Salisbury as Premier: Graham Goodlad Asks Whether Lord Salisbury Deserves His Reputation as One of the Great Victorian Prime Ministers

By Goodlad, Graham | History Review, September 2004 | Go to article overview

Salisbury as Premier: Graham Goodlad Asks Whether Lord Salisbury Deserves His Reputation as One of the Great Victorian Prime Ministers


Goodlad, Graham, History Review


For two generations after his death, Robert Cecil, third Marquess of Salisbury (1830-1903) was neglected by historians of the Victorian political scene. Although several learned monographs on aspects of his foreign policy appeared, Salisbury's role on the domestic stage received little academic attention until the 1970s. This situation began to change with the publication of selections from Salisbury's political writings, followed in 1978 by the appearance of Peter Marsh's major study, The Discipline of Popular Government. During the Thatcher and Major years, Salisbury was the beneficiary of a notable upsurge of interest in the history of the Conservative party. Then in 1999 two heavyweight biographies, by Andrew Roberts and David Steele, appeared. Two years later, as the centenary of Salisbury's retirement approached, the historian Michael Bentley produced a detailed and innovative study of the statesman's world-view.

It is surely right that Salisbury, who served as Prime Minister for more than thirteen years (1885-86, 1886-92, 1895-1902) should have received such extensive, if somewhat belated, scholarly treatment. This article looks at the nature of Salisbury's Conservatism, before reviewing his performance as a manager of government and party. It suggests reasons for the remarkable success of the Conservatives, under his leadership, in dominating the political scene for the greater part of two decades. It should be noted that Salisbury held the Foreign Office simultaneously with the premiership for all except two brief periods, in 1886-87 and 1900-02. Nonetheless, for reasons of space, his conduct of foreign and imperial policy necessarily lies outside this article's scope.

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'. …

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