Magazine article The Spectator

The Other Battle of the Books

Magazine article The Spectator

The Other Battle of the Books

Article excerpt

THIS is becoming the year of the war of competing political biographies. First we enjoyed the spectacle of the conflict over Peter Mandelson, which resulted in his temporary downfall after the exposures in the journalist Paul Routledge's demolition book. Now the Blairite commentator Donald Macintyre, with official approval, has prepared the volume to aid Mr Mandelson's rehabilitation. This autumn we can look forward to an unsavoury struggle between the biographies of John Major and Norman Lamont over the follies and achievements of the last Conservative government.

But another and perhaps more substantial battle will commence this summer over a less widely remembered or publicised figure: the third Marquess of Salisbury. Unfamous he may now be to the general public, but he was arguably one of Britain's greatest prime ministers. He still lacks a full-scale biography. His daughter Lady Gwendolen Cecil wrote a shrewd and appropriately familial study but it remained incomplete when she died in 1938 and ended in 1892, 11 years before his death. Now Lord Salisbury's life is to be covered by two massive biographies in less than four months.

Neither is likely to make their respective authors much money. Nor can we expect to see scandals or serialisation of salacious extracts in the Sunday broadsheets. Salisbury was a formidably serious man, probably the only intellectual, with the obvious exception of his nephew Balfour and Gladstone, who has been prime minister in modern times. He is not the kind of politician to have had a mistress ensconced in Mayfair, nor did he like to flog himself or seek to rescue prostitutes from the sins of the flesh in the manner of Mr Gladstone.

But Lord Salisbury deserves to be remembered and understood today with sympathy and admiration. A hundred years ago he was prime minister in the high summer of the Empire. It was Salisbury and not Benjamin Disraeli who transformed the Conservative party into a formidable political force in mass democracy. The winner of three landslide general election victories between 1886 and 1900, he became a `complex and mysterious' colossus in British politics. In his youth he was generally regarded by his contemporaries as a reckless reactionary, hostile to improvement, let alone reform. By middle age, he had been transformed into a sober sage, a towering sceptic who won the admiration of even Mr Gladstone.

The first of the two biographies is by John Steele, a historian retired from Leeds University, and the second is the 'official' life from Andrew Roberts. The two are hardly bitter rivals. Mr Steele is grateful to Mr Roberts for his encouragement and assistance in what has been a potentially sensitive matter. `He could have sought to have had the Hatfield archives closed to me but he didn't,' says Mr Steele. In addition, Mr Steele has worked in up to 70 archives over more than ten years to produce his biography. Although he has not read Mr Roberts's Lord Salisbury in draft, he did show Mr Roberts his own version for comment. Mr Roberts has written a longer biography, concerned with Lord Salisbury not merely as a political figure but as a family man, scientist and intellectual.

The greatest difference between the two books lies in their conflicting views of Lord Salisbury's politics. 'I believe he was disconcertingly radical and progressive,' explains Mr Steele. `Liberals like Gladstone, Rosebery and Harcourt certainly viewed him in that way.' In Steele's opinion, Salisbury is very much a modern figure, prophetic about the coming horrors of war, ready in partnership with Joe Chamberlain to develop a welfare state, even prepared to contemplate abolition of the House of Lords if necessary, contemptuous of the Irish landed aristocracy, a Liberal rather than a Tory imperialist, semidetached from Europe and alliance entanglements but not an isolationist.

Mr Steele argues that Mr Roberts's Lord Salisbury is closer to the conventional view of him as a cynical Tory pessimist who saw his thankless political task as the protracted defence of the existing political and social order against the forces of inevitable change. …

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