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Earl of Rosebery (Archibald Philip Primrose), 1847-1929

Rosebery is perhaps the least well-known of the Liberal Prime Ministers, having the misfortune to serve in the office for only a short period, immediately after the extended career of the charismatic Gladstone. He had a difficult relationship with the radicals of his parliamentary party, not because of his social policy attitudes (he was a convinced constructionist) but because of his forthright imperialist views, and his excessive sensitivity to the robust exchanges of politics. Winston Churchill captured the essence of Rosebery in the phrase: ‘he would not stoop; he did not conquer.’

Rosebery’s declared ambitions were to marry an heiress, own a horse that won the Derby and be Prime Minister. He fulfilled all three. On 20 March 1878 he married Hannah, the only child and heiress of Baron Meyer de Rothschild; his horses won the Derby in 1894, 1895 and 1905; and he headed a Liberal ministry between 5 March 1894 and 22 June 1895. He never sat in the House of Commons and, like others in that situation, found it difficult to lead a government from the Lords. In 1899 he said: ‘There are two supreme pleasures in life. One is ideal, the other real. The ideal is when a man receives the seals of office from his Sovereign. The real pleasure comes when he hands them back.’

Archibald Philip Primrose was born on 7 May 1847 in London. He was educated at Eton and went up to Christ Church, Oxford in 1866. On 4 March he succeeded his grandfather to become the fifth Earl of Rosebery, taking his seat in the House of Lords on 22 May. He left Oxford in 1869, without taking his degree, when the university authorities gave him the choice between selling his racehorse and departing.

Rosebery had a long parliamentary career as a Liberal politician. On 9 February 1871, his maiden speech seconded the Address to Her Majesty following the opening of Parliament. The following year Gladstone offered him a government post but Rosebery refused. From its inception, Rosebery was President of the East and North of Scotland Liberal Association and in this capacity he organised the invitation for Gladstone to become the candidate for Midlothian. Gladstone undertook his famous Midlothian campaign from Rosebery’s Dalmeny home, providing a strong boost to Rosebery’s Scottish popularity. Following his return to office in 1880, Gladstone twice offered Rosebery the post of Under-Secretary of State at the India Office. Rosebery declined on both occasions, believing that his management of Gladstone’s campaign would be interpreted as an attempt to further his personal ambition rather than as a commitment to the Liberal Party and its ideals.

In 1881 Rosebery did take office, as Under-Secretary of State at the Home Office, under Harcourt, with special responsibilities for Scottish affairs, the first time that a government recognised the need for such a post. The following year he complained to Gladstone that Scottish matters were marginalised in Parliament, and in 1883 he resigned, saying that he would not rejoin the government unless he was a cabinet minister. Shortly afterwards he left the country for a tour of America and Australia.

During this tour Rosebery made a major contribution to the Liberal Party’s imperial policy. He held strong beliefs about Britain’s overseas possessions, promoting the idea of the Empire as a federation of nations. At Adelaide on 18 January 1884 he announced: ‘There is no need for any nation, however great, leaving the Empire, because the Empire is a Commonwealth of Nations’, the first time this phrase was used. When, at a time of crisis for the party, the Queen vetoed Granville for the Foreign Office and Rosebery accepted the post in Gladstone’s home rule ministry of 1886, it marked him out as a possible successor to the Grand Old Man. He held the same office in Gladstone’s final government between August 1892 and March 1894.

In the interim, he was elected as one of the City’s representatives to the first London County Council in 1889, and was chosen as its inaugural Chairman. He was elected as member for East Finsbury in 1892 and continued in the role of Chairman until he again became Foreign Secretary. While he chaired the council it began to make good its earlier deficiencies in the fire service, sporting facilities and public housing. Rosebery was also behind the decision to build the Blackwall Tunnel.

As Foreign Secretary in Gladstone’s last government, he opposed the evacuation of Egypt, insisted on keeping control of Uganda and refused to join the Russians, French and Germans in an anti-Japanese league. In 1893 he intervened in the coal strike and chaired the conference of the Federated Coal-Owners and the Miners Federation, persuading the two sides to reach agreement. When Gladstone resigned in 1894, Rosebery was the Queen’s choice as Prime Minister; Gladstone himself preferred Lord Spencer, but the Queen avoided consulting him. In his first speech in office, Rosebery unexpectedly announced that home rule for Ireland could come only when England, as the senior member of the three kingdoms, agreed, creating an outcry in the Liberal Party as Gladstone had spent the previous six years trying to secure home rule, and the Liberals relied on Irish Nationalists for their Commons majority.

Increasingly Rosebery found himself at odds with both Liberal MPs and his cabinet, especially with Harcourt, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and leader in the Commons, whose rudeness and temper exasperated more than just Rosebery. A Conservative House of Lords rejected all legislation but the budget, and as he suffered from acute insomnia and was seriously ill in 1894, the situation worsened. In February 1895 Rosebery threatened to resign because of lack of support. After protests of loyalty from his cabinet, he withdrew the threat but when the government was defeated in June 1895, on a technical vote reducing the salary of the Secretary of State for War, Campbell-Bannerman, by £100, Rosebery was not unhappy to resign. The Liberals lost the ensuing election and in October 1896 he resigned as leader of the party in the interests of unity. Although he continued to be an active member of the Liberal Party in the Lords, Rosebery refused to accept office again.

Rosebery rejected calls for his return at the end of the century when the Boer War was going badly; but undaunted, Rosebery’s supporters formed the Liberal Imperial Council in 1901. In February 1902, the Liberal League was founded with Rosebery as its first President. While Rosebery continued to be innovative in policy, looking to improve national efficiency and consistently advocating a reform of the Upper House, he increasingly distanced himself from his party particularly from his successor, Campbell-Bannerman and became a cross-bencher. During the first decade of the new century some retained hopes of him leading some new centrist grouping but Rosebery never brought himself up to the mark. He spoke against the Peoples’ Budget and was ambivalent on the Parliament Bill of 1910. In November 1918, he suffered a stroke which left him partially disabled; he died at the Durdans, Epsom, on 21 May 1929.

Despite not having completed his degree, Rosebery was considered to be one of the most widely read young men of his day. He was a bibliophile and kept a collection of rare Scottish books and pamphlets at Barnbougle Castle. In 1927 he presented some three thousand of these items to the National Library of Scotland. Well-educated, wealthy and with all the advantages of social position, Rosebery was able to travel widely and indulge his passion for writing. In 1862 he privately published a volume of verse; other published works include Pitt (1891), Peel (1899), Napoleon: the Last Phase (1900); Lord Randolph Churchill (1906) and Chatham: His Early Life and Connections (1910). Rosebery’s essays and appreciations were published in Miscellanies (two volumes, 1921) edited by John Buchan.

In 1931 the Marquis of Crewe published a two-volume biography of Rosebery. Robert Rhodes James’s Rosebery: A Biography, published in 1963, is still available in paperback. In 2005 Leo McKinstry’s Rosebery: Statesman in Turmoil, was published by John Murray. See also D. Brooks, The destruction of Lord Rosebery: from the Diaries of Sir Edward Walter Hamilton (1987). The archives are held at Dalmeny House.