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The Di­aries of a Tragic Tory Leader

Sir Stafford North­cote, 8th Bt. FRS (1818-87) of Up­ton Pyne, near Ex­eter (a mod­est es­tate by Vic­to­rian stan­dards of some 5,700 acres), be­came Tory leader in the Com­mons in 1876 when Dis­raeli, then aged seventy-two, went to the Lords for a qui­eter life. Dis­raeli died in 1881 while the Tories were in op­po­si­tion, to be suc­ceeded by the 3rd Mar­quess of Sal­is­bury (‘the great Lord Sal­is­bury’, as he was later to be known) as leader in the Lords. From that point North­cote took first place in the af­fairs of the Con­ser­va­tive party in ac­cor­dance with the con­ven­tion of the time which pro­vided that, if nei­ther leader had been prime min­is­ter, the holder of the post in the Com­mons had prece­dence. The for­mal po­si­tion of leader of the Con­ser­va­tive party did not come into be­ing un­til 1922.

There is a colos­sal statue of North­cote in the Cen­tral Lobby of the House of Com­mons, seen by hun­dreds of visi­tors ev­ery day, but it seems to prompt no in­ter­est in his ca­reer. It is tempt­ing to de­scribe him as a for­got­ten Tory leader. That is un­doubt­edly true as far as most peo­ple are con­cerned; like Austen Cham­ber­lain, son of a fa­mous fa­ther, who led the party briefly in 1921-22, he has no place in the pub­lic mem­ory. He is, how­ever, far from be­ing for­got­ten by his­to­ri­ans of the late nine­teenth cen­tury. By them he is fre­quently re­called. In books on the pe­riod he ap­pears as one of the most con­spic­u­ous vic­tims ever of the cruel busi­ness of party pol­i­tics.

Af­ter Dis­raeli’s death, this ex­tremely able man with long ex­pe­ri­ence of gov­ern­ment and the House of Com­mons (he had been an MP since 1855) found him­self in po­lit­i­cal cir­cum­stances to which he was com­pletely un­suited. His party looked to him to as­sail Glad­stone’s sec­ond min­istry with un­spar­ing fe­roc­ity. That was em­phat­i­cally not North­cote’s style. He knew how to at­tack po­lit­i­cal op­po­nents with ef­fec­tive ar­gu­ments and had won golden opin­ions from Dis­raeli, but his tone was al­ways mea­sured and re­spon­si­ble.

Tory back­benchers grew restive. Some said that he showed un­due re­spect for Glad­stone whose pri­vate sec­re­tary he had been for eight years in the 1840s when the fu­ture Peo­ple’s Wil­liam had been the ris­ing hope of the stern un­bend­ing Tories. The two men shared a pas­sion for the clas­sics (in which both held Ox­ford firsts) and reli­gion. They had much in com­mon. North­cote man­aged the most un­usual feat of ad­mir­ing both Glad­stone and Dis­raeli.

Other Tory MPs pro­vided the vi­cious par­ti­san­ship from which their leader shrank. A small group with rep­u­ta­tions to make stole the head­lines with rude speeches about Glad­stone and his poli­cies. They were dubbed the Fourth Party. Sir Win­ston Churchill’s fa­ther, Lord Ran­dolph, a young man in a hurry (he did not ex­pect to live long), was the most zeal­ous and in­ge­nious of them in de­vis­ing new ways of in­sult­ing the gov­ern­ment.

Churchill did not stop there. He cheer­fully in­sulted North­cote too. He con­ferred a hu­mil­i­at­ing nick­name on him, ‘the goat’, and har­ried him mer­ci­lessly with an elo­quent, mock­ing tongue. Mem­oirs of MPs ac­tive in the 1880s are full of tales of Churchill’s scur­rilous wit em­ployed at North­cote’s, as well as Glad­stone’s, ex­pense. His­to­ri­ans of the pe­riod have re­cy­cled them to lend colour to their nar­ra­tives. I in­cluded a num­ber in a short his­tory of the Prim­rose League pub­lished in 2010, A Gift from the Churchills: The Prim­rose League,1883-2004. This or­gan­i­sa­tion, the first to har­ness mass sup­port for a po­lit­i­cal party in Bri­tain, was founded to en­able Churchill to take his ef­fec­tive brand of ir­re­spon­si­ble pol­i­tics from the Com­mons cham­ber to the coun­try at large. North­cote was eclipsed on the wider pub­lic stage as well as at West­min­ster. Nev­er­the­less, as the se­nior of the two party lead­ers, he felt bound to ac­cept ap­point­ment as the League’s first Grand Master in 1883.

He was not ousted from the Com­mons lead­er­ship while the Tories re­mained in op­po­si­tion, but the univer­sal be­lief in 1881 that, as the se­nior of the two Tory lead­ers, he would be the next Con­ser­va­tive prime min­is­ter, van­ished. Af­ter Dis­raeli’s death, Queen Vic­to­ria had led him to ex­pect that she would send for him when the mo­ment ar­rived; when it fi­nally came in June 1885

the premier­ship was im­me­di­ately en­trusted to Lord Sal­is­bury whose stock had risen sharply since 1881, thanks to his com­bat­ive po­lit­i­cal style and Churchill’s sup­port.

North­cote felt the hu­mil­i­a­tion acutely (who wouldn’t?), but bore it bravely in pub­lic. As hap­pens oc­ca­sion­ally, the his­toric post of First Lord of the Trea­sury was split from the premier­ship and given to him. He was in of­fice but with­out power. To un­der­line the point, he was kicked up­stairs (the phrase seems to have in­vented for him) as Earl of Id­desleigh.

An un­kindly prov­i­dence proved re­morse­less. In July 1886 he was given a real job as For­eign Sec­re­tary, but failed to sat­isfy Sal­is­bury (him­self one of the great­est of all For­eign Sec­re­taries) and paid the price af­ter only a few months in Jan­uary 1887.It was the fi­nal hu­mil­i­a­tion. He called at No 10 to take leave of Sal­is­bury and suf­fered a fa­tal heart at­tack in the prime min­is­ter’s pres­ence. It seemed to shocked, guilt-rid­den Tories a mod­ern ver­sion of one of the Greek tragedies that North­cote had been so fond of quot­ing.

Here, then, is a man who has been de­fined for pos­ter­ity by the fail­ures of his last few years and the cir­cum­stances of his death. Lit­tle at­ten­tion has been given to the many achieve­ments of a long, pro­duc­tive ca­reer. Only the fa­mous North­cote-Trevelyan re­port of 1853, which her­alded the start of the mod­ern civil ser­vice re­cruited on merit through ex­am­i­na­tions, tends to be held to his credit. Con­spic­u­ous by its ab­sence is any recog­ni­tion of North­cote’s con­tri­bu­tion to so­cial re­form which many Tories be­lieve wrongly was Dis­raeli’s ex­clu­sive do­main. In­dus­trial schools and re­for­ma­to­ries for boys were his spe­cial in­ter­ests.

No one has made any at­tempt to study his char­ac­ter, po­lit­i­cal be­liefs, in­ter­ests and per­sonal re­la­tion­ships since 1890 when a bi­og­ra­phy in two vol­umes was pub­lished by a well-known Scot­tish writer and poet of the

time, An­drew Lang. It is laden with Vic­to­rian pieties and at­tempts no se­ri­ous eval­u­a­tion of its sub­ject’s work. There is no route to a proper ap­pre­ci­a­tion of North­cote through its pages. Lang was ill-suited to the task. He de­tested pol­i­tics, but needed the money.

North­cote, the tragic Tory leader, awaits an ad­e­quate bi­og­ra­pher. There is abun­dant ma­te­rial in the 52 vol­umes of the Id­desleigh pa­pers, de­posited many years ago in the Bri­tish Mu­seum and now in the Bri­tish Li­brary. They in­clude a set of di­aries, vi­tal for the elu­ci­da­tion of char­ac­ter and the un­der­stand­ing of po­lit­i­cal mo­tive, which North­cote kept in­ter­mit­tently be­tween 1866 and 1883.

North­cote’s griev­ing widow, Ce­cilia, mother of their ten chil­dren, seems to have been un­will­ing to en­trust the di­aries them­selves to his bi­og­ra­pher, even though these records of a blame­less life al­most cer­tainly con­tained noth­ing that was po­ten­tially em­bar­rass­ing. De­voted wid­ows tend to take no risks with the rep­u­ta­tions of their beloveds. Type­script copies were pre­pared for Lang who in­cluded large ex­tracts in his bi­og­ra­phy, but felt no com­punc­tion about amend­ing them freely as he went along. Se­verely man­gled ver­sions of ma­te­rial in the type­scripts ended up in print.

Just one por­tion of the type­script di­aries in the Id­desleigh pa­pers, record­ing a po­lit­i­cal visit to Ul­ster in Oc­to­ber 1883, has been pub­lished in an ac­cu­rate edi­tion—by me, as it hap­pens, in a sin­gu­larly ob­scure place, the Pro­ceed­ings of the Royal Ir­ish Academy. It has, how­ever, got it­self by some means on to the in­ter­net and can be found quite read­ily.

What hap­pened to the orig­i­nal di­aries? The cur­rent Lord Id­desleigh of­fers no clues. It seems al­most cer­tain that most of them no longer ex­ist. By an ex­tra­or­di­nary chance, how­ever, four, all re­lat­ing to vis­its abroad, ended up safely in the pos­ses­sion of a to­tal stranger. At some point be­fore the Sec­ond World War, the four, bound up to­gether in two small blue vol­umes, found their way to the Law Courts in the Strand. It is im­pos­si­ble to es­tab­lish how they came into the clutches of lawyers; North­cote’s suc­ces­sors do not seem to have been in­volved in lit­i­ga­tion to which they would have been rel­e­vant.

All that is known is that a Clerk in the Chancery Di­vi­sion, named Stan­ley Hol­loway (no re­la­tion of the fa­mous en­ter­tainer), who loved col­lect­ing cu­ri­ous ob­jects, spot­ted them among the lit­ter at the Courts and took them home. He later recorded that he found them “in a heap of old books and waste paper dur­ing a ‘waste paper drive’ at the Law Courts dur­ing the Sec­ond World War”. Their cur­rent owner is his daugh­ter.

The di­aries record what a promi­nent English politi­cian in the late nine­teenth cen­tury made of parts of the world of which few at West­min­ster then had any first-hand knowl­edge. North­cote jour­neyed to more places out­side Europe than any other Tory of cab­i­net rank at that time. In the “Hol­loway di­aries” he has left us de­tailed ac­counts of the open­ing of the Suez Canal in 1869, of the newly formed Cana­dian Con­fed­er­a­tion which he vis­ited in 1870 to ar­range the trans­fer of vast ter­ri­to­ries from the Hud­son’s Bay Com­pany (of which he was chair­man) to the Cana­dian gov­ern­ment, and of the United States un­der Pres­i­dent Grant with whose min­is­ters he held long dis­cus­sions in 1871 as part of a com­mis­sion sent to set­tle a se­ries of dis­putes which had poi­soned An­glo-Amer­i­can re­la­tions since the Civil War. The fourth of these di­aries records his im­pres­sions of the Mediter­ranean dur­ing a yacht­ing hol­i­day in 1882.

Per­haps North­cote’s vivid tales of travel will help to kin­dle in­ter­est in this tragic Tory leader. Their cur­rent owner has de­cided to add them to the Id­desleigh pa­pers. As the re­sult of a re­mark­able chance sur­vival, the set of di­aries at the Bri­tish Li­brary can now be made as com­plete as is pos­si­ble in the year which marks the 130th an­niver­sary of the di­arist’s death.

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