Lord Randolph Churchill: A Political Life
It is hard to be pious about Lord Randolph Churchill. Of all the figures in the Victorian political pantheon, he has the most obtrusive clay feet. The less undesirable of the 7th Duke of Marlborough's elder sons – the heir, George, Marquess of Blandford, was early recognised as mad, bad, and probably a Liberal – Randolph misbehaved at Eton, drank his way to a good Second at Oxford, took the family seat at Woodstock in 1874 and in the same year married Jenny Jerome, daughter of a New York businessman. Between 1874 and 1876, in his infrequent and trivial parliamentary intervention, he adopted an ultra-Tory line but colluded with Dilke and other Radicals; outside the House he nearly destroyed his social position by threatening the Prince of Wales with a duel in order, indirectly, to prevent his brother marrying the Prince's former mistress. In 1877 he went to Dublin as secretary to his father, the new Viceroy. Borrowing ideas from Dublin Unionist acquaintances, he made an issue of support for Catholic education and helped his mother's publicity-seeking relief scheme; and he left in 1880 with a reputation as an interesting and progressive Unionist. The next five years were devoted to cutting a Parliamentary figure and forcing his way to the top of the Tory party joining J.E. Gorst and Sir Henry Drummond Wolff in the Fourth Party, he harried Bradlaugh for atheism and his party leaders for their attitudes to Ireland and the emerging working class electorate. He adopted the cause of 'democracy' in the Tory party, claimed 'Elijah's mantle' as Disraeli's political heir, trifled with 'Fair Trade' in an unsuccessful bid to win a seat at Birmingham, and became the covert ally of Salisbury against Northcote in the struggle for Tory leadership. Given the India Office in 1885, he reversed his earlier sympathies for the views of educated natives and trimmed his policies to the presumed views of the English electorate, finally annexing Burma on a flimsy pretext. But the highlight of his political career came in the crisis of 1885-6, when he moved easiIy from a near-commitment to Home Rule to a strident but yet ambiguous Orangeism. After the 1886 election Salisbury was obliged to give him the Exchequer, where he interfered with foreign policy to the Prime Minister's despair and adopted a strict 'economical' approach to annoy his Cabinet enemies, while developing a plan for the revision of taxation in the interest of smaller property owners. Obstructed by the spending ministers he improvidently threatened resignation; whereat his bluff was called by an exasperated Salisbury. Churchill's political career collapsed even faster than it had been built. By the end of 1888 his chances of return were patently dead, and he struggled in to an early death in 1895, a political isolate burdened by debt and the tertiary syphilis which finally killed him.
Roy Foster's biography is a masterpiece of sustained and critical intelligence, a rare quality even in scholarly political biography. He writes in the pure tradition of 'high politics', an intellectual world in which what matters is less what happened than 'how people behaved in the light of what they thought was going to happen'. His Churchill 'makes – and unmakes – sense from day to day', and by thus exonerating his subject from any charge of consistency he sweeps aside the standard and limp complaint that Churchill is an enigma. He wishes to show that Churchill was 'the key figure in the restabilising of Britain by the established parties'; but here his 'high politics' stance gets in the way. In a minute analysis of what people thought was going to happen, there is little room for discussion of what did happen, and like all 'high politics' writers he is farced to refer to the social and economic and regional substructure of Victorian politics in confident but unargued allusions. Occasionally the oracle stammers: was Liverpool Toryism working class (p. 108) or not (p. 60)? It hardly matters in biography, compared with what Churchill thought or said it was, but for other purposes it matters a great deal. It is difficult to extend the reinterpretation of Churchill into a reinterpretation of British politics and stay within the confines of biography.
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