How an Oxford man went into journalism and became a Tory PM – and learned to play dirty

While touring in the north of this land, I read Salisbury, Victorian Titan, by Andrew Roberts.  At 850 pages, not all of which I have read, it is at least twice as long as it should be.  That is a shame, because if you stay with it, and use an editorial discretion about what might interest you, you might get an insight into the problems of being a conservative or Tory politician today.  Their people hold themselves up as the maintainers of standards and decency.  They are fond of saying that the safest way to proceed is by adhering to precedent.  Conventions for them really count.  But common sense suggests, and history confirms, that that when pushed they will get down and dirty as quickly as the rest, and possibly more viciously, because they are traditionally more capable of pulling levers of power and covering up when they do so, or just bluffing their way through in the manner in the manner exclusively owned by those who see themselves as born to rule.

Robert Gascoyne-Cecil was born in 1830 the second son of a Marquess.  The Cecils had been prominent in serving Queen Elizabeth.  The boy went to Eton, which he hated, and Oxford.  When he married for love, to the daughter of Baron Alderson, his father cut him off because he thought his son should have got a better match – at least financially.  .  To get by, young Cecil became a journalist.  He was prolific, even after he got into politics, but he mostly wrote incognito.  He eventually became Lord Salisbury, and after serving under Disraeli, he became Prime Minister on three separate occasions, being in large part opposed by Gladstone, whose Liberal Party split over Home Rule for Ireland.  Salisbury was a very large man, of studied common sense, who became a very effective party political man and leader of a cabinet.  He was not troubled in making decisions, and although he is not nearly as well-known as Gladstone or Disraeli, he is frequently held out as the model Tory PM or leader.  He looks to have been a model family man as well as party man.

I shall look later at how the upbringing of Salisbury affected his politics, but I now wish to look at some occasions where he played dirty – or tried to.  His daughter Gwendolen idolised him, and wrote a four volume biography of him.  She said that ‘he was essentially a fighting animal’ driven by ‘hostility to Radicalism, incessant, implacable sincerity.’   One of his Cabinet said ‘he never likes to keep the sword it its sheath….He is like the King of Hungary on his coronation who rides to all eminences and brandishes his sword to the four corners of the globe.’

Ireland is the great blot on England’s history.  The contempt of the English for the Irish was racist.  They regarded the Irish as an inferior race.  Even when that racism had got masked in the more liberal nineteenth century, someone like Salisbury could get into trouble by referring to Hottentots in the same breath.  But when Gladstone sought to grant Home Rule, all the gloves came off – right up to the top.  Queen Victoria said: ‘We must agitate.  I do not like agitation, but we must agitate every place small as well as large and make people understand.’  To that end the Queen started to pass on to Salisbury, then in opposition, letters from her PM, Gladstone, whom she loathed.  Even a cloistered queen must have known that these letters were utterly confidential, and that she was in breach of so many conventions about the monarch acting on the advice of her elected PM.  Salisbury for his part kept the Queen informed of his political machinations.  Rogers says this:

Salisbury has been criticised for not having referred the Queen sternly to her new Prime Minister, but to expect such a course is to misunderstand the man for whom the ends of defeating Home Rule easily justified the unconstitutional means involved.

If that is put in extenuation, it is also available to Adolf Hitler and others.  If a member pulled a similar stunt at a golf club, he would the thrown out.

Another case involved Parnell, the fated leader of the Irish cause in England, and the lover of Kitty O’Shea.  The Times published sensational allegations connecting Parnell and his party with terrorism.  How could Salisbury and the Tories capitalise on this?  Why, it is obvious – appoint an inquiry, and let the shit hit the fan.  Rogers says this:

Was it legitimate political calculation, or outrageous cynicism, or, as Winston Churchill believed, naïve foolishness that led Salisbury to act?…..With three carefully appointed judges reporting to Parliament, this was neither a Parliamentary Select Committee nor a court of law.  In effect it was a state conspiracy trial without a jury…..To tar the Parnellite party with the suspicion of criminality, even at one step removed would be well worth the embarrassment…..It was crucial, therefore that the Commission’s inquiries should range freely over the whole question of Irish crime, and not be restricted to the specific issue….The only other person who stuck by Salisbury throughout his persecution of Parnell, besides Chamberlain, was the Queen herself….

The Irish had the same effect on the English ruling class as trade unions do on the Australian ruling class.  It sends them off their heads and allows them to play dirty.

Salisbury consulted an eminent lawyer to help defeat the next Home Rule attempt.  He even looked carefully at something the English know nothing of – a referendum!  The great lawyer A V Dicey, truly a name to conjure with, referred him to a learned article that had the convenient truth that a referendum was ‘at once distinctively and undeniably democratic, and in practice Conservative.’  Salisbury was in warm agreement that this was the only way to end the differences in the Parliament.

And so it goes.  As the author of Ecclesiastes says ‘All is vanity….there is nothing new under the sun.’  And Salisbury was bright – he did not have the excuse of our King of Hungary, who is dead-set stupid.