BOOKS The Great Succession Struggle
By ROBERT RHODES JAMES
THE Prime Minister, although still enjoying much respect, had too evidently outstayed his welcome. The last great measure on which he had set his heart, and to which he had attached the existence of his government and party, had been crushed by a power beyond his control. While the political fortunes of his party sagged, the murmurs of criticism against his leadership were becoming remorselessly more audible. III- health provided a valid but undeniably fortuitous opportunity for his colleagues to bid him an appropriately dignified farewell.
But upon whose shoulders was the mantle to fall? In the House of Commons there was one 'statesman of proven ministerial experience and seniority, whose liberal sentiments seemed to many to make him eminently qualified to assume the supreme office. He had been Chancellor of the Exchequer, Home Secretary, and Leader of the House of Commons, and no one could deny his formidable claims. Unfortunately, he had also attracted considerable mistrust. It was alleged that his political cunning had been somewhat too sophisticated for more simple minds, and that his facility for hedging his political bets in public had meant that it was difficult to define his position on any major issue with any real pre- cision. Had he, in fact, any principles at all? `Wealth in the real sense being indifferent to him,' a contemporary wrote, 'small honours be- neath his consideration, and overpowering en- thusiasm for the greater ideals foreign to his nature, what remained as the motive power to propel this political galleon through the cross- currents of over thirty years of varied navigation? The answer would seem to be sheer love of the game of politics.' Even his few close friends ad- mitted the force of these, and many other, criticisms.
After the normal processes of consultation had been concluded, the Queen invited another states- man to form an administration. Her choice fell upon the Foreign Secretary. A Scottish peer. A product of Eton and Christ Church, Oxford. A man who had very few enemies, and a great deal of genuine good will at his disposal. A man who described himself as 'a reluctant peer,' and who had never been involved in any personal in- trigues for the leadership. He did not grasp the Premiership; it was handed to him. He held it for just over a year. At the ensuing general elec- tion his party was defeated. A year later, he thankfully relinquished the party leadership. He never held public office of any kind again.
Politics plays many strange and mischievous tricks, but the similarities between the ministerial crises of March 1894 and October 1963 provide us with one of the strangest of all. Of course, the enchanting comparisons must not be pushed too far. Presumably the actions of the sovereign in 1963 were more correct than they had been in 1894. And Sir William Harcourt, the Dis- appointed Commoner of 1894, was in every respect a lesser man than Mr. Butler. And the other major participants in the drama played very different roles.
When, early in 1894, it was evident that the aged, and at times almost senile, Gladstone was going to resign at last, the one fact on which
all his colleagues agreed was that Haroourt would not do. Asquith wrote that 'a Harcourt Government was out of the range of practical politics,' and that Harcourt's 'lack of any sense of proportion, his incapacity for self-restraint, and his perverse delight in inflaming and em- bittering every controversy, made co-operation with him always difficult and often impossible. Cabinet life under such conditions was a weari- ness both to the flesh and the spirit.' Lord Kim- berley said that Harcourt 'can handle questions in the Commons with dexterity & make a slash- ing speech. . . . The rest is nothing but weakness & bluster.' The Liberal press deserted Harcourt in a body. An attempt by Labouchere and Dilke to whip up back-bench support for Harcourt was a laughable fiasco, which only served to emphasise how isolated he really was.
The Liberals thus turned to Lord Rosebery with relief and with hope, and it is with the story of his accession to the Premiership' that Mr. Peter Stansky's remarkable book* really begins. Through his extensive researches in the Har- court, Gladstone, Spencer, Bryce, Haldane, Ellis and Campbell-Bannerman papers he has provided the first detailed account of the personal anti- pathies and paroxysms which. rent the Liberal Party for the five years following Gladstone's re- tirement. A shortened version of a prize-winning Harvard thesis, his book has a vigour and a com- prehension rare indeed in such works. One may regret a failure to analyse more closely and sympathetically the personalities of some of the individuals most intimately concerned, and per- haps too great a tendency to assume purely per- sonal ambitions on their part on all occasions. The portrait of Morley, in particular, may be questioned. But these are purely matters of opinion, and cannot derogate from Mr. Stansky's great achievement.
The one central feature of the book is the Harcourt-Rosebery antipathy. The real fomenter of this was Harcourt's son, Lewis, universally known as Loulou. Sir William was indeed very ambitious,tut in a rather attractively lusty, rum- bustious, damn-your-eyes manner. He took little trouble to smooth his path. He was almost in- credibly insensitive to the feelings of others, while at the same time being fairly sensitive himself to supposed hurts and slights. But, in the last resort, he was not really prepared to fight. The Government, he remarked to Loulou, was doomed, and 'might as well go to pieces under Rosebery as under me.'
Loulou was an infinitely tpugher, more ruth- less and more astute man than his father. As A. G. Gardiner once wrote of him, 'he has no passionate fervour for humanity, and is too honest to pretend to any. . . . He loves the in- tricacies of the campaign more than the visionary gleam, the actual more than the potential.' He set out, with a cold obsessive determination which bedevilled the history of the Liberal Party for the next decade, to gain the succession for his father. But it was a hopeless enterprise. Sir William stood completely alone. John Morley,
* AMBITIONS AND STRATEGIES. The Struggle for the Leadership of the Liberal Party in the 1890s. By Peter Stansky. (0.U.P., 35s.) who agreed with him profoundly on so much, had been alienated. Morley regarded both Rose- bery and Harcourt as being equally lukewarm over the sacred cause of Home Rule, and he con- sidered Rosebery to be dangerously imperialistic, even jingoistic, in foreign affairs. But Rosebery had not snubbed and derided him as Harcourt had done, and he had not held up the passage of the draft Home Rule Bill as Harcourt had done. Although Loulou dangled the Foreign Office and the Treasury temptingly before Morley's eyes, the recollection of past injuries was too much.
The Harcourts, thwarted of the Premiership, then schemed to retain the reality of power. They drew-.up a long list of insufferable conditions for serving under Rosebery. But when it came to de- manding their implementation, Sir William's reso- lution had evaporated. I think that Mr. Stansky accepts too easily a subsequent Harcourt ver- sion that Rosebery at least agreed that Sir William should have supervision over foreign affairs. Mr. Stansky writes that `Rosebery saddled himself with a contract with Harcourt which amounted to an extraordinary and essentially impracticable supervision of his actions in foreign affairs.' But even if the Harcourt version of events is accepted—and I for one do not fully accept it—it is seen that all Rosebery was alleged to have agreed to was that Kimberley, the new Foreign Secretary, should 'communicate as fully and freely with the Leader of the House of Commons as . . . with the Prime Minister.' This hardly amounted to a contract, Indeed, Loul9u himself -wrote that 'the thing must go on on Rosebery's terms, and we must make the best of it.' Rosebery has related that as soon as Harcourt realised that Rosebery was simply not going to accept any conditions, he 'gave up his game and fell into line,' and accepted office under him.
This is not an unimportant point, as, if there was a contract, Rosebery and Kimberley cer- tainly did not keep to it. But they had the fullest justification. Harcourt, as one colleague remarked, did not swallow the pill, but chewed on it. He made no effort to conceal his dislike and even contempt for Rosebery. He was raspingly offen- sive in the Cabinet, and gratuitously disloyal in public. He lost no opportunity for snubbing the Prime Minister. He viewed the declining fortunes of the government with keen satisfaction. To Morley he wrote that 'I am not a regular sup- porter of the present administration'; to Spencer he remarked petulantly that '1 joined the ship, but I was posted before the mast.' But Rosebery, then and in later years, put almost all the blame on Loulou, and Mr. Stansky's researches reveal how right he was.
Rosebery's position was quite impossible. Morley, who had made his accession to the Premiership possible, sulked gloomily in Ireland. Rosebery made one determined effort to bring Harcourt into line by threatening to resign. Harcourt, for once, was rattled. Mr. Stansky says that Rosebery 'did not have the energy or foresight to press his advantage,' but this is surely unfair. Only a week after his showdown with Harcourt, Rosebery fell very seriously ill. When he had fully recovered, Harcourt was back on his high horse, and the moment had gone. On several matters Harcourt was absolutely in the right in his controversies with Rosebery, but he was indolent and not quick-witted, and he was really only interested in causing trouble.
Harcourt's total incapacity to lead was demon- strated beyond doubt when he did at last become leader after Rosebery resigned in 1896. The party relapsed into a semi-comatose condition. Har- court made hardly any speeches outside West- minster, and his part in the South Africa Com-
mince of Inquiry destroyed his position. Fashoda was the death-blow. At a great banquet at the Mansion House, the honours of the evening went to Rosebery, Salisbury and Kitchener. Harcourt was graciously permitted to propose the health of the Lord Mayor. The great audience buzzed with impatient chatter as the old man wandered ponderously through his platitudes. It was a piti- ful scene, but a not inappropriate pay-off for Loulou.
So Harcourt went in December 1898, and Campbell-Bannerman clambered uneasily on to the top of the tottering edifice of what had once been a great party. It is at this point that Mr. Stansky's book ends. But the feuds continued for another seven years until the victory of 1905-06.
Thus, for the ten years after Gladstone's re- tirement, the fortunes of the Liberal Party slith- ered downwards. Chamberlain's Tariff Reform crusade gave it a glimpse of power in 1906, but within four years it was again in the grip of the Irish, and with its electoral relevance now menaced by the Labour Party. This was the price which had to be paid for the struggle for power within the party. The internal strife and conse- quential impotency of the Liberals from 1894 to 1904 gave Labour its chance. Personal antipathies had become all-engrossing, all-devouring. They rendered the important debates on the future course of the party unnecessarily harsh and acrimonious. It was a long, dreary and deadly round of recrimination. The Lloyd George- Asquith feud had respectable precedents.
It cannot be denied that Rosebery's political inexperience, his lack of real resolution, and his strange, moody, introspective character, made him an inadequate leader. But, as Mr. Stansky so clearly shows, he was never giVen a chance. The Harcourts killed the unity of the Liberal Party at a time when it should have been ad- vancing towards the sunny uplands of power and authority. There is a lesson here, which cer- tain politicians of my acquaintance, but whose names escape me for the moment, could ponder with advantage, unless they wish the subsequent history of the ministerial crisis of October 1963 to follow faithfully the same disastrous course as that of March 1894.