Truffles for Potatoes

Ferdinand Mount

  • Rosebery: Statesman in Turmoil by Leo McKinstry
    Murray, 626 pp, £25.00, May 2005, ISBN 0 7195 5879 4

The schoolmaster William Johnson is remembered for three things, although not under that name. He wrote the most famous of all translations from Greek lyric verse, ‘They told me, Heraclitus, they told me you were dead’; he wrote the words of the ‘Eton Boating Song’; and in a letter to Francis Warre-Cornish, another Eton schoolmaster, he wrote of his pupil, the future Lord Rosebery: ‘I would give you a piece of plate if you would get that lad to work; he is one of those who like the palm without the dust.’ Ten years later, Johnson was sacked for fondling one pupil too many and changed his name to Cory. After his death, Warre-Cornish published his old friend’s letters and journals. Unfortunately, the collapse of Rosebery’s administration after only 15 months was all too fresh in people’s minds and Johnson/ Cory’s verdict stuck. No other prime minister in British history has surrendered power quite so limply, none more ignominiously except Anthony Eden after Suez.

Like Eden, Rosebery was a golden boy (both were made foreign secretary at the age of 38). Adoring crowds followed him throughout his career. Leo McKinstry in this excellent new biography makes a case for him being the first modern celebrity (but what about Nelson?). The music halls rang to the words: ‘Nearly everyone knows me, from Smith to Lord Rosebery,/I’m Burlington Bertie from Bow.’ His daughter Peggy’s wedding drew crowds almost as big as for the queen’s jubilees. Thousands of spectators wore primroses as a gesture to the family name. The London Evening News printed its afternoon editions on primrose paper. Margot Asquith said that ‘when the Prince of Wales went up the aisle, he was a nobody compared to Rosebery.’ Until 1951 the Scottish football team would often turn out in primrose and rose hoops, the racing colours of Rosebery, who was their honorary president. Long after his ill-fated premiership, well-wishers from Edward VII downwards wanted him to come back and could not stop wondering what he would do next. In H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine, one of the first questions the sceptical journalist asks the Time Traveller is: ‘These chaps here say you have been travelling into the middle of next week! Tell us all about little Rosebery, will you?’

He had it all and was famous for having it all. As a young man touring America, he was said to have boasted that he had three ambitions: to marry an heiress, to win the Derby and to become prime minister (McKinstry can’t decide whether this story is apocryphal – after all, Rosebery was supposed to have been speaking at the Mendacious Club in Washington). He overfulfilled his programme, winning the Derby three times and marrying not just any old heiress but Hannah de Rothschild, who brought him Mentmore, that vast treasure house in the Vale of Aylesbury, designed by Paxton of Crystal Palace fame on much the same scale and brimming with booty from Versailles and the Doges’ Palace. According to Henry James, Hannah was ‘large, coarse, Hebrew-looking, with hair of no particular colour and personally unattractive’ (ah, the exquisite sensibility of the novelist), but he had to concede that she was good-natured, sensible and kind, and the 12 years she and Rosebery had together were the happiest of his life. She died of typhoid in 1890. Rosebery was never quite the same and never married again.

Was he gay? McKinstry doesn’t think so; others do and go on about it, though without much reliable evidence, since the principal witnesses for the gay thesis are the notorious forger and fantasist Edmund Backhouse and the homophobe Lord Queensberry, who tried without success to rope him into the Wilde scandal. Rosebery might have married Princess Victoria, Edward VII’s shy middle daughter, if her parents had not objected so violently – the only occasion on which he was found to be not grand enough. But then again he might not. My guess is that, in later life anyway, he would have preferred a book and a decanter to sex of any sort. Those who believe that hypersensitivity to personal criticism is proof of homosexual leanings have not met enough politicians.

Apart from Mentmore, Rosebery also had Dalmeny, a Victorian Gothic palace on the Firth of Forth, plus the ancient fortress of Barnbougle in its grounds, which he restored and used as a retreat from his weekend guests (one weekend he appeared at Dalmeny only once, to fetch a penknife from the library); the Durdans, a much loved low rambling lodge at Epsom for the racing; a town house in Berkeley Square; a fabulous villa on the Bay of Naples; and a couple of large shooting lodges in Norfolk and Midlothian. When his horse Ladas II was running in the Derby, he hired a special train to bring the colt and his attendants from Newmarket to Epsom. When the horse won, the crowd went wild. The next day at the Durdans Lord Rosebery stood on his head on the hearthrug.

In short, Rosebery was spoilt. Everyone said he was spoilt. Margot Asquith, who had once been in love with him, said: ‘Selfish is too small a word for him. His selfishness is colossal . . . He cannot get away from himself.’ Rosebery wallowed in this reputation, challenging his friends to say whether they thought him a spoilt child and recording in his diary instances of his indulgences: ‘Did a selfish thing for dinner. Drank some ’48 claret alone.’ At the same time, like many sybarites, he was drenched in self-pity, deploring the emptiness of a life of pleasure and, looking back, saw his existence as a dark tunnel. Simplicity of life was the only answer, but one not adopted at Mentmore, where, as that waspish paedophile Loulou Harcourt claimed, ‘truffles seem to be treated here much as potatoes elsewhere.’

It was not just that Rosebery had always had his own way and ‘never learned to obey’, as A.G. Gardiner put it in his famous pen portrait. He also had a suspicious, prickly nature and bore grudges for an eternity. After Lewis Carroll reported him to the dean of Christ Church for bunking off a maths lecture, Rosebery refused to read Alice in Wonderland for nearly thirty years. Of these traits too, he was well aware. In claiming (mendaciously?) never to have had the slightest ambition to be prime minister, he asserted: ‘I realised long ago, in 1895, my unfitness for office. I am not sufficiently pliant, patient or accommodating.’ He held a celebration dinner at the Durdans every year on the anniversary of the vote which brought his government down. The fact that his administration fell on such a trivial issue as whether the army had sufficient reserves of cordite (which it had) shows how feeble was its will to survive.

True, he had difficult colleagues: Gladstone by now querulous, rambling, half-blind, looking like a witch in his dark goggles, ‘that crazed old man Merrypebble’, as the queen called him; Lord Granville, alternately known as ‘Pussy’ or ‘Granny’, whose bladder was so weak he had to have a chamberpot kept in the cabinet room; Sir William ‘Jumbo’ Harcourt, bullying, umbrageous, foul-tempered, egged on by his endlessly conspiring son Lewis, ‘Loulou’, when he was not chuckling over his collection of child pornography, said to be the largest in the country.

Then there was the queen, who in old age was less inclined than ever to acknowledge that she was supposed to be a constitutional monarch: ‘I urged Lord Rosebery not to bring too many matters before the cabinet as nothing was decided there and it would be better to discuss everything with me and Mr Gladstone.’ She repeatedly conspired with Lord Salisbury to unseat the Liberals. As for the speech from the throne, she refused point blank to read out Rosebery’s proposals for disestablishing the Church in Scotland and Wales.

What a crew. But then cabinets are always full of duds and malcontents and intriguers, and any prime minister who hopes to survive must simply push on regardless. But Rosebery could do nothing regardless. The strains of office made his chronic insomnia insupportable without vast doses of morphine, not to mention draughts of porter in the middle of the night. Even then he could not sleep and would go for midnight drives, first by carriage and later by car, knocking up his chauffeur at all hours. It is piquant to think of those two drugged insomniacs, Archie Rosebery and Marcel Proust, simultaneously barrelling through the night, comforted by the moonlight and the scent of the blossom in the hedgerows.

McKinstry gives us painstaking (but never dull) blow-by-blow accounts of the endless manoeuvrings to persuade Rosebery to accept first the Foreign Office under Gladstone and then the premiership. Ambitious men who themselves would not have hesitated a nanosecond before accepting either office spent weeks trying to coax him to swallow his protestations of unfitness. Even in finally agreeing to serve as foreign secretary, he insisted on telling Gladstone: ‘I have absolutely no experience of the Foreign Office, which I have never entered except to attend a dinner. My French is I fear rusty’ (this was quite untrue). ‘I have never had to face anything like what you would call hard work. I have no knowledge of diplomatic practice or forms and little of diplomatic men. And I am sensible of many deficiencies of temper and manner.’ Never has British self-deprecation been taken to such extreme lengths.

Why then did they all try so hard to get him, considering that he had never stood for election to the House of Commons, let alone sat in it? That remains the fascinating question, and in answering it McKinstry not only unravels the supposed mystery of Rosebery but also sheds a raking light on the impending death of Liberal England. The first thing is that Rosebery was a terrific public orator. In cabinet or the House of Lords, he came across as nervous and pernickety. But on a platform before an audience of thousands, he blossomed. His strong melodious voice, his dark hypnotic eyes (all the more hypnotic after a hefty dose of Sulfonel), his air of mysterious gravity relieved now and then by a bubbling up of flippancy which the queen did not care for (‘in his speeches out of Parliament, he should take a more serious tone and be, if she may say so, less jocular which is hardly befitting a prime minister. Lord Rosebery is so clever that he may be carried away by a sense of humour, which is a little dangerous’) – all this combined to produce an effect which never left the minds of the thousands who had queued for tickets to one of his set-pieces. Augustine Birrell added that ‘a certain nervousness of manner, that suggested at times the possibility of a breakdown, kept his audience in a flutter of nervousness and excitement.’ He might have been talking about Judy Garland.

Some of his old friends found his speaking technique stagey and contrived. Margot Asquith describes him ‘waving his little short arms à la Gladstone, resting a very round waist across the desk and coming down with an almighty crashing fist on the words “Chinese labour”’. Lord Randolph Churchill warned him: ‘Don’t think you’re going to terrify me with that poached-egg eye of yours.’

But most people thought him the most interesting speaker they had ever heard. McKinstry says that ‘what was particularly sad about Rosebery’s oratorical prowess was that he took absolutely no pleasure in it’ and regarded it as one of the most tiresome chores of the political life. But surely this was one of his many affectations. He took enormous trouble over his speeches and never turned down an invitation if it suited his book. He could communicate with a mass audience in an almost intimate style that he could seldom manage with his peers. Like some men who are famous for being aloof and solitary (De Gaulle, for example), he positively loved crowds, rarely missing a Cup Final and on the night of the Diamond Jubilee taking a four-hour bain de foule in the streets of Central London delighting to be an anonymous celebrant.

Rosebery was fascinated by the techniques he had seen in operation at the American Democratic Convention of 1873, and borrowed many of them when he persuaded Gladstone to stand for Midlothian and organised his campaign – for example, the whistlestop speaking tour from the back of an American-designed Pullman car. He insisted too that Gladstone’s daughter Mary appear on the platform, another requirement that was to become standard in mass politics. He always loved the democratic vitality of the United States and on his return found England ‘miserably smoky and narrow’, because it was so class-bound.

This zest for the modern helped to give Rosebery his huge public appeal. When he became prime minister, he not only had Granny’s chamberpot removed, he installed electric lighting in Downing Street (resisted by Gladstone) and insisted on typewriters being used for official correspondence (resisted by the queen). His alertness to the coming thing was not mere gadget mania. He took the advent of democratic local politics with a seriousness his colleagues found hard to comprehend. He was as diligent a first chairman of the London County Council as he had been a lackadaisical prime minister, attending over three hundred meetings in his first year of office. The dockers’ leader, Ben Tillett, also an LCC councillor, remarked: ‘he really made London government a living thing.’

Tories like F.E. Smith and Austen Chamberlain complained that Rosebery could never make up his mind completely on any subject. On the contrary, when it came to policy rather than politicking, Rosebery was usually consistent and often far-sighted. Although he was a confessed Liberal Imperialist, he had a decided view of the proper limits of empire, and he was remarkably cool and resolute during his two brief spells as foreign secretary. British interests had to be defended and Britain’s position made clear beyond any possibility of misunderstanding, but ‘we cannot afford to be the knight errant of the world.’ He did have a weakness for Cecil Rhodes and played a dubious role in the Jameson Raid – though not as dubious as Joe Chamberlain – but he had sense enough to see that imperial preference was a non-runner.

At the same time, he never lost sight of traditional balance-of-power considerations in Europe. He was one of the very few public figures to come out against the Entente Cordiale: ‘You are all wrong. It means war with Germany in the end!’ Having an informed view of Germany’s growing economic and military might, he began to warn of the horrors that such a war would bring long before it was on the public horizon. Is it fanciful to imagine that if Rosebery had accepted office in Asquith’s cabinet and managed to stick it out, he might have steered Europe away from war? I fear it is, because Rosebery’s prescience was inseparable from his independence. His unwillingness to compromise was the obverse of his freedom from wishful thinking.

But it was in domestic affairs that his prescience was most marked. He saw that no modernising Liberal programme had any chance of success until the House of Lords was reformed – he wanted a mixture of life peers, hereditaries and ex-officio members not unlike what we have today. He came to believe that the old Liberal Party was drawing to its end, and years before the formation of the Labour Party feared that the elimination of Liberalism would leave ‘the two forces of reaction face to face’.

In his groping for what we would now call a Third Way between high-taxing socialism and laissez-faire Toryism, he was lured into some sottises that have become familiar. He began to hanker for an iron-willed dictator and a cabinet composed entirely of businessmen – though when he did come into contact with an iron-willed businessman in the shape of Alfred Harmsworth (later Lord Northcliffe) he found the experience discomfiting. Rosebery refused Harmsworth’s peremptory instruction to deliver a series of ten big speeches against tariff reform, and so the press baron, in true Lord Copper style, went over to the other side and began boosting Chamberlain.

In his obsession with ‘national efficiency’, Rosebery also started burbling about ‘the need for a model race’ to halt ‘the physical degeneracy of our people’ – a curious echo of his shortlived father’s only recorded effusion, ‘An Address to the Middle Classes on the Subject of Gymnastics’. Partly through his old acquaintance Beatrice Webb, he dallied with the Fabians and even sipped at their poisonous brew of eugenics. He had long believed that ‘the over and reckless production of children is debasing our race.’ All this came poorly from someone who was now conspicuously tubby after a lifetime of truffles and claret. Edmund Gosse described Rosebery, not yet 60, in horrific terms: ‘The flesh is so puffy and thick on his cheeks, and his eye-orbits so deep, that it looks as if he had a face over his face. His colour is unhealthy, a dull, deep red.’

But these lapses can perhaps be forgiven, when set against Rosebery’s abiding virtue, which was to pay attention to the facts of late Victorian society and to consider the possible consequences for public policy. Even though his actual time in office was so brief and his official achievements so meagre, his influence on events from the margin was considerable. By insisting as his price for joining the government in the first place that there be established a minister for Scotland, which almost nobody in the cabinet wanted, certainly not Gladstone, he unleashed a long process of devolution which arguably saved Scotland for the Union, just as Home Rule in Ireland might have saved thousands of lives, though perhaps not the British connection, if only the House of Lords had not stood in the way. In the end, it was Rosebery’s intervention in favour of Lloyd George’s People’s Budget (which he actually detested) that saved it and saved George V from having to flood the Upper House with new peers. He was besides an untiring champion of better working conditions, the minimum wage and trade union rights. After he had successfully arbitrated in a miners’ strike – the first cabinet minister to attempt such a role – he was so delighted that he said ‘this would have been a good day to die on.’

His initial opposition to the People’s Budget was much derided at the time. In opposing a budget that raised income tax and death duties and introduced a land tax and a supertax on high incomes, was he not revealing his real allegiances, to his class and his unearned income? Yet his anxieties about the ever increasing role of the state do not seem quite so blinkered and selfish today, not least in education: ‘the lesson of our Scottish teaching was “level up”; the cry of modern teaching is “level down”; “let the government have a finger in every pie”, probing, propping, disturbing. Every day the area of initiative is being narrowed, every day the standing ground for self-reliance is being undermined.’ Easy enough for him to say, who never had to rely on anything but a steady flow of rents and dividends. Yet just as with Gladstone, people felt that he was saying something that could make a difference to their lives, even if they were not always sure what it was. There was a serious vein in him which throbbed all the more thrillingly because it was encased in such a glittering carapace. He was a Scottish Kennedy or Roosevelt, without their hunger for office.

By the time he was 60, he had taken to calling himself ‘a well-preserved corpse’. But as hypochondriacs often do, he lived on to a good old age. In accordance with his wishes, he breathed his last to the sound of Cory’s ‘Boating Song’ on the gramophone. Perhaps someone should have recited Cory’s threnody for Heraclitus too. The line ‘Still are thy pleasant voices, thy nightingales, awake’ would have made a great epitaph for such a melodious insomniac. I do not expect to read a more enjoyable or more thoughtful political biography for a long time to come.