Lessons from Lord Rosebery

Britain's political elite are often criticised for having few achievements away  from Whitehall. Richard Foreman contrasts their inexperience with the 19th-century statesman Lord Rosebery.

Richard Foreman | Published 11 April 2012

Archibald Primrose, 5th Earl of Rosebery
Archibald Primrose, 5th Earl of Rosebery

Before he became Prime Minister towards the end of the 19th Century, a number of people argued that Lord Rosebery was one of the greatest Prime Ministers that the country had never had. However, after his brief tenure in office many argued that Lord Rosebery was conversely the worst Prime Minister that Britain had ever had.

Rather than straddling the political consensus it seemed the case that Rosebery – although often popular with the people – could not carve out a successful space in the Houses of Parliament. The Tory Party attacked him for what they perceived as his progressive and radical views, and the Liberal Party criticised its own leader for being too Conservative. Rather than straddle things, he often fell between two stalls.

I will not go into the details of Rosebery’s career (I can recommend Leo McKinstry’s excellent biography however should you be interested in his life and times), except to say that although Rosebery failed as a Prime Minister he was a great success in a number of other spheres. He famously predicted as a young man that he would own a winner of the Derby, marry an heiress and become Prime Minister. He made good on all of his predictions before the age of fifty. Rosebery was a political maverick - a great orator, loner, writer and conversationalist. He was as equally intelligent as stubborn (he famously sacrificed passing his exams at Oxford by refusing to give up a racehorse which he owned) and was often reluctant to pursue a political career. He had mixed fortunes in business and, for an aristocrat, he was a great advocate of social change. Despite being one of the most famous men in the country, no one could claim to wholly know the contradictory Rosebery. In many ways he was the 19th century's Boris Johnson.

I couldn’t help but think of Rosebery the other day as I watched Peter Hennessey argue that it would be of benefit to the nation if more of our politicians had experience – and succeeded – in other spheres before embarking on their political careers. Many of our leading politicians have become the product almost of a modern day Course of Honours, akin to that of Ancient Rome. From public school they then attend Oxford or Cambridge, more often than not to study Politics, Philosophy and Economics (PPE), then go on to work as a policy adviser or aid – and are finally parachuted into a safe seat.

Such a predictable career path, insulated from non-party concerns, produces homogeneous politicians. It takes some effort to make politics boring, but it sometimes feels that the government and the opposition are doing their best to make it happen. Ironically, it is the "Eton set" who seem to be more colourful in some respects – and possess the virtue of coming into politics with money, rather than going into politics to make money. Lord Rosebery was thankfully affluent enough not to spend his time in office feathering his nest in regards to being hired by US company boards, or speaking tour programmes, when he stepped down.

Lord Rosebery attended Eton also, but I am not sure he would wholly approve still of the current crop of old boys. He would perhaps argue, adapting a quote from the great C. L. R. James to do so, that "he who knows only of politics knows nothing of politics."

Richard Foreman is the author of Raffles: A Perfect Wicket.

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