Robert Arthur Talbot Gascoyne-Cecil
3rd Marquess of Salisbury

Against the Tide?
According to Lady Gwendolen Cecil, Salisbury's daughter and first biographer, 'hostility to Radicalism, incessant, implacable hostility' lay at the core of his political philosophy. He feared the growth of democracy, believing that it would unleash the jealous instincts of the masses, leading to class conflict and the overthrow of private property rights. Thus in 1867, whilst still known by the junior title of Lord Cranborne, he resigned from Lord Derby's government rather than support the extension of the vote to working-class borough householders. Yet, in his opinion, it was worth buying time by mounting an intelligent rearguard action against change, in order to frustrate those whom he termed 'the workers of mischief'.

With the passage of time Salisbury became more flexible in the methods that he was prepared to employ in defence of established values and institutions. As Prime Minister he sponsored some reforms, such as the setting up of county councils (1888) and free elementary education (1891), partly because his Liberal opponents would pass more far-reaching measures if they returned to power. He was too intelligent to imagine that the clock could be turned back, and he appreciated that wholesale resistance was impractical. As he wrote in 1871, Conservatives should 'make up their minds what is worth struggling for. Let them maturely decide, before the conflict begins, what is essential, and what is of secondary importance.'

This does not, however, mean that all historians would wholly endorse the interpretation put forward by David Steele in his biography. Steele suggests that Salisbury was much less reactionary than other scholars have supposed. His belief in the beneficial influence of the Christian religion enabled him to believe that social harmony could be preserved in an increasingly democratic environment. As premier, so the argument continues, Salisbury pursued genuinely 'progressive' policies and did not find it difficult to collaborate with the social reforming radical, Joseph Chamberlain, after the latter broke with Gladstone's Liberal party over Irish Home Rule in 1886. For example, Steele argues that Salisbury was able to contemplate with equanimity the effects of his 1888 Local Government Act, which gave opportunities for Liberals to make gains in the new elected bodies in London and Wales: 'these uncomfortable results were a price worth paying for what was perceived as bold and constructive legislation'. He also draws attention to evidence of Salisbury's sympathy for measures of social welfare, including old age pensions, and suggests that he was prepared, before Gladstone took up the issue, to consider Home Rule as an option for Ireland.

There are grounds for seeing Salisbury as a leader who was prepared to think in unconventional ways, but who was constrained by the natural caution and self-interest of his own supporters. He was conscious of the need to maintain party unity by taking account of what was acceptable to rank and file Conservatives. In his own words: 'Parties are always liable to the suspicion that ... the leaders may, in their anxiety to obtain new support, be inclined to hold cheaply the material interests of those whom their legislation affects.'

It is arguable, however, that Steele underplays the continuing negativism of Salisbury's own attitudes. This, after all, was a premier who could write to a close colleague in February 1889 that 'We are in a state of bloodless civil war ... To loot somebody or something is the common object, under a thick varnish of pious phrases.' For example, Steele ignores Salisbury's hostile description of the London County Council, after radical Liberals won control of it, as 'the place where a new revolutionary spirit finds its instruments and collects its arms'. His creation, in 1899, of a new structure of metropolitan boroughs was an attempt to curb the Council's socialistic tendencies. He remained resistant to ambitious reform programmes, writing in 1892 that 'I fear these social questions are destined to break up our party'.

Old age pensions were consigned to the realm of investigation and effectively killed off by the cost of waging the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902.

It is significant that the two men who held the post of Chancellor of the Exchequer the longest under Salisbury, Sir Michael Hicks Beach (1885-86 and 1895-1902) and George Goschen (1887-92), were both strongly committed to the control of government expenditure, except in the field of defence.

Secrets of Success
How are we to explain Salisbury's dominance of the political scene between the mid-1880s and the beginning of the Edwardian era? As with most successful leaders, the answer is to be found in a combination of his personal qualities and the existence of a favourable set of circumstances. Salisbury himself made three crucial contributions to the electoral dominance of late Victorian Conservatism.

Firstly, in return for permitting the Liberals to extend the vote to householders in the counties in 1884-85, he used Conservative control of the House of Lords to extract from Gladstone a favourable redistribution of seats. For the first time the single member constituency became the norm. This meant that the naturally Conservative inhabitants of middle-class suburban areas were no longer swamped in huge multi-member city constituencies, but received their own separate parliamentary representation. The change gave greater weight to the votes of the white-collar professional and clerical workers, who usually lived on the edges of large urban areas and whose numbers increased by almost 30 per cent in the period 1881-91. These people were reassured by the blend of ideas offered by Salisbury's Conservative party: in the words of the historian Richard Shannon, a combination of 'individual rights, social mobility and respectability, rule of law, market-driven economy, patriotic and imperial pride, willingness to entertain measures of social betterment which did not empower contrary collectivist [i.e. pro-working class, socialist] social forces'.

Salisbury's second important achievement was the encouragement that he gave to the creation of an effective party organisation. He collaborated closely with the party's principal agent, Richard Middleton, a talented organiser who acted as a vital link with the Conservative rank and file throughout the period of Salisbury's leadership. Middleton created a network of professional party agents who played an important role in mobilising support at local level. He also gave Salisbury invaluable advice on local electoral conditions and on the distribution of honours to reward key supporters.

Thirdly, and most strikingly, Salisbury demonstrated ruthless skill in his exploitation of the split in the Liberal Party caused by Gladstone's proposals for Irish Home Rule. He polarised politics by depicting his opponent's scheme as a threat to the security of the empire and the liberty and livelihood of Protestant loyalists. As dissident MPs began to break away from Gladstone, to form the Liberal Unionist organisation, Salisbury perceived an opportunity to widen the division in the party. This was achieved by means of an electoral pact under which most of the sitting rebel MPs were unopposed by Conservative candidates in the 1886 campaign.

During his 1886-92 government, Salisbury showed considerable deftness in balancing the wishes of his own followers with the need to retain the parliamentary support of the Liberal Unionists under Lord Hartington and Joseph Chamberlain. To some extent the democratisation of local government and the removal of fees for elementary education were prompted by the need to project a reformist image to the Conservatives' new friends. The 1895-1902 administration was effectively a coalition, as leading Liberal Unionists accepted Cabinet posts. Yet Salisbury took care not to allow them to dictate policy to the numerically superior Conservative component of the partnership. Historians agree that Chamberlain's selection of the post of Colonial Secretary signalled a recognition that his radical instincts would be frustrated, were he to opt for a domestic portfolio. He was less likely to come into conflict with Conservative colleagues in the field of imperial policy, where there was more obvious common ground between the two wings of the alliance.

Good Luck or Good Management?
Salisbury undoubtedly possessed political skills of a high order. He was able to manage difficult colleagues, such as Chamberlain and Lord Randolph Churchill, whose proposals for a more overtly 'Tory democratic' appeal to the masses challenged Salisbury's instinctively cautious approach. By declining to bring forward potentially divisive issues, such as tariff reform, he avoided the ideological convulsions which were to tear the Conservative party apart after he handed over the premiership to his nephew, Arthur Balfour, in 1902. He had a remarkable sensitivity to the political implications of policy decisions, for example in his reservations about Balfour's 1902 Education Act, which strained the loyalty of Nonconformist Liberal Unionists by allocating local rate aid to Anglican church schools.

Yet Salisbury also enjoyed a considerable amount of sheer good luck. Gladstone's Home Rule policy accelerated an existing drift of propertied, (small 'c') conservative opinion away from the Liberal party. Salisbury had sensed, some years earlier, that Gladstone's growing radicalism was likely to drive right-wing Liberals towards the Conservative party, but he had done little to make it a more attractive home for defectors. He was also fortunate that his only serious rival for the party leadership, Lord Randolph Churchill, gravely miscalculated by resigning in December 1886 on an issue, opposition to increased defence spending, which won him few sympathisers in the Conservative ranks.

As a premier who ran his government from the House of Lords, Salisbury was particularly dependent upon his selection of able lieutenants, who performed for him the indispensable day-to-day tasks of parliamentary management. In W.H. Smith and Arthur Balfour, who took over on the former's death in 1891, he possessed two first-rate leaders of the House of Commons. They were assisted by Aretas Akers-Douglas, an outstanding chief whip in 1885-95, and it was notable that the cohesion of the Conservative parliamentary party declined after he was succeeded by the less capable Sir William Walrond. Outside Parliament the Primrose League, founded in 1883, provided an army of voluntary canvassers who transmitted the Conservative message through a range of ostensibly non-political social events in the constituencies. Yet although the League played an important role in mobilising support, attracting a million members in its first decade, Salisbury played no part in its formation and was initially scornful of its pretensions.

Other factors favoured the prospects of Salisbury and his party. The weakening of Liberal party organisation and finance by the Home Rule crisis was compounded by an endemic crisis of leadership in the 1890s. Gladstone's successor was Lord Rosebery, who lacked the stomach for prolonged party conflict and resigned as leader in 1896, after little more than two years. After the equally brief tenure of Sir William Harcourt, in 1899, came the initially uninspiring Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, who struggled with Liberal divisions over the Anglo-Boer War. Conservative fortunes were also assisted by the fact that, until the founding of the Labour Representation Committee (the forerunner of the Labour party) in 1900, the working classes lacked their own distinctive political organisation at national level.

These advantages were arguably reinforced by the undemocratic nature of the electoral system. Even after the 'third Reform Act' of 1884, approximately 40 per cent of men, and all women, were denied parliamentary voting rights. The complex rules regarding the registration of voters gave plentiful opportunities for party agents to seek the disqualification of their opponents' supporters. Conservative interests were also favoured by the persistence of plural votes for property owners and university graduates. Moreover, as the historian E.H.H. Green points out, Liberal demoralisation meant that many seats were uncontested at general elections in the Salisbury era: the Conservatives enjoyed an unopposed run in 117 seats in 1895 and 149 in 1900. There was also a correlation between Conservative success and low voter turn-out: it stood at a relatively poor 78.4 per cent in 1895 and 74.6 per cent in 1900, compared with 82.6 and 86.6 in the contests of 1906 and January 1910, when the Liberals were victorious. Nonetheless Green's assertion - echoed by Martin Pugh - that the Conservatives deliberately timed elections to coincide with the harvest season, when agricultural labourers were less likely to vote, needs some qualification. It was certainly a factor in the Conservative victories of 1886 and 1895, although as Gladstone was in office on the earlier occasion, Salisbury was unable to influence the timing of that particular contest. The onset of harvest played a part in the election of July 1892, yet it failed to secure a second term for the Conservatives. In the final election of the Salisbury years, that of 1900, the dissolution of Parliament was considered in the summer but ultimately delayed until late September.

Nevertheless there are grounds for the assertion, made by several historians including E.H.H. Green and Robert Blake, that late nineteenth-century Conservative dominance rested on insecure foundations. Its vulnerability was rapidly exposed in the early Twentieth Century as the Liberals overcame their divisions, Labour emerged as a viable 'third force' in politics, and the Conservatives began to lose public confidence as victory in the Anglo-Boer War was delayed. The patriotic enthusiasm of 1900, which played a part in the 'khaki election', dissipated as the conflict became bogged down in guerrilla warfare and as the British army's use of concentration camps and farm-burning tainted the concept of imperial mission. At home, working-class opinion noted the government's failure to pass legislation to protect the legal rights of trade unions, which suffered from a series of adverse legal judgements.

By the end of his career, although still in possession of a solid parliamentary majority, Salisbury seemed increasingly out of touch. His deteriorating health, his disdain for strategic thinking and his promotion of a tightly knit circle of aristocratic relations to government posts (the so-called 'Hotel Cecil'), all suggested that he had perhaps stayed on too long.

Balance Sheet
As E.H.H. Green acknowledges, the party over which Salisbury presided was in a state of transition. Originally based primarily upon the support of landowners, it now provided a political home for a variety of propertied interests, both rural and urban. In order to maintain internal harmony it was often safest to pursue a quietist strategy which kept change to a minimum. New initiatives could easily upset the balance of forces upon which Salisbury's power base rested. The 1896 Agricultural Relief Act, which sought to offset the effects of the depression in farming by relieving the burden of local taxation on the agrarian economy, illustrates this point. It was criticised by Conservative borough MPs for showing undue favour to rural interests. At the same time, by granting assistance directly to landowners, it failed to conciliate tenant farmers, who were bearing the brunt of foreign competition and the decline in agricultural product prices.

The preservation of unity was a constant concern for Salisbury. The traumatic events of 1829 and 1846 stood as a terrible warning of the dangers of radical departures. Policy reversals by the Tory leadership, on Catholic emancipation and the Corn Laws respectively, had caused bitter internal divisions. By contrast Salisbury sought to avoid disagreement by running the Cabinet with a loose rein; Hicks Beach recalled how he 'frequently allowed important matters to be decided by a small majority of votes even against his own opinion'. He expanded the size of the Cabinet, creating new departments such as the Board of Agriculture, partly in order to appease particular individuals and interests. This style of management meant that there were few resignations on issues of principle. By leaving ministers free to run their own departments with minimal interference, the premier also encouraged his colleagues to see the Foreign Office as his own domain.

The negative side of Salisbury's approach was the lack of overall co-ordination, which was a growing disadvantage by the turn of the century. The Anglo-Boer War threw up new issues in such diverse fields as defence, education and social welfare, exposing the shortcomings of the government machine. Salisbury was unwilling to take on the challenges of a rapidly changing world. By failing to inspire his political heirs with a positive vision of Conservatism, he left his party in a condition where Joseph Chamberlain's tariff reform programme seemed extremely attractive. It would be harsh to hold Salisbury responsible for the division that engulfed it in the ensuing years. Nonetheless the fact remains that, in spite of his long hold on power, he did not bequeath a clear message for the future of his party. He was not the first, nor the last, premier to focus on short-term survival, to the exclusion of constructive longer-term thinking.

Further Reading
Lord Salisbury's World
by Michael Bentley

Salisbury: Victorian Titan (Phoenix Press)
by Andrew Roberts

Lord Salisbury
by Dr E David Steele

Lord Salisbury
by Robert Taylor

Prime Ministers

Armed Forces | Art and Culture | Articles | Biographies | Colonies | Discussion | Glossary | Home | Library | Links | Map Room | Sources and Media | Science and Technology | Search | Student Zone | Timelines | TV & Film | Wargames

by Stephen Luscombe