In the nineteenth century, as today, the ruling party was that which had the confidence of the House of Commons. They had elected the most members, or as was frequent in the days before the 1860s, they were able to put together a workable alliance of factions. It was defeat in the House of Commons that made a government fall. Nevertheless, the Prime Minister might be a non-elected peer sitting in the Lords, which was still a significant chamber. Five of Victoria’s ten Prime Ministers were peers (Melbourne, Derby, Aberdeen, Salisbury, Rosebery), as was their immediate predecessor Lord Grey. Two more (Russell and Disraeli) did most of their work In the House of Commons, but then led briefly from the House of Lords. The only three who led exclusively from the House of Commons, admittedly very significant figures, were Peel, Palmerston, and Gladstone.

How did peers come to be prime ministers? A politician became leader of his party in an informal way. There were no paid-up “party members” who could cast a ballot for their candidate at a convention. But even the parliamentarians did not officially choose their leader. As Ramsay Muir put it in How Britain is Governed, “for the most part [the leaders] have selected themselves, by becoming indispensable.”1 It’s true that by the 1870s party leaders in each House were often selected by fellow MPs or Lords in informal polls supervised by the Whips. But the overall head percolated up until he became generally acknowledged as the leader: the strongest and most influential parliamentarian in either House. H.J. Hanham’s The Nineteenth-Century Constitution tells us that when Gladstone first resigned, in 1875, “neither Lord Granville in the Lords nor Lord Hartington in the Commons enjoyed an ascendancy, so that they became in effect joint leaders.”2 A similar situation occurred after Disraeli’s death in April 1881, with Salisbury in the Lords and Northcote in the Commons sharing the leadership.

As a result of this indefiniteness, Victoria’s constitutional role in asking someone to make up a government was more than a mere formality. Practically her options were limited to a few prominent candidates, and she generally took advice from the outgoing Prime Minister, but she could be swayed by her personal and political inclinations when the situation was not clear-cut. In December 1852, for instance, when no one party had a clear majority, she sent for both Lord Aberdeen and Lord Lansdowne. Though Lansdowne was too ill to travel to the Isle of Wight, and Aberdeen was unwilling to accept a joint position, she did succeed in effecting a coalition of Whigs and Peelites under Aberdeen.3 For many years she disliked and disapproved of Palmerston, and when Aberdeen resigned over difficulties with the Crimean War in 1855, she sent for Derby instead. (Aberdeen had not dissolved Parliament, and Derby’s protectionist Conservatives had slightly fewer MPs than Whigs, Peelites, and Radicals combined.) Only after Derby, Lansdowne, and then Lord John Russell had been unable to persuade enough people to join a cabinet did she bite the bullet and call on Palmerston, the commanding presence in the House.

The Queen learned to tolerate Palmerston, but she never overcame her loathing of Gladstone. In 1880, when the Conservative Disraeli government had lost an election, she privately said of Gladstone that “she will sooner abdicate than send for or have any communication with that half-mad firebrand,”4 and sent for Hartington. He, however, ascertained that Gladstone would never serve under him, and advised her to send for him, which she reluctantly did. After the Gladstone victory in the election of June 1892, she had to recognize that “she supposes she will have that dangerous old fanatic thrust down her throat.”5 Her real ungraciousness when Gladstone finally resigned led her to avoid consulting him over essor. The choice of Rosebery from the Lords rather than Sir William Harcourt from the Commons was her own, and based chiefly on personal preference, though she did ascertain through her secretary Ponsonby that few senior Liberals would have agreed to join Harcourt’s cabinet.6

There were certain advantages to being a Prime Minister in the House of Lords. A Lords prime minister did not have to concern himself with constituency business, but could concentrate on the national scene. Being unelected, he did not have to court public opinion in order to hold on to his seat. His aristocratic status conferred a natural prestige and authority among the British population, who proverbially “loved a lord.” He had wealth, a patrician education, culture (potentially at least), leisure, and access to country house libraries. He had vast connections, family and otherwise, among the rich and the influential, as well as with diplomats, foreign rulers, and at court. Away from the uproar in the House of Commons, he could speak in a measured way in the more dignified House.

Being in the Lords had disadvantages too. Since the peers did not rely on voters, or indeed anyone, for their seat, they could be less than impassioned at times. The future of a government did not usually depend on their debates—though it was the Duke of Wellington’s praise of the unreformed British Constitution in the Lords in November 1830 that sealed his government’s fate. Another drawback was that peers were not only excluded from voting in parliamentary elections, but also by convention not allowed to make any public speeches once the writs had been issued. Thus Lords prime ministers could not emulate Gladstone’s Midlothian campaigns of 1879 and 1880, in which he began a tradition of touring around before an election addressing huge popular audiences. In the election of 1880, Lord Blake suggests, Disraeli was hobbled by this rule. As the best speakers in his cabinet were also peers (Salisbury, Cairns, and Cranbrook), this probably contributed to the spectacular defeat of the Conservatives at this time.7

But this obstacle could be surmounted. In the elections of June 1885 and November 1886, Salisbury neatly circumvented the spirit of the convention by speaking anyway, not from the hustings but at huge “private” gatherings reported in the newspapers: at the St. Stephen’s Club banquet, to a huge picnic for Conservative association members brought by special trains to his seat at Hatfield House, to 5,000 Conservatives at Leeds, and so on. As the Times remarked, forbidden to take part in the ordinary way, he was making use of social instead of political institutions.8

A more intractable difficulty was the fact that, as the century went on, it became both more challenging and more important to control activity in the House of Commons. Seldom did it happen that the leaders of both the government and the opposition were in the House of Lords, though this was the case with Aberdeen vs. Derby, 1852-55, Russell vs. Derby, 1865-66, and Rosebery vs. Salisbury, 1894-95. Therefore Lords Prime Ministers needed a deputy in the House of Commons to shepherd through vital bills and to answer directly to the leader of the opposition. Difficulties sometimes arose when in the thick of debate a Commons leader had to make snap decisions without consulting his Lords superior. Good relations between the two were of such importance that they could make or break a Lords premiership. For this reason the rest of this chapter will discuss aristocratic prime ministers and their strategies largely in terms of such pairings.

The first example of a successful pairing occurred just before the Victorian era but was absolutely vital to it, that of Lord Grey and Lord Althorp. When Grey formed a Whig ministry in 1830, Lord Althorp (the courtesy title of John Charles Spencer) was Chancellor of the Exchequer and leader in the House of Commons. More tactful and conciliatory than his colleague Lord John Russell, he cooperated with him in steering the First Reform Bill through Parliament---even though he so disliked this political duty that, according to one anecdote, during the final passage of the Bill he removed his pistols from his bedroom in case gave in to the urge to shoot himself. Upon hearing of this possible loss, fellow minister John Cam Hobhouse cried out, “For God’s sake, not that! Shoot anyone else you like!”9

Althorp was a key political figure, a rustic, rumpled, unpretentious and totally sincere man, “the very model and type of an English gentleman.”10 In spite of being a poor speaker, he was able to dominate the unruly House of Commons as no one else could. Yet Lord Grey was the force behind the whole operation. According to Keith Feiling in his History of England, “his was the choice of men, on his conciliation and high-mindedness fell the strain of managing the ferocious temper of Durham and the unscrupulous intrigues of Brougham, while only his instinctive wisdom could manage an eccentric and easily frightened King.”11 In fact, closeness to the monarch and influence at the court was one of the attributes of a prime minister more likely to be enjoyed by a peer.

Another interesting early pairing is that of the Duke of Wellington and Sir Robert Peel, whose roles became reversed in Victorian times. The two had a somewhat similar attitude to ruling. Though basically conservatives safeguarding the interests of the landed class, they both believed it their duty as politicians to facilitate the government of the country on behalf of the Crown, whether in power or in opposition, even if this meant at times endorsing measures that were personally antipathetic. As these included, for the Duke, reform of Parliament and elections, social legislation, and the liberalization of trade, there were many opportunities to capitulate. Greville in his memoirs does not cease to marvel that “there never was a man who so entirely sank all party considerations to national objects.”12

Wellington as a Lords Prime Minister (1828-30) had passed some seminal measures in spite of himself, especially Catholic Emancipation, which according to Norman Gash was a masterpiece of planning “involving the successive capitulation of Peel, George IV, and the House of Lords.”13 Meanwhile in the Commons Sir Robert Peel, of wealthy mercantile background, had been making a name for himself at the Home Office in Liverpool’s and then Wellington’s administration, consolidating the laws, creating a London police force, reforming prisons and so on. By December 1832, according to a recent biographer, he was “recognized on all sides as the leading Tory spokesman in the lower House.”14

The reversal came in November 1834. When the Whig Melbourne resigned, the King sent for Wellington as leader of the Tories. Wellington, however, told him that Prime Ministers should henceforth be found in the House of Commons, and persuaded him to send for Peel instead—a rare example of the Duke’s proving to be in the van of progressive thought. This administration was comparatively short (Peel’s “Hundred Days”), as there had been no election and the Tories were outnumbered by the reformers. But then and during his successful 1841-46 premiership, as well as during the intervening time in opposition, Peel relied on the good sense and authority of the Duke of Wellington to control the House of Lords. The Duke reined in the Ultras of his party when, says Greville, “no one else could govern them,”15 and even accomplished the miraculous repeal of the Corn Laws in the upper chamber.

A pairing which was more fraught is that of Lord Derby and Benjamin Disraeli. After the repeal of the Corn Laws had split the Conservative party into Peelites and Protectionists, Derby led the Protectionist Conservatives for 22 years from the House of Lords, spending 18 of those in opposition. He served as Prime Minister for three fairly brief administrations between 1852 and 1868. Meanwhile, in the House of Commons, Disraeli had risen to prominence partly through the fact that nearly all the respected Conservative MPs had followed Peel, and his Protectionist colleague Lord George Bentinck had died.

Nevertheless Derby did not immediately welcome Disraeli as his second. They seem to have had a low opinion of each other, and at times were downright antagonistic. Derby was the Conservatives’ Conservative, a fox-hunting, card-playing, country-house-loving aristocrat who entertained lavishly at his family seat of Knowsley. His passion was horse races--one of which, appropriately named the Derby, had been founded by his grandfather. Disraeli was a flamboyant, clever urban parvenu whose Jewish background set him apart from the establishment. He bought a country house chiefly because he wanted to contest a county seat (though he did come to love it). They were even literary in opposing ways, Derby translating Homer from the Greek, Disraeli producing popular novels. Derby avoided endorsing Disraeli as acknowledged Tory leader in the House of Commons in 1849. Disraeli was so distrusted and disliked for his savage attacks on Peel that he was, for Derby, “the most powerful repellant we could offer to any repentant or hesitating Peelites” whom he hoped to lure back to the party.16 But during his premierships they really had no choice but to cooperate.

Derby seems to have been somewhat passed over in the historical record, no doubt partly because of Disraeli’s longevity and later fame. Even Disraeli’s biographer, Lord Blake, points out that there has been a bias, partly owing to the lack of documents on Derby’s side, compared with the mass on Disraeli’s. Derby, says Blake, “really was ‘the Chief’ and there was no question of anyone disputing his authority. He dominated the party when he chose.”17 . For Queen Victoria, “he is the Government. They do nothing without him.”18 In fact Greville complains about Derby’s taking it upon himself to speak for all departments in the Lords, leaving his Cabinet ministers “mere dummies.”19

Now Derby’s papers and his son’s diaries have become available, and a two-volume biography by Angus Hawkins, aptly titled The Forgotten Prime Minister (2008), has allowed his rule from the Lords to be better estimated. Hawkins argues that it was Derby who created the mid-Victorian Conservative party, partly by resisting Disraeli’s stream of bright ideas.20 If Derby seemed passive while in opposition, it was by policy. His tactic of “masterly inactivity” consisted of avoiding overt attacks on the various coalitions of Whigs, Liberals, Peelites, Irish, Adullamites, and Radicals who were in power. Thus he hoped to prevent them from closing ranks against a common enemy, and allow them to fall apart of their own incongruity. In fact their doing so paved the way for his three administrations.

In the 1866 administration, it was actually Derby, not Disraeli, who saw the need to introduce a Second Reform Bill to replace the one that had just caused the defeat of the Whigs. He worked intensely in February 1867 to initiate the legislation, says Hawkins, “preserving cabinet unity, keeping Conservative backbenchers together, retaining the confidence of the Queen, exploiting opposition differences, and courting moderate opinion.”21 Disraeli then introduced it into the Commons and was a tactical genius in steering it through a House where the Whigs were still in a majority. Derby did the same for the Lords. But Disraeli seems to have claimed, and been given, too much credit for this landmark achievement, which established the Conservative party as a tolerant, moderately reforming force. Derby was forced to stand back somewhat in its final stages not so much because of his position in the Lords as by debilitating gout.

The Derby/Disraeli pairing was at any rate more successful than the one that followed Derby’s first term, that of Lord Aberdeen and Lord John Russell. Aberdeen, personally a man of many sterling qualities, is sometimes judged to have been a weak prime minister who had insufficient control of his cabinet.22 Be that as it may, he was also hampered by several misfortunes. The first was the unstable mixture of political parties. He had been a dedicated member of the Conservative party until it split in 1846. After Peel’s death in 1850 he became leader of the Peelites, but he still considered Conservative lords to be his colleagues and friends, and rather scorned the Whigs.23 Yet his cabinet was largely a coalition of Peelites and Whigs.

Nevertheless, he was fairly successful in his first two years. Then came the misfortune of the Crimean War (1854-56), which as a peace-loving individual he opposed. He always felt that with “more energy and vigour” he could perhaps have averted it.24 Given the general desire for war among the populace this is debatable, as is the question of whether a pacific prime minister in the Commons could have done so.

But perhaps his greatest misfortune was in having as his Commons deputy Lord John Russell, then leader of the Whigs. Lord John had been a very effective Commons leader during Melbourne’s premiership, and later a successful prime minister himself (1846-52). Perhaps this was the problem – he thought the leadership should be shared and eventually passed on to himself. But also, in later life, according to his entry in the Oxford DNB, his judgment began to waver. As Aberdeen wrote to Gladstone, he was “frequently tormented by the personal waywardness of Lord John,”25 who flitted from one post to another in cabinet, and resigned three times. His third resignation, because he could not bring himself to oppose Roebuck’s motion for an inquiry on the conduct of the Crimean War, encouraged his colleagues in the Commons to support the motion, which passed by a surprising majority and precipitated Aberdeen’s resignation. Thus Aberdeen’s subordinate’s action hastened or perhaps caused his downfall; as he wrote later, “I was ignominiously overthrown in consequence of Lord John’s decision.”26 But Lord John’s triumph was not complete. Though he was asked by Queen Victoria to form a new government with the same House, after Derby and then Lansdowne had been unable to, he could not put together a cabinet and had to resign from this too. When Palmerston became prime minister, most of Aberdeen’s cabinet initially continued in office.

Disraeli’s successor at the century’s end, Lord Salisbury, was the last prime minister to rule from the Lords. There is some disagreement as to how much, if at all, he was hampered by his position as a peer. According to H.J. Hanham, “Lord Salisbury was quite as effective a Prime Minister as Gladstone, even though his range of electoral activities was limited because he was a peer,”27 while R.W. Davis in Lords of Parliament considers his time in office to be the high point of the influence of the House of Lords in the nineteenth century.28 He was successful in many ways, managing to placate the enlarged electorate he so disliked while safeguarding the rights of property and education, courting disaffected Liberals (the Liberal Unionists), and increasing the diversity and expertise of the Lords by introducing new peers who were not from the aristocracy or landed gentry. In foreign affairs, his specialty, he piloted Britain through a number of crises and the Boer War. Peter Marsh, however, in his study of Salisbury’s statecraft, points out how often his objectives were defeated or modified by his own party’s MPs and Commons Cabinet ministers.29 He could not prevail on them to accept some of his ideas on, for instance, Irish land reform, education, or life peers.

Certainly his Commons deputy in his first, brief “caretaker” administration (June 1885-Jan. 1886), Sir Michael Hicks Beach, was not very satisfactory, as he and his colleague Lord Randolph Churchill had their own agenda; Marsh pictures him “watch[ing] helplessly from the House of Lords as his lieutenants in the Commons threw his few remaining cards away.”30 (They were, in any case, in a minority, having taken over from Gladstone’s administration without an election.) On his return to power after Gladstone’s equally brief ministry (conversely, January-June 1886), Salisbury ditched Hicks Beach, but felt it necessary to accept the influential Churchill as Chancellor of the Exchequer and Commons leader. Luckily for Salisbury, who found what he called Churchill’s “wayward and headstrong disposition” a thorn in the flesh, Churchill was felled by a tactical error. He threatened to resign if his reductions in army and navy spending were not approved, and to his surprise his offer was accepted, bringing his political career effectively to an end.

In his place as Commons leader from 1887 to October 1891 was the merchant W.H. Smith, founder of the bookstore chain—a genuinely “new man” of the middle class. Smith features in Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore as the landlubber made First Lord of the Admiralty: “I polished up that handle so carefully, / That now I am the Ruler of the Queen’s Navee.” Very amusing, but in fact Smith was a hard worker and did well in this and other portfolios. In his unpretentious way, until he became ill during 1890, he was an ideal House leader for Salisbury, a counter-weight to Salisbury’s aristocratic hauteur and a harmonious working partner—he was one of the few ministers personally friendly with the prime minister. This was probably the most fruitful period of Salisbury’s prime ministership. Smith’s business habits helped him to streamline the rules of procedure for the House of Commons. And according to a contemporary his “kindly, peaceable, unaggressive nature” worked wonders with the Opposition,: when conducting affairs, “he habitually ignored the existence of his own side, addressing himself exclusively with painstaking courtesy and subtly winning deference to gentlemen opposite” and thus being more worth than 20 votes to the Conservatives.31

After Smith’s death in 1891 the leadership of the House of Commons passed to Arthur Balfour. Smith’s polar opposite in some ways, Balfour was a poor leader at first. He came to the House late, left early, and could not disguise his boredom and impatience with much of its business. Marsh suggests that he and his Liberal Unionist counterpart Joseph Chamberlain severely limited Salisbury’s power of control over the Commons.32 But he was Salisbury’s nephew and part of his inner circle, and had frequent discussions with him. He even took Salisbury’s place at the Foreign Office when he was ill in 1898. When Salisbury came back into power in for the third time in 1895, Balfour began to work harder at being government leader, learning to sit through long debates, reforming the rules for dealing with supply, and managing government bills. In the end he proved a success in his role, and when Salisbury resigned in 1902 he indicated Balfour as his successor.33

In sad contrast to Salisbury is the Liberal Lord Rosebery, who ruled briefly from the Lords from March 1894 to June 1895, unhappily paired with Sir William Harcourt in the Commons. There were many reasons why his premiership was unsuccessful, including the fact that he took over from the ageing Gladstone without an election, and inherited a cabinet divided over Home Rule and widely expected to totter to an end at any moment. He had been a peer since the age of 20 and Winston Churchill blamed his difficulties on the fact that he had never been an MP;34 likewise his biography in the Oxford DNB links the ineffectiveness of his reign to his lack of experience with constituency politics and pleasing an electorate—the new realities of an evolving democracy. When we add to this distaste for party politics, his crushing personal troubles at the time—the death of his wife, persecution by the Marquess of Queensbury, influenza, sleeplessness, and depression it is no wonder he was unable to provide leadership to his cabinet.

But his being a Liberal was surely a major reason why his Lords premiership was so much more difficult than Salisbury's. In fact no Liberal peer had been prime minister since Melbourne in the 1830s, apart from Lord John Russell’s brief stint as Earl Russell, 1865-66. When Gladstone resigned there had been a movement within the Commons Liberal party to oppose a Lords prime minister, led by the radical Labouchère, who remained unsupportive. Worse still, by this time the House of Lords was overwhelmingly Conservative. Even those Liberal peers that remained were tending to adopt a “Liberal Unionist” position and would shortly coalesce with the Conservative party. Rosebery himself, unwilling to serve, commented that “a Liberal peer as Prime Minister heading a score of dubious Peers would be a ridiculous spectacle.”35 “While the House of Commons is settling the affairs of the Country under its leader, the Prime Minister will be shut up in an enemy’s prison with an intrepid band of twenty followers.”36 He always felt isolated and unsupported as he looked out on a sea of Conservative peers determined to defeat his legislation.

So we are brought back to the importance of a trustworthy deputy in the House of Commons, and here Rosebery was supremely unlucky. He had finally agreed to take office when it became apparent that few would support the abrasive Commons leader, Sir William Harcourt. Harcourt was resentful and uncooperative. He had drawn up a list of conditions under which he would serve, including complete freedom of independent action without consultation. In fact there was minimal contact between the two, no friendly conversations or sense of a common purpose. Thus Rosebery’s lament to Queen Victoria: only able to guide the party “through a leader, bitterly hostile to himself, and ostentatiously indifferent to the fate of the government . . . Lord Rosebery in the meantime is shut up in a House almost unanimously opposed to his ministry, and, for all political purposes, might as well be in the Tower of London.”37 Sadly, we must conclude that the Conservatism of the House of Lords had created an imbalance in the constitution. Both Gladstone and Rosebery had wanted to fight an election on this issue, but were overruled by their party. It would come to a head a decade later, as we shall see in part 5.