Books: Careful, that crinoline may be dangerous

Salisbury: Victorian Titan by Andrew Roberts Weidenfeld pounds 25

Robert Cecil, third Marquess of Salisbury, led no less than four Conservative administrations from the lofty eminence of the House of Lords between 1885 and 1902. He was Prime Minister for 13 and a half years, a total only exceeded by Walpole, Pitt the Younger, and Lord Liverpool. When he resigned from office in July 1902, after ensuring the succession to the premiership of his nephew, A J Balfour (hence the popular expression, "Bob's your uncle"), it confirmed that the Victorian era was well and truly over. Wilfred Blunt likened his departure to the collapse of the ancient 300-foot campanile of St Mark's in Venice which occurred a few days after Salisbury delivered up his seals of office.

Disraeli, Gladstone, and Salisbury are the three political titans of the Victorian age. Yet both historians and the Conservative party itself, usually anxious to mythologise its past, have largely neglected Salisbury's enormous contribution to the political history of the 19th century.

In some ways it isn't difficult to see why. Salisbury's periods in office cannot be easily and attractively labelled in the way that, say, Disraeli's extension of the franchise, the famous "leap in the dark", can be. Nor did Salisbury's personality and political style stimulate the growth of a cult. No politician could have been further removed from any hint of Dizzy's flamboyance or exhibitionism; nor, unlike the Grand Old Man, was Salisbury given to public displays of tortured conscience. Indeed, possibly no leading British political figure of this century or the last displayed by his words or actions less evidence of hypocrisy or cant. What you saw was, very largely, what you got. Salisbury was reticent by temperament and his congenital depressiveness made him a fatalist. He was also an aristocrat fighting a desperate rearguard action against the progressive forces of the new democracy. "Whatever happens will be for the worse," he once wrote, "and therefore it is in our interest that as little should happen as possible." This fundamentally was Salisbury's political credo, and it can make him appear unsympathetically classbound, but also, at the same time, strangely reassuring.

Gwendolen Cecil, Salisbury's daughter, published a four-volume life of her father between 1921 and 1932. It is a perfectly respectable study and has been an invaluable source for historians, but she did not live to take the story beyond 1892.

Earlier this year, David Steele published an excellent political biography, but Andrew Roberts, the polemicist and enfant terrible of right-wing history, is the first modern writer to have complete access to the Salisbury papers at Hatfield, and the book he has produced fills a hitherto glaring historiographical gap.

Salisbury: Victorian Titan weighs in at 938 pages, and its intimidating length together with Roberts' ghastly, ingratiating dedication to Margaret Thatcher aroused initial prejudice in this reviewer (poor short-changed Mrs Andrew Roberts, we are informed in the acknowledgements, is in a sense the recipient of all that Mr Roberts writes, but despite this her husband has chosen to dedicate "this particular book ... to another strong- willed lady barrister"). However, this prejudice was quickly overcome, for Roberts' mastery of his sources, combined with his ability to vary the tone and colour of his very long narrative has resulted in both a fascinating political history and an engaging character study. Roberts' publishers are keen to promote the book as a partner for Roy Jenkins' biography of Gladstone, but the comparison in misjudged. For whereas Jenkins' Gladstone was almost exclusively based on printed materials, Roberts has ranged far and wide over unpublished sources to give the most rounded portrait possible of Salisbury: not only Salisbury's own papers, but those of many of his contemporaries whose opinions act as a kind of historical control mechanism on those of the central character. Roberts' Salisbury is a book worthy to place besides John Morley's Gladstone and Robert Blake's Disraeli.

One of Roberts' strengths derives from his preparedness to read through Salisbury's journalism, the millions of words of articles, books reviews and political reportage with which the young Robert Cecil earned his living during the period when his father's disapproval of his marriage cast him out of favour with his family, and before he succeeded to his title and estates (an older brother died in 1865, leaving the way clear for him to succeed). Financial necessity led him to write on just about any subject, including one memorable article on the dangerous flammability of crinolines ("The British Suttee").

But it was in Salisbury's political commentaries - especially in his unguarded criticism of Disraeli, which in these early years was often personally bitter - that his wit, and his unwillingness to curb his tongue in the interests of his political career, were most clearly seen. Disraeli was "the grain of dirt that clogs the whole machine", he wrote angrily in 1859 when Disraeli (as Chancellor of the Exchequer) was supporting a Reform Bill which offered "fancy" franchise qualifications, while in a parliamentary sketch from the same year, he contributed an outstanding picture of Dizzy taming the Commons. "He throws back his coat, makes a theatrical pause, eyes the Gentile rabble in front of him for a moment with supreme contempt, and then, remembering that meekness is the fitting emblem of conscious genius, drops his head and begins in an inaudible murmur."

Salisbury viewed as opportunistic Disraeli's attempts to extend the franchise, and it was the Second Reform Bill of 1867 which caused his resignation from his first cabinet post as Secretary of State for India. In time Salisbury's rigid, even reactionary, High Toryism would mature into a more empirical version, allowing him to work with Disraeli, sanction further electoral reform in 1884 to the Conservatives' eventual advantage, and become Prime Minister the following year. But he never deviated from his essential view that the use of Conservatism was "to delay changes until they become harmless".

That, as Andrew Roberts makes apparent, could have been Salisbury's epitaph. In a final Chapter, entitled "The Legacy", Roberts considers the conundrum of whether this master statesman, who governed the British Empire at its height, and who was the central figure of Great Power diplomacy in the last decade of the 19th century, might have averted the First World War had he still been in power. Certainly, Salisbury saw through Kaiser Wilhelm, and recognised the dangers of a foreign policy which pursued the power alignments of international treaties, and did his utmost to extract Britain from them. Salisbury might have made more strenuous efforts than the Asquith Government of 1914 to avoid war, but it's difficult to believe that Salisbury's personal "vision of gloom" would have left him particularly surprised at the Armageddon that followed.

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Arts and Entertainment
James singer Tim Booth
latitude 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Lee says: 'I never, ever set out to offend, but it can be an accidental by-product'
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe judges were wowed by the actress' individual cooking style
Arts and Entertainment
Nicholas says that he still feels lucky to be able to do what he loves, but that there is much about being in a band he hates
musicThere is much about being in a band that he hates, but his debut album is suffused with regret
Arts and Entertainment
The singer, who herself is openly bisexual, praised the 19-year-old sportsman before launching into a tirade about the upcoming Winter Olympics

books
Arts and Entertainment
music
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
    Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

    Take a good look while you can

    How climate change could wipe out this seal
    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

    Farewell, my lovely

    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
    Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

    Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

    Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

    John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
    Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

    Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

    The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
    The 10 best pedicure products

    Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

    Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

    Commonwealth Games 2014

    Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
    Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

    Jack Pitt-Brooke

    Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
    How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game