Prime Minister 1885, 1886 - 92, 1895 - 1902
In the year Salisbury was born, 1830, Stephenson's Rocket made its first journey from Liverpool to Manchester. The world was changing rapidly, and Salisbury was involved in these changes. He took advantage of new opportunities to travel and voyaged around the world 1851 - 53. He was also an enthusiastic amateur scientist, creating a laboratory at his family home Hatfield House. In this way Salisbury seemed to embody the new world of Jules Verne, who in 1873 published Around the World in Eighty Days. But in his political career Salisbury would provide a remarkable link with the past. Lord Salisbury, Robert Arthur Gascoyne-Cecil, was a direct descendent of Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury, who had been chief minister to Queen Elizabeth I and James I. Jules Verne's Around the World In Eighty Days described a situation in which the same transport developments allowing a policeman to chase a suspect around the world, also gave increased opportunities for the suspect to slip away. The suggestion was that progress in one sense takes things back in another, in a big circle, very like in fact a trip around the world. The career of Lord Salisbury, scientist, traveller, modern prime minster who is descended from a chief minister of Queen Elizabeth I, seems to tell the same story.
Young Robert Arthur followed the usual educational route of his class, going to Eton, and then Christ Church College, Oxford. He did not enjoy Eton, and had a breakdown at Oxford. His round the world tour 1851 - 53 was taken as a kind of therapeutic holiday. He sailed to South Africa, and then on to Australia, New Zealand, returning across the Pacific. The trip improved Robert's health, and gave him an unusually expansive view of the world and the British Empire. On his return he stood as Tory party candidate for Stamford and was elected unopposed. He was now in some ways a forward looking young man, very interested in science and technology. His laboratory at Hatfield was built at this time. In other ways, however, Salisbury very much looked to the past. From 1860 onwards he took up journalism to supplement his income. Articles in the Quarterly Review reveal in Alan Palmer's words: "an almost Aristotelian fear of democracy as the embodiment of mob rule transmitted into action by an elected demagogue" (The Prime Ministers Vol2 P133). With this distrust of democratic reform, Salisbury focused much of his career on foreign rather than home affairs. His first important post was as secretary of state for India in Lord Derby's government. Resignation came only a year later in objection to wider voting rights in Britain. Robert became 3rd Marquis of Salisbury in 1868, and retreated to his laboratory at Hatfield House.
Salisbury did not return to government until 1874, when he reprised his role as secretary of state for India under Disraeli. His main attention, however, was not India but eastern Europe. The area was a complex mess of religious and national dispute. There was serious religious conflict in the Turkish dominated Balkans. The British government feared Russian plans to take advantage of this discord to expand their influence, possibly even across the region towards India. Salisbury accompanied Disraeli to the Berlin Conference of 1878, and is credited by Alan Palmer with a role in the conference's success in bringing a measure of stability to the Balkans. Whether any one man could really bring peace to such a turbulent part of the world is debatable. For Salisbury himself the visit to Berlin was most memorable, not for bringing peace to eastern Europe, but for meeting German physicist Herman Helmholtz, with whom he discussed electromagnetism.
Disraeli died in April 1881, and Sir Stafford Northcote took over as leader of the Tory Party. But when the Liberal government of William Gladstone was defeated in 1885, Queen Victoria was worried about the speed of political change. In this age of change where you could travel around the world in eighty days, the queen reflected general public opinion in her choice of a traditionalist prime minister. She chose Salisbury, and his power was confirmed in 1886 when Gladstone's insistence on home rule for Ireland split the Liberal Party. Salisbury was now to remain prime minister until 1892. And although Salisbury continued to distrust democracy, he began to accept its conventions, and got used to addressing mass meetings in towns and cities. Some ground was also cautiously given on reform. As Parliament was insisting on making primary education compulsory, Salisbury decided that it was wrong to expect the poor to have to pay for it. In this way free primary education was introduced. Salisbury also wanted to introduce life peers in the House of Lords, that is peers who win their place through achievements in their lives, rather than through the chance of their birth. But it was to be another seventy years before this idea was adopted. Meanwhile Salisbury continued his interest in foreign affairs. He was a reluctant colonial, not in tune with the colonialists of the age. Men such as Rhodes, Mackinson, and Goldie saw grabbing bits of Africa as an end in itself. For Salisbury the Empire was merely a combination of countries whose main aim was to help each other in self defence. The defining moment in Salisbury's self-defence view of empire came in 1898. Kitchener had just conquered the Sudan, and was then faced with the French in Africa, who were busy trying to build up their own empire. Colonel Marchand planned to extend French influence in an unbroken band from west to east Africa. In response Salisbury prepared for general war against France, but managed to face down the French threat without recourse to fighting.
Part of the Old Palace at Hatfield House
In 1902, tired and frail, Salisbury resigned, and retired to Hatfield, dying there thirteen months later in August 1903. Salisbury had been one of Britain's longest serving prime ministers, yet today he is little remembered. He does not fit in with the idea of progress towards some goal, in this case the democratic ideal. But as Jules Verne showed us progress is often deceptive. At the beginning of Around the World in Eighty Days a group of Reform Club members sit in their cosy armchairs and discuss a master criminal who has just staged a robbery of the Bank of England:
" 'The world has grown smaller, since a man can go round it ten times more quickly than a hundred years ago, and that's why the search for this thief will be more likely to succeed.'
'And also why the thief can get away more easily.' " (Chapter 3)
Salisbury showed that as we make progress in catching the thief, the thief also makes progress in getting away. Salisbury was a man of the future and the past.