that the Conservative Party's proper role was to 'act the part of the fulcrum from which the least Radical portion of the party opposed to them can work upon their friends and leaders', even if that meant 'the moderate Liberals enjoying a permanent tenure of office, propped up mainly by their support' (QR, 127, 1869, 560). In this self-denying strategy for the protection of religion, property, and the constitution, the Conservative majority in the Lords had a crucial place. Salisbury recognized that the Lords needed invigorating. In 1861 he criticized their poor attendance and feeble debates, and he was anxious to strengthen their influence by enlarging their representative character through the introduction of new blood from the business community, supporting Russell's bill for life peerages in 1869. He strongly backed their rejection of Gladstone's Paper Duties Bill in 1860, and one of his first actions on joining them in 1868 was to support the rejection of the bill suspending Irish church appointments with the assertion that to become 'a mere echo and supple tool' of the House of Commons was 'slavery' (Hansard 3, 193, 1868, 89). That they could not with safety reject a measure endorsed by the verdict of the constituencies he understood, and his role was vital in 1869 in securing the passage of the bill disestablishing the Irish church, for which the 1868 election had given Gladstone a mandate. That they should refer for the further consideration of the country any far-reaching measure hostile to Conservative interests which arguably lacked such endorsement, he was determined. Preparing to oppose the Ballot Bill in February 1872, he defined his strategy.
The plan which I prefer is frankly to acknowledge that the nation is our Master, though the House of Commons is not, and to yield our opinion only when the judgement of the nation has been challenged at the polls and decidedly expressed.Cecil, Life, 2.26
He saw that approach as '(1) Theoretically sound, (2) Popular, (3) Safe against agitation, and (4) so rarely applicable as practically to place little fetter upon our independence'.
Secretary of state for India, 1874–1878
Salisbury's recommended policy of bolstering the moderate Liberals against the radicals, until such time as the former's disillusionment should precipitate a reconstruction of political allegiances along the real lines of class interest, was nearly enough represented by Disraeli's post-1868 practice for Salisbury's sallies against his party leader to die away. When the Conservatives won the general election of 1874, it was inevitable that Disraeli should offer a cabinet place to the most powerful Conservative talent in the Lords. Unless he was to decline political responsibility and consign his career to the sidelines, it was inevitable that Salisbury, despite 'intense personal dislike', should accept. On 21 February 1874 he became again secretary of state for India.
Not everything in the conduct of the second Disraeli ministry met with Salisbury's approval. He had been assured that the government would not support measures against the ritualists in the church. Although he disliked their excesses, 'he sympathises', Derby told Disraeli, 'with a great deal of what they teach, and (like Gladstone) he attaches more importance, personally, to that class of questions than to all political or national considerations' (Shannon, Disraeli, 201). His high-churchmanship was offended by ministerial co-operation in Archbishop Tait's Public Worship Regulation Bill of 1874, and his refusal to endorse the measure in the Lords was the occasion of Disraeli's irritated but accurate characterization of him as 'a great master of gibes and flouts, and jeers' (Hansard 3, 221, 1874, 1358–9). In the same year he thought the interests of the church inadequately served in the Endowed Schools Bill, as he did later in the government's policy on elementary education. The labour legislation of 1875 went further in concession to the trade unions than he felt justified. But these were not resigning matters, and his attention was largely absorbed in the conduct of his office. His traits as a minister were quickly evident in his apprenticeship at the India Office, both in his eight-month tenure in 1866–7 and in 1874–8. Intellectual self-sufficiency placed strict limits on the usefulness to him of subordinates' advice. His first experience in the office caused him to begin in 1874 by reorganizing departmental procedures to enhance the secretary of state's independence of, and authority over, the permanent under-secretary, and by instructing the government of India to submit legislative proposals for his approval before they were considered by the viceroy's council. Successive viceroys and presidency governors were firmly guided in the direction he desired by private correspondence.
Salisbury was not a heedless imperialist. As a young man, he had seen that colonization all too easily involved exploitation (the white colonists' treatment of the New Zealand Maori was a case he cited) and that its advantages did not necessarily justify the expense and commitment incurred. But he did not escape conventional feelings of racial superiority, arguing in 1859 that some races needed the protection of stronger ones, and that India and Ireland were better off under English rule than they would be under their own. Derby recorded his saying ('truly enough') in cabinet in March 1878, when the occupation of a Mediterranean base was under consideration, that 'if our ancestors had cared for the rights of other people, the British empire would not have been made' (The Diaries of Edward Henry Stanley, Fifteenth Earl of Derby, ed. J. Vincent, 1994, 523). He was quite clear that, once made, it must be sustained by force, though the force might have its benevolent side. Appalled by the Orissa famine of 1866, he was angered by the Indian administration's deficiencies in famine relief and the callousness of the Anglo-Indian press, and he wanted to raise the condition of the peasantry—and lessen its potential for unrest—by promoting cheaper credit and lower taxation. What he was determined not to see raised was 'a sort of bastard Home Rule cry' from the Anglo-Indians or any expectation of self-government in the native population. If England was to remain supreme, he told the viceroy, Lytton, in 1876, she must 'appeal to the coloured against the white as well as to the white against the coloured'. That meant some toleration of the political role of the Indian princes, and of participation by Indians in the administration, but Salisbury judged in 1877 that if the number of well-educated Indians able to secure posts by competition should increase, the government would face the 'indecent and embarrassing necessity' of closing that avenue to them (Blake and Cecil, 118, 140). The degree to which Indian interests were to be subordinated to British, and even to the electoral needs of the Conservative Party, was plain in his clash in 1875 with the viceroy, Northbrook, who sought to maintain the protective duties designed to foster an Indian cotton industry, which were bitterly opposed by the Lancashire cotton merchants.
The overriding preoccupation in Indian affairs was security against the threat posed by the southward pressure of Russia on Persia and Afghanistan. Salisbury doubted the ability of the tsarist empire to overrun the subcontinent, but wanted to provide, by maintaining a British envoy in Herat, against its acquiring a dominant influence in Afghanistan and stirring up the Indian Muslims—a policy which led to difficulties both with Northbrook, who opposed the idea of an Afghan client state, and with his successor as viceroy, Lytton, who was too inclined to adventure on the north-west frontier. When, however, revolts against Turkish rule in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1875, and the atrocities of Turkish irregulars against insurgent Bulgarian Christians early in 1876, reopened the Eastern question, the defence of India became subsumed under the wider problem of British relations with Russia, if that state should attempt to capitalize on the disintegration of Turkey to advance its power in the Near East and menace the security of Britain's communications with India via the recently opened Suez Canal.
Foreign affairs, 1876–1880
In the tense cabinet discussions of foreign policy in 1876–8, Salisbury's high-churchmanship, like that of his close associate, Carnarvon, set him strongly against the continuance of Turkish government over the Christian peoples of the Balkans. In any case, he believed that the Ottoman empire in Europe could not be sustained. 'It is clear enough', he told Lord Beaconsfield (as Disraeli had just become) in September 1876, 'that the traditional Palmerstonian policy [of British support for Ottoman territorial integrity] is at an end' (Cecil, Life, 2.85): an understanding with Russia would have to be sought. He was given the chance to seek it, when Beaconsfield selected him as plenipotentiary to a conference of the powers convened on British initiative in Constantinople, with the view of forestalling any Russian military enterprise by bringing pressure to bear on the Turks to concede administrative autonomy to the insurgent Balkan provinces. The conference, from December 1876 to January 1877, foundered on the refusal of the Turks to be coerced, which Salisbury was inclined to attribute to a conviction that they could always rely on British backing in the last resort. Throughout 1877, as Russia went to war with Turkey in April and, after early reverses, began to threaten complete military victory, he was anxious that Britain should not be drawn into what he regarded as a morally indefensible alliance with Turkey, but should rather sustain her interests, if need be, by securing a suitable vantage point in the Near East. In June he told the cabinet, according to Derby, 'that Russia at Constantinople would do us no harm: and that we ought to seize Egypt' (Diaries of … Stanley … Earl of Derby, ed. J. Vincent, 1994, 410). Beaconsfield grumbled to the queen that he was 'thinking more of raising the Cross on the cupola of St Sophia, than the power of England', and by June was conveying the queen's displeasure at the Indian secretary's 'wavering language', and envisaging his departure from the government (Millman, 274; W. F. Monypenny and G. E. Buckle, The Life of Benjamin Disraeli, 1910–20, 6.145–6). Salisbury shifted towards a more anti-Russian stance at the cabinet of 21 July, but continued sufficiently in line with the peace policy of the foreign secretary, Derby, to join him in December in opposing the prime minister's call for an immediate summoning of parliament to vote an increase in the armed forces and for the intervention of Britain as mediator between the now defeated Turks and the Russians. He told Beaconsfield on 26 December that the country was not prepared for war with Russia; and at the cabinet of 12 January 1878 apparently stood ready to resign with Derby had the latter not joined in accepting his compromise proposal to ask Turkey for permission for the British fleet to take station in the Dardanelles and Russia for an assurance that her troops would not occupy Gallipoli.
Yet Salisbury had no more patience than the prime minister with Derby's inability to impart a decisive tone to British diplomacy, inclining as always to think the firm and consistent execution of policy even more important than its content. By the beginning of 1878, with the Turks beaten and the Russians on the verge of taking Constantinople, it was possible to contemplate checking Russia without falling into a compromising alliance with Turkey. Beaconsfield thought Salisbury so far the key to bringing the cabinet round to a more assertive policy that he had made an appeal to him on 24 December: 'You & I must go together into the depth of the affair, & settle what we are prepared to do' (Millman, 348). At the cabinet of 15 January, Gathorne Hardy was 'much struck by Salisbury's resolution today' in standing for 'resistance to Russian encroachment' (The Diary of … Hardy, ed. N. E. Johnson, 1981, 349). Henceforth Beaconsfield and Salisbury worked in close accord. When Derby offered an abortive resignation on 23 January, it was Salisbury whom Beaconsfield proposed to the queen as his successor. On 27 March, when the cabinet, in order to enforce British interest in the revision of the terms of peace forced on Turkey by the Russians at San Stefano, discussed calling out the reserves and sending Indian troops to occupy Cyprus and Alexandretta (Iskenderun), Beaconsfield's assertion that peace could not be assured by 'drifting' bore the marks of concert with the Indian secretary, who supported warlike preparations partly in order to guard against an adverse swing of sentiment among the peoples of Asia if there were not a visible demonstration of British power. Derby's definitive resignation that day was followed by Salisbury's appointment as foreign secretary.
The determined tone Salisbury meant to give to the government's foreign policy was at once shown by his issuing on 1 April 1878, simultaneously to the European powers and to the public, a circular which insisted that the treaty of San Stefano, breaching as it did the treaty of Paris of 1856 and the treaty of London of 1871, must be submitted as a whole to the contracting powers, and castigated the provisions which, in infringing the independence of the Ottoman government, prejudiced vital British interests in the straits, the Persian Gulf, the shores of the Levant, and the region of the Suez Canal. In the ensuing months he negotiated the agreements which the Berlin congress of June–July 1878 would endorse, securing from Russia the reduction of the large Bulgarian state stipulated at San Stefano (seen as a Russian satellite), in return for her acquisition of Kars and Batumi and advance in Bessarabia; and from Turkey agreement to British occupation of Cyprus as a Mediterranean base and to reforms for the benefit of her Christian subjects, in return for a guarantee of her Asiatic possessions against Russia. At Berlin, Salisbury did the spadework, complaining wryly in letters home of Beaconsfield's lack of detailed grasp, and he received with his chief the Garter (30 July 1878) and the freedom of the City of London when they returned in triumph. Their policy secured British prestige, but the permanent gains were slender: the greater Bulgaria came into being in 1886, at the expense of the Turks, while Russia overturned the congress provisions by fortifying Batumi; and the system of installing special consuls in Asiatic Turkey to superintend the promised reforms proved futile.
Party leader, 1880–1884
The general election of April 1880 swept the Conservatives out of office and left Salisbury wondering whether this was 'the beginning of a serious war of classes' (Williams, 40). The Eastern crisis had made him the second man in the Conservative Party. Beaconsfield's death in April 1881 left him in ability and prestige the first, though the leadership of the opposition was split between him in the Lords and Sir Stafford Northcote in the Commons, and a good many still inclined to think him disqualified from the head of affairs by the impetuosity which led Gladstone to dub him ‘Prince Rupert’. In his last Quarterly Review article, entitled 'Disintegration', in October 1883, Salisbury offered an alarmist analysis, both of the challenge posed to the integrity of the empire, in Ireland especially, by home-rule aspirations, and of the threat levelled at the social cohesion without which national power could not be sustained, by the alleged drive of radical extremists towards 'the equality not only of conditions but of possessions, and the extermination of religious dogma'. But his determination to frustrate radical designs led him into an approach with a radicalism of its own. Deriving a dubious authority from a mass electorate which gave attention to politics only 'partially and fitfully', its action distorted by the bargaining necessary to hold together the factions in the Liberal Party, and insufficiently disciplined by a weak executive, the House of Commons, he argued, was no longer capable of supplying that 'cool and deliberate judgement' of the 'generality of the nation' which was required to arbitrate between contending classes (QR, 156, 1883, 565–8, 576). Against the unchecked pretensions of the popularly elected chamber, Britain lacked the safeguards built into the constitution of the United States, of which Salisbury now wrote almost wistfully. The only body capable of ensuring that vital national questions were presented for the considered verdict of the people, and of checking an imperfectly representative House of Commons, was the House of Lords. It was the peers' duty, he said in October 1881, to reflect 'the permanent and enduring wishes of the nation as opposed to the casual impulse which some passing victory at the polls may in some circumstances have given to the decisions of the other House' (The Times, 12 Oct 1881).
Against the Liberals' Irish land legislation of 1881–2, which Salisbury was anxious to resist as infringing the rights of property in a manner he thought likely to form a precedent for Britain, the Lords proved a weak instrument. On the Arrears Bill of 1882, with the Irish landlords demoralized and some of his colleagues jibbing at his belligerence, Salisbury had angrily to acknowledge that he had been placed in a small minority on his own side. He was still feeling for an effective technique of leadership when, in 1884, the government's introduction of a bill for household suffrage in counties presented him with an issue in which the Lords could be made to play a decisive role. The assimilation of the county to the borough franchise was hard to resist indefinitely, but, scrutinizing the figures, Salisbury concluded that the Conservatives would suffer severely unless the new franchise were accompanied by a redistribution of seats which would enable what would otherwise be large Conservative minorities, especially in urban areas, to secure representation. The Conservative majority in the Lords rejected the bill in the absence of a redistribution scheme, but the pressure for a negotiated settlement exerted by the queen and his more cautious colleagues restrained Salisbury's original impulse to precipitate a general election on the existing franchise. Instead, he accepted Gladstone's offer to pass an Agreed Seats Bill following the franchise measure. In November 1884 he took the lead for the Conservatives in negotiating with Gladstone and Dilke in a series of private meetings the details of a redistribution scheme based on single-member constituencies, which, in facilitating the separation of rural from urban areas and middle-class from working-class districts of towns, much improved the Conservative Party's electoral chances. In making the powers of his own house the key to the protection of Conservative interests in constitutional change, and in demonstrating his grasp of the details of electoral strategy, he made a large stride towards establishing himself as the first choice for the premiership if the Conservatives should regain office.
Salisbury was demonstrating at the same time his ability to embark on the direct appeal to the people that was the corollary of the referendal role he was giving to the Lords. 'Power', he told his eldest son in February 1881, 'is more and more leaving Parliament and going to the platform' (Adonis, 175). Before 1880 he had rarely spoken outside parliament and his own locality. Between 1880 and 1886 he spoke on more than seventy platforms all over the country. The man who shrank from recognition by strangers and from gawping admirers at railway stations could be warmed by the enthusiasm of great audiences, which he addressed in clear, unpatronizing, and hard-hitting language. Nor was the power of the press neglected: from June 1884 Salisbury was briefing Alfred Austin of The Standard, whom he would later make the most pedestrian of poets laureate. Salisbury's interest in the facts of electoral sociology and geography and his anxiety to achieve the most efficient mobilization of the Conservative forces led naturally to involvement in the oversight of party organization, but it was always organization from the top down. It was on the alleged manipulation of the Liberal Party by caucuses of log-rolling activists that he partly relied to discredit it and to deny true representative status to the measures of Liberal governments. He had no intention of countenancing in the Conservative Party anything analogous with the pretensions of the National Liberal Federation to influence policy, and hence no sympathy for Lord Randolph Churchill's efforts in 1883–4 to encourage the middle-class provincial stalwarts of the National Union of Conservative and Constitutional Associations to claim a voice in the party's inner councils and take over the functions of the central committee of whips and party officials and notables which directed party organization.
Churchill's use of the National Union was all the less welcome for forming part of the campaign to force himself to the front of the party that had begun with his subversion of Northcote's authority in the Commons through the activities of the ‘Fourth Party’, and was reaching its apogee in his proclamation of ‘tory democracy’, but the popularity that he was acquiring with the Conservative rank-and-file made a break with him inadvisable at a time when the Franchise Bill was dividing Conservative opinion. A compromise suited both Salisbury's and Churchill's interests, and it was reached between them on 26 July 1884. Informing Northcote, whom he had not consulted, Salisbury represented Churchill as having been willing 'to fall into line' in return for a very limited integration of the union's management with that of the parliamentary party (Shannon, Salisbury, 43). In fact, the arrangement included also the abandonment of the central committee, the recognition of the Primrose League, and a taking of Churchill into the confidence of the leadership which, by implication or possibly by express understanding, meant the relegation of Northcote's claims to leadership in a future Conservative administration. Salisbury had steadily expressed support of Northcote as a colleague; he does not seem to have felt compelled to resist Churchill's undermining of him as a rival.
The caretaker government and the home-rule crisis, 1885–1886
After the consolidation of his primacy in the party by the events of 1884, Salisbury's professed taste for weak Liberal government as a constitutional preservative had to contend with the knowledge that the overthrow of the ministry would establish him as the Conservative candidate for the premiership, as well as with his desire to wrest control of foreign policy from Liberal hands at a moment of renewed crisis over Bulgaria. A decision that the Conservatives would be prepared to govern Ireland without renewing the Crimes Act of 1881 made it possible to secure Parnellite votes to defeat the government in the Commons on 9 June 1885, and Gladstone resigned. With some appearance of reluctance, on 23 June 1885 Salisbury answered the queen's summons to form a caretaker ministry until an election on the new franchise and constituencies should be possible, embarrassedly accepting the necessity of dispatching Northcote to the Lords as earl of Iddesleigh in order to meet the terms of Churchill, who took the India Office. Salisbury joined the Foreign Office to the prime ministership, and quickly reinforced his credit by skilful maintenance of British interests in the Bulgarian crisis and dealings with Russia over Afghanistan, but by the end of the year the focal point of his administration was Ireland.
Salisbury's analysis of the problem of social and political unrest in Ireland was that it was spineless conciliation since 1780 that had fostered it. The Irish were irreconcilable to ‘English’ rule, and concession only stimulated their efforts to break free of it by teaching them what leverage they could exert by intransigence. Self-government was unacceptable, within a United Kingdom framework because the home-rulers would never accept the position of a permanent minority at Westminster, within a purely Irish framework because the permanent minority would then be the protestant, landlord, and loyalist contingents whom Salisbury was determined not to abandon, both on grounds of moral obligation and because that dereliction would signal across the empire England's lack of will to hold what she possessed. The alternative, the steady and masterful imposition of authority, was closest to Salisbury's natural bent. If he had an Irish policy, it consisted of dogged endurance, tinged with baffled exasperation.
However, a government which had come in with the help of Parnellite votes, had renounced the coercion embodied in the Crimes Act, and contained men like Carnarvon, Churchill, and Hicks Beach, who stood for constructive measures, could hardly rest on simple repression. Salisbury felt uncertainly for the means to keep Ireland quiet. Baling out the beleaguered landlord class and facilitating the emergence of a socially stabilizing peasant proprietary with state-assisted land purchase was an acceptably Conservative measure, pursued in the Ashbourne Act of 1885. Carnarvon was allowed to meet secretly with Parnell, and though the cabinet declined in October to endorse Carnarvon's inclination towards home rule, the interview, coupled with the cautious tone of Salisbury's public pronouncements, encouraged Parnell's hopes of the Conservatives sufficiently for him to throw the Irish vote in Britain against the Liberals in the general election of November–December 1885. Some dozen gains brought the Conservatives back 250 strong to face 334 Liberals, with Parnell's 86 Irish nationalists occupying a key position. Salisbury fended off the queen's and Churchill's promptings for a centre coalition with whigs, in which he would have been marginalized. His line was given definition by Gladstone's approach in December to discover whether the Irish problem could be disposed of by Liberal support for a Conservative measure of concession to Irish aspirations, which was followed immediately by the public revelation that action on Ireland was in Gladstone's mind. 'His hypocrisy makes me sick' (Marsh, 85) was Salisbury's reaction to what he evidently read as an invitation to take the risks of an initiative for which Gladstone could claim the credit. The precedents for Liberal assistance in Conservative settlement of contentious issues which weighed in Gladstone's mind, those of 1829, 1846, and 1867, weighed in Salisbury's too, as examples of breach of faith by tory leaders with their followers which both honour and expediency forbade him to emulate. Producing proposals likely to disrupt the Conservative Party had small attraction compared with forcing Gladstone to declare his own and disrupt the Liberal Party.
Salisbury now sought to move the cabinet towards a renewal of coercion in Ireland and a proscription of the National League, accepting Carnarvon's resignation, but defeat on the agricultural holdings issue supervened on 27 January 1886, and Salisbury resigned two days later. In the following weeks he began to concert with Goschen and Lord Hartington, leaders of the anti-home-rule Liberals, opposition to Gladstone's newly installed ministry, and on 14 April, the day of the first reading of Gladstone's Home Rule Bill, the three shared a London platform in denunciation of it. On 15 May, with a long-remembered reference to the Khoi-Khoi (Hottentots) among others, Salisbury told the National Union that:
this,—which is called self-government, but is really government by the majority,—works admirably when it is confided to people who are of Teutonic race, but … does not work so well when people of other races are called upon to join in it;Cecil, Life, 3.302
and he called for twenty years of resolute and consistent government of Ireland. Any possibility that had existed of a bipartisan approach to the Irish question had been overwhelmed by the attraction for Salisbury of a ferocious defence of the union with Ireland which would affirm the Conservatives' claim to be the party of nation and empire, rally the widespread popular anti-Irish prejudice of the large towns which had proved a novel source of Conservative strength in the 1885 election, and precipitate the realignment of the whigs with the Conservative Party which would bring political life into line with his political logic. Conservatives and Liberal Unionists together defeated the Home Rule Bill in the Commons on 8 June 1886, and in the ensuing general election the two groups working in alliance secured an overwhelming anti-home-rule majority, 316 Conservatives and 79 Liberal Unionists being returned. Salisbury professed willingness to serve under Hartington in a Unionist coalition, but, designedly or not, he had defined his stance in terms too uncompromisingly tory for the Liberal Unionists to be able to enter the Conservative-dominated government, which he stipulated, and following Gladstone's resignation on 20 July he resumed the office of prime minister (25 July), which he would hold for thirteen of the next sixteen years.
The premiership and the Unionist alliance, 1886–1892
Salisbury never admitted to enjoying the premiership, complaining that its ostensible power was a sham, recoiling from what his wife called the 'exhibition of littleness' of the aspirants for office and reward who beset it, and bending under the incessant labour of combining it with the Foreign Office (as he did nearly the whole time), the official boxes pursuing him even to the Chalet Cecil, the family's holiday home near Dieppe, and later to Beaulieu, where he built his second French retreat. He was, one of his sons acknowledged, 'very averse to collaboration, and it was natural for him to think that his colleagues would equally dislike it' (‘X’ [Lord Robert Cecil], in Monthly Review, 13, 1903, 9). The latter, and even his own children, he might have difficulty in recognizing if coming on them unexpectedly, mental abstraction, aristocratic remoteness, and short sight combining in uncertain proportions. Masterful on paper and on the platform, he lacked stomach for imposing himself face-to-face, and ran his cabinets with so loose a rein that Cranbrook had to call upon him in November 1886 for 'your distinct lead and your just self-assertion' (Cecil, Life, 3.326). Hicks Beach recollected that he often allowed important matters to be decided by a small majority, even against his own opinion. That his knack was more for diplomacy than for leadership, however, was not always a disadvantage in the task of balancing the elements of the Conservative Party and managing its alliance with the Liberal Unionists. Less helpful was his aloofness from the party rank-and-file, accentuated by his being in the Lords, and his tendency to draw around him in government a narrow circle of friends and relatives, most conspicuously his nephew Arthur Balfour, who entered the cabinet in 1886. Salisbury was strongly conscious of the growing importance of the middle-class contingent in his party, and worked well with its leading representative, W. H. Smith, but he did not readily bring middle-class politicians to the fore. The self-importance of the party's constituency activists was judiciously flattered, but the National Union was kept well hobbled by the party managers, notably the chief whip, Akers-Douglas, and the principal agent, Captain Middleton, with both of whom Salisbury frequently indulged his interest in the details of organization and control, and from whom he drew much of his sense of what the party and the country wanted. The after-effect of illness in 1880 was a gain in weight which turned his appearance from the lean and hungry to the portly and patriarchal and added physical mass to his reputation for ability and integrity, but the imposing combination, even when relieved by the negligence in dress which caused him to be refused admission to the casino at Monte Carlo, inspired respect more readily than affection. Middleton, in December 1886, thought that his personality was the great strength of the party among the ‘uneducated’, as Gladstone's was for the Liberals; but unlike Gladstone he never acquired a popular nickname, and even the caricaturists could find little to lighten the grave solemnity, or sombre resignation to duty, which appeared in his portraits, belying the charm and humour which he could display within his intimate circle.
The most significant challenge to Salisbury's command of the party was posed by the restless ambition of the chancellor of the exchequer and leader of the Commons, Lord Randolph Churchill, who by November 1886 was complaining petulantly to Salisbury about tory incapacity for legislation in a democratic constitution. The prime minister had no desire to see Churchill's association with Joseph Chamberlain, the leader of the radical wing of the Liberal Unionists, colour the character of the whole alliance, and Churchill made matters worse by conducting unofficial contacts with foreign powers and drafting a budget which seemed to Salisbury hostile to the landed interest. When in December Churchill took issue with the army estimates, and sought to enforce his point by offering to resign, Salisbury, characteristically conducting the whole affair by correspondence, presented so unyielding a front as effectively to accept the resignation. Churchill's position with the party was wrecked by his action, and the consent of Goschen to take over the exchequer enabled Salisbury to move further towards the development of the Unionist alliance on a fundamentally Conservative footing.
'We have so to conduct our legislation', Salisbury had explained in a vain attempt to teach Churchill the facts of Conservative life,
that we shall give some satisfaction to both classes and masses. This is specially difficult with the classes—because all legislation is rather unwelcome to them, as tending to disturb a state of things with which they are satisfied. It is evident, therefore, that we must work at less speed, & at a lower temperature, than our opponents. Our bills must be tentative and cautious; not sweeping & dramatic. But I believe that with patience, feeling our way as we go, we may get the one element to concede, & the other to forbear.Marsh, 80
His acceptance of the need for some legislative concession by the ‘classes’ reflected the change of life from thirty-three years in which he had sat in parliament with a Liberal majority in the Commons for all but six of them, to an epoch in which it began to seem possible that the junction of all the Conservative elements of the country in defence of the union would deposit the legislative machinery in safe hands for most of the time. The conduct of opposition was giving way to the practice of government, and Salisbury had never held that government should be stationary or inert. The needs of the alliance counted for something in this evolution. An 'extra tinge of Liberalism in our policy', he had told Churchill in December 1885, would be part of the bargain with the whigs when the moment came (Cecil, Life, 3.275). When the alliance materialized, it included not only the whigs but the radical Unionists under Chamberlain, who had to be given the means to reassure his followers that he was not sustaining a reactionary regime. The Liberal Unionists were not in a position to impose terms, because Salisbury and his party managers had taken care to couch the electoral compact in terms that gave them no chance of increasing their numbers, and they were captive so long as Gladstone adhered to home rule, but their presence made it easier for Salisbury to persuade his ‘classes’ to concede when an 'extra tinge of Liberalism' seemed necessary for the health of the alliance and the safety of the union, as well as for the consolidation of the (to Salisbury startling) advance of Conservatism in the big urban electorates which had revealed itself in 1885–6.
Conventional Conservatism was appeased by Salisbury's efforts to aid the church, which he continued to regard as the only reliable agency for social as well as spiritual betterment. In October 1885, approaching the election, he had placed at the centre of his Newport speech the maintenance of church establishments and of religious education (an attraction not least to Catholic voters). His second ministry pursued legislation on tithes, patronage, and clerical discipline, and he took up free elementary education, enacted in 1891, largely in order to bring national taxation to the help of the Church of England's schools. Helping the clergy to gather their tithe, however, made that other reservoir of Conservative supporters, the landowners, feel more keenly the government's failure to shelter them against the agricultural depression. Profound though his conviction was of the crucial role of the landed interest in securing social and political stability, Salisbury did not think it feasible to bolster its position by measures which would expose the Conservatives to the reproach of being the party of protection, expensive food, and narrow class sympathies. The creation of the Board of Agriculture in 1889 was as much a gesture of goodwill as an earnest of practical assistance.
If tone deaf to Churchill's boisterous rendering of ‘tory democracy’, Salisbury was not committed against secular efforts at social and administrative improvement. He had no intention to undermine the responsibility of the individual or much to enlarge the sphere of action and of expenditure from direct taxation of a state theoretically controlled by a democratic electorate. Yet when he said in 1891 that the Conservative Party had 'always leaned—perhaps unduly leaned—to the use of the State, so far as it can properly be used for the improvement of the physical, moral and intellectual condition of our people' (The Times, 16 July 1891), he was sounding a note already evident in his Oxford Union days, his first election address at Stamford, and his early support for factory legislation and improved treatment of paupers. He advocated the provision of cheap money for building working-class housing in a National Review article in 1883, secured in 1884 a royal commission on which he sat, and carried its recommendations into law in tandem with Sir Charles Dilke in 1885, increasing the availability of Treasury loans and taking new measures against slums. A second measure to facilitate slum clearance and rehousing received his backing in 1890. Though deeply disliking compulsory purchase of land to provide allotments for agricultural labourers, he swallowed the compulsory element of the bill of 1887, under pressure from back-benchers desperate for labourers' votes. If, at Newport, his support for a measure of popularly elected local government had been something of a sop to the provincial activists denied democracy in the management of the party, it was none the less implemented in the County Councils Act of 1888, which he justified on the safe tory ground of resistance to excessive centralization. A still larger concession to full democracy was not inconceivable to him after the enfranchisement of the agricultural labourer. 'When I am told that my ploughmen are capable citizens', he wrote to Lady John Manners in 1884,
it seems to me ridiculous to say that educated women are not just as capable. A good deal of the political battle of the future will be a conflict between religion and unbelief: & the women will in that controversy be on the right side.Smith, 18 n.
In Ireland the Liberal tinge was evident mainly in the continuation in 1887 and 1891 of land purchase legislation and in the programme of rural economic development embodied in the congested districts legislation of 1890. But the government saw Ireland as an ongoing problem of firm administration rather than a question which might be susceptible of an answer. To implement the renewed coercion necessary to combat the National League and agrarian resistance, Salisbury chose as Irish secretary Balfour, whose hard-handedness with the militant Skye crofters while at the Scottish Office had won his approval ('Everything seems to be going on charmingly in Skye. By steady deliberate pressure … you will get them under surely enough'; Williams, 163). Salisbury's determination to get the Irish under caused him to make the most of the revelations about Parnell which The Times derived from the forger Piggott, and to lend his support to the paper even when their authenticity was challenged.
The Foreign Office, 1887–1892
Through its implications for imperial integrity and national defence, the Irish problem was part of the global picture which Salisbury surveyed from the Foreign Office, where he superseded Lord Iddesleigh in January 1887. He was to be foreign secretary for eleven of the next fourteen years. It was his post of predilection, where he could indulge his penchant for the conduct of politics as a detached intellectual pursuit little disturbed by the opinions of colleagues and only remotely hindered by parliament and public. 'We do not', he reminded the Lords in January 1887, 'usually discuss what goes on in the Foreign Office' (Hansard 3, 310, 1887, 34). In this sphere his proximate superior was the queen. If she was occasionally hard to manage, her experience and her European family connections made her a valuable source of advice and intelligence, and as her foreign secretary Salisbury came closest to what was perhaps his ideal of ministerial service, the relationship of his Cecil ancestors to Elizabeth I. He was not himself an easy chief to serve. He could not or would not delegate decision making, and he did not find discussion helpful. Behind his impenetrable courtesy lay the reluctance to direct human intercourse that made it hard for subordinates to know what he wanted. Ambassadors, apt to miss or misunderstand the element of ironic humour in his remarks, sometimes found him inscrutable.
Making his name as a polemicist on foreign affairs in the 1860s, Salisbury had stigmatized as a fatal confusion the attempt to apply to the relations of states, without a common law, the moral standards of civic and private life, and had castigated the reluctance of the ‘commercial spirit’ to meet the cost of the armaments required to secure British interests, which reduced the country to indulging popular pugnacity by bullying weak states like China and Brazil, while skirting confrontation with stronger ones. But he was convinced when he came to the helm that Britain, as a largely satisfied and so defensive power, found its highest interest in peace, and his conviction of the necessary egoism of state policy did not preclude a sense of international obligation. 'We are part of the community of Europe and we must do our duty as such', he declared in 1888, repudiating 'haughty and sullen isolation' (Cecil, Life, 4.90). The essence was to avoid truculence and to ensure that policy was backed by the necessary strength.
The latter condition was not easy to meet in the era of the ‘scramble for Africa’ and the emergence of two great continental alliances, the triple alliance of Germany, Austria, and Italy, completed in 1882, and the Franco-Russian alliance formed in 1891–4. Salisbury's most delicate skills were perhaps displayed in fending off without conflict German and French challenges in east and west Africa respectively, and in settling in the convention of 1891 the dispute with Portugal over territory north and south of the Zambezi. His Near-Eastern policy was the continuation of that which he had pursued alongside Beaconsfield, its kernel being the containment of Russia in the East and the control of the straits, working with the central powers, Germany and Austria, in the hope of averting any resumption of their old alignment with Russia in the Three Emperors' League and of securing their support in the imbroglio with France created by the British occupation of Egypt, from which Salisbury would have been glad to negotiate a withdrawal on suitable terms. The acceptance in 1885–6 of the union of the Turkish province of Eastern Roumelia with Bulgaria was part of this approach, Bulgaria now appearing as an obstacle to, rather than a tool of, Russian designs. Co-operation with the triple alliance involved concession to Bismarck's desire for British support of Italy in the Mediterranean, likely though that was to impede the improvement of relations with Italy's most direct competitor, France. The Mediterranean agreements of February–March and December 1887 linked Britain to the triple alliance in defence of the status quo in the Near East and secured Austro-German co-operation over Egypt. The mutual interest of Britain and Germany made it possible in 1890 for Salisbury to hand over Heligoland in return for recognition of British primacy in east Africa, including the Zanzibar protectorate. Britain's value as a partner, however, was lessened by doubts about her ability to fulfil her Near-Eastern role. The ‘scare’ over the adequacy of her naval power which was raised in 1888 led to Salisbury's sanctioning the formal adoption of the two-power standard and the establishment, in the Naval Defence Act of 1889, of a five-year construction programme protected against the ordinary budgetary control of parliament. In 1892, the Admiralty's unwillingness to face the risks of forcing the straits in the event of conflict with Russia drove him to complain that, if Constantinople could not be protected, 'our policy is a policy of false pretences' (Lowe, 89). The inauguration of the Franco-Russian alliance increased the desirability of a better understanding with France, but as he left office in August 1892 Salisbury explained that he was afraid of 'too hurried a rapprochement with France, involving the abandonment of the Triple Alliance by Italy—a reconstruction of the Drei-Kaiser-Bund and Russia on the Bosphorus' (ibid., 90).
Return to opposition, 1892–1895
Despite the parliamentary relief afforded by the split among the Irish nationalists at the end of 1890, government and party were by that time in the doldrums, not least because of what Salisbury registered as the muttering of 'our right wing' about such apparent concessions to radical Unionism as the measures on county government and free education. The prime minister baulked at further provocations, sounding in January 1892 his old, resistant note of conviction that 'I can get better terms for property out of office, than I can in office' (Williams, 390). The desire of Balfour and Chamberlain to respond to defeat in the general election of July 1892 by meeting parliament with a programme of social legislation encountered Salisbury's habitual reluctance to risk alienating 'a good many people who have always been with us' (ibid., 430), and his fear that 'these social questions are destined to break up our party'. The Liberals and Irish, with a majority of forty, turned the government out in August. Salisbury resigned on 12 August. His private secretary at the Foreign Office noted that he 'shewed indecent joy at his release' (The Diary of … Hardy, ed. N. E. Johnson, 1981, 833).
In opposition to a Gladstone ministry bent on home rule Salisbury was better placed to control his party. Home rule was bound to pass the Commons and there was thus no need to make policy concessions to the Liberal Unionists in order to block it. The crucial decision would be taken in Salisbury's own arena in the Lords. He had pursued the strengthening of the representative claims of the Lords by bringing in more peers from commercial and industrial backgrounds, and by introducing in 1888 a bill to permit the creation of up to fifty life peers, though it was dropped to avoid major difficulties in the Commons. Now, in a National Review article of November 1892 entitled 'Constitutional revision', he denied that the government's 'motley majority', based on a 'multiplicity of questions', and non-existent in England and Scotland, supplied a mandate for home rule, and contended that, in the absence of a referendum procedure, only the peers could ensure adequate consultation of the nation over proposals for organic change. Every effort was made to maul Gladstone's second Home Rule Bill in the Commons sufficiently to reduce the responsibility of the peers in rejecting it, but it was they who finally destroyed it by 419 votes to 41 in September 1893. Salisbury was anxious that the Lords should not seem to act along lines of class interest and warded them away from opposing Harcourt's death duties in 1894. He took out insurance against the election of another home-rule majority by declaring in April 1895 that a mandate for home rule would require 'a large majority of the nation in all its main divisions' (The Times, 8 April 1895), thus turning the heavy Unionist preponderance in England into an insuperable barrier. In the event, the general election of July 1895 returned a Unionist phalanx of 411, as against 259 Liberals and Irish nationalists.
The Unionist coalition, 1895–1900
Salisbury was already back in office (25 June 1895), having formed his third ministry after the defeat of the Liberal government in a Commons' vote on 21 June. He turned the Unionist alliance into coalition by introducing five Liberal Unionists into his cabinet, but there was no question this time of his offering the duke of Devonshire (as Hartington had become in 1891) the lead, though he did offer him the Foreign Office, which he eventually took himself. The overwhelming Unionist majority did something to dissipate Salisbury's fears of a democratic electorate, yet it lessened the degree of his authority, by moving the Unionist centre of gravity back into the Commons, where Balfour and Chamberlain were in charge, and by shifting the emphasis from a politics of resistance, at which Salisbury was adept, to the need for a creative response to the problems of a maturing industrial society and an increasingly challenged empire, which he showed little sign of supplying. He had recognized plainly, in two speeches of 1888 (The Times, 11 April 1888, 1 Dec 1888), the pressing difficulties of reconciling the claims of rich and poor, and of meeting the needs of a growing population in a cramped island, in a world of accelerating economic and imperial competition. But he was not enthusiastic about the nostrums canvassed among Unionists. In face of the threat to British trade from increasing protectionism, he openly sympathized with the fair-traders' demands for reciprocity agreements and retaliation, but feared the class and party divisions that they were likely to provoke. He accepted the necessity of further social legislation, and cautiously endorsed Chamberlain's promotion of social reform as the centrepiece of the Unionist campaign in the 1895 election, but his personal interest in such measures went little beyond his long-established concern for housing, though he supported Chamberlain in passing an Employers' Liability Bill in 1897. Salisbury's basic instincts were as usual to assist the church and the land, and he was disappointed by the failure of the Education Bill of 1896 to negotiate the hazardous waters of state aid for denominational schools, though there was better success the following year. Remission of half the farmers' rates by an act of 1896 was at least a token alleviation of the deepening agricultural depression, and in 1899 clergymen's tithes were relieved of rates. In Ireland, Salisbury sympathized with the landlords' dislike of the 1896 Land Act and did all he could to compensate them for the loss of influence arising from the local government reform of 1898. Conducted by Arthur Balfour and his brother, Gerald, appointed chief secretary in 1895, Irish policy emphasized both the departmentalization of Salisbury's third ministry and its generous allocation of office to his connections. His addition of his eldest son, Cranborne, to the three nephews and a son-in-law already in office was openly attacked in the Commons in December 1900, but Salisbury was undisturbed. The air of massive imperturbability and remoteness increased with the girth (he now took little exercise but tricycle rides). This enhanced Salisbury's aura but began to erode his authority, and from 1896 recurring bouts of influenza, preying on a constitution weakened by incessant overwork, forced him abroad for convalescence and interrupted his grip on affairs.
Foreign and imperial affairs, 1895–1902
The effects were nowhere more evident than in foreign policy, where new challenges were arising, with the extension of great power rivalry in Africa and the Far East, and in 1895–6 friction with the United States over Britain's boundary dispute with Venezuela, when Salisbury demurred to the too brusque application of the Monroe doctrine; feeling soon moderated, however, and by the Hay–Pauncefote treaty of 1900 Britain fell in with American plans for an Isthmian Canal. The prime minister's 'practice of holding few & far cabinets', Lord George Hamilton wrote in January 1896,
enhances his difficulties as he nurses a policy until the time comes for expression or action & he then finds his cabinet against him & has to retrace his steps. This for a strong & proud man must be very unpleasant.BL, Add. MS 49778, fols. 31–32
Hamilton had specifically in mind 'The German alliance, & safeguarding of Constantinople … the two objects for which he has persistently worked during the last ten years' (ibid., fol. 32). To Salisbury's immense chagrin, the cabinet had refused to support him in the autumn of 1895 in overriding the fears of the admirals and forcing the straits in order to restrain Turkish massacres of Armenians, the effect of which on British opinion undermined the policy of sustaining the Ottoman empire, now in any case seen by Salisbury as beyond hope. Salisbury continued to want to 'lean to the Triple Alliance without belonging to it' (Grenville, 98), as he put it, but the Kaiser's telegram of congratulation to President Kruger on the repulse of Jameson's raid into the Transvaal emphasized the precariousness of Anglo-German understanding. Salisbury was obliged to look rather to permanent occupation of Egypt as security for British Mediterranean interests and the route to India, and hence to the management of relations with France and her ally, Russia. With France, Salisbury hoped for what he called 'a mutual temper of apathetic tolerance' (ibid., 428)—which perhaps expressed his practical ideal of international relations. It was possible to patch up conflicts of interest in Siam and on the Niger in the hope of obtaining France's good offices with Russia in the Far East, where competition for concessions from China was exciting the apprehension of British imperialists. Salisbury's policy tended to the shoring up of China, like the Ottoman empire and Persia, as a buffer state between competing imperial powers, with an ‘open door’ to the trade of all nations. But the lack of return from his willingness to make concessions to the Russians, together with the forceful intervention of Germany in taking Kiaochow (Jiaozhou) in November 1897, raised criticism, not allayed by the acquisition of Weihaiwei, that British interests were not being adequately asserted. It took Kitchener's conquest of the Sudan and the repulse of French ambitions on the upper Nile in the Fashoda crisis of September–November 1898 to repair Salisbury's image of strength and emphasize his success in maintaining the British position in the partition of Africa without open collision.
From the spring of 1898, taking advantage of Salisbury's absences, which left Balfour in charge of the Foreign Office, Chamberlain and his cabinet allies set out to promote a new course which involved countering the supposed threat of the Franco-Russian bloc by alliance with Germany. The agreements with Germany on the future of the Portuguese colonies in Africa in August 1898 and on Samoa in 1899 have been taken to mark the influence of this group. Yet Salisbury was slow to give ground. His conviction of British commercial and imperial strength was, perhaps complacently, tougher than theirs. His references to the phrase 'splendid isolation', when it became current in 1896–7, were ironic rather than jubilant, but he did not think that Britain needed to commit herself to any alliance system. He did not expect that Russia and France would combine against Britain outside Europe. If favourable to accommodation with Germany, he believed that her long frontier with Russia would always predispose her to curry favour with her neighbour by throwing Britain over. Commitment to support the triple alliance powers against France and Russia would place a far heavier burden on Britain than the defence of Britain would impose on them. In any case, as he put it in a classic memorandum of 29 May 1901, using an argument he had often found convenient to repel importunity, binding commitments were excluded by the nature of parliamentary democracy: the British government 'cannot undertake to declare war, for any purpose, unless it is a purpose of which the electors of this country would approve', and there was no means of knowing 'what may be the humour of our people in circumstances which cannot be foreseen' (G. P. Gooch and H. Temperley, eds., British Documents on the Origins of the War, 1927–36, 2.68).
The outbreak of the South African War in October 1899 cast further doubt on Salisbury's command of the imperial scene. While favouring a strong line towards the Boer republics, he was uneasy to find the high commissioner in South Africa, Milner, and his 'jingo supporters' drawing the government into a major military effort 'for people whom we despise, and for territory which will bring no profit and no power to England' (Grenville, 267). He displayed his customary hardness towards obdurate opponents. 'You will not conquer these people until you have starved them out', he told Brodrick at the War Office in December 1900 (Marsh, 297). He defended the necessity of farm burning and of concentration camps, accepting the high mortality in the latter as inevitable, 'particularly among a people so dirty as the Boers' (Russell, 230–31). Yet war did not suit him. The early reverses of the campaign brought out his contempt for the military experts and 'that phase of British temper which … has led detachment after detachment of British troops into the most obvious ambuscades—mere arrogance' (Grenville, 20–21). They also exposed the failure of his government to plan for the needs of imperial security, despite the establishment of a standing defence committee of the cabinet in 1895. The size of his victory in the ‘khaki’ election of October 1900 (called to confront the Boers with the national will to press on to victory) made him worry lest the Reform Acts should have exposed in the population 'a layer of pure combativeness' (A. E. Gathorne-Hardy, ed., Gathorne Hardy, 1910, 2.374), but he could no longer restrain the demands for increased defence expenditure which threatened the harsher taxation of property.
His wife's second stroke in July 1899 and death on 20 November had depleted Salisbury's resources. His sluggishness in responding to the Boxer uprising in the summer of 1900 convinced his colleagues of his loss of grip, and they imposed on him an agreement for Anglo-German co-operation in China in which he had no faith. Reluctantly, in November, he gave up the Foreign Office to Lansdowne, taking the privy seal. In January 1901 the death of Queen Victoria and the accession of Edward VII, to whose mistresses Hatfield had remained a closed house, emphasized the passing of his world. His foreign policy was beginning to be dismantled. He could still hamper moves for a German alliance, but in 1902 did not prevent a Japanese, much though he disliked the extent of the commitment involved. By now profoundly miserable in office, he saw the South African War to a successful conclusion, and resigned as prime minister on 11 July 1902.
Death and reputation
Salisbury died at Hatfield House on 22 August 1903, after a fall from the chair in which the breathing difficulty caused by his great weight obliged him to sleep, and the development of blood poisoning from an ulcerated leg which exacerbated his heart weakness. 'It was just', his doctor said, 'that the machine was worn out' (Blake and Cecil, 69). He was buried in the family burial-ground at Hatfield churchyard beside his wife on 31 August, a memorial service taking place in Westminster Abbey on the same day.
In addition to the Garter in 1878, Salisbury received the GCVO in 1902. He was lord warden of the Cinque Ports from 1895. Three of his sons, James Edward Hubert Gascoyne-Cecil (fourth marquess), (Edgar Algernon) Robert Gascoyne-Cecil (Viscount Cecil of Chelwood), and Hugh Richard Heathcote Gascoyne-Cecil (Baron Quickswood), followed him into Conservative politics; his fourth son, Lord Edward Herbert Gascoyne-Cecil, became a civil servant in Egypt; and his second daughter, Lady Gwendolen Gascoyne-Cecil, became his biographer, the intimate knowledge that only a member of the family could possess enabling her to paint an unrivalled portrait of the man, though the published volumes reach only 1892 (the manuscript of an unfinished final volume exists in the family papers).
Salisbury's reputation rests on his ranking as one of the greatest of British foreign secretaries and on the long predominance achieved by the Unionists under his leadership. If, towards the end of his career, he had to acknowledge that the Near-Eastern policy which had been the corner-stone of his as of most British diplomacy in the nineteenth century was no longer viable, and if he had no recipe, such as Chamberlain offered, for the consolidation and energization of the empire to meet intensifying international competition, he has none the less received recognition for performing with patient and undramatic skill the formidable task of defending the worldwide interests of a satiated power without open conflict with powers less replete or onerous commitment to any ally. Peace was an integral part of his matured strategy of Conservatism. It made it possible to contain the direct taxation which Salisbury feared would be levied with punitive incidence on property, not least landed property, in a democratic state. His hostile and pessimistic view of the approach of democracy contrasts with his record as the most electorally successful Conservative leader of the nineteenth century. If his political discourse, which has been analysed for its unusually sceptical and utilitarian presentation of Conservatism (Gladstone thought he had 'no respect for tradition'; The Diary of Sir Edward Walter Hamilton, 1880–1885, ed. D. W. R. Bahlman, 1972, 2.741), conveyed an uncompromising, though not reactionary, stance, the flexibility of the political practice which accompanied it has been remarked. Salisbury has been credited with high political skills in imposing himself with no little ambition and toughness as first Conservative and then Unionist leader, developing his own brand of tutelary populism to reach the enlarged electorate, guiding his party through the concessions necessary to meet the demand for social and administrative reform and to keep the Liberal Unionists in countenance, and turning a reinvigorated House of Lords into a decisive check on radical projects. A less admiring view is that the limited and immature democracy which he faced was skilfully managed by the Middleton machine, and that he was little more than the dexterous beneficiary of a well-established middle-class drift to Conservatism, and a Gladstonian thunderbolt over home rule, which delivered to him the realignment of parties he had always wanted and made easy the establishment of the Conservatives as the party of English nationalism which Disraeli had initiated. The domestic strategy was as defensive as the foreign; it equally lacked the elements of creative imagination and hope of earthly betterment that were absent from Salisbury's nature.
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P. Marsh, The discipline of popular government: Lord Salisbury's domestic statecraft, 1881–1902 (1978)Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat; repr.(1993)Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat
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- BL, corresp. with Sir Charles Dilke, Add. MS 43876
- BL, corresp. with W. E. Gladstone, Add. MSS 44351–44508
- BL, corresp. with Lord Halsbury, Add. MS 56371
- BL, letters to Canon D. Hamilton, Add. MS 63178
- BL, letters to Sir Austen Layard, Add. MSS 39131–39139
- BL, corresp. with Florence Nightingale, Add. MS 45779
- BL, corresp. with Sir Stafford Northcote, Add. MSS 50019–50020
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- BL, corresp. with Lord Ripon, Add. MS 43519
- BL, corresp. with Lord Stanmore, Add. MS 49209
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- BL OIOC, corresp. with Lord Northbrook, MS Eur. C 144
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- BL OIOC, corresp. with Sir Horatio Walpole, MS Eur. D 781
- BL OIOC, corresp. with Sir Philip Wodehouse, MS Eur. D 726
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- Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Sir Henry Burdett
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- G. Richmond, oils, 1872, Hatfield House, Hertfordshire
- W. Theed, marble bust, 1875, Hatfield House, Hertfordshire
- A. von Werner, oils, 1878, Hatfield House, Hertfordshire
- J. E. Millais, oils, 1882, NPG [see illus.]
- G. F. Watts, oils, 1882, NPG
- Horsburgh, oils, 1886, Hatfield House, Hertfordshire
- E. Barnard, pencil drawing, 1887, Hatfield House, Hertfordshire
- A. B. Joy, bronze bust, 1888, Hatfield House, Hertfordshire
- duchess of Rutland, drawing, 1889, Hatfield House, Hertfordshire
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- E. Fuchs, pencil drawing, 1901, Hatfield House, Hertfordshire
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- G. Frampton, bronze bust, 1903, Hatfield House, Hertfordshire
- G. Frampton, statue, 1906, Hatfield House, Hertfordshire
- H. Hampton, marble statue, 1909, Foreign Office, London
- W. G. John, bronze effigy, exh. RA 1912, Salisbury Chapel, Hatfield House, Hertfordshire
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- oils, Hatfield House, Hertfordshire
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Wealth at Death
£310,336 8s.: probate, 15 Sept 1903, CGPLA Eng. & Wales
- Gascoyne, Bamber (bap. 1725, d. 1791), politician
- Alderson, Sir Edward Hall (bap. 1787, d. 1857), law reporter and judge
- Palmer, (Beatrix) Maud [née Lady (Beatrix) Maud Gascoyne-Cecil], countess of Selborne (1858–1950), suffragist and political wife
- Cecil, James Edward Hubert Gascoyne-, fourth marquess of Salisbury (1861–1947), politician and lay churchman
- Cecil, (Edgar Algernon) Robert Gascoyne- [known as Lord Robert Cecil], Viscount Cecil of Chelwood (1864–1958), politician and peace campaigner
- Cecil, Hugh Richard Heathcote Gascoyne-, Baron Quickswood (1869–1956), politician and educationist
- Cecil, Lord Edward Herbert Gascoyne- (1867–1918), army officer and administrator
- Cecil, Lady Gwendolen Gascoyne- (1860–1945), biographer