The Most Successful Conservative
Lord Salisbury's Achievement
Mar 13, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 25 • By DAVID FRUM
What can Robert Arthur Talbot Gascoyne-Cecil, third marquess of Salisbury, prime minister of Britain for most of the years from 1885 until 1902, possibly have to say to us? An arch-Tory who opposed almost every progressive measure introduced in Britain in his lifetime, an imperialist who annexed millions of square miles to the British Empire, a sardonic and even cynical aristocrat who mistrusted the wisdom of the people and never once fought a contested election for his seat in Parliament: It would be difficult to invent a character less in sympathy with the spirit of the new millennium. The opposite of what we call a multiculturalist, he treated even the Scots as exotic. As chancellor of Oxford University, he rebuffed demands for the admission of women. Never once did he defend a controversial policy as being for the benefit of the children. And yet, Salisbury was a politician from whom modern conservatives can learn a lot.
And Salisbury's newest biographer, Andrew Roberts, is just the man to drive home the lessons of his eventful career. An ardently partisan Tory, Roberts dedicated this biography of the most electorally successful Conservative prime minister of the nineteenth century to Margaret Thatcher, the most successful Conservative of the twentieth. She ought to appreciate the gesture, for Salisbury: Victorian Titan is a very fine book by a learned and elegant writer who, at age thirty-six, has already distinguished himself as an outstanding practitioner of the British art of non-academic history-writing. Roberts admires Salisbury and wants the reader to admire him too, but he does not skip over Salisbury's faults: a willingness to twist constitutional rules and a savage bluntness of speech that exposed a brutal, even cruel, cast of mind: "If our ancestors had cared for the rights of other people, the British Empire would not have been made," Salisbury retorted to someone who had accused him of trampling on the rights of small nations.
The future Lord Salisbury was born in 1830. He inherited one of England's most resonant names: One of his ancestors had served as chief minister to both Queen Elizabeth and James I. But the name and expensive education that went along with being the second son of a marquess were all he got.
Not that he much appreciated that education: He was savagely bullied at Eton, and made so unhappy that years later he would step into an alley to avoid encountering one of his old schoolmates in the street. Young Robert Cecil's personality was depressive to begin with, but his biographer believes that these horrible early experiences deepened his inherent gloominess and pessimism. "Whatever happens will be for the worse," the mature Salisbury would observe, "and therefore it is in our interest that as little should happen as possible." He was talking about a particular diplomatic problem in Persia, but that remark could have served as the motto of his life.
From Eton, Cecil was sent to Oxford, then on a tour of the world, and then into the House of Commons in 1853. "Sent" is the right word: The seat he represented, Stamford, had (for all practical purposes) a constituency of one voter: the marquess of Exeter, who also happened to belong to the Cecil clan. Robert Cecil would represent Stamford for the next fifteen years. Nobody ever wasted the time or money to challenge his hold on the seat.
At the age of twenty-seven, Cecil married an intelligent but homely girl from a middle-class family. In grand Victorian manner, his infuriated father promptly cut him off without a penny. Since MPs in those days received no pay, Cecil supported his family as an anonymous freelance journalist. Over the next eight years, he committed hundreds of thousands of often-vitriolic words to print. He defended the established church's right to collect tithes from non-Anglicans, opposed the creation of secular elementary schools, vilified all projects to extend the vote to the middle class, and championed the South in the American civil war. Then, in June 1865, his elder brother died. Suddenly the impecunious Cecil stood to inherit one of the largest fortunes in England. Not so coincidentally, he was simultaneously catapulted onto the front bench of the Conservative party. Upon his father's death in 1868, he was elevated into the House of Lords. During a cabinet crisis a decade later, he secured the all-important job of foreign secretary. At last, in the protracted and ruthless power struggle that broke out after the death of Benjamin Disraeli, Salisbury emerged by 1885 as the Conservatives' unchallenged leader.
That leadership was not much of a prize. Of the fifty-five years since Salisbury's birth, the Conservatives and their Tory predecessors had held office for only fifteen. In a Britain that was becoming ever more urban, industrial, and entrepreneurial, the Conservatives were seen as the party of rural life, agriculture, and forelock-tugging. The mid-Victorian electorate was staunchly middle class: In 1832, the franchise had been reformed to give the vote to one man out of five; in 1867, it had been extended to one man in every three. And it was the low-tax, free-trade, peace-loving, vice-suppressing Liberals, not the rustic, beer-drinking, Anglican Conservatives, who championed the interests and values of the middle class.
In 1884, the Gladstone government hammered in what it plainly saw as the last nail in the Conservatives' coffin: a third reform act. This one gave the vote to every man who owned or rented a house, more than half the male population of the country. The Liberal middle-class electorate would become an even more staunchly Liberal working-class electorate. Toffs like the marquess of Salisbury, it seemed, would shuffle off into the dust of history.
Looking back today, there is something awfully familiar about Gladstone's scheme. Just as British politics was transformed a century ago by the advent of the industrial-worker vote, so American and British politics are being transformed today by the growing importance of the votes of working mothers and nonwhite immigrants. A century ago, it seemed all but inevitable that new voters would lock in forever the supremacy of the liberal parties. Many American and British observers happily or unhappily hold the same view today. But Salisbury's cunning thwarted Gladstone's hopes, lending credence to the idea that equally imaginative leadership could achieve corresponding success for conservatism today.
Salisbury saw, in 1885, two things that Gladstone missed. The first was the dynamic nature of political coalitions. Gladstone believed that by adopting redistributionist policies he could simply annex the votes of industrial workers to his existing coalition of businessmen, evangelicals, and voters from the non-English regions of Britain: Scotland, Wales, and Ireland. Salisbury perceived that this leftward jog was at least as likely to jostle Gladstone's old supporters loose, giving him an excellent chance to add the traditional, business-minded Liberal vote in the suburbs to the Conservative base in the country. The second thing Salisbury saw was that while the Liberals were speaking for the material interests of the new voters, they were dangerously neglecting their values. The new voters might be more redistribution-minded than the old. But they were no less patriotic, and under the right circumstances they might turn out to be even more so.
On the strength of those two perceptions, Salisbury proceeded to lay a trap that would shatter the Liberal coalition and rearrange British politics for a long time to come.
A little background is necessary here. The late nineteenth-century House of Commons contained six hundred and seventy members, one hundred and three of them from Ireland. That ratio overrepresented the Irish, whose share of the total British population had fallen to less than ten percent by Salisbury's time, but before 1884 nobody much cared: Most of the Irish seats were controlled by wealthy landlords and the small, disproportionately Protestant, middle class, and they split themselves much as English seats did between Conservatives and Liberals, with a slight but persistent bias in the Liberals' favor.
The adoption of the secret ballot in 1872 weakened the old regime in Ireland, and the enfranchisement of poorer voters in 1884 capsized it. It gradually dawned on all the politicians of England that the election expected in 1885 would send to Westminster a huge contingent of nationalist Irish MPs and that the Irish could very easily end up holding the balance of power.
What to do about this? Salisbury acted first: He arranged for a representative to meet secretly with the nationalist leader Charles Stewart Parnell in August 1885 to propose a Conservative-Parnellite pact. Roberts convincingly argues that Salisbury was not negotiating in good faith. Rather, he expected word of the talks to leak and to goad Gladstone into outbidding him with promises that would please the Irish but offend the English. And that is exactly what happened.
In the elections of November 1885, the Liberals won three hundred and thirty-five of six hundred and seventy seats, while the Conservatives won two hundred and forty-nine and the Nationalists eighty-six. Gladstone could only form a government by making a deal with the Parnellites. Within days of the election, Gladstone declared himself in favor of the Parnellite demand for a separate Parliament for Ireland: Home Rule it was called. Gladstone assumed from Salisbury's clandestine discussions with Parnell that the Conservatives would not put up much of a fight, and he was taken aback when Salisbury abruptly reversed himself.
Public opinion backed Salisbury, and under the pressure of the controversy, the Liberals began to fragment. While reaching for the Irish, Gladstone loosened his grip on the English. In the climactic vote on the Home Rule bill, more than one hundred Liberals defected. Gladstone was forced to call an election in the summer of 1886, and this time he was beaten badly by Salisbury's new coalition of Conservatives and anti-Home Rule Liberals. Salisbury would go on to hold office for a total of fifteen years, longer than Gladstone himself. Salisbury retired in 1902, but his party would hold power for fifty-nine of the ninety-eight remaining years of the twentieth century.
Salisbury's Unionist formula combined vigorous self-assertion abroad with modest social reform at home. It was Salisbury's Unionists who enacted universal elementary education and who belatedly introduced elected local governments in place of the old informal system of rule by the local gentry. His Unionist government also built Britain's first public housing: a departure from laissez faire that Salisbury seems to have been able to accept by analogizing it to a seignior's moral responsibility to house the poor attached to his estate.
Abroad, Salisbury added millions of square miles to the British empire -- all of modern South Africa, and most of what is now Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Malawi as well as all of Kenya, Uganda, and the Sudan, and most of Nigeria. At the same time, his adroit diplomacy allayed the resentments and jealousies of other European powers. It was to this success in "painting the map red" -- red being the cartographer's color for British territory -- that Unionists owed their popularity. Defeated in 1892, they went on to win back-to-back majorities in 1895 and 1900: the first time any British party had accomplished such a thing since 1832 -- and the last time a party would do so, without first changing leaders, until Margaret Thatcher's reelection in 1983.
And it is in foreign affairs that Salisbury's example may have the most to say to conservatives today. Britain in the 1890s was not as strong relative to the other powers of the world as the United States is today. The United States would overtake Britain in gross output by 1900, and Germany was rapidly catching up. Britain did maintain a navy that was as powerful as any two other nations' combined. But its army was so small that Bismarck joked that if Germany were attacked by Britain, he'd call out the Prussian state police to arrest the invaders. America at the dawn of the twenty-first century, by contrast, maintains forces equal to those of the next five powers combined, paid for by an economy that is at least twice as large as that of its likeliest strategic rival, China.
Yet, the foreign policy problems that Britain faced at the end of the nineteenth century are similar to those faced by the United States today: How to deal with the ambitions of a new great power whose intentions cannot be read clearly but do not look friendly (Germany then, China now); and how to deal with one's own ambitions. "I have a strong opinion," Salisbury warned in 1898,
that there is a danger of the public opinion of this country believing that it is our duty to take everything we can, to fight everybody, and to make a quarrel of every dispute. That seems to me a very dangerous doctrine, not merely because it might incite other nations against us . . . but there is a more serious danger. However strong you may be, whether you are a man or a nation, there is a point beyond which your strength will not go. It is madness; it ends in ruin if you allow yourself to pass beyond it.
Salisbury's diplomacy has to be ranked a success. He backed away from conflicts with Germany in the Far East and the United States in Venezuela -- not out of pacifism, but because he wanted Britain to be on good terms with all the world's major powers before he embarked upon his South African war. Salisbury's successors were unable to keep the peace with Germany. But when Germany did finally force a war against Britain, Germany fought with three weak allies, while Britain, in large part thanks to Salisbury's work, was backed by France, Russia, Italy, and eventually the United States.
So what then does this gruff, unsentimental old aristocrat have to teach us? Two things, principally.
First, conservative parties must cope with new social facts, but the right way to cope with them is often indirectly. Salisbury did not respond to the 1884 Reform Act either by turning the Conservatives into a quasi-socialist party (as his temperamental associate Randolph Churchill often seemed to want to do) or by appeasing Irish nationalism. He let his opponent succumb to both temptations, and then assembled a new coalition out of the Liberals who reacted against that succumbing. It's an example Republicans should bear in mind when they are told, for example, that they must accept bilingualism lest they alienate the growing Hispanic minority; true political wisdom may, in fact, take the form of a more subtle and less controversial adaptation to Hispanics' new-found electoral influence.
Also, Salisbury always took care to ensure that the elements he added to his coalition were growing ones: It was the white-collar middle-class he pursued, for instance, rather than the declining High Church vote, personally sympathetic as Salisbury was to the latter. When it was necessary, Salisbury sacrificed the churchmen -- the new universal state schools he set up corroded the old system of state-supported Anglican schools -- but he never ever got on the wrong side of suburban voters. That, too, is a good lesson to those conservatives (or quasi-conservatives) like Gary Bauer and Pat Buchanan who invoke protectionism to win the dwindling ballots of steelworkers and auto assemblers.
Second, it's smart for a right-of-center party to be nationalist, providing it keeps its nationalism within reasonable limits. It must respect the nation's willingness to pay the bills, and it must carefully avoid unnecessary foreign quarrels that risk restricting its freedom to maneuver when it really must act. Salisbury's preference for a non-interventionist approach to foreign affairs was not, as his opponents alleged, a sign of his "isolationism." It reflected rather an understanding that once he entangled himself in any one of the countless opportunities for entanglement that arose every day, he would lose much of his freedom to respond to any of the rest. Salisbury's twin priorities were expanding British power in Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean (to safeguard the Suez Canal) and in southern Africa (where he saw an opportunity to create another gigantic British dominion like Canada or Australia). Everywhere else -- in the Caribbean where he was challenged by an obstreperous United States, in the Far East where Germany was seeking an empire of its own, and in Central Asia where Russia seemed to be closing in on India -- he preferred to avoid committing himself.
Salisbury was not a glamorous man. In person, he was notoriously shabby. His speeches never packed the emotional voltage of Gladstone's. He utterly lacked the magnetic charm of Benjamin Disraeli, never mind the overwhelming personal charisma of his American contemporary and counterpart Theodore Roosevelt. His mind was subtle and indirect, and his methods unpleasantly tinged with deceit: Salisbury was almost Clintonian in his ability to give answers that were literally true but intentionally misleading, and when they failed to mislead, he did not scruple to lie out-right. But his biographer Andrew Roberts is right: He deserves a titanic biography and, in Salisbury: Victorian Titan, he has gotten it.
David Frum is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD and the author of How We Got Here: The '70s: The Decade That Brought You Modern Life -- for Better or Worse (Basic Books).