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Prophet of patriotic isolationism

by Steve Smith

Throughout history there have been certain families that seemed destined to play a major role in the affairs of a nation. In Britain, the Cecils match that criterion.

Robert Arthur Talbot Gascoyne-Cecil, the 3rd Marquis of Salisbury, presided over our country during the final expansionist phase of the Empire. He was Prime Minister four times and Foreign Secretary three times during the period 1878-1902.

Lord Salisbury was certainly of a good pedigree when compared to most contemporary politicians. He was a descendent of the great Burghley who had faithfully and skilfully served Elizabeth I, and the grandfather of the 5th Marquis who was one of the few senior politicians to campaign against mass immigration in the 1950s.

This tendency to serve the nation and to think of long-term considerations is a hallmark of the Cecil family.

The subject of this essay - the 3rd Marquis - was born in 1830; the second son of the 2nd Marquis. His elder brother was a somewhat lacklustre personality and Robert Cecil himself seemed at this stage destined to lead a similarly mediocre life. At fifteen he left Eton, where he was very unhappy, and his father entrusted him to a private tutor. Later on he encountered difficulties at Oxford, where he appeared to have only limited academic success and ended up suffering a mental breakdown. It would be right to assume that the young Lord Robert seemed to have very little chance of becoming a future Prime Minister.

His father decided that the best option would be to send him on a two-year voyage, which would include visits to South Africa, New Zealand and Australia. This ‘sabbatical’ not only restored his general health but also gave the young Salisbury first-hand experience of life in the different parts of Britain’s far-flung empire. When he eventually returned he was twenty-three and soon found himself elected as the Tory MP for Stamford.

Despite being an aristocrat he was not as wealthy as one might imagine. To acquire extra finance he wrote regular articles (usually of a political nature) from 1860 onwards. Many of these articles appeared in the Quarterly Review and the Saturday Review.

In some respects his perspective on foreign policy was similar to that of Palmerston: to avoid entanglements in foreign wars that were not in Britain’s interest, but also at the same time to show a willingness to defend Britain’s trade and territory resolutely when they were genuinely under threat. His first government post was as Secretary of State for India under Lord Derby in 1866-67 - but this only lasted seven months. He resigned from this post as he disapproved of the proposals of Derby and Disraeli for the extension of the electoral franchise in the 1867 Reform Bill. In 1868 he became the third Marquis of Salisbury.

Lord Salisbury could - to some extent - be viewed as a political and social reactionary. He had a vague fear that any further move to democratic reforms would eventually lead to ‘mob rule’. He considered that the mass of the people possessed poor political judgement. Many today would consider such views at best as pure patrician snobbery, or at worst as quasi-fascist in nature. However, we should bear in mind that this was a period when the memories of violent revolutionary upheaval (France in 1789 and 1830 and most of Europe in 1848) were still uppermost in some people’s minds when issues of social and political reforms were discussed. Despite his resignation in 1867, Salisbury again became Secretary of State for India in 1874 and then served as Foreign Secretary from 1878-80. During this period he attended the 1878 Berlin Congress while serving under the premiership of Disraeli.

Salisbury became the Conservative leader in the Lords in April 1881 when Lord Beaconsfield (Disraeli) died. The Tories at this stage were out of office having lost the General Election of 1880. Salisbury had a brief stint as Prime Minister in 1885. However, it was not until July 1886 when he formed his second administration that his stature rose to the extent that he became a major figure in British political life during the late nineteenth century. His principal achievements were the maintenance and further acquisitions of the British Empire. Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria and Rhodesia were the new colonies.

In domestic affairs, Salisbury’s chief concern was the maintenance of the Union between Great Britain and Ireland. Salisbury was by no means indifferent to the many genuine grievances of the Irish Catholic peasantry against the absentee landlords of the Anglo-Irish Protestant ‘Ascendancy’. Indeed, he introduced important measures of land reform that went further in satisfying the cry for ‘tenants’ rights’ than anyone might reasonably have expected from a great Tory landlord, to the lasting displeasure of the aristocratic element in the Irish Unionist ranks. He was, however, determined not to allow agitators to exploit popular discontent for the purposes of separating Ireland from England. Salisbury combined the allaying of grievances through reform with the repression of seditious and treasonable organisations.

Salisbury was not like many imperialists, who sometimes wanted to absorb every available piece of land as an end in itself. With the African colonies he was quite happy to retain a presence on their coastal areas but took little interest with the interior of these places. He did not wish to over-extend Britain’s global commitments. If a territory was to be added to the Empire then there should be a sound reason for doing so. This outlook and strategy were based on a response to the expansionist and envious activities of Russia and France. Salisbury’s foreign policy was simple and clear cut: when dealing with strong powers at first use diplomacy, but at the same time recognise that such a policy is only effective if supplemented by military force and the will to use it.

As with Palmerston, Salisbury adhered to the principle of no natural allies, no natural foes. Permanent foreign agreements he disliked. He dealt with the various powers on the world stage by using a different approach each time, always flexible and pragmatic. For example, he achieved a highly satisfactory political victory in 1898. This concerned what is known as the ‘Fashoda’ incident, when a certain Colonel Marchand of France decided that he wanted to plant the tricoleur all the way across Africa from west to east. Faced with Salisbury’s resolution to go to war if necessary, the French decided the following year to abandon their territorial ambitions in the Nile valley, this region having recently been conquered by Kitchener’s victories in the Sudan.

Although he was never a universally known Prime Minister (as Disraeli or Gladstone were), Salisbury presided over the closing period of the nineteenth century, when Britain and its empire, although still formidable, were beginning to face challenges from other great powers: France, Russia, the United States and Germany. A less level-headed leader could easily have blundered into a war with any one of these nations, even over ‘small’ incidents like the French incursion into the Upper Nile or Russian activity in the East.

Salisbury was not a demagogue. Nor was his an idealistic style of leadership. He was a ‘management man’ - though an effective one.

He appreciated that a combination of skilful diplomacy and reserves of military strength were fundamental in order to preserve Britain’s power on the world scale. The Boer War (1899-1902) cast a shadow over his declining years and covered the last three years of his fourth and final premiership. The Boers could not be dealt with in the same way as the political representatives of Paris, Berlin or St. Petersburg. A different approach to the problem was needed to solve this unique situation. Salisbury died in 1903 before this could be fully realised.

The rights and wrongs of the South African war are complex. The hostility of President Kruger of the Transvaal to British interests and his personal bellicosity, combined with his policy of seeking German intervention in South African affairs at a time when Germany was well established in East Africa and South West Africa, would have troubled the most pacific British government. No small measure of war guilt is attributable to ‘Oom Paul’s’ unrealistic Boer ultra-nationalism, egotism and reckless overplaying of his hand, not to mention his tendency to underestimate Great Britain very badly. He dragged his reluctant kinsmen in the Orange Free State into a war which could in the end have only one outcome, so bequeathing a legacy of suffering and misery to his Volk, which he purported to love. He was a forerunner of other twentieth century politicians of his type, who ultimately brought nothing but misfortune upon their peoples. Faced with such a man, what else could Salisbury have done, but assert British interests by force, when diplomacy failed?

The methods used against the Boer civilian population reflect no credit on British arms, but were implemented by the military commanders on the ground, not the government far away in London. Joseph Chamberlain was, moreover, far more directly involved in the events leading up to the war than the Prime Minister. Indeed, Salisbury called the South African war ‘Joe’s war’ and regarded it as an unhappy object lesson in the dangers of imperialism, about which he was ambiguous. Temperamentally sympathetic to all expressions of patriotism and national sentiment though Lord Salisbury was, he was never a man to allow his heart to rule his head in matters of state and was ever cautious of the dangers of imperial overstretch. He therefore had grave reservations about the policy of imperial expansion that filled both Disraeli and Joseph Chamberlain with such enthusiasm, so demonstrating that even great and wise patriots do not necessarily agree on all important issues.

It is at the least highly arguable that Lord Salisbury’s more cautious policy has been proved right by unfolding events in the twentieth century, though had Great Britain not abandoned its policy of ‘splendid isolation’ from continental alliances and entanglements, we might have retained our empire, overextended though perhaps it was.

As a political type Salisbury was far superior to the likes of John Major or Tony Blair. Perhaps a little reactionary in some aspects, Salisbury had personal integrity, a sense of duty and a keen awareness of the national interest. It would be a grave mistake, moreover, to cast Salisbury as a complete social reactionary. His government followed the Disraelian tradition of social reform in the field of working conditions, particularly in the factories. He was, moreover, prepared to concede legislation which accommodated the radical reforming zeal of Joseph Chamberlain’s Liberal Unionists in order to maintain a common front on the key issue of preserving the unity of the Kingdom, which he rightly saw as far more important than preserving the privileges of his own social order, the aristocracy. Like many Victorians he disliked short-term political remedies and generally attempted to consider the long-term view particularly as it would affect future generations of Britons.


A major new biography of Salisbury by Andrew Roberts is due to be published in the autumn of 1999. This work is likely to prove definitive as the author has had privileged access to the Cecil family papers.

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