Prime Ministers’ Pets

Robert Blake

  • Benjamin Disraeli Letters: Vol. I 1815-1834, Vol. II 1835-1837 edited by J.A.W. Gunn, John Matthews, Donald Schurman and M.G. Wiebe
    Toronto, 482 pp, £37.50, June 1982, ISBN 0 8020 5523 0
  • The Gladstone Diaries: with Cabinet Minutes and Prime Ministerial Correspondence, Vol. VII, January 1869-June 1871, Vol. VIII, July 1871-December 1874 edited by H.C.G. Matthew
    Oxford, 641 pp, £35.00, September 1982, ISBN 0 19 822638 1
  • Disraeli by Sarah Bradford
    Weidenfeld, 432 pp, £14.95, October 1982, ISBN 0 297 78153 7
  • Gladstone: Vol. I 1809-1865 by Richard Shannon
    Hamish Hamilton, 580 pp, £18.00, November 1982, ISBN 0 241 10780 6
  • H.H. Asquith: Letters to Venetia Stanley edited by Michael Brock and Eleanor Brock
    Oxford, 676 pp, £19.50, November 1982, ISBN 0 19 212200 2

In reviewing the Gladstone Diaries and the Disraeli Letters I must declare an interest. I am chairman of the committee which superintends the publication of the former and one of the research consultants involved in the latter. But the quality and scholarship of the editors of all these volumes has been so widely acclaimed by others that there is no danger of appearing to give an unwarranted puff to works with which I am connected. Both sets of volumes are admirably edited and if the task is worth doing at all one can safely say that it could hardly have been done better. I have only one criticism of the Disraeli letters. The editors have rightly printed Disraeli’s so-called ‘Mutilated Diary’ in appendices in each volume covering the appropriate years, but whereas his correspondence is very fully annotated, no attempt at all has been made to explain the references in the diary. Yet there is just as much need for explanation here as elsewhere – in fact more, for the diary is particularly allusive and obscure.

The copies of Disraeli’s letters assembled by the Disraeli Project at Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario amount to some ten thousand, of which between seven and eight hundred appear in these volumes. The editors, who began their work in 1972, have been marvellously assiduous in discovering new sources. As the author of a life of Disraeli published in 1966, I feel slightly ashamed of the deficiencies of my own research: not very ashamed, because the biographer who does not cry a halt at some stage to his investigations will never finish his biography. But I wish I had pursued more energetically the quest for papers at Belvoir Castle (Lord John Manners and George Smythe), Weston Park (Lady Bradford and Lady Chesterfield) and Windsor Castle, where there apparently still exists a notable private correspondence with Queen Victoria alleged by Lord Esher in 1905 to have been destroyed by King Edward VII. Perhaps some of it was, but evidently much remains. I expressed the hope in the preface to my own book that one day ‘some wealthy foundation will finance a complete edition of the correspondence of the best letter-writer among all English statesmen.’ The editors are kind enough to quote this in their Introduction. The world of historical scholarship must be immensely grateful to Queen’s University for housing and to the Canada Council for funding the Disraeli Project. Let us hope that they will continue to do so unhampered by the bleak winds of parsimony now sweeping round the Western world.

It is particularly important that the publication should continue because the first two volumes are, in gastronomic language, a mere ‘starter’. The years covered are far from being the most important in Disraeli’s life. Certainly the letters exhibit him at the top of his form as an extravagant, debt-ridden young dandy and adventurer. There are, too, some vivid letters to his family in 1830/31 from Gibraltar, Malta, Corfu, Albania, Greece, Constantinople, Jerusalem, Cairo and Alexandria. Many of them have been already published, either by Monypenny and Buckle, or in the garbled and inaccurate version edited by his curmudgeonly younger brother Ralph, who has high claims to be one of the worst editors in English history. It is nice to have the correct text, and quite a number of letters have not appeared in print before – in particular, a series which concerns his finances, letters to his legal adviser, William Pyne, and to his tailor, Richard Culverwell. There has been a long upper-class tradition of owing money to one’s tailor – which, no doubt, explains the inordinate prices charged in those days. Disraeli, characteristically, went a step further and actually borrowed money from his tailor, who, like most of Disraeli’s creditors, had much difficulty in recovering it.

The Disraeli Letters have evidently been of help to Sarah Bradford in her biography. She is able to dot some i’s and cross some t’s, and she writes well and clearly. I am not sure that a new life of Disraeli is really justified, but I cannot claim to be the most impartial judge. She has had access to letters which have not been seen or used before – especially some of those to Lady Bradford and Lady Chesterfield, the two sisters to whom Disraeli poured out his heart in the 1870s. She has also made much of a newly found letter by Disraeli to his sister Sarah, in 1849, which on one interpretation could suggest that he had been unfaithful to his wife. I do not believe it bears that meaning at all.

Disraeli obviously had a row with Mary Anne, spent a night elsewhere, lied about his destination and squared his sister about his whereabouts. ‘I am rather confused and shaky,’ he writes, ‘having had a bad night in a strange bed.’ The suggestion that he was sleeping with some unnamed lady or with one of the gilded boys of Young England seems unlikely. He probably spent the night in a club or a hotel, and slept badly as one often does in an unfamiliar bed. Disraeli had been involved in affairs before he married his eccentric and dotty wife in 1839 but there is no evidence, apart from this enigmatic letter, to suggest that he looked elsewhere thereafter. However, this is an area of people’s private lives in which one can seldom prove anything.

That is equally true of Gladstone. The seventh and eighth volume of Dr Colin Matthew’s learned and authoritative edition of the Diaries of that extraordinary figure reveal a very strange relationship between the Prime Minister and a high-class ex-courtesan called Mrs Thistlethwaite, who had become a convert to Evangelicalism. Gladstone’s ‘rescue work’ was undoubtedly the product of a very strong sexual drive. But it was sublimated. One can be as sure as one can be of anything that he was never guilty of what he described as ‘the act which is known as infidelity of the marriage bed’. He made a solemn declaration to that effect shortly before he died. But he used language with precision and there are many actions of a sexual nature which fall outside that definition. We will never know what happened, nor will any but the prurient particularly want to know. Dr Matthew prints Gladstone’s letters to Mrs Thistlethwaite in an appendix. All one can say about the relationship is that she provided him with something of the same comfort, support and distraction that Venetia Stanley gave some 45 years later to another Liberal prime minister, though Gladstone never quite lost his head to the same degree as Asquith. Gladstone was a major statesman. So was Disraeli, and so was Palmerston, whose sex life was one of total libertinism. What makes them count in history is what they said and did in Whitehall and Westminster – not in bed.

It is of course another matter if a statesman’s private life makes him subject to blackmail. Then his actions might indeed he influenced by clandestine considerations, but it depends on the circumstances. An attempt was made to blackmail Palmerston in his old age. A lady named Mrs Caine claimed that he had made improper advances to her. The joke went round London that she was certainly Cain but was he Abel? Nothing came of it, and Disraeli is supposed to have said that, if Palmerston dissolved Parliament on the question, he would sweep the country. Gladstone’s habit of accosting prostitutes in order to convert them to a better way of lift was open to misinterpretation, and on one occasion a man who saw him conversing with a lady of easy virtue did attempt to extort money. Gladstone promptly put him in the hands of the police. Nevertheless the risks that he took were astonishing and they appalled his friends and colleagues. In the end he was persuaded to stop.

Richard Shannon’s biography of Gladstone is a work of the highest scholarship. It takes, the story to 1865, by which time Gladstone was clearly destined for the premiership. Palmerston was dead and Russell was too old to last for long. Professor Shannon has had the great advantage over previous biographers of reading the diaries which cover this period – and indeed beyond it – in a handy and intelligible form fully annotated and explained. Earlier historians had seen these papers but in a state calculated to daunt the most enthusiastic researcher. Professor Shannon has been charged by some reviewers with being overawed by the diaries and too much dependent upon them. This is an unreasonable criticism. How could any biographer confronted with a unique source of such value – no other prime minister has kept anything comparable – fail to depend heavily upon it. What is more, Gladstone of all people was the least likely to fudge his entries or twist events in his own favour. The material is of cardinal importance to any biographer, and presumably Professor Shannon will wait till the whole diary has been published before he finishes his second volume.

Dr Matthew has decided to include in his two latest volumes not only Gladstone’s diary but his Cabinet memoranda. These constitute very valuable historical evidence. It is commonly believed that before 1916 when the Cabinet secretaryship was established there was no record, apart from the scanty material in prime ministerial letters to the Sovereign. In fact, Gladstone kept notes which, though they perhaps cannot be described as ‘minutes’ in the sense of Lord Hankey’s record, are a most important source of information about the proceedings of all his Cabinets. No other Victorian prime minister did this. Dr Matthew’s volumes thus give us a unique insight into how one of the most important 19th-century administrations actually operated.

The 1868-74 Cabinet emerges in a rather different light from that in which it has traditionally been seen by historians. As Dr Matthew points out in his perceptive introduction to the two volumes, it had more in common with the style of the 18th century than the 20th century. We may in retrospect regard 1868 as the beginning of the period of adversary politics and the ‘swing of the pendulum’: a Conservative win in 1874, Liberals in 1880, a slight hiccup in 1885, but Conservatives back in 1886, Liberals in 1892, Conservatives in 1895. That was not how it seemed to contemporaries. A Whig-Liberal-Peelite coalition had dominated politics since 1846. The Conservatives had admittedly been in office three times, but only briefly and on sufferance, without real power, while their adversaries composed the quarrels which had produced these interregna. There seemed no reason why this pattern should not continue. ‘The assumption of most Liberals,’ writes Dr Matthew, ‘was that the worst that could follow the first Gladstone Government would be another minority Tory administration which would allow time for the party of progress to regroup and then again take power.’

In fact, this was a delusion. The Conservatives won a conclusive victory in 1874 and Disraeli marked it by reversing one of the Liberals’ major measures when he passed the Endowed Schools Amendment Act – a step which Gladstone regarded as so unusual as to merit severe censure, though such actions were soon to become a normal feature of the new world of adversary politics which has lasted ever since. The exact causes of the Conservative resurgence are still the subject of much historical dispute. It was certainly connected in some way with the enactment of household suffrage in 1867, which Gladstone had opposed. Dr Matthew quotes Lord Acton’s observation that ‘by sinking a shaft through the Democratic drift they would come to a Conservative substratum.’ If this is so, one can only say that Disraeli was lucky in blundering into uncovenanted benefits, for he never meant to go as far as he eventually did, and there is no evidence to suggest that he believed in the basic Conservatism of the newly enfranchised classes.

Gladstone’s great problem between 1868 and 1874 was how to keep his party together, or rather how to unite his followers, for in the modern sense of the word there was no such thing as a Liberal ‘party’. The only common forum was the Cabinet itself, which consisted of seven Whigs, two Peelites (including Gladstone), two radicals, three Liberals and Lord Ripon, who defies categorisation. Patronage, which had been the cement that kept the bricks together in the past, had virtually disappeared. What eventually took its place was party organisation. Perhaps because opposition concentrates the mind wonderfully, Disraeli and the Conservatives were quicker off the mark in this respect than the Liberals. There was no Liberal equivalent of John Gorst, the man who created the Conservative party machine in the early Seventies and to whom their victory in 1874 was largely due. Gladstone did not think in those terms at all at that time, though he had to do so later.

What emerges from both Professor Shannon’s book and the Gladstone Diaries is the astonishing energy of Gladstone. It is true that in the 19th century the Parliamentary session was much shorter. It is also true that prime ministers did not find it necessary to waste their time travelling round the world to see other prime ministers. Lord Liverpool, for example, left the Congress of Vienna to Castlereagh. Disraeli was the first to break the custom when he went to Berlin in 1878 and he would have done better to leave it to Salisbury. On the other hand, there was nothing like the back-up support which modern ministers have. Whether as Chancellor of the Exchequer or Prime Minister, Gladstone had to conduct a vast correspondence in his own hand. He prepared all his own speeches and answers to questions. He even drafted Bills. It fell to him to make sure that Cabinet decisions were actually carried out. During the session he would regularly spend seven hours a day on the Treasury bench, and he records numerous attendances of over nine. Yet he somehow managed to read voraciously a multitude of books on subjects which had nothing to do with politics and to correspond with scholars and theologians all over Europe.

When the Gladstone Diaries and the Disraeli Letters have appeared in full the historian will have the material to reassess the whole of this period of history. It would be unwise to predict what new judgments will emerge. One can, however, be sure of one thing. The publication will confirm that these statesmen were two of the most remarkable people to rise to the top in English politics. It may also confirm that they were both singularly ‘exotic’ figures. This is obvious in the case of Disraeli. It is not so obvious that Gladstone was in many respects almost as alien a figure as his great rival. Certainly his Cabinet found ‘Merry-pebble’, as Lord Clarendon for some reason nicknamed him, at times so eccentric as to be almost incomprehensible. His relentless moralising, his rescue work, his Tractarianism, his extreme radicalism on some issues and conservatism on others, put him outside any of the normal categories of politicians. Prime ministers like Grey, Melbourne, Peel, Palmerston, even Russell, were very English. There was something very unEnglish about the two who were to alternate in power after Palmerston’s death. That was one thing they had in common. It was about the only one.

The parallel between Gladstone’s dependence on Mrs Thistlethwaite and Asquith’s on Venetia Stanley has already been mentioned. The publication of his letters to her – hers to him have not survived – is the culmination of an historical mystery story of many years standing. Michael and Eleanor Brock tell the tale in an appendix to this admirably edited correspondence. Asquith, when preparing the second volume of his Memories and Reflections, asked Venetia Montagu (as she now was), among other women to whom he had been accustomed to write, to furnish him with copies of his letters so that he could refresh his memory about certain episodes in politics. She obliged by sending a typed version ‘leaving out all sentimentalities’ – which of course made a considerable difference. Unwilling to reveal the extent of his correspondence with her or even to mention her name, Asquith used extracts from this version of the letters as if they were his own diary by altering a few words here and there. He also omitted or amended observations that might have been embarrassing to Liberal politicians. This doubly garbled material – or triply, for Venetia Montagu’s transcription was often inaccurate – appeared in Volume II of Memories and Reflections and was serialised in 1928 in the Daily Telegraph as Asquith’s ‘Diary’. The pretence was kept up as late as 1965 by Lady Violet Bonham Carter in Winston Churchill as I knew him, although she had access by then to the full text of the letters, and although a little-noticed footnote in the official Life of Asquith by J.A. Spender and Cyril Asquith stated that the so-called ‘diary’ really consisted of extracts from letters.

A further cause of confusion was Lord Beaverbrook’s use of the correspondence. Venetia Montagu is said to have become his mistress in 1919. Whether or not that is true, she provided him from time to time with extracts from the letters. Beaverbrook used these in Politicians and the War, Volume I, also published in 1928. He did not indicate the source and took many liberties with the material. In 1954 he allowed me to read some of the copies of letters in his possession when I was writing my life of Bonar Law, but, for reasons of copyright, I could not quote from them – which was probably just as well in view of what one now knows to be their inaccuracy. Beaverbrook allowed another myth to arise. He gave the slightly malicious impression that Asquith’s letters were largely written during Cabinet meetings. In fact, as the editors show, only 15 out of 425 published in this book could be described as written when Asquith was on duty either in Cabinet or Committee or on the Treasury Bench.

The first historians to have full access to the original letters were Randolph Churchill and Martin Gilbert in their multi-volume Churchill and Roy Jenkins in his Asquith (1964). Their versions were far more accurate than anything that had appeared before, but copyright remained a problem, for Lady Violet Bonham Carter (Baroness Asquith of Yarnbury) was still alive and was anxious – some would say over-anxious – about her father’s reputation. Her son, Mr Mark Bonham Carter, however, had no objection to full publication, and the work of editing was begun by Venetia Montagu’s only child, Mrs Gendel (better known as Judy Montagu), who had inherited the letters from her mother in 1948. When she died in 1972, the present editors took over the task. They have performed it with great skill and immense care. The annotation is neither too much nor too little, and it is always scrupulously accurate. The passages by the editors which link the correspondence are in themselves important contributions to the history of the times. The book is in every respect a model of how the letters of a major statesman should be edited.

Asquith depended greatly on women. He was not in private life the cautious figure that he seemed in public. He married his first wife when he was a briefless barrister of 24. Before she died in 1891 he was in love with Margot Tennant, whom he married in May 1864 when she was 30 and he 41. He was Home Secretary at the time. ‘Have I to ask the Queen’s consent!’ he wrote in jest to her private secretary, Sir Henry Ponsonby. On the back of the letter the Queen scribbled: ‘How curious ... that he shd ask if my consent is required to his marriage. If this was required the Queen wd not give it as she thinks she is most unfit for a C. Minister’s wife. VRI.’ The Queen was right. Margot was most unfit and also very extravagant. She had married Asquith on the rebound. It was not a happy relationship, nor was it improved by her bad relations with her brilliant stepdaughter, Violet. It was made still less happy when Asquith in March 1914 fell in love with one of Violet’s closest friends, Venetia Stanley, daughter of Lord Stanley of Alderley and the recipient of these letters. She was 27, he was 61.

Venetia’s ‘hand in marriage’ had been sought earlier by Edwin Montagu, younger son of Lord Swaythling and a junior minister in Asquith’s government. Asquith, who was unaware of this fact, refers to him as ‘the Assyrian’ in his letters. He liked nicknames. Sir John Simon was ‘the Impeccable’. Jack Seeley ‘the Arch Colonel’. Montagu’s suit was hampered by a proviso of his father’s will: he would forfeit most of his inheritance if he married a gentile. In the end Venetia was ‘converted’. They were married in July 1915 – to Asquith’s distress and chargrin.

‘I go through the formula,’ she wrote to Montagu, ‘because you want it for your mother’s sake, and also (I’m going to be quite honest) because one is happier rich than poor.’ She long outlived Montagu and did not die poor. Most of these letters were written between March 1914 and May 1915 and they discuss with total candour the personalities and problems of the day. Asquith was in some respects a waning force. He had, as the editors point out, presided over a major legislative programme since 1908 – nothing less than the founding of the modern welfare state: but this had been largely accomplished by the time his amitié amoureuse with Venetia – it was, the editors say, never more than that – began to dominate his life. By 1912-14 he was politically in serious trouble over the Ulster crisis, which he undoubtedly misjudged and mishandled. It was only the outbreak of war that extricated him from an impossible position. Personally, however, his health and general grip had improved. Venetia’s friendship seems to have reduced his propensity to the bottle – a propensity which narrowly escaped open scandal when during the committee stage of the Parliament Bill of 1911 he appeared on the front bench too drunk to speak. This weakness was to return after his friendship with Venetia ended. In 1916 Churchill bitterly wrote: ‘Asquith reigns sodden, supine and supreme.’ But during the period of these letters there was a marked improvement.

Asquith’s letters were by all modern standards incredibly indiscreet. Even if one makes allowance for the outbreak of a war to which there was no parallel in history, it remains astonishing that a prime minister should have disclosed such highly confidential information to a young woman of less than half his age. Posterity, however, can be thankful that he did. No information ever leaked to anyone, and if Asquith had behaved with proper caution we would have missed a fascinating commentary on one of the great crises of British public life by one of its principal participants.