Lord Rosebery: Britain's Forgotten Prime Minister

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The distinguished English historian Lord Blake wrote a biography of the early 20th-century statesman, Andrew Bonar Law, which he entitled: The Unknown Prime Minister. Perhaps a better candidate for that designation would be Lord Rosebery who served in that position for a little over a year in the 1890s.

Archibald Philip Primrose, Fifth Earl of Rosebery (1847-1929) was one of those enigmatic aristocrats who flourished during the last years of the 19th century, as the age of British aristocracy was coming to an end.

Born to immense wealth, as a young man Rosebery showed great intelligence along with a tendency to become easily bored. One of his tutors wrote that Rosebery’s main problem was “he wanted the palm without the dust.” Still he impressed those who met him. Disraeli described him as “intelligent and not a prig,” and tried to enlist him for the Conservative party. But Rosebery’s tradition was that of a Scottish Whig or Liberal.

First foray into politics was as campaign manager

He entered politics in 1879 when he managed the campaign of the Liberal leader, William Ewart Gladstone’s return to power as prime minister. Gladstone was grateful and singled Rosebery out as a future leader of the Liberal Party, labelling him as a “man of the future.” At first, Rosebery refused any office. He was, as one historian has written, “diffidently ambitious.” He became a member of Gladstone’s Cabinet in 1884 and two years later, took over at 37 as one of the youngest Foreign Secretaries in British history. 

When Gladstone organized his last administration in 1892, Rosebery returned for a second time as Foreign Secretary. Two years later he succeeded Gladstone as prime minister. He served for a little over a year and then resigned in 1895 at 48 years old, and never held office again.

What was the source of this strange career: Impressive early success and then never again to exercise political power? That is Rosebery’s enigma.

Rosebery quits as PM

The truth is he was out of sympathy with the drift toward democracy of his own party at the time, and found the day-to-day dealings of a political leader distasteful, something that never bothered other great political leaders: Disraeli, Gladstone or a Franklin Roosevelt.  Winston Churchill, a great admirer summed this aspect simply: as Rosebery “wouldn’t stoop he didn’t conquer.” 

Rosebery’s great wealth increased by his marriage to the only daughter of Baron Rothschild enabled him to cultivate his other interests. He was a great collector of art, an avid hunter, created an outstanding racing stable, and assembled one of the largest personal libraries in England. An amateur historian, he wrote brief but brilliant biographies of William Pitt, Lord Randolph Churchill, and Sir Robert Peel along with one of the best studies of the last years of Napoleon Bonaparte. Like his flirtation and interest in politics there was a certain dabbling quality about his historical works. He turned down offers to write the official lives of both Disraeli and Gladstone and never undertook a full-scale work of historical scholarship.

During the last years of his political career in the 1890s and early years of the 20th century, he attempted to formulate a new policy for his Party. Rosebery characterized it as Liberal Imperialism, a rejection of the insular concentration on domestic issues, what he labeled “Little Englandism.” He wrote that the new times called for repudiation of Liberalism as the “party of a small England, a shrunk England, of a degraded, a neutral, submissive England.” He even coined a new term for this conception of the British Empire: The Commonwealth of Nations.

Rosebery steps away from Liberalism

Rosebery made a deep impression on the new generation of younger Liberals, men like Sir Edward Grey, Henry Asquith, and Richard Burton Haldane, who along with David Lloyd George would eventually create England’s first welfare state. But for reasons both personal and emotional, Rosebery refused to provide the political leadership of this new movement. He preferred to give speeches and write articles about his new cause instead of providing day to day political leadership. This was his great failure. Increasingly, as the first decade of the new century wore on, Rosebery withdrew into a self-imposed exile. When the Liberals came to power in 1905 with a huge majority in Parliament, he refused any office. 

Rosebery’s failure reflects the crisis of the British aristocracy in the beginning of the 20th century. The loss of wealth, political power and especially status before the forces of the new democratic Britain, left Rosebery, and others of his class, confused. His Liberal Imperialism can be seen as an attempt to offset the growing irrelevancy of the aristocracy and their failure to lead the emerging democratic Empire.

In the last years of his life Rosebery turned increasingly reactionary. By the outbreak of World War I, he was completely out of touch with his party. On old friend and admirer described him in these years as a ferocious reactionary. He lost his favorite son in the war, suffered a stroke the month the war ended in November 1918, and never again counted for anything in politics. He died in 1929, remembered if at all as a charming irrelevancy.

As a young man, Rosebery had said that he had three goals in life: win the Derby (England’s most influential horse race), marry an heiress and become Prime Minister. Two out of three isn’t bad.

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