The Retirement of Lord Salisbury: July 11th, 1902. (Months Past).(Prime Minister, United Kingdom)(Brief Article)

By Cavendish, Richard | History Today, July 2002 | Go to article overview

The Retirement of Lord Salisbury: July 11th, 1902. (Months Past).(Prime Minister, United Kingdom)(Brief Article)


Cavendish, Richard, History Today


THE THIRD MARQUESS of Salisbury was the last prime minister to run Britain from the House of Lords, for most of the period between June 1885 and his retirement in 1902. He held the office altogether for close to fourteen years, which outdid Gladstone, and for most of that time he was his own foreign secretary. Salisbury was an imperialist, who presided over a massive expansion of the British Empire and who believed and did not hesitate to say that European, preferably British, rule was essential for the development of the world's `backward' peoples to a point where they were fit to govern themselves. He viewed Continental Europe with a wary eye and avoided long-term alliances and commitments. Whether his `splendid isolation' policy, as his critics called it, could have kept Britain out of the. First World War is a moot point, but if he had been in charge in 1914 matters would have been handled differently.

At home, Salisbury was a devout supporter of the Church of England and an opponent of Irish Home Rule. He was not rigidly opposed to change and his government laid the foundations of the welfare state in the 1890s, but he distrusted emotionalism, theorists and phrasemongers, and his administrations were sparing with new legislation. His principles gained widespread popular support, won him general elections with thumping majorities in 1895 and 1900 and made the Conservative Party the dominant force in British politics for twenty years. They also helped to put a damper on the progress of the revolutionary Left in Britain.

Civilised, humorous, cynical and likeable, the Victorian Titan, as his biographer Andrew Roberts calls him, was born Robert Arthur Talbot Gascoyne-Cecil in 1830 at Hatfield House, his family's stately home in Hertfordshire. He was MP for Stamford in his twenties and thirties as Lord Robert Cecil (pronounced `Sissle' by those in the know), succeeded as marquess in 1868 and was foreign secretary under Disraeli in 1878-80. …

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