Noble Failure

Rosebery: A Biography of Archibald Philip, Fifth Earl of Rosebery

by Robert Rhodes James
Macmillan, 534 pp., $8.50

William Ewart Gladstone
William Ewart Gladstone; drawing by David Levine

Lord Rosebery was the Liberal party’s Prime Minister of England for little more than a year, from March 1894 to June 1895. He was a Scottish nobleman of immense wealth and outstanding talents, and many people expected him to be one of the outstanding statesmen of modern British history. Yet his tenure of office proved disastrous. This was not altogether his fault. He inherited from his octogenarian predecessor, the venerable William Ewart Gladstone, a bare majority party fatally weakened by its commitment to Irish Home Rule, a Cabinet torn by feuds and dissensions, the knowledge that a predominantly Conservative House of Lords was both willing and able to block any legislation not to its liking, and a monarch who, though delighted that he had succeeded “that dangerous old fanatic,” was so suspicious of Liberal intentions that she felt called upon to warn her new Prime Minister against destroying “well tried, valued, and necessary institutions for the sole purpose of flattering useless Radicals or pandering to the pride of those whose only desire is their own self-gratification.”

Furthermore, Rosebery’s dreams of a high destiny for the Empire, and his determination to support British interests in Africa (which he had already demonstrated as Foreign Secretary under Gladstone) went counter to traditional nineteenth-century liberalism with its predilection for a “Little England” and its fear of imperial entanglements. To add to his troubles, his horses managed to win the Derby not once but twice while he was Prime Minister. This was too much for the praying section of the Liberal party, the non-conformists, who were hardly appeased by his reminder that Oliver Cromwell himself had owned race horses. “Although, without guilt and offense, I might perpetually run seconds and thirds, or even run last, it became a matter of torture to many consciences if I won.” By the time he spoke in this ironic vein to a Turf Club dinner in 1897, the Conservatives were back in office, and he had resigned from the leadership of the Liberal party. For some years he continued to serve as the rallying point for Liberal Imperial sentiment. But he resisted all blandishments to return to the arena of active politics. One historian has called him “the Prince Charming of his age.” Yet, ultimately, he was a failure.

Is he, then, worth a full-length biography of the kind we are given here, replete with extensive quotations from Rosebery’s papers, published and unpublished, and containing at some points not only day-to-day, but literally hour-to-hour accounts of political maneuvers and intrigues long dead and, some might say, deservedly forgotten? Yes, for several reasons. Failure in politics can be a subject as worthy of study as success, especially when it forms part of a larger historical pattern of decline and frustration. Such a pattern Mr. James finds and delineates in the waning years, the tag end of Gladstonian liberalism. By the…

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