Salisbury, Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd marquis of

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Salisbury, Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd marquis of (1830–1903). Prime minister. Salisbury was an unlikely candidate for such a long tenure of the premiership. A younger son of an ancient Tory house, he was intellectual, withdrawn (with little taste for aristocratic sports) and unsociable, seriously high church, sharp-edged in political controversy. From 1863, at odds with his family over his happy but non-aristocratic marriage, he supplemented his allowance by regular journalism (over 600 Saturday Review articles and 33 for the Quarterly Review), so that we have more of his thinking in print than that of any other prime minister. Though he was an MP for a family borough from 1853 and in Derby's cabinet in 1866, his prickliness and rigidity made him an awkward colleague and a natural resigner. Anti-democratic and anti-populist in both instinct and argument and long distrustful of Disraeli as a political mountebank, Cranborne (as he then was) resigned with two cabinet colleagues in early 1867 over the borough franchise proposals in the government's Reform Bill. Out of office he remained a trenchant critic of Disraeli and a standing threat to his leadership. In 1869 he succeeded to the marquisate and the great house at Hatfield, and succeeded Derby as chancellor of Oxford University and a foremost defender of its Anglican character. He agreed reluctantly to join the government of 1874, clashed with Disraeli over the Public Worship Regulation Bill and was clearly a potential dissident in the Eastern Question crisis. Disraeli had, however, worked to cultivate Salisbury, and when Derby and Carnarvon resigned in the critical moment in early 1878 Salisbury threw in his lot with Disraeli and accepted the Foreign Office. His motives seem to have included a desire to effect a desperately needed settlement (which he helped Beaconsfield to do at the Congress of Berlin) and a distrust of colleagues, a realization of the importance of the Conservatives' hold on office and of resisting Gladstone's campaign in the country, and an ambition to succeed the ageing Beaconsfield. When the latter died in 1881, Salisbury became party leader in the Lords and co-leader of the whole party with Northcote. Angered by Liberal land legislation for Ireland, he played a leading role in the obstruction of Liberal measures in the Lords, including the 1884 Franchise Bill which was held up until accompanied by a Redistribution Bill, and began to elaborate a theory of the governmental mandate to regulate relations between the two Houses. Helped by Churchill's insubordination in the Commons, Salisbury got the better of his rival Northcote, a more centrist and emollient figure, and in 1885 was the premier in the Conservative caretaker government. He maintained a tactical ambiguity in Irish policy to assist an informal electoral alliance with the Irish party, but, once Gladstone had declared for Home Rule after the election, Salisbury mounted a resolute defence of the Union and skilfully exploited Liberal divisions. By summer 1886 he was back in office, though still without a Conservative majority and dependent on the support of the Liberal Unionists. This uncomfortable position lasted until 1892 and Salisbury had to make various policy concessions (over Irish land purchase, education, and county councils, for example) to conciliate his allies, particularly the demanding Chamberlain. This made Salisburian government look more progressive than it would otherwise have done. By 1887 Salisbury had disposed of both Northcote and Churchill and in 1891 he installed his nephew Balfour, who had made his name with a policy of resolute coercion in Ireland, as leader in the Commons. (Nepotism became a feature of Salisbury's ministries and was resented by those outside the Hatfield circle.) For most of his time as premier Salisbury held the Foreign Office rather than the 1st lordship of the Treasury, though the arrangement reflected no lack of interest in domestic politics. In diplomacy he displayed a skill which kept policy on a steady track and away from the alternating extremes of Gladstone and Disraeli earlier; he saw bi-partisanship as the ideal. He also kept Britain clear of entangling alliances (the ironic description ‘splendid isolation’ has stuck to this policy), though he was a successful negotiator in reconciling differences over colonial claims.

In opposition Salisbury led the Lords in its overwhelming rejection—by 419:41—of Gladstone's second Home Rule Bill in 1893. He was also ruthless in exploiting the queen's Unionist preferences; some of his confidential dealings with her from opposition went beyond accepted constitutional bounds. After the Liberal resignation in 1895 Salisbury brought the Liberal Unionists under Hartington into a formal coalition with the Conservatives and this Unionist government won the election and another in 1900 (the ‘khaki’ election) when the opportunity of the Boer war was seized. By now Salisbury's vigour was declining—the approach to war had seen Chamberlain rather than the premier in control of policy—and his policies were looking dated to younger politicians. He resigned the Foreign Office in 1900 and the premiership in 1902. He did not live to see the sharp divisions caused within Unionism by Chamberlain's tariff reform campaign.

Though Salisbury spent a notable proportion of his later career in office, his governments were either minorities or Unionist coalitions, so that, outside diplomacy, he never had the command of policy to which he aspired. Over the church, which remained dear to his heart, his governments disappointed him. Though a high aristocrat at a time when events were moving against the aristocracy, he recognized the importance of cultivating middle-class and urban opinion, particularly after the 1885 Redistribution Act, and gave firmer support to central office and extra-parliamentary organizations, overseen by the party agent ‘Captain’ Middleton, than his predecessors had done. He was a free market ideologue, reflecting the spread of laissez-faire ideas from the Liberals to the political right, and an upholder of property rights at a time when bourgeois property, alarmed by Irish developments, trade unionism, and intellectual socialism, was moving rightwards. The Conservative Party became more responsive to business interests (the city of London swung its way) and more hostile to trade unionism; the Taff Vale case came at the end of Salisbury's premiership. His success owed much to Gladstone's talent for wreaking havoc upon the Liberal Party, and upon the Liberal Unionist Hartington's support from 1886 onwards. In his later years Salisbury became more relaxed about the simplistic fears of veiled class war—the have-nots plundering the haves—which he had expressed in his early writings. Much of Salisbury's politics had dated by the end of the century and modern Conservatives have tended until recently to make little of him in comparison with more presentable figures like Peel and Disraeli. Salisbury was too much the anti-democrat, too much the free marketeer, for his party's comfort in an age of democracy and welfare economics. Only in the Thatcher era did his reputation improve and his politics find reappraisal. The toughness and ruthlessness he displayed in his party's interests as well as his own do not easily date.

Bruce Coleman


Blake, R., and Cecil, H. (eds.), Salisbury: The Man and his Policies (1987);
Roberts, A. , Salisbury: Victorian Titan (1999).

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