The Saturday Profile Viscount Cranborne, Conservative Peer: The last true blue blood

Anthony Seldon
Saturday 21 November 1998 00:02

THE CONSERVATIVE Century opened in 1900 with a Lord Salisbury in 10 Downing Street running the nation's affairs, blithely disregarding the creeping modernism of New Liberalism and revelling in the House of Lords' pre-eminence over the British body politic. It ends with his great- great grandson, Lord Cranborne, revelling in the House of Lords' ability to defy New Labour's wishes over proportional representation for the European Parliamentary elections and championing a continuing role for great families in British politics. Plus ca change.

The last great Tory "aristo", Robert Cranborne, comes from a family which, more than any other, has dominated British politics this century. None come bluer, in either sense of that word. The 3rd Marquess of Salisbury combined the fin de siecle premiership for a time with being Foreign Secretary. His son served as a minister in successive Tory administrations, finally under Baldwin. The 5th Marquess was Lord President in the 1950s in the Cabinets of Churchill, Eden and Macmillan until his resignation in March 1957 over the liberal drift of the government's colonial policy. The 6th Marquess, still alive and living in Hatfield House, the family seat, was MP for Bournemouth West and president of the right-wing Monday Club in the 1970s. His son and heir, Lord Cranborne ("Cranbo" to his friends), became Leader of the House of Lords in 1994, and is now opposition Leader, holding the Tory's standard high in the Upper House. All five men were educated at Eton and Oxford. Cranborne is heir to a political tradition unparalleled in this, and perhaps any other, country this century.

Elected MP for Dorset South in 1979, Lord Cranborne stood out among the large and talented influx of Tories at that election, and was tipped for a top post. He soon joined the "Blue Chip" group of then unknown backbenchers, mostly blue-blooded, wet and left-leaning, including William Waldegrave and Chris Patten. In 1981 his group of chums expected him to be Foreign Secretary by 1991, with Patten in Number 10.

But Cranborne showed little interest in being promoted up the "greasy pole" at that time, and when he gave up his seat in 1987, many thought his political career was over. Part of his time as an MP had been spent in Afghanistan. He decided to offer his freelance services to the mujahedin, then resisting a Soviet puppet regime, when he found himself crouching in shallow trenches as Russian bombs rained down on him.

He did not find Parliamentary life as exciting and he was not sorry to return to Cranborne Manor in Dorset, his hunting lodge dating back to King John. Persuaded by his old friend from the 1979 intake, John Major, to re-enter Parliament in 1992, he was summoned to the Upper House with his family name, Baron Cecil (earlier Cecils had been chief ministers to Elizabeth I and James I). He impressed as a junior minister at the Ministry of Defence, both in the department and by his effortless command in the House of Lords.

When a row broke out in June 1994 over the 50th anniversary of the D- Day landings in Normandy, it was to Lord Cranborne that John Major turned. A "spam-fritter" competition, a trifling aspect of the celebrations, was seized upon as an emblem of the Major government's insensitivity and exploitation of D-Day for its own popular advantage. When Dame Vera Lynn joined the veterans and press in the criticism, Major found in Cranborne the calm and respected figure who could pacify injured feelings and put the commemorations back on course.

Some well-grounded suspicions were aired at the time that Cranborne had exploited the "spam-fritter" crisis to lever out Iain Sproat, the junior minister whose department, National Heritage, had also been given responsibility for the commemoration, in order to take sole charge himself. Cranborne is certainly not above moving stealthily and in Machiavellian ways to secure his own ends, once set on a course. And by 1994, the scent of political power was proving alluring and re-awakening all his old Salisbury instincts. Success over the D-Day celebrations led to his being put in charge of the larger VE and VJ Day anniversary events the following summer. So impressive did he prove at handling the Establishment and media that Major asked him to accept the pivotal job in June 1995 of campaign manager for his re-election as Tory leader in his surprise "back me or sack me" bid to end strife in the Tory party. Further preferment followed on Major's successful re-installment as Leader.

Though adept at not making enemies, and popular across the party, Cranborne never quite became the Willie Whitelaw figure his abilities and instincts seemed to promise. Cranborne, implacably opposed to a weakening of the union with Ulster, and an opponent of any move to European Federalism, could not quite keep above the fray that was destroying the Tory party from within its inner sanctums in the two years leading up to the electoral disaster of 1997.

The family gave their name to the "Salisbury Convention", established by the 5th Marquess, which states that the House of Lords would not frustrate the House of Commons when the latter was expressing the overwhelming will of the electorate. Lord Cranborne began to take an interest in whether the doctrine still held good soon after he became Leader of the Lords in 1994, after it became clear his party would lose the General Election. The Salisbury Convention was back in action again last week in the tussle over Labour's European Parliament voting plan. But this political battle is just a taster to the war that will ensue next week when the Government seeks to abolish the voting rights of hereditary peers. Relatively little has been written so far about the man who will lead the resistance.

Cranborne has conventional but not quite uniformly aristocratic tastes. He is a keen sportsman, who enjoys shooting. He is not however a huntsman. He is passionate about farming and he is deeply committed to farming his Cranborne estate (1,300 acres in rolling Dorset countryside). He keeps a rather catholic circle of friends for a politician, drawn from across the worlds of the military, the arts, business as well as politics. His closest friends are Old Etonians, such as William Waldegrave, Alastair Goodlad, a chief whip in Major's government, and Nicholas Soames.

Eton made Cranborne to the extent that it reinforced a sense of duty and service that had been instilled in him by his father from a very early age. At school, Cranborne associated with the "grand set", but was always an unostentatious member of it. Similarly at Christ Church, Oxford, he was unmistakably a grand figure but carried this in an understated fashion.

Although he naturally has many conservative instincts, Cranborne is capable of defying convention, as he did when he married Hannah, a Catholic (his family are Anglicans). Also unconventional was his decision, declared at his white-tie 21st birthday party, to change his Christian name from James to Robert, in honour of his grandfather, the 5th Marquess.

Today, the Viscount is rarely more at ease than when he is holding court at his home in Chelsea, or at the end of the long table at Cranborne House. He is sociable, convivial and enjoys joking and plying his guests with good food and drink.The joviality is unaffected. The discerning might detect a shy, self-critical mind, slightly hiding behind a bluff exterior. He is an acutely private man, devoted to his wife and five children, and he strives to protect them from publicity. Indeed, he himself is extremely wary of television. He is conscious that the medium tends to portray him too much as the aristocrat, at the expense of his subtlety and underlying seriousness.

In any case, Cranborne is clear about where his family stands in a "modernising" nation. "I don't go with all this aristocratic stuff about great families dominating British politics. One's family is only as good as their last round." Cranborne acknowledges the view that society is moving too quickly for the "great families". But he stresses that they still form "part of the collective memory of the nation".

For Cranborne, the case for the hereditary element remaining in the House of Lords is continuity and history. Nevertheless - and this is fundamental to his thinking - even though he would regret seeing the ending of the hereditary elements in the House of Lords, he is prepared to see them go as the price for a greater end - a genuinely effective reformed Second Chamber. Nor does he subscribe to the view that the Royal Family will fall if the aristos no longer have tenure at Westminster. But he is reluctant to pronounce on his plans for the Lords for fear of giving the Labour party precise grid references at which to level their fire. One can understand his reticence.

The Toryism that the 3rd Marquess Salisbury knew has all but disappeared today. In 1900, let us recall, the Conservatives were the party of the aristocracy, the agricultural interest, the Church of England, of Empire, the union with Ireland. What of all this is left? Nationhood is the building block around which Cranborne believes the party will re-build. It lies at the heart of the Tory tradition, and it is what appeals to both the rational and non-rational instincts of British subjects. Cranborne thinks that beyond the M25 beltway, people care deeply about the nation, but that Blair is trying to replace it with modern-day Napoleonic elites, big government and European nationhood. Cranborne is loyal to Hague, as he was loyal to Major. Churchill once complained that Salisburys were always either sick or resigning. Cranbo shows no sign of either. He offered Hague his resignation when he became Leader in the summer of 1997, but Hague would not hear it. If you ask the 7th Marquess where his career is going, you receive a startling answer: "I'm not a bank clerk. I don't have a career" - with apologies for sounding pompous. The highest honour is simply to serve Parliament. One can agree that it would be very nice if more politicians accepted that as an end in itself.

All the same, he would be having much more fun and enjoying more power, which he admits he likes, if the Tories were back in office. But Cranborne, as you would expect, has a sense of proportion and he believes that the Tories, for example, came back to win in 1959 after everyone had said that they were finished after the Suez crisis of 1956. It took a bit of snake oil from a flash artist - Harold Macmillan - to do it. And of course, Cranborne says, Hague is a lot better. Macmillan saw off his grandfather's political career. Salisburys have long memories.

Life Story

Origins: Born Robert Michael James Gascoyne-Cecil, 30 September 1946.

Family: Married 1970; five children, one of whom, George, has been nominated for membership of Oxford's stuffy Gridiron club - for which she is ineligible.

Family motto: "Sero sed serio", "Late but in earnest".

Education: Eton, Christ Church, Oxford

Titles: Viscount Cranborne (courtesy title), Baron Essendon in the County of Rutland, heir to marquessate of Salisbury.

Clubs: White's, Pratt's, Beafsteak.

Traits: Staunch Unionist, hearty Eurosceptic.

Guilty of: "Neo-Gothic romanticism about the virtues of hereditary peers." (Peter Riddell, The Times)

Unlikely supporter: Roy Hattersley, who agreed with Lord Cranborne that Labour was unwise to modernise the induction ceremony for new lords. "Reform makes the anachronism more acceptable."

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