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Lansdowne: The Last Great Whig is reviewed by Norman Stone

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The nearly man

Lansdowne: The Last Great Whig by Simon Kerry

The 5th Marquess of Lansdowne’s life coincides with the Victorian high point of the British Empire, and he had an enormous part in it. He was a grandee of grandees, as the inevitable de László frontispiece shows (though Lloyd George called him ‘a fussy little shop walker’). Born in 1845, he inherited huge estates at 21; these included Lansdowne House (pictured), designed in the 1760s by Robert Adam,with four acres of garden, on one side of Berkeley Square. 

There is Eton and Oxford, where, being bright but also a keen sportsman, he narrowly missed a First. Then there is politics. He came of an old family, Petty-Fitzmaurice, which had French connections (through an out-of-someone-else’s-wedlock son of Talleyrand). When barely out of Oxford, Lansdowne was invited to Empress Eugénie’s week-long parties at the Château de Compiègne and, hunting in company with the Prince of Wales, shot 260 creatures, mostly rabbits.

His family had been in politics since the 18th century, and he followed. He was a success from the start: India Office, War Office, Foreign Office, Viceroy of Canada and then Viceroy of India (when he arrived at Bombay in 1893, he received a 31-gun salute). There is much else – the Garter, of course, endless gongs and, towards the end, a trusteeship of the National Gallery. It is a life of unremitting seriousness and application, maintained by what was obviously a happy as well as suitable marriage (to a daughter of the Duke of Abercorn). There is a triumphant Victorian certainty to it all.   

This is an admiring biography also in the Victorian mould. Lansdowne appears as a chevalier sans peur et sans reproche: no jokes (if you discount the illustrations from Punch: however did anyone find them funny?) but an awful lot of rectitude. Simon Kerry (a great-great-grandson) has gone through a prodigious amount of paper, following Lansdowne in his various roles, and uses private correspondence to effect. Lansdowne was very close to his mother, and wrote to her every week, even as Viceroy of India; so we can tell what he did and how he saw things. From a family archive, there are superb old photographs. 

Kerry’s book is enjoyable and revealing, but it suffers from the equal weight given to the various stages of Lansdowne’s career. His years as Viceroy of Canada (1883 to 1888) are dutifully recorded, but, admirable as the country is, it does not have an interesting history. India, over which he presided at a relatively quiet time, gets equal space, but there is much more to be said. His time at the War Office – conflict with the Boers broke out when he was there – is well handled. The British seem to have a chronic problem as regards ministries of defence, perhaps just boiling down to their educated classes’ distaste for militarism, and their being just too polite to each other. At any rate, they provoked war with the Boers and did immensely badly in the first year. Lansdowne escaped any blame and became foreign secretary.

Of course it mattered that he had the private resources for it. Lansdowne House was a very good place for the entertainment of foreigners, and this cost a vast amount. Dozens of staff had ‘to breech’, which meant a special evening uniform of red plush breeches, white stockings and pumps, white waistcoat with black coatee with flaps across the back, and they also had four separate Henry-Poole-tailored outfits and a state livery. A few years later, when he was Conservative leader in the Lords, he held an evening reception for a thousand guests, including ambassadors. 

The Mill (for £100,000, to an American) and he was also selling off much of his land. But the 20th century was not really for him, and Simon Kerry also loses his touch when that century gets under way. As foreign secretary, Lansdowne took two decisive steps. In 1902 came an alliance with Japan, and the reason was that the Royal Navy had woken up to the threat from Germany. In 1903 came the entente with France. On the face of things, it was a clearing-up of colonial disagreements, mainly Egypt and Morocco, but it was, in reality, again a response to the fast growth of the German navy, which was intended as a direct challenge to the British.>span class="Apple-converted-space"> 

Then, in 1909, came another 20th-century phenomenon that left Lansdowne bewildered. By now there was a left-liberal government, its moving spirit Lloyd George. His ‘People’s Budget’ proposed paying for the beginning of the welfare state by sharply increased taxes – death duties doubled (to fifteen per cent), a land tax and a supertax. 

Lansdowne, leading the Lords, decided to vote the Budget down, a breach of an old convention by which the Lords did not oppose money bills. This budget was a direct attack on inherited wealth, and the implications were obvious. This provoked two further elections and a constitutional crisis, in which Lansdowne was on the defeated side.

This is the only point in the book where Kerry faults him, calling this one of the worst mistakes in British political history. He misses two ironies. Lansdowne as Irish landowner had opposed and defeated Gladstone’s Home Rule Bill in 1886. Had it gone through, there would have been far fewer Irish MPs at Westminster and, in England, the Tories would have been the majority party. And the unreformed House of Lords would have been a stronger bulwark for British liberty than the state-led House of Commons. Nowadays, it is the pensioners, if they have a semi in Fulham, who pay forty per cent death duties, and the money goes to the dukes, if they have the sense to exploit the nonsenses of agricultural policy, and hang on to forests that are subsidised by the state.

And then there was the Lansdowne letter. The winter of 1917-18, the fourth of a terrible war, was one of the bleakest in British history. Germany had nearly knocked out Italy at Caporetto, and Russia had collapsed. The Lansdownes had given over their main English house as a military hospital, needing more and more beds, and complained about the rations. One of Lansdowne’s two sons had been killed, and he seems never quite to have recovered. At the end of November 1917, he entered history for the last time, with a controversial letter to the Telegraph. It spelled out the facts and said what the Pope and the Austrian emperor were saying: if civilisation were to be saved, a compromise peace would have to be made.  

Kerry is not really at home with the background (he thinks the Battle of the Somme began on 7th June 1916, not 1st July) and assures us on the basis of weak sources that the Germans were sending out peace feelers. He needs to read Fritz Fischer’s fifty-year old classic on Germany’s war aims. There was indeed a peace feeler at the time. The German foreign secretary, Baron von Kühlmann, enquired via Spain whether Britain, if Germany gave up Belgium, would recognise German hegemony in Russia. Lloyd George considered this for a few days, and said that a Germany with the resources of Russia would be unbeatable and unbearable. 

Lansdowne’s letter led not to peace, but to a statement of war aims, and to people taking seriously a proposal for a League of Nations that would somehow outlaw war. Lansdowne was therefore driven into supporting that organisation which turned out to be a sort of aftershave squirted over the Treaty of Versailles (which led to a repetition of the war twenty years later). 

The trouble with Lansdowne is that he kept missing the point. Just as he missed his First at Balliol by hunting to hounds, and sacrificed his Rembrandt for Henry Poole outfits, he missed opportunities to turn Indians into brown Britons and Irish peasants into white ones.

Norman Stone

This story was from March 2018 issue. Subscribe Now