Britain’s Forgotten Tory Giant | Benjamin Sanders

When people think of great Tory politicians of the 19th century, they tend to mention either Robert Peel or Benjamin Disraeli. Both deserve recognition for their careers of course, but in reality both were largely overshadowed by Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury, who served as Prime Minister for nearly fourteen years. Interestingly, he spent a large part of his early working life writing anonymous articles for newspapers and magazines, because despite being the Godson of the Duke of Wellington, he was the third son in his family, and thus wasn’t expected to ascend to the Marquisate.

 This all changed when his older brothers died, and he was catapulted from being a backbench MP to the position of a Junior Minister in Lord Derby’s government. His experience as Secretary of State for India provided the groundwork for his later premierships, where he would serve as both Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary at the same time. Managing Britain’s affairs from his desk at the Foreign Office, he would oversee the British Empire’s greatest expansion and the pinnacle of its power in the 1890s, whilst at the same time implementing modest social reform to appease growing left wing movements. Probably one of the main reasons for him grasping the top job was his acts of diplomacy during the Congress of Berlin in 1878, for which he was rewarded with the Order of the Garter. 

 Once Prime Minister, one of his most successful policies was his determination to maintain the status quo of ‘splendid isolation’, by which Britain had no permanent allies as the world superpower, and pursued its own interests without becoming entangled in long term alliances. Arguably it was Britain’s ditching of this policy, and its Entente with France and Russia in the early 1900s, which latched our island to the continent in a much more fundamental way, and led to our full involvement in 2 World Wars. (During the time of ‘splendid isolation’, Britain was only obligated to defend Belgium because of a treaty signed in 1839).

 Domestically, one of the most interesting parts of Salisbury’s career, something which benefited him greatly, was that he managed to avoid debating his arch rival William Gladstone. When he succeeded his father as Marquess, he was automatically elevated to the House of Lords, with Gladstone remaining in the Commons. The equivalent today would be Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer contesting a general election, yet never sitting opposite each other during Prime Minister’s Questions or even during legislative debates. Gladstone was the greatest orator of his day, but this mattered very little when his opponent never had to respond or listen to anything he said.

 Contrary to what many might think of a Tory in Victorian Britain, Salisbury thought highly of foreign peoples, praising the Maori of New Zealand as ‘better Christians than the White man,’ and described Black People living in South Africa as ‘a fine set of men.’ Despite reigning over the largest colonial expansion in history, Salisbury was very critical of so-called ‘Jingoes’, and their obsession with conquering every area of the globe no matter the cost to the local native population. Perhaps he was a hypocrite, but his stance of having sympathy for native peoples, whilst at the same time conquering and subjugating them, was shared by many leading figures of his day, including Queen Victoria.

 It is also interesting to note that, despite believing his duty as a High Tory was to slow down reform in order to maintain the power of the aristocracy, he also regularly criticised those who hurt working class interests. His support for high standards of housing for labourers, and his implementation of education for disabled children, led to him being criticised by many of his own social class, with some even falsely labelling him as a socialist.

 Salisbury of course was nothing of the sort, and indeed he was an incredibly gifted tactician in the political arena when aristocratic interests were threatened. This was demonstrated most obviously in the struggle for Home Rule in Ireland. Instead of hawkishly confronting Irish demands with force or hostile legislation, he instead granted land ownership to many Irish peasants. This had the effect of calming the situation down by giving in to some nationalist demands. However, it also took the spotlight and pressure off the Anglo-Irish ruling class, who could no longer be blamed for the poor conditions of peasants they no longer controlled or provided for. The result was another twenty five years of British sovereignty.

 Because he dominated politics for nearly two decades in Britain, perhaps it is not a surprise that people criticised him so regularly, especially after the unpopular Boer War dragged on longer than had been expected. With his wife dead and his health deteriorating as a result of obesity, he retired at the first opportunity after the conflict concluded in 1902. It was now the Edwardian era, and for someone born in 1830, during the Georgian era, and who had lived through the entire Victorian period, he must have realised it was time for the next generation to take over. His ancestor, Robert Cecil, had overseen the end of the Tudor period and the Union of the Crowns, and so it was perhaps fitting that Salisbury oversaw the transition from the House of Hanover to the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, and lived during three important eras of British history.

 Although well known in the first half of the 20th century, his life was largely forgotten from the 1960s onwards, as emphasis was placed more on the World Wars, with the 1880s and 1890s being pushed down the agenda. It is perhaps sadly ironic that the man who was instrumental in so much of Britain’s imperial power, and who became the fourth longest serving Prime Minister, is now largely unknown to most British people. This is especially true when it is considered that both his son and grandson, the 4th and 5th Marquesses, also were leading figures in the Tory party, and that his nephew was none other than Arthur Balfour. 

 If you are interested in learning more about his life and times, I would recommend Andrew Robert’s Victorian Titan, or Winston Churchill’s My early life. The former is a complete biography of Salisbury, and the only one which includes his private papers as source material, whilst the latter gives a great first-hand account of the imperial times that he politically dominated. 

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