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.