It was, the Spectator noted, ‘a massive work based on blood, sweat and hard labour in one of the biggest modern political archives’ (namely the Salisbury collections at Hatfield House, Hertfordshire.) In a 2009 Evening Standard interview Roberts told Sebastian Shakespeare that he considers Salisbury to be his very best work – yet he also lamented, ‘I have met every single person who has read the book. It didn’t sell more than a couple of thousand…’
That’s still a respectable sale for a heavyweight historical tome; nonetheless Roberts had a right to feel somewhat short-changed. Shouldn’t one expect greater currency for a clearly definitive study of a three-time Prime Minister who presided over the height of British imperial pomp? But then Robert’s subject posed a challenge to readers, without a doubt. A good few reviewers of the time pointed to how ‘unfamiliar’ and ‘unfashionable’ is Salisbury next to, say, Gladstone or Disraeli. Roberts dedicated Salisbury to another ‘Thrice- elected illiberal Tory’, Margaret Thatcher, which will have tickled one demographic but turned off another. But ‘illiberal’ is the word for this patrician Tory, and we know Salisbury best for his imperishable formulations of a conservative mindset. ‘Whatever happens will be for the worse,’ he wrote in 1887, ‘and therefore it is in our interest that as little should happen as possible.’ He further advised a niece of his that the ‘use of Conservatism’ was to ‘delay changes until they became harmless’.
The Spectator is where you would look to take the temperature of contemporary conservative opinion, and its 1999 review of Roberts’ book by Jane Ridley was firmly impressed:
Roberts succeeds triumphantly in his purpose, which is to restore Salisbury to the centre of the political stage. Roberts makes no secret of his sympathy for his subject, and he writes a readable, fluent narrative. This is an affectionate, admiring, detailed portrait of a neglected giant.
One of the aspects of the work that most interested Ridley, and should interest any of us today, is Roberts’ consideration of Salisbury’s complex feelings towards the Empire. As Ridley wrote:
Roberts makes strong claims for Salisbury’s foreign policy. He argues that Salisbury was not a splendid isolationist but a practitioner of non-alignment, intent on keeping Britain out of continental involvement and avoiding major wars. Had he been around in 1914, Roberts suggests, he might have kept the country out of the first world war, now increasingly seen as an avoidable catastrophe…
Roberts himself gives a fascinating and detailed account of Salisbury’s philosophy of empire for History Today here. And if any further enticement were needed to pick up this outstanding volume, i.e. if you hope for a work that is delicious as well as good for you, then consider the view of Piers Brendon in the Independent:
This is an outstanding achievement: fluent, weighty in the Victorian mode, sympathetic but not uncritical, often hilarious… Salisbury tricycles around Hatfield with a footman standing behind him, allows his grandchildren to rootle through his beard, wishes he were a cat so that he need not change his coat, throws cushions at sparking electric lights, murmurs “Bulgaria” when he misses a shot at billiards. Seldom has such an important study been such splendid entertainment…