The Magazine

The Most Successful Conservative

Lord Salisbury's Achievement

Mar 13, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 25 • By DAVID FRUM
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Victorian Titan

by Andrew Roberts

Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 938 pp., $ 50.

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.