Leo Mckinstry

Rosebery: the other waiting Scot

Striking parallels with Gordon Brown

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Since the late Victorian age there have been two prime ministers who have come close to nervous breakdowns while in Downing Street. The first was Anthony Eden, dosing himself on mind-altering drugs so that he could relieve the gnawing pressures of his own insecurities and the pressures of the Suez crisis in 1956. Last year diligent research by the former foreign secretary and medical doctor David Owen found that Eden during his spell as premier was taking the powerful narcotic drinamyl, a combination of amphetamines and barbiturates, which badly undermined his judgment, reduced his coherence and made him paranoid. ‘He was in such a bad way that he didn’t make sense,’ wrote one contemporary. Eden’s health was so shattered that he was forced to resign in January 1957.

The case of Lord Rosebery is less well-known, but he too struggled to cope with the burden of office, having succeeded Gladstone as Liberal Prime Minister in March 1894. Like Eden, he seemed to have all the right qualities for the post: charm, charisma, eloquence and a natural authority. Yet he was overwhelmed by his responsibilities, lapsing into such chronic insomnia that his doctor felt compelled to pump him full of dangerous quantities of morphine to try to induce sleep. The seriousness of his nervous collapse left some colleagues fearing that he might die or commit suicide. During his last grim months as prime minister he behaved with eccentric indifference to the fortunes of the Liberal party. In the 1895 general election he took off on a lengthy yachting trip around the Scottish islands. His government was heavily defeated and he never held political office again.

What is fascinating about both these men is that before they entered Downing Street each was viewed as the heir apparent to a long-serving but bitterly controversial prime minister who was said by critics to have clung on to power too long. Gladstone publicly proclaimed Lord Rosebery, a dashing young Scottish peer, as his likely successor in 1886, speaking of him as ‘the man of the future’, though Gladstone kept putting off the day of his own departure until he had reached the age of 83. Similarly for 15 years from 1940 Eden was regarded as a near certainty to take over from Churchill who, despite a stroke, remained in Downing Street until after his 80th birthday, much to the fury of Eden.

There has often been comment on the parallels between the experience of Eden and that of Gordon Brown, who throughout the last decade has regularly displayed his exasperation at the refusal of the present incumbent to budge from Downing Street. Yet there are also intriguing links between Brown and Lord Rosebery. At first glance this might seem absurd. After all, Rosebery was a magnificent Scottish aristocrat who enjoyed fabulous personal wealth having married into the Rothschild banking family, whereas Brown is the modest son of a Presbyterian minister. Rosebery shrank from office, Brown hankers after it with an almost physical longing. Rosebery was a tremendous orator, able to stir huge crowds. In contrast, Brown is a wooden, cliché-ridden performer.

Yet Brown has several of the same personal-ity traits as Rosebery, particularly the thin skin, the hyper-sensitivity, the gift for cultivating enemies, the brusqueness used to cover up shyness, and the disturbing ability to envelope himself in an atmosphere of brooding Caledonian dourness. Just as Brown exudes the heavy Protestant work ethic, so John Buchan, referring to Rosebery’s surprisingly religious streak, could describe him as ‘a 17th-century Calvinist at heart’. The author Ian Malcolm’s words about Rosebery, with his ‘Sphinx-like attitude, his faintly sarcastic tone and his gloomy manner’ could equally be applied to Brown. Like Rosebery, Brown is a skilled practitioner of the art of freezing out personal enemies. Petty quarrels and fall-outs are hallmarks of the careers of both men. Just as Brown had an absurd, long-running spat with the late Robin Cook over the authorship of a pamphlet on Scottish economic policy, so Rosebery refused to speak for several years to his former colleague Lord Hartington, later the Liberal Unionist leader, because of a dispute over the minor issue of a Glasgow University rectorial election. ‘As a friend I cease to regard you,’ he wrote primly. And Rosebery’s epic, long-standing feud with this own Chancellor Sir William Harcourt has an echo in Brown’s arctic relationship with Peter Mandelson.

Perhaps the greatest parallel of all lies in  the contradictory nature of their political characters. Throughout his life, Rosebery was described as ‘an enigma’ because he seemed capable of embodying diametrically opposed positions. So he could appear both a reassuring traditionalist and an advanced radical, a friend of labour and of business. He served as first chairman of the London County Council and Queen Victoria described his views on the House of Lords as ‘almost communistic’, yet he was also a fervent imperialist and a strong opponent of increased property taxation. One previous editor of The Spectator, St Loe Strachey, argued that Rosebery was nothing more than a bundle of seven political aliases, ‘the Home Ruler, the Unionist, the Democratic Socialist, the Political Boss, the Man Above Party, the Sphinx and the Man of the Turf’. In our own time, Gordon Brown somehow straddles the worlds of old Labour and New. It is some achievement to have the enthusiastic backing of both the trade union movement and the Daily Mail, to proclaim to be a fervently pro-American free-marketeer and an evangelist for fair trade in Africa. Brown is the advocate of capitalism who claims his greatest political hero is the inter-war Red Clydesider Jimmy Maxton. He preaches the importance of thrift and work, but has presided over the greatest expansion of the welfare state in modern history, only deepening the culture of benefits dependency. He talks about presentation being no substitute for policy, yet he was one of the principal architects of New Labour, whose very essence represents the triumph of imagery over substance.

Rosebery himself could be described as an early pioneer of modern slogan-based, propaganda-filled politics, for he was the chief organiser of the Gladstone’s famous Midlothian campaign of 1879 which heralded a new era of mass public opinion and manipulation. Rosebery was only 31 when he devised Midlothian, with its orchestrated press coverage, its huge rallies and its specially hired trains. It represented the birth pangs of modern democratic politics. The irony was that its mastermind was an aristocrat who was never democratically elected to Parliament. Brown, meanwhile, will soon become our national leader without having to go through any kind of democratic process. Margot Asquith wrote of Rosebery: ‘A man suffering from the nerves that go with genius, morbidly sensitive and isolated ... baffling, complex and charming ...a man who at once scares or compels every human being he meets either by his freezing silence, his playful smile or the weight of his moral indignation.’ She could have been talking of the next prime minister.

Leo McKinstry’s Rosebery: Statesman in Turmoil  is published by John Murray.