The Last Great Whig
London: Unicorn, 2017
Hardcover. xvi + 398 p.; 32 unnumbered pages of plates. ISBN 978-1910787953. £25
Reviewed by Charles Giovanni Vanzan Coutinho
Independent scholar, New York
Recently, there has been a plethora of biographical studies of senior figures in 19th- and 20th-century British ‘high’ politics. Generally, these studies can be sub-divided into two parts: i) books by academics, with a detailed and commanding knowledge of both the subject and his times, as well as the historical literature relating to both. The Hawkins biography of the 14th Earl of Derby, John Bew’s book on Castlereagh being examples of this type(1); ii) studies by non-academics, who while having a good command of the primary source material of the subject (letters, diaries, private papers), and often a fluent and interesting prose style, do not for the most part have a good command of the ‘times’ in which the subject lived, nor of the pertinent historical literature. Andrew Roberts’ book on Lord Salisbury, McKinstry’s biography of Lord Rosebery are pertinent examples.(2) One figure that has been overlooked in this recent explosion of biographical studies is that of Lord Lansdowne. Henry Charles Keith Petty-Fitzmaurice, the 5th Marquess of Lansdowne, Foreign Secretary under Salisbury and Balfour, Governor-General of Canada and Viceroy of India and author of the famous ‘Lansdowne Letter’ of 1917, has been singularly lacking in attention by historians. Certainly, compared to his contemporaries like Curzon, Chamberlain or Balfour, Lansdowne has been pretty much ignored by historians, both academic and non-academic.(3) Until now that is, as Simon, Lord Kerry, a direct descendent of Lansdowne, has written a complete treatment of his famous ancestor.
Kerry, while not an academic, does possess a doctorate from the Department of History at the University of East Anglia. Studying under one of the premier diplomatic historians in academia to-day (T.G. Otte), Kerry’s dissertation dealt with Lord Lansdowne’s tenure as War Minister from 1895 to 1900.(4) Kerry’s book shows every sign that he has endeavoured to consult every primary source available in not only the United Kingdom but also in the United States as well. From his family’s aristocratic, Protestant ascendancy background on his father’s side, to Lansdowne’s descent from Talleyrand on his mother’s side, Kerry depicts Lansdowne’s early life and initial career in politics in the Liberal Party under Gladstone (Lansdowne having entered the House of Lords at an early age in 1868). We are told, but not to the degree or depth that this particular reader would have preferred, that Lansdowne was opposed to Gladstone’s Irish policies in the early 1880s. Going so far as to resign his Under-Secretaryship at the India Office in 1880. Similarly, while Lansdowne’s finances are referred to from time to time in the text, something that as an Anglo-Irish landlord, was more problematic for him than say an English or Scottish one, the issues of money are not really discussed to any great degree in the book. We are told from time to time, that Lansdowne saved and made economies (by renting Lansdowne House to the Astors for example), but nothing more than that [13-16, 31, 124]. We are not told for example how extensive was Lansdowne’s property holdings, in either England or Ireland. An unfortunate lacuna, in view of the fact that it appears that Lansdowne’s acceptance of the Canadian and Indian posts were primarily due to financial considerations.(5)
With Lansdowne’s appointment as Governor-General of Canada in 1883, the book enters the ‘high-politics’ phase of his career, Lansdowne having a position in the front rank of British politics for over the next thirty years. Accordingly, Kerry ably discusses the successes (relative, that is) of Lansdowne’s five years in Canada, five years as Viceroy of India (1888-1893), five years as Secretary of State for War (1895-1900) and the high-point of Lansdowne’s career, his succession to Lord Salisbury as Foreign Secretary (1900-1905). I must state that I am for the most part disappointed in this section of the book. Each of the chapters, while covering the pertinent section of Lansdowne’s curriculum vitae, conveys the very same in an oddly muted tone. Leaving the reader unsure if this is a reflection of Lansdowne’s personality or his biographer’s writing style. More serious is that Kerry assigns a similar amount of space to each of these chapters of Lansdowne’s career, when it could be very well argued that the period when he was Foreign Secretary should have much more space allocated to it then what Kerry does. The same could also be said for Lansdowne’s years at the War Office. Equally unsatisfactory are problems of interpretation during this phase of Lansdowne’s career. Specifically, while there are no issues during his Canadian and Indian years, the period of when Lansdowne was War Minister and Foreign Minister seems to a degree to perplex Kerry. Specifically, Kerry’s defense of Lansdowne’s tenure at the War office as it relates to the upcoming South African War seems questionable. Given the series of defeats that the British Army suffered in the opening phases of the war, it would need a stronger defense than what Kerry offers up to believe that Lansdowne was not partially to blame for debacles suffered by the British Army during ‘black week’ in the latter part of 1899:
Historians have found Lansdowne wanting as Secretary of State, blaming him for the blunders of ‘the War’. This fails to acknowledge that Lansdowne’s decisions were not made in a vacuum, but in consultation and the guidance of his military advisers and with the full approval of the cabinet .
The problem with this defence is that as the Minister in charge, it was indeed Lansdowne’s responsibility to remedy the existing deficiencies in the British Army as he found them upon taking office in 1895. The fact that he failed to implement the types of reforms that were needed and required in order to avoid precisely the types of defeats suffered by the British Army in the opening stages of the South African War is the basis of the charge sheet against Lansdowne’s tenure at the War Office.(6)
In the case of the Foreign Office, Kerry’s account suffers from both a constriction of space (to recount the five crucial years that Lansdowne was at the Foreign Office in thirty-seven pages is almost impossible) and a lack of command of the subject. Otherwise, it is difficult to explain such errata as the following: no officials of note at the Foreign Office were “strongly for” Germany circa 1900; Lansdowne’s Parliamentary Under-Secretary was not ‘James Cranborne’; Lord Rosebery was not at this time ‘Opposition Leader’ in the House of Lords; Bernard von Bulow was not Foreign Minister of the German Reich during Lansdowne’s time at the Foreign Office; Sir Arthur Hardinge was not ‘British Ambassador’ but Minister to Persia; Sergey Witte was not ‘Finance Minister’ in 1905; French Prime Minister Rouvier was not ‘pro-German’; nor was the French Chamber of Deputies circa the spring of 1905; Ernest Satow was British Minister, not ‘Ambassador’ in Peking. However my chief cause of complaint is that while Kerry acknowledges that Lansdowne upon his entering the Foreign Office in December 1900 sought “to strengthen the good relations which at present exist between Britain and Germany” , Kerry fails to acknowledge and or understand that like Balfour, Lansdowne wanted to go the whole hog and contract an alliance between the two countries. Something that Kerry’s dissertation advisor T.G. Otte brings out clearly in his various treatments of Lansdowne’s time at the Foreign Office.(7) Strangely, Kerry fails to include anything by Otte in his bibliography. This interpretative failure of Kerry helps to explain why he does not see that for Lansdowne, both the Anglo-Japanese Alliance and the Entente between the United Kingdom and France had a faute de mieux aspect. It was in fact a second choice and not a first one.
The remainder of Lansdowne’s career is covered by Kerry in a similarly bland fashion as the prior sections of the book. The treatment of Lansdowne’s leadership of the House of Lords (1906-1916) suffers from some of the same issues of defective interpretation. As in the instance of the Home Rule crisis in particular, one cannot but shake one’s head when Kerry defends Lansdowne’s policy of obstructionism and in the Spring of 1914, near endorsement of mutiny and civil bloodshed, with no reasoning offered as to why Lansdowne’s apparent moderation on the question in the years prior to 1912 abruptly changed. Similarly, on the ultimate episode of Lansdowne’s career, the ‘Lansdowne Letter’, Kerry’s prose is oddly muted. Given the fact that as Kerry acknowledges, Lansdowne was until very late in his ministerial career a supporter of total victory, the change of front is not very well explicated for the reader. What were the underlying motives for the breaking of ranks with his former colleagues still in office by Lansdowne in 1917? How and why did Lansdowne come to the realisation that a complete victory was neither possible or desirable? All this is unfortunately not fully fleshed out as much as it could be by Kerry. The rest of the book deals with the remaining years of Lansdowne’s post-political existence. Here Kerry does manage to well illustrate the honour and dignity that Lansdowne maintained in abiding by his views expressed in his ‘Letter’, forgiving or forgetting his ex-colleagues and political friends who had turned on him.
To conclude, how does one appraise overall this book? It would be true to say that Kerry’s biography fails due to the fact that he falls between two stools: neither an academic biography by a specialist in the field with a command of the historical background and literature, nor the well-written and entertaining non-academic biography, which relies upon the private papers of the subject to carry the author through. Accordingly, it is not the definitive Life that we need and which Kerry could have produced if he were either more knowledgeable with the pertinent historical literature and background or if he possessed a good prose style which would make the reader interested and alive to the historical epic that one could say was Lansdowne’s life. In short, Kerry’s book is a failed attempt at a comprehensive and rounded biography that Lansdowne’s position in British public life from the late 1860s to 1917 requires. We can only hope that Kerry’s failure will be employed by someone in the future as one of the stepping stones towards that end.
(1) Angus Hawkins, The Forgotten Prime Minister : The 14th Earl of Derby: Volumes I & II (2007); John Bew, Castlereagh : Enlightenment, War and Tyranny (2011).
(2) Andrew Roberts, Salisbury : Victorian Titan (1999); Leo McKinstry, Rosebery : A Statesman in Turmoil (2005).
(3) Lord Newton within two years of Lansdowne’s death wrote an official biography which was and is sorely inadequate. See Lord Newton, Lansdowne : A Biography (1929). Until now this was the only biography of Lord Lansdowne.
(4) Simon Kerry, ‘Lord Lansdowne at the War Office (1895-1900)’. Ph.D. Thesis, University of East Anglia, 2014.
(5) David Cannadine, The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy (1990) : 591, 597.
(6) See for this G.R. Searle, A New England? Peace and War, 1886-1918 (2004 : 254-258.
(7) T.G. Otte, The Foreign Office Mind : The Making of British Foreign Policy, 1865-1914 (2011) : 260-263, 277-279 and The China Question : Great Power Rivalry and British Isolation, 1895-1905 (2007) : 217-218, 226, 236-240, 242-244 & passim.
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