A Diarist in the Cabinet: Lord Derby and the Australian Colonies 1882-85

By Powell, Graeme | The Australian Journal of Politics and History, December 2005 | Go to article overview
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A Diarist in the Cabinet: Lord Derby and the Australian Colonies 1882-85


Powell, Graeme, The Australian Journal of Politics and History


The British Cabinet of 1880-85 harboured in its midst several diarists. The Prime Minister himself had been keeping a diary almost continuously since 1825 but, in Gladstone's own words, it was "a mere skeleton". It provided a record of the remarkable breadth of his reading, but it usually only hinted at the discussions and conflicts within his Cabinet. Other ministers, like Lord Kimberley, Lord Carlingford Lord Rosebery and Sir Charles Dilke, were sporadic diarists. Some of the most illuminating journals of the period were the work not of ministers but of men on the fringe of high politics, following in the great tradition of Pepys, Evelyn, John Croker and Charles Greville. Edward Hamilton, one of Gladstone's private secretaries, recorded the conversations and gossip of ministers and officials in lively detail. Lewis Harcourt, the son and secretary of the Home Secretary Sir William Harcourt, began keeping a diary in 1880, when he was seventeen. It was ultimately to be a major source on Liberal politics in the late nineteenth century.

Gladstone contrasted two kinds of journals, the "mere skeleton" and the "full-blooded". (1) One of the finest full-blooded diaries of Victorian times was written by Edward Stanley, the 15th Earl of Derby, who entered Gladstone's Cabinet in December 1882. Derby kept a diary, almost without interruption, from the time he became a Member of Parliament in 1849 until his death in 1893. Every year he started writing in a new volume, which allowed a large page for each day. The format of the diary imposed a discipline on the conscientious writer, anxious to leave no blank pages. Derby in fact never missed an entry in the four volumes that covered 1882-85. Some entries, especially for Sundays, were brief, numbering about thirty words. Most entries were a good deal longer and, when meetings or conversations were summarised, they could extend to 400 words or more, often ballooning onto the preceding or following pages. (2)

The ability of Lord Derby to maintain such a full diary for over forty years was in keeping with the self-discipline, order and passion for routine that he brought to most facets of his life. At Cabinet meetings he was an inveterate note-taker, a practice that sometimes irritated his colleagues. He drew on the notes when writing up the diary and consequently it provides an accurate as well as absorbing account of the policies, arguments and frustrations expressed by his colleagues. Occasionally there were lacunae. For instance, when the Cabinet considered German annexations in New Guinea on 3 January 1885, Derby passed over the meeting with the comment: "I was too actively involved in the discussion to take a note." Generally, however, he was able to make use of an exceptional memory, as well as considerable literary skills. Long experience had made him a master of synopsis. Charles Dilke, who joined the Gladstone Cabinet at the same time as Derby, wrote many years later that "Lord Derby could sum up a discussion better, probably, than anyone has ever done, unless it is Sir Edward Grey". (3) This ability to summarise an argument, a conversation, a political dilemma, or the life and character of an acquaintance is evident throughout the diary.

The Stanleys had been the most powerful family in Lancashire since the fifteenth century. On 12 August 1885 Derby noted in his diary that it was the 400th anniversary of the Battle of Bosworth, "the foundation of our family's greatness". During the battle Thomas Stanley changed sides, joining his stepson Henry Tudor, and was promptly rewarded with the Earldom of Derby. (4) In the nineteenth century some of his descendants were likewise not averse to changing sides, although not so abruptly. The 14th Earl began his parliamentary career as a moderate Whig and served in the reforming government of Lord Grey in 1830-34. He gradually drifted to the Tory side, took over from Peel as the leader of the Conservative Party, and was three times Prime Minister.

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