Lord Lansdowne and British Foreign Policy 1900-1917

Richard Wilkinson argues that, for all his faults, a case can be made for the aloof aristocrat at the Foreign Office in 1900-1905.

Who is the most neglected statesman in modern British history? Austen Chamberlain? Arthur Henderson? Alec Douglas-Home? Step forward Henry Charles Keith Petty-Fitzmaurice, fifth Marquess of Lansdowne (1845-1927), the Foreign Secretary who abandoned isolation. He has been consistently ignored and under- estimated. Historians have shown far greater interest in his monumental predecessor Lord Salisbury and in his charismatic successor, Sir Edward Grey. As for Lansdowne's role in the development of the Tory Party, he is not even mentioned by Lord Blake in his Conservative Party from Peel to Thatcher. Amazingly, no biography of him has appeared since Lord Newton's in 1929 - and it is not as if Newton said all there was to he said. Owing to the release of documents and the researches of scholars since 1929, his book is out of date. Furthermore it is far too uncritical, He was a close friend of Lansdowne and even praises his hero for never falling asleep in the House of Lords! Yet since Lord Newton, nothing.

This is strange. Not only did Lansdowne have a long and colourful career – Governor-General of Canada, Viceroy of India, Secretary of State for War, Foreign Secretary, Leader of the Conservative and Unionist Peers, a member of Asquith's war-time coalition – he also provoked criticism and controversy. In 1881 he was the first prominent Whig to desert Gladstone over Ireland. As War Minister he was blamed – some said unfairly - for the wretched showing of the British army on the outbreak of the Boer War. In 1911 his vacillating opposition to Asquith's assault on the Lords was criticised by his own colleagues. While Corinne Weston in her study of the 1911 constitutional crisis credits Lansdowne with statesmanlike conduct, Newton con- cedes that he failed to give a firm lead. Finally in November 1917 this judicious nobleman had a brainstorm and campaigned for a negotiated peace.

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