The family name and title of Edward Stanley, the 14th Earl of Derby, both enjoy a certain renown today. But as the title of Angus Hawkins’s new biography suggests, that is not because of the achievements, significant as they were, of the 14th Earl. Even though he served three times as prime minister—in 1852, 1858–1859, and 1866–1868—and spent a record twenty-two years as head of the Conservative Party, Derby the politician is rarely talked about even in Britain. On this side of the Atlantic, he is completely unknown, except to specialists in Victorian political history. When people do know the name Derby, they usually mean the Derby—the horse race established by the prime minister’s grandfather, the 12th Earl, as the chief event in the British racing season, or else its Kentucky offspring. Fans of hockey know the name Stanley thanks to the Stanley Cup, the trophy donated by the prime minister’s son, Frederick, when he served as governor-general of Canada in the 1890s.
Yet Derby would not necessarily be displeased that sport, rather than politics, is what the world thinks of when it hears his name. For when he was not in Westminster—he served in Parliament from 1822, when he was twenty-three years old, until his death in 1869, first in the Commons, then in the Lords—Derby was a passionate sportsman, addicted to horse racing and shooting. Hawkins’s immensely detailed, nearly week-by-week account of Derby’s parliamentary career is regularly interrupted by bulletins from Epsom and Newmarket, where Derby’s stable of thoroughbreds won stake after stake. “Horses such as Dervish, De Clare, Canezou, Iris, Uriel, and Toxophilite,” Hawkins writes, “brought him much personal pleasure, some financial profit, and considerable prestige.” (Even if there had been no profit, Derby wouldn’t have minded: he was enormously wealthy, one of the largest landowners in England, yet still managed to live far beyond his income.) Ironically, the only trophy that eluded him was the Derby itself.
Much as he loved horses, and spent on them, Derby’s record as a politician is one of constant, lifelong effort, and no small accomplishment. By the early 1830s, when he was chief secretary for Ireland in the reforming Whig government of Lord Grey, he was already considered one of the most promising politicians of his generation. As colonial secretary in 1833, he had the honor of shepherding through Parliament the bill that ended slavery in the British Empire. As prime minister in 1867, Derby, aided by his lieutenant Benjamin Disraeli, delivered the Reform Bill that, more than any other single piece of legislation, turned Britain into a modern democracy. He never gave up on politics, despite terrible disappointments and an affliction of gout that left him, in his later years, a virtual invalid.
Still, Hawkins’s emphasis on both turf and Parliament does capture something fundamental about Derby and the world he lived in. He came into both as into a birthright, and he treated them both as a great and noble sport—which is something more than a game, but not quite as earnest as a cause or a science. The engine of his political career was not so much his ideas as the sheer force of his being—the pedigree, brilliance, and will that made him a born leader of men. Hawkins quotes Matthew Arnold’s verdict that Derby was “the true type of the British political nobleman, [with] eloquence, high feeling, and good intentions—but the ideas of a schoolboy.” Indeed, Arnold had men like Derby in mind when, in Culture and Anarchy, he described the nobility of Victorian England as “Barbarians” who could be identified equally by their “passion for field-sports” and their “passion for asserting one’s personal liberty.”
Hawkins makes something like the same point when he heads each section of The Forgotten Prime Minister with a quotation from Derby’s verse translation of the Iliad. That Derby could translate Homeric Greek, and that he found this activity a consoling one during times of political adversity, suggest that what Arnold meant by aristocratic “barbarism” was not stupidity. On the contrary, Derby was an excellent classical scholar, who learned his Greek at Eton and won a Latin composition prize at Oxford. He was drawn to the classics, and to Homer above all, because he found in Greece the aristocratic ideal—the establishment of superiority through perpetual contest—for which parliamentary politics offered the best available Victorian equivalent. Hawkins is true to Derby’s spirit when he prefaces the section on Derby’s birth with the words “Achilles, lov’d of heaven,” or introduces a propitious moment for the Tories with the lines “On rush’d, with joyous shout, the sons of Greece,/In hope to seize the spoil.”
When Derby was young, and Parliament still unreformed, that aristocratic arête seemed like it might be enough. “In his youth,” Hawkins writes, “he was hailed as ‘the only brilliant eldest son produced by the British peerage for a hundred years.'” That his brilliance carried him as far as it did shows how aristocratic Victorian politics remained, even after the Reform Bill of 1832 began to enfranchise the middle class. That it did not carry him further shows that politics were beginning to become something different. The men who preceded and followed Derby as Tory leaders, Robert Peel and Disraeli, were both from the middle class; both won full terms of office, and both have been extensively studied and written about. Derby, on the other hand, never won an election, and Hawkins’s is the first full-length biography of him.
Derby’s love of horse racing was one symptom of the mismatch between his nature and his calling; it struck people as too frivolous, and too aristocratically hearty, for a sober statesman. The political diarist Charles Greville saw Derby at Newmarket in 1851, just after one of the worst setbacks of his career, when he had humiliatingly failed to form a Conservative government despite an invitation from Queen Victoria. Greville was astonished to find Derby
in the midst of a crowd of blacklegs, betting men, and loose characters of every description, in uproarious spirits, chaffing, rowing, and shouting with laughter and joking. His amusement was to lay Lord Glasgow a wager that he did not sneeze in a given time, for which purpose he took pinch after pinch of snuff, while [Derby] jeered him and quizzed him with such noise that he drew the whole mob around him to partake of the coarse merriment he excited.
What made Greville find this display not just distasteful but somehow insulting was Derby’s insouciance. Hawkins, whose attempt to rehabilitate Derby leads him to cast all of his subject’s actions in the best possible light, insists that Derby’s
unaffected nonchalance was not, as suggested by detractors or frustrated subordinates in social situations, symptomatic of shallowness or a lack of serious intent. Rather, he believed that aristocratic hearts did not belong on sleeves.
In other words, he was too proud to care what people might think about his gambling and joking at a time of crisis, or about his habit of hanging around with bookies called Crutch Robinson and Jemmy Bland. He enjoyed the nobleman’s privilege of doing things and knowing people that to lesser men—those “frustrated subordinates”—might mean scandal or worse.
But Hawkins does not acknowledge that this kind of pride might have been quite as annoying to Greville as any “shallowness.” Hawkins does not devote much space to Derby’s private life—this is emphatically a book about politics, not psychology—yet over his two volumes, we are given enough glimpses of Derby the man to verify that his haughty manner could be very provoking. He enjoyed making fun of people who could not hit back, since they were often his guests and almost always his inferiors: “As a host he would test the boundaries of courtesy by singling out ‘one of his guests, not always a man,’ and losing ‘no opportunity of making him or her absurd: nor ever spare them when he could make a joke.'”
One such moment came in 1859, when Disraeli and his wife Mary Anne visited Knowsley, Derby’s family estate near Liverpool. Mary Anne was notoriously mockable—she was much older than Disraeli, vain about her looks, and prone to making absurd remarks. Derby could not resist such a target; he “mockingly taunted the eccentric Mary Anne in front of the other guests, causing Disraeli deep offense,” Hawkins writes. We do not learn exactly what Derby said to Mary Anne, but it was bad enough that Disraeli “resolved never to visit Knowsley again.” When one considers that Disraeli was Derby’s second-in-command in the Conservative Party and the Tory leader in the Commons, and that their relationship was never easy, Derby’s willingness to brutally antagonize his colleague seems especially revealing. No wonder one observer noted that “with the pleasantest of smiles,” Derby’s “face in repose was sinister.”
Reading Hawkins’s brilliantly detailed and authoritative biography, however, it becomes clear that Derby’s aristocratic pride was more than a foible. It was the key to his character, and so to his destiny. It would certainly be unfair to describe The Forgotten Prime Minister as a story of failure: Derby did, after all, win the prize he battled for all his life, not once but three times. Yet even that success was less than Derby wanted, or had reason to hope for. Each time he took office, it was at the head of a Conservative minority, taking advantage of a temporary split in the Whig–Liberal coalition that dominated Parliament from the 1840s through the 1860s. As soon as the majority patched up its differences—which usually meant as soon as Lord John Russell and Lord Palmerston, the Whig leaders, settled their latest quarrel—the Conservatives were promptly ejected. Derby was never in office long enough to enact a real legislative program.
More important, the principles that Derby cherished, the causes that led him to become a Conservative in the first place, were doomed by the spirit of the age. He started out in Parliament as a Whig, in keeping with a family tradition that dated back to the Revolution of 1688. It was as a Whig that he joined Lord Grey’s government, and helped to pass the epochal Reform Bill of 1832. Yet while Derby (until 1851, when he inherited the title, he was known first as Edward Stanley, then Lord Stanley; but it is convenient to refer to him as Derby throughout) supported moderate expansion of the franchise, he was adamantly opposed to another major goal of the parliamentary radicals: reform of the Church of Ireland, an Anglican establishment paid for by Roman Catholics who deeply resented it.
To shrink or disestablish the Church of Ireland would have been an affront not just to Derby’s personal Anglican piety—the legacy of his earnest mother, as Hawkins shows—but to his belief in the sacred rights of property. As chief secretary for Ireland in the early 1830s, he accordingly followed a very hard line, treating the Irish Catholic leader Daniel O’Connell as little more than a criminal, and arming Protestant militias to crack down on discontented Catholics. Hawkins tries to make Derby’s record sound as defensible as possible, but it is clear that his rigid religious and political principles, combined with his proud refusal to bend before attack, made him a disastrous governor of Ireland. (Not for nothing was the Derby family motto “Sans Changer.”)
Once again, Hawkins shows, it was his manner as much as his actions that infuriated his opponents. One Irish MP objected to the way Derby, sitting on the front bench in the Commons, “threw his legs up on the dispatch box table ‘like a man in a North American Coffee House.'” To O’Connell, his great antagonist was “Mr. Stanley, the snappish, impertinent, overbearing, High Church Mr. Stanley,” who had “rendered himself more odious than any other man who had ever assisted in the misgovernment of Ireland.” And the feeling was mutual: one colleague of Derby’s reported his comment “that the Irish hated him as much as he hated the Irish.”
By 1833, Stanley had moved on to become colonial secretary. But when it seemed that the Whigs were wavering on the question of Irish church reform, Derby resigned from the government of Lord Grey and struck out on his own. This was, Hawkins shows, the great gamble of his career. It was a very unsettled moment in parliamentary politics, as the old Whigs and Tories began to transform themselves into modern liberals and conservatives. If Derby could stake out a position in the middle—if he could convince Parliament that he, rather than the more experienced and technocratic Robert Peel, was the best champion of careful, conservative reform—he might manage to leap directly to the top of what Disraeli, in a highly un-Derbyan phrase, once called “the greasy pole” of politics. More than one experienced politician thought that the game was Derby’s to lose: Lord Grey himself thought that his young protégé would be prime minister within a year.
This was the situation in December 1834, when Derby, at his installation as lord rector of Glasgow University, made a speech laying out the so-called “Knowsley Creed,” about the “machine” of progress. “The machine must move forward for good or evil—for it cannot be stopped,” he conceded; “like the fire it may purify, if properly handled by a skilful hand, but if it should be impetuously and recklessly accelerated, destruction and overwhelming wreck must be the inevitable consequences.” As Hawkins puts it, “The Knowsley Creed celebrated moderation in a defense of existing institutions adapted to the spirit of the age.”
But the Knowsley Creed has not gone down as a turning point in British political history. Rather, that distinction goes to Peel’s Tamworth Manifesto, which was ideologically almost indistinguishable from Derby’s creed, but had the advantage of coming out in the Times just three days before Derby’s speech. The accident of timing, Peel’s greater experience, and the unstoppable polarization of parties all conspired to make Derby lose his gamble. By the spring of 1835, the Whigs were back in power under Lord Melbourne, and Peel was firmly in charge of the Tories. “What say you to our own Stanley?” said one Whig politician. “Was there ever such a case of suicide? I really think if I saw him in the street I should try to avoid him to save his blushes; yet perhaps such things are unknown to him.”
As that last dig suggests, Derby’s failure was not just a matter of bad luck or bad timing; it seemed to be a product of his arrogant insensibility. From now on, Derby would be typecast as rash and conceited—the arch-aristocratic vices. “The New Timon,” a satirical poem by Edward Bulwer Lytton, caught his public image perfectly:
Here Stanley meets—how Stanley scorns!—the glance;
The brilliant chief, irregularly great,
Frank, haughty, rash, the Rupert of Debate;
Nor gout nor foil his freshness can destroy,
And time still leaves all Eton in the boy.
The nickname “the Rupert of Debate” stuck with Derby, comparing him to Prince Rupert, the brave but headstrong general who served Charles I during the English Civil War. He earned it with blunders like the so-called “Thimblerig Speech,” in which he attacked Grey’s government for its willingness to contemplate Irish church reform. The Whigs’ attempt to “plunder” the Church of Ireland, Derby said, was like the game of thimblerig—a version of three-card monte—in which a sleight-of-hand-man tricked a mark out of his money. It was a remarkably insulting characterization of men who had, until recently, been his colleagues, and as Hawkins writes, “widespread comment on the virulent coarseness of Stanley’s speech followed.” Greville remarked, presciently, that
these are the sort of events in a man’s life which influence his destiny ever after…there is a revulsion in men’s minds about him which cannot fail to produce a silent, but, in the end a sensible effect upon his fortunes.
After 1835, Derby’s fortunes were clearly in decline. Once considered a potential party leader and prime minister, he now crossed the aisle to become a Conservative, which meant serving as Peel’s subordinate. When Peel became prime minister in 1841, Derby went back to the Colonial Office: he was almost a decade older now, but had not advanced to a more important ministry. Worse, he did not have Peel’s confidence, since Peel’s brand of managerial conservatism relied on a mastery of detail that was never Derby’s forte. Hawkins describes a significant debate on an income tax bill when Peel asked Derby to respond, impromptu, to a critic’s speech; Derby was unable to do so, whereupon Peel himself rose and “calmly refuted, in telling detail,” the critic’s points. “Stanley’s elaborate ironies and elegant witticisms,” Hawkins writes,
punctuated by the telling phrase, were absent in Peel’s more mundane style. Yet Stanley lacked the ease with which Peel could marshal an overwhelming mass of statistical data. Peel sought to reason, where Stanley aimed to rouse.
Yet the ability to rouse, to lead men into glorious rhetorical battle, was still important in Parliament. That was demonstrated quite vividly by Disraeli when, in 1846, he helped to lead the rank-and-file Conservative MPs in a revolt against Peel, who had infuriated them by his decision to repeal the protectionist Corn Laws and support free trade—thus betraying the central plank in the Conservative platform. Disraeli’s slashing speeches appealed to precisely the sense of aristocratic pride that Derby knew so well: he hammered home to the country gentlemen who made up the Tory Party that Peel was breaking his word, and asking them to break theirs.
Derby resigned from Peel’s government over the Corn Laws question, and when Peel was driven from office, he was left as the natural leader of the rump that called itself the Protectionist Party, before eventually reclaiming the name of Conservatives. Yet as Hawkins emphasizes, the partnership between Derby, who led the party from the Lords, and Disraeli, who from 1848 was its effective leader in the Commons, was an unlikely and unhappy one. Disraeli, a middle-class dandy and novelist—and, of course, a Jew—could not have been less sympathetic to someone like Derby.
Nor, for that matter, could Disraeli have won the loyalty of the Conservative Party on his own. For the next twenty years, Disraeli was accepted by his party only on Derby’s sufferance, and only because Derby was ultimately in charge. “Disraeli’s oratorical skills were useful to Derby,” Hawkins writes, “just as Derby’s endorsement remained essential to Disraeli. Mutual need, rather than trust, remained the basis of their relationship.” Not until 1868, when Derby resigned because of ill-health and Disraeli succeeded him as prime minister, was Disraeli unquestionably in control of a party some of whose members never stopped referring to him as “the Jew.”
Yet to Hawkins’s evident chagrin, Disraeli has far outstripped Derby in posterity’s interest and esteem. Perhaps that is why, in the second volume of The Forgotten Prime Minister, Hawkins consistently deprecates Disraeli and minimizes his contributions to the Conservative Party. Derby, for most of his long tenure as head of the party, preferred tactical restraint, waiting for the ruling Whig–Liberal coalition to come apart at the seams—just as he had hoped in 1835. This was a natural policy for Derby, whose interest in actually winning office seemed to wane with age and ill-health, and who was, of course, a great figure whether he was in office or not.
For Disraeli, whose ambition gave him no rest, Derby’s caution looked like sheer idleness, and he was serially enraged by his chief’s failure to seize what he considered moments of opportunity. He complained that Derby was “too proud to bid for power.” In 1855, when Derby let slip the chance to form a Conservative government—thus allowing Lord Palmerston, the aging Whig, to begin what would turn out to be almost a decade in power—Disraeli was “inconsolably caustic,” in “a state of disgust beyond all control.”
In these recurrent disagreements, Hawkins always sides with Derby against Disraeli. His strong animus against the latter comes out in his language: “All Derby’s suspicions about Disraeli’s scheming, naked ambition, and narrow selfishness were confirmed,” Hawkins writes at one point. It is an interesting reprise, a century and a half later, of the language generally used by Disraeli’s opponents, and shows the double bind in which the parvenu politician was inevitably trapped. After all, Hawkins writes admiringly throughout of Derby’s ambition and aggression, which seem no less his inheritance than Knowsley itself, and which justify the implied comparison to Achilles.
It was Disraeli’s origins that made his ambition “naked” and his self-esteem “selfishness”: not being born to what he once called “the high game” of politics, all his attempts to join it looked like unseemly pushiness. Even Derby himself once acknowledged the unfairness of this, when Queen Victoria told him that she did not approve of Disraeli’s conduct toward Peel. “Madam, Mr. Disraeli has had to make his position,” Derby explained, “& men who make their positions will say & do things, which are not necessary to be said or done by those for whom positions are provided.”
If Derby’s life, so privileged in so many ways, still has an element of tragedy, it is because the position that was “provided” for him was not the one for which his nature and upbringing destined him. He was a Rupert or Achilles whose battles had to be fought with speeches and parliamentary maneuvers, an aristocrat in an increasingly bourgeois and democratic age, a conservative at the high tide of Victorian liberalism. He had high breeding, self-assurance, and audacity at a time when the careful expertise of Peel and the imaginative breadth of Dis-raeli were what his party needed. We seem to hear Derby at his most sincere in a conversation recorded in his son’s diary, where he longs for the real power—Homeric, irresponsible, free—that the age could never grant him:
My Father repeated more than once a conviction which he said had been forced upon him early in public life—that real political power was not to be had in England: at best you could only a little advance or retard the progress of an inevitable movement. Even in America, a President could do much by his own will: an English Minister had more responsibility, more labour, and less authority, than the ruler of any people on earth.