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

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade

radio
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
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.

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?