Margaret Thatcher has become the historical lightning rod of the Tory leadership race. After a long spell of socially liberal Tory prime ministers, both candidates are desperate to emulate the Iron Lady by burnishing their right-wing credentials.
But perhaps this has blinded them to any other sound conservative leaders who may offer some lessons from history. Instead of harking back to the 1980s, Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss could do worse than to look to the 1880s.
Lord Salisbury succeeded the Victorian Boris Johnson: the political outsider and maverick Benjamin Disraeli was a titan on the world stage and an extremely hard act to follow. Yet though the 3rd Marquess of Salisbury was forgotten almost immediately after leaving office, he did remarkably well, steering Britain for 13 years at the height of its imperial and industrial power.
His policy of Splendid Isolation kept Britain out of the great power alliances that would eventually clash in the Frist World War, the worst catastrophe for European civilisation since the French revolution. Other than the Boer war (Britain’s mini-Vietnam and Salisbury’s greatest blunder), the British Empire was peaceful and prosperous under him.
Domestically, Salisbury governed with his famous line: “Whatever happens will be for the worse, and therefore it is in our interest that as little should happen as possible.” As statues are pulled down in a frenzy, new gender identities are created near-daily and trigger warnings are added to textbooks, this salient observation has never been more relevant.
When Gladstone organised vast rallies to campaign for enlarging the electorate, Salisbury raised his own counter-demonstrations, enthralling crowds of thousands with his charismatic speeches against radicalism and revolutionaries. Eventually, after the Second and Third Reform Acts were passed and millions more voters were granted the franchise, Salisbury bucked his own pessimistic predictions and won two landslide victories in 1886 and 1895.
Salisbury’s natural depressive tendency (perhaps due to vicious bullying at Eton) fuelled his conservative philosophy. In the contemporary culture wars, candidates should adopt a bit less of Boris Johnson’s blind optimism and view the West’s cultural revolution with the seriousness it deserves.
During Johnson’s last PMQs his foremost piece of advice to his successor was to “stay close to the Americans.” Salisbury would have recoiled at this, and not just because of his natural dislike of the revolutionary Republic across the Atlantic. As with his contemporary Bismarck, Salisbury’s foreign policy was pure Realpolitik. Britain would have no “special relationships” as such concepts are a fallacy; countries can’t be friends, just allies with overlapping interests.
Salisbury’s greatest foreign policy achievement followed this pragmatic playbook to the letter. The Fashoda crisis is still remembered in France with the famous film Entente Cordiale depicting France’s “heroic” defeat. In fact, Charles de Gaulle’s Anglophobia can even be traced back to the incident. In 1898 Britain and France almost went to war over a strategically important part of the river Nile when a French expedition marched on the fort at Fashoda, only to be met by a much larger British force. Salisbury had expected the clash.
Much to the outrage of the Jingoes (Britain’s 19th-century patriotic populist movement) he had previously made concessions to Russia over Port Arthur in China, with the intention of isolating France from its ally in St Petersburg. When the French expedition arrived, Salisbury refused to back down in conceding the territory and France was forced into a humiliating retreat.
Thinking long-term and conceding where necessary are pertinent lessons for the next prime minister, who will face a series of crises from rampant inflation to a culture besieged by woke extremists.
By being both pragmatic and principled, rooted in a deeply conservative philosophy, Salisbury held off the radicals and kept peace in Europe. The next prime minister should be seeking to replicate Salisbury’s invisible place in history, as the leader who averted disaster and steadied the ship.
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