Simon Kelly explores the distinguished life of former Foreign Secretary Lord Lansdowne, the last great Whig
Henry Petty-Fitzmaurice, fifth Marquess of Lansdowne was one of the most significant political figures of the dying days of the British empire. He was among the last hereditary aristocrats to wield power by birth. Over the course of a distinguished 50-year career he served as Governor-General of Canada, Viceroy of Kndia, Secretary of War, Foreign Secretary, and leader of the House of Lords. Despite his many achievements, he has been largely forgotten as a historical figure. This was the price of taking an unpopular course during World War I and advocating a negotiated peace.Born on 14 January 1845 at Lansdowne House in London, his forebears were Anglo-Irish and Franco-Scottish landowners and Whig politicians. He was educated at Eton and Balliol College Oxford, where he studied Classics. Aged 21 his father died suddenly and he inherited Bowood House in Wiltshire with its 12,000 acres, estates in Ireland with 138,000 acres, Lansdowne House in London and its notable collection of art, and estates in Scotland with 10,500 acres.
Rather than become a spoilt society man he chose to devote his working life to politics and a strict observance of duty. Despite belonging to the Liberal Party he regarded himself as a Whig and their ideal of providing the people with a better life and more civilised future. He started his career in the House of Lords as a Junior Lord of the Treasury. In 1872 he was promoted by Gladstone, the Prime Minister, to Under-Secretary of State for War.
After the Liberal government collapsed in 1874 he spent six years out of office developing his understanding of political responsibilities and supporting his wife Maud, the seventh daughter of the Duke and Duchess of Abercorn, and their four young children.
In 1880 the Liberals were returned to power and he was appointed Under-Secretary of State for India. Unable to accept Gladstone’s Irish policy, which threatened his property rights in Ireland, he resigned six months later. The Irish question later caused his split with the Liberal party and move to the Liberal Unionists.
In 1883, he was appointed Governor-General of Canada. During his five-year term he dealt with several major historical events including the North-West rebellion in 1885, the trial and execution of Louis Riel, a rebel leader, the construction and completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway and disputes with the United Statesregarding fisheries and boundaries. He was energetic, consistent and much respected.
Such was his political value that in 1888 he was appointed Viceroy of India. As Viceroy he excelled at his duties – he was courteous, accommodating and tolerant. During his five-year term he strengthened the frontiers of the country and introduced ideas of election and representation. He reorganised the army and improved its fighting efficiency without exhausting the Exchequer.
Returning to England in 1894 he publicly offered his support to Lord Salisbury and the Conservatives, who had joined forces with the Liberal Unionists. He was appointed Secretary of State for War in 1895. Although he introduced subtle reforms which laid foundations for his successors, these were overshadowed by the war in South Africa. Blamed for the blunders of the war, he was accused of neglecting to prepare the Army for the war. His offer to resign was refused by Salisbury who, in November 1900, promoted him to the Foreign Office.
Nowhere did his political nous, practical sense and social standing bring him greater success than at the Foreign Office. Breaking with the policy of his predecessor, Lord Salisbury, he altered British foreign policy forever. Not wishing to enlarge the British Empire and aware that its power was declining, he recognised that international friendships based on mutual interests were the best safeguard of imperial security. Among his notable achievements were the recognition of American supremacy in Western waters, the Anglo-Japanese Alliance and the Anglo-French Entente Cordiale.
After 1905, as Leader of the House of Lords he led the Conservative peers through one of the most divisive periods of modern times. Facing a Liberal government intent on social legislation, he showed vision and tact. However, after rejecting the People’s Budget in 1909 and the Constitutional crisis that followed, his popularity was weakened by Conservative party members planning on a last-ditch resistance.
After the Parliament Bill of 1911 an attempt was made to remove him. Realising that the government would legislate on Irish Home Rule and socialism would continue to threaten the Upper House, he refused to step down. In the years that followed as Europe descended into war, he perceived the impending calamity.
In August 1914 he was convinced that if Britain hung back it would mean disgrace and lasting danger. He played a vital part in convincing Herbert Asquith, the Prime Minister, to challenge Germany. A year later he entered the coalition government and gave full support to the war effort even after suffering the loss his youngest son. But towards the end of 1916 he began to doubt the military’s ability to deliver a knockout blow and end the war quickly.
The following year he informed his oldest colleague, Arthur Balfour, of his intention to publish his views. Balfour did not dissuade him. The Timesrefused to publish the letter, however the Daily Telegraphagreed. Calling for a negotiated peace with Germany, the ‘Peace’ letter was published on 29 November 1917. It was his view: ‘We are not going to lose this war, but its prolongation will spell ruin to the civilised world, and an infinite addition to the load of human suffering which already weighs upon it… We do not desire the annihilation of Germany as a great power.’
The British government immediately issued an inaccurate statement about his intervention and Balfour denied any involvement. Lansdowne was branded a traitor and a pacifist and violently attacked by the press in Britain and abroad.
Although the letter triggered many new departures in the search for a negotiated settlement, none were successful and his damaged reputation never recovered. However, two years after his death, Colonel Edward House, President Woodrow Wilson’s chief adviser on European politics, admitted that the letter had been the inspiration for the President’s ‘Fourteen Points’, a speech which became the basis of a peace programme and post-war order.
Lansdowne died on 3 June 1927, aged 82. His obituaries overflowed with polite character assessments but failed to capture any sense of his impact in making the history of his time. Memories of the ‘Peace’ letter were still fresh in the public imagination. It is ironic, needless to say, that by choosing this courageous path he had had the most effect on the history of his time. But as his whole career demonstrated, he was never afraid of taking tough decisions or of their repercussions, as long as he consciously satisfied his own values and principles.
LANSDOWNE: THE LAST GREAT WHIG, SIMON KERRY, UNICORN PUBLISHING, £25