Rosebery: The First Phase

A youth of brilliant promise, a man of commanding gifts, Gladstone's friend and lieutenant quitted the political arena before he had reached the age of fifty. None of the statesmen of his period, writes John Raymond, presents the modern biographer with a more absorbing problem.

“History is the product of a temperament that delights in the past, and for which the detachment, the immobility, the deadness and the irrelevance of the past are not defects to be removed, but blessed virtues to be enjoyed.

...The world has no love for what is dead, wishing only to recall it to life again and make it appear relevant to present pursuits and enterprises. It deals with the past as with a man, expecting it to talk sense and to have something apposite to say.

But for the ‘historian’ for whom the past is dead and irreproachable, the past is feminine. He loves it as a mistress of whom he never tires, and whom he never expects to talk sense."

Professor Michael Oakeshott’s recent reminder is peculiarly appropriate in the case of the fifth Earl of Rosebery. Of all Queen Victoria’s Prime Ministers, he probably left the least impression on subsequent history.

The world, in Professor Oakeshott’s sense, remembers him chiefly as the man who won the Derby twice during the fifteen months of his premiership. Though he was well over fourscore when he died, he was out of the game before he was fifty. A year after his resignation he gave up the leadership of the Liberal Party. Thereafter, a series of tentative but ill-timed interventions only tended to thrust him further back into the political shadows.

To and fro he wandered, from Mentmore to Dalmeny, from Dalmeny to the Durdans, from the Durdans to Berkeley Square. Again and again in the years that followed, he took up his pen to memorialize his position in those far-off summer weeks of 1895.

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