Magazine article The Spectator

Seeing Salisbury Plain

Magazine article The Spectator

Seeing Salisbury Plain

Article excerpt

Seeing Salisbury plain

Jane Ridley


by Andrew Roberts Weidenfeld, 25, pp. 938 Robert Arthur Talbot Gascoyne-Cecil. 3rd Marquess of Salisbury, was a toff if ever there was one. If John Prescott had been in charge Lord Salisbury would never have made it. Andrew Roberts's new biography shows just how wrong Mr Prescott would have been. Salisbury's life is one of the best arguments for aristocratic government I have read.

Salisbury was three times prime minister. but he is relatively little-known. Unlike Gladstone or Disraeli he was never the subject of a cult. Examination questions are not set on him, nor are statues erected in his memory. lie hasn't even had a full biography until this year. Lady Gwendolen Cecil published four classic volumes of family biography in the 1920s but only got as far as 1891, leaving her father's last governments uncovered. Andrew Roberts fills this gap. and this will become the standard life. He was given free run of the massive Hatfield archive, and he has consulted in addition the papers of 140 politicians.

The Hatfield archive apparently contains surprisingly few skeletons, and these seem mainly to relate to Salisbury's troubled early life. Roberts rattles briskly along through Salisbury's first 44 years. Salisbury was the second son; his older brother Cranborne was blind and an invalid. His mother died when he was nine and ,he endured a miserable, lonely childhood in spite of Hatfield's 40 indoor servants. At Eton he was a pathetic swot and weakling. He was bullied so viciously that his father eventually took him away. Roberts doesn't speculate, but Salisbury's appalling childhood surely scarred him for life.

Salisbury married at 27 a judge's daughter, Georgina Alderson. Not only was she plain, intelligent and middle-class but, worse still, she brought no money. His brutish father threatened to cut him out of his will and refused to speak to him for seven years. This was the making of him. He was forced to earn his living, writing as a hack for the right-wing Saturday Review which fortunately happened to belong to his brother-in-law Alexander BeresfordHope. He churned out two million words of journalism, perfecting a style of biting, sneering, sharp-tongued sarcasm.

When his older brother suddenly and conveniently died, followed shortly by his father, Salisbury found himself vastly rich (Roberts could usefully say a bit more about this side of things). Being a Marquess with a Jacobean palace and Tudor ancestors made him irresistible to Disraeli, who wooed him assiduously. Ignoring two decades of ill-natured antiSemitic sniping and disloyal gossip from Salisbury, whom he described (rather mildly) as a `master of flouts and jeers', Disraeli offered him office in 1874. Salisbury took the India Office, and never really looked back.

Roberts makes plain that what kept him at the top was sheer talent - the ability to write caustic, incisive English and to master vast amounts of material, coupled with El titanic appetite for work which meant that he was always dauntingly well briefed. Though he became an effective platform speaker, addressing crowds of thousands without a note, he never had to canvass for any political job. He sat for 15 years as MP for a pocket borough, he slipped into the job of Tory leader in the Lords and he 'emerged' as party leader. He was the last prime minister to govern from the Lords.

All he had to do to climb the greasy pole was knife the people who got in his way. One early victim was an old friend, Lord Derby, Disraeli's confidant and heir apparent (the son of the PM), who blocked his path as foreign secretary. Roberts reveals that Salisbury hated Derby because his wife Georgina Alderson had once set her cap at him and been snubbed; Derby went on to marry Salisbury`s widowed stepmother. Lady Derby was a treacherous woman, and she tried to undermine Salisbury's eastern policy by passing secrets to the Russians. …

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