Lord Rosebery was only prime minister for a short period of time in what was, to all intents and purposes, a fairly unsuccessful administration. And yet, his views on imperial matters would define his political career and his role within the Liberal Party and going in a large measure to explain why the Liberal Party would eventually splinter but also why it had one last gasp of administrative success immediately before World War One. Lord Rosebery provides a vital key in understanding this fundamental shift in British politics.
Lord Rosebery originally came to prominence in British politics through helping to mastermind Gladstone's triumphant return to power in 1880 with the successful 'Midlothian Campaign'. Much of the energy and organisation for this campaign came directly from Lord Rosebery who acted as Gladstone's campaign manager. He was offered the position of Under Secretary at the India Office but declined to take the position as he felt it was not an important enough job for him. He did take office in 1891 as Under Secretary of State at the Home Office with special responsibilities for Scottish affairs but resigned even this job as he felt Gladstone was needlessly neglecting Scottish affairs.
His resignation allowed him to take a tour of North America and Australia which did much to form his view of the role of Empire within British politics. He believed that the Empire should become a powerful federation of nations and on 18 January 1884 he made an important speech at Adelaide in which he stated: '...There is no need for any nation, however great, leaving the Empire, because the Empire is a Commonwealth of Nations'. This stance would contrast sharply with Gladstone's liberal, non-interventionist policies for Empire which were shortly to be seriously criticised over its failure to come to the aid of General Gordon in Sudan in 1885. Rosebery was also less enthusiastic than Gladstone over Home Rule for the Irish which had become a crucial issue in British politics at this time. Rosebery's blend of imperial federation did not sit well with Irish nationalist demands for devolution from Britain. The Liberals lost the 1885 election over these two issues but Salisbury was unable to form a stable ministry of his own and so the Liberals returned to power again in 1886 although only for six months themselves.
Rosebery made his first substantial impact on the political scene during this short lived adminisration. Gladstone appointed Rosebery as Foreign Secretary in an attempt to shore up his own position within a Liberal Party that had many members who were suspicious of the merits of Irish Home Rule. As it was, Rosebery achieved his most conspicuous success to date with his statesmanlike handling of the Bulgarian Crisis of 1885/6 which was resolved remarkably amicably given the tensions of the previous 1878 crisis in the region. Despite all of his work the Liberal government fell once more over Irish Home Rule. Rosebery dutifully voted with the government but certainly had sympathies with the 93 Liberals who voted with the populist Joseph Chamberlain against the Home Rule Bill. This began a process that would see a deep divide occur within the Liberal Party. Liberal Unionists sided with Chamberlain whilst Home Rulers sided with Gladstone. Rosebery was caught in the middle of these two standard bearers but decided to remain loyal to Gladstone. This was partly due to his high profile role within the government but also as he had more sympathy with the classical economics of Gladstone over the more populist policies of Chamberlain. In many ways, Rosebery remained one of the most pro-imperial Liberals to remain with Gladstone as most Liberal imperialists followed Chamberlain as he slowly moved ever closer towards the Conservative Party.
Gladstone's final ministry in 1892 saw Rosebery return as Foreign Secretary for one more time. He used his position to try and woe back the Liberal Unionists through decidedly pro-empire policies such as continuing British control over Egypt, securing a massive protectorate in East Africa and Uganda in 1894 involving the swap of the island of Heligoland for the curtailment of German colonial activity in Africa. Indeed, he tended to be more pro-German than other politicians of the era and took a dim view of French pretensions to expand their control into Siam in 1893. He also opened the door to better relations with Japan in refusing to join the Russians, French and Germans in an anti-Japanese league. He recognised that Japan was a rising power and one that might be a powerful friend to Britain in her Asian sphere of influence in the future. Rosebery's pro-imperial stance played well with the popular press of the time and also with Queen Victoria. When Gladstone resigned due to ill health in 1894, Rosebery was invited to become prime-minister by the Queen. It is believed that Gladstone and many in his party preferred the Chancellor of Exchequer, William Harcourt. However, the Queen was swayed to invite Rosebery on the basis of his proven patriotic imperialism.
Many hoped that he might supply a bridge between the two wings of the Liberal party but almost immediately he alienated many of his natural allies on the Gladstone wing of the party through his dismissal of the importance and relevance of the Irish Home Rule Bill. His first speech in office created an outcry when he announced that Home Rule for Ireland could come only when England, as the senior member of the three kingdoms, agreed to it. This unexpected dismissal of the dominant issue of the day after Gladstone had expended so much political capital on the policy shocked many Liberals and the large Irish Nationalist contingent within parliament on whom the Liberals relied for their majority.
Consequently, his period as Prime Minister was not a happy one. He frequently clashed with his unhappy Chancellor, Harcourt, with whom he was barely on talking terms. In February 1895 Rosebery threatened to resign because of what he felt to be a lack of support from his own cabinet in parliamentary debates. He did withdraw the threat but it further undermined the confidence of his cabinet in even having made the threat. His legislative programs were held up by the Conservative dominated House of Lords in a precursor to the parliamentary crisis 15 years later. As it was, the House of Lords, where Rosebery sat, blocked all of his legislation except for his budget which had been masterminded by his internal rival, Harcourt. The event that finally brought the government down was the 'explosive' issue of a shortage of cordite in Campbell-Bannerman's War Office. In a period of increasing international tension and militarisation, this issue was seized upon by the press as evidence of national malaise under the drifting administration of Rosebery. The results of the following election confirmed the unpopularity of his government with the Liberals winning just 177 seats. Whereas the Conservatives won 340 seats and Chamberlain's Liberal-Unionists, who had not felt coaxed back enough into the main party, won 71 seats. The effect was to give Salisbury a large majority to form a stable government which froze out the Liberals for over a decade.
In October 1896 Rosebery resigned as leader of the party to be replaced by Harcourt from 1896 to 1899 and then Campbell-Bannerman from 1899 to 1908. Rosebery still hoped that he might be invited back to play a role in the Liberal Party and continued to develop his interests in Liberal Imperialism. He believed that neither Harcourt nor Campbell-Bannerman were pro-imperial enough although it was difficult for Rosebery's brand of imperialism to make his program distinctively different from the imperial policies being followed by Chamberlain and Salisbury in the Conservative-Liberal-Unionist Alliance.
Rosebery's best prospects at a return to power seemed to occur with the outbreak of the Boer War. This conflict utterly divided the Liberal Party which was conflicted over the merits of the war. High profile Liberals such as Lloyd-George spoke against the war whilst Campbell-Bannerman tried hard not to appear anti-patriotic. Campbell-Bannerman tried to square the circle by attacking the way the war was being run rather than whether it was a just war or not. He turned particular attention to the mismanagement of the Concentration Camps with his 'methods of barbarism' speech. This infuriated Rosebery and other pro-imperialist Liberals who now saw their chance with wavering support for a Salisbury government whose management of the war was being severely questioned. In December 1901 in Chesterfield he offered his proposals of a platform to end the war. He stated that there should be a negotiated peace with the Boers but that the Liberal Party should also officially endorse imperialism for the future. He helped set up the Liberal Imperial Council as a think-tank and policy institute to combine these political elements. On the face of it, he was trying once again to reunite the Liberal Party with the Liberal Unionists. However, Joseph Chamberlain had already crossed his own political Rubicon and was taking much of the Conservative Party with him. In 1903, Chamberlain tried to get the Conservatives to agree to Imperial Tariff Reform. This re-energised the classical Gladstonian Liberals who could now characterise the imperialists as making food more expensive for the workers and making businesses more inefficient by determining where and with whom they could do business. The 1906 election saw a landslide for the Liberals of Campbell-Bannerman and the effective death of Rosebery's brand of Liberal-imperialism.
Lord Rosebery eventually left the Liberal party and moved to the cross-benches in the House of Lords from where he became a consistent critic of the Liberal governments of both Campbell-Bannerman and his successor Asquith.