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Rosebery, Archibald Philip Primrose, 5th earl of

Rosebery, Archibald Philip Primrose, 5th earl of (1847–1929). Prime minister. From an early age Rosebery seemed destined for a glittering public career. He enjoyed outstanding oratorical powers, considerable wealth, much enhanced by his marriage to Hannah Rothschild in 1878, and inherited his peerage in 1868. But faults of temperament severely hampered him. He was sent down from Oxford without a degree because he insisted on running his horse in the Derby. This lifelong passion for the turf—his horses won the Derby three times—complicated his relations with strait-laced Liberal nonconformity. Without the steadying influence of his wife, who died in 1890, Rosebery seemed to lose what little taste he had for the mundane business of party management and legislation. He said, with some truth, that he had been drawn into politics by force of circumstances and always hated it. Thus, despite his advantages, Rosebery largely failed as prime minister, and his career yielded no substantial achievements.

It was a sign of Rosebery's diffidence that he refused office from Gladstone in 1872 and 1880, served from 1881 to 1883 when he resigned, and then declined the Scottish Office in the same year. Yet his political reputation steadily rose. The departure of many Whigs over the Home Rule issue in 1886 made Rosebery a vital figure in the House of Lords, and he thus became a young foreign secretary in that year.

For a time he enjoyed wide acclaim. On the one hand he had the confidence of the queen, who chose him as Gladstone's successor in 1894. On the other hand he seemed to many radical Liberals to be better attuned to social problems than Gladstone. One sign of this was his election as first chairman of the London County Council in 1889.

But his chief interest was foreign and imperial affairs. He developed a Liberal vision of the British empire as a ‘Commonwealth of Nations’, and as chairman of the Imperial Federation League he advocated a more cohesive structure involving regular colonial conferences and formal colonial representation on the Privy Council. As foreign secretary (1892–4) he resisted party pressure to withdraw from Uganda and imposed a protectorate on that territory.

On his succession to the premiership in 1894, Rosebery's career collapsed. He fell out with colleagues over the death duties in Harcourt's budget and his wish to drop Irish Home Rule. On the defeat of his government in the Commons in 1895 he promptly resigned, forcing the Liberals into a disastrous election. A year later he quit as leader. Subsequently he attacked the Liberal position over the South African War and promoted a separate organization of Liberal Imperialists. In a famous speech at Chesterfield in 1901 he called for a ‘clean slate’, by which he meant dropping traditional Gladstonian causes like Home Rule. However, Rosebery was easily outmanœuvred by Campbell-Bannerman, and the rest of his career was spent as a crossbencher increasingly out of sympathy with the radical reformism of Edwardian Liberalism.

Martin Pugh


James, R. R. , Rosebery (1963).

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