Lord Randolph Churchill: A Political Life 
by R.F. Foster.
Oxford, 431 pp., £16, November 1981, 0 19 822679 9
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Lord Randolph Churchill has many claims to fame and some to notoriety. His marriage to Jennie Jerome pioneered a series of matches between British aristocrats and American heiresses: the beginning of a special relationship of significance in the next century, if not in his own. He entered politics and rose to power between 1880 and 1885 as a master of opposition tactics both inside and outside the House of Commons. Waging a spectacular war on two fronts, he attacked the Gladstone Government and his own Front Bench with equal vigour. His barnstorming tours of the country and constant manipulation of the press marked him out as a new species of demagogue appealing to the mass electorate created by successive Reform Acts, and his career as an agitator reached its climax with his call to the Protestants of Ulster to resist Home Rule by force: ‘Ulster will fight; Ulster will be right.’ The reward was office and power, but not for long. Like a sudden flame his ministerial career burnt itself out within eighteen months, extinguished by a rash miscalculation while he was still only 37. Given a normal life-span he might well have restored his fortunes, but his fate was to perish slowly and humiliatingly of a disease that was almost certainly syphilis.

Lord Randolph has, of course, been depicted before: once in a majestic Edwardian canvas by his son Winston, and once in a delicate line-drawing of the 1950s, by Robert Rhodes James. But all this time, as Roy Foster’s book makes plain, another Lord Randolph has lain concealed by the conventions of portraiture. Winston, to whom his father was a divinity but also a stranger, wanted to prove that Lord Randolph possessed all the attributes of the ideal statesman: originality, far-sightedness, purpose and consistency. Robert Rhodes James, a historian then in his twenties, reworked the same theme with fresh correspondence from the archives and a romantic concentration on Lord Randolph’s personal qualities. But writing at a time when the structure of Late Victorian politics was little explored or understood, he was unable to establish that precise context without which many of the manoeuvres of a politician are unintelligible. The talent and style of Lord Randolph were clearly displayed – but what exactly was he up to?

It is a truism to say that in studying a historical figure you study also a period and its problems. But in recent years political biographers have begun to apply the rule with technical rigour. The power of the Civil Service, the state of party organisation, the sociology of the constituencies, the tactical situation in the House of Commons from week to week, the functions of rhetoric in the competition for power, all have to be analysed and incorporated in the work. The new school of biographers to which Dr Foster belongs think more like political scientists than men of letters, and however well they write, the complexity of the analysis is bound to erode the charm which the lives of the great once held for the general reader. Gone, too, is the reassurance biographies used to provide of a nation managed by far-sighted statesmen rather than short-sighted politicians. When Lord Randolph Churchill first arrived at the House of Commons he was outraged to hear an uncouth voice in the crowd remark: ‘There is a rum specimen.’ Through Dr Foster’s eyes he looks rummer than ever.

Winston Churchill and Robert Rhodes James had a common idea of Lord Randolph’s significance. Both were Conservatives, and both regarded him as the fons et origo of modern, popularly-based Toryism. Up to 1880, the Conservatives relied mainly upon feudal and agricultural England. By 1890, the Party had come to terms with the industrial revolution and established itself as a vigorous popular movement in the cities. The transformation, it was thought, was pre-eminently the work of Lord Randolph. He it was who had taken the Party to the masses, and above all to the working classes, with his cries of ‘Tory Democracy’ and ‘Trust the People.’ He it was who championed the constituency activists of the boroughs against the neglect and disdain of the ‘old guard’ of the Party. Here was the cause with which he constantly identified himself.

According to Dr Foster, this flattering thesis rests on a fallacy. For Lord Randolph, the long term did not exist: he would have agreed wholeheartedly with Harold Wilson’s dictum that a week in politics is a long time. His one serious purpose was to get to the top, and his method was to operate the political stock-exchange, buying and selling blocs of support and the policies that went with them. Speech by speech and letter by letter, Dr Foster traces a pattern of opportunism in which Lord Randolph is to be found arguing gleefully on both sides of every question. For and against the occupation of Egypt; for and against peace with Russia; for and against expenditure on the Armed Forces – all arguments were grist to the mill. No wonder, then, that Tory Democracy was another rank imposture. Lord Randolph did not originate the Tory Democratic movement, but conscripted it for his purposes. The solid work of reorganising the Party and rethinking its policies was carried out by others and at the appropriate time Lord Randolph sold out the Tory Democrats for a place in the Cabinet. Tory Democracy also meant winning votes for the Party and Lord Randolph was indeed a brilliant electioneer with a ‘genius for vulgarisation’. But whether the voters concerned were Catholics or Protestants, middle-class or working-class, heavy drinkers or temperance reformers, depended entirely upon Lord Randolph’s calculations. It would be a very funny story but for the book’s quiet tone of moral indignation, which makes one think again.

Should one take a stern view of Lord Randolph’s acrobatics, or sit back and enjoy a great entertainer? In the English context it is just possible to argue, though I would not argue it myself, that the falsity of the political game was a positive virtue, an enlightened alternative to real conflict. As an Irishman and biographer of Parnell, Dr Foster sees things differently, and of course writes with a special cutting edge of Lord Randolph’s manipulation of the Orange and the Green. Ireland, as it happened, was one of the few subjects on which Lord Randolph Churchill spoke with authority. Having lived there for some years, and attached himself to an intelligent circle of Irish Unionists concerned with educational and land reform, he was ready with constructive ideas. In the House of Commons he struck up a tactical alliance with Parnell against Gladstone, and in private he would declare his support for Home Rule. If, therefore, anyone was in a position to swing the Conservative Party towards a settlement of the Irish question, it was Lord Randolph. But when the crucial moment came political advantage suggested that he should ditch Parnell and play the Orange card, which he proceeded to do with a vengeance. That the future of Ireland should have become a party question was by no means the fault of Lord Randolph alone: Gladstone was playing for advantage as well. But it was a tragedy for Ireland, and the short-term gains of politicians are still being paid for in the gruesome events of today.

The Home Rule crisis gave the Conservatives a new lease of life. It was the fear of Irish nationalism that revived their popularity, and Randolph, meanwhile, swarmed up the greasy pole as Secretary for India and Chancellor of the Exchequer. Neither of his previous biographers looked deeply into his official career, so Dr Foster is able to report the discovery that once in power Lord Randolph fell under the sway of his civil servants and quietly abandoned the policies he had announced in opposition. Considering his youth and inexperience, this was very prudent, but prudence in general was never his strong point. In a fatal misjudgment he decided to escalate the annual confrontation between the Treasury and the spending departments into a bid to overthrow the Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury. The plot went wrong and his dreams of seizing the helm were shattered as a cheering crew pitched him overboard into heavy seas. It was a great irony that in this last unhappy phase of his career the only lifeboat he could find was Tory Democracy. For the first time he began to reflect seriously on labour questions, receiving miners’ delegations at the House of Commons and speaking for the eight-hour day. But the Conservative Party continued to get on very well without him and at his death the obituaries were surprisingly harsh. ‘It was probable that there was some deep taint in his blood,’ said the Spectator, and that ‘England escaped, in his failure to become Premier, very serious dangers.’

There may have been a hint here of a sinister disease, and it is a puzzle to know how far Lord Randolph’s reckless behaviour can be explained on medical grounds. Even in his early thirties he suffered serious illnesses which drove him abroad in search of health. He was probably unfit for office, and already in the grip of syphilis, as Chancellor of the Excheqer. The mental strain must have been increased by the tribulations of his marriage, and Dr Foster suggests that he was driven to extremes by the fear that he had only a short time to live. But whatever the mitigating factors, he can only be assessed on his record. It is no part of Dr Foster’s argument that Lord Randolph was stupid or limited: on the contrary, his talent and quick intellect, and the devastating humour he turned against Gladstone, are frequently underlined – but as qualities placed at the service of a purely cynical opportunism. In this sense, the verdict is wholly negative.

Having wrestled for some years with the previous accounts of Lord Randolph, I can testify more eloquently than most to the immense illumination Dr Foster has provided. Non-specialists may feel that too much knowledge is being taken for granted, but otherwise this is a marvellous book with a stylish narrative grounded in sheer professionalism. The questions it leaves open are questions of motive and character that can never be answered for certain. But one of these deserves a brief airing and concerns the bias of Lord Randolph’s career.

From one point of view, Dr Foster’s biography carries on where previous biographies left off. He agrees that Lord Randolph was an authentic bohemian and rebel. No gentleman would have dared as he did to blackmail the Prince of Wales by threatening to produce his love-letters, and Society retaliated by ostracising him and exiling the Churchill family to Dublin. Winston Churchill wrote that Lord Randolph absorbed during this period an abiding antagonism to rank and authority, a judgment endorsed by Dr Foster. Lord Randolph had no time for gentlemen, and as he confided to his sister, ladies bored him too: he preferred ‘rough women who dance and sing and drink – the rougher the better’. But is it possible that a bohemian social life did not permeate his political views? It is very noticeable from this latest biography that all Lord Randolph’s bosom cronies were radicals and reformers. The Tory rebels of the ‘Fourth Party’; on the Liberal side, Chamberlain, Dilke and Labouchère; the eccentric anti-imperialist W.S. Blunt; the gentleman Marxist, H.M. Hyndman – these were an odd assortment of companions, to say the least. In the tally of all those Lord Randolph sold down the river Dr Foster might consider including Lord Randolph himself. Was he not, after all, a closet radical, true blue only for the purposes of getting on in the world. If so, the last phase of his career, when he was an outcast and had less and less to lose by coming out, represents in its radicalism a true bill of health.

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