Scheme, scheme, scheme

As the Cranborne plot continues to unravel, Amanda Foreman, the acclaimed author of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, illuminates the Cecils, a family that has always had a cunning plan

The 4th Earl of Salisbury was a sad, pathetic excuse of a man. Fat, slothful and dull-witted, he inherited precious little from his Cecil forebears except, maybe, for the title and the family sense of timing. However, in his case it manifested as an unerring talent for bad timing. In 1688, a mere month before the Protestant William of Orange landed at Torbay, Lord Salisbury decided to ingratiate himself with James II by becoming a Catholic. “Oh God!” he cried. “Oh God! Oh God!”, when he learned that James was too busy packing to receive him, “I turned too soon! I turned too soon!”

The 4th Earl was an aberration. His idiocy, for which he spent 10 months in the Tower, is all the more remarkable for going against the grain of more than 500 years of history. Apart from this single black sheep, the family has never deviated from one line of principle: the Cecils serve themselves by serving the State – not the Sovereign nor the people, but the State.

Viscount Cranborne’s secret deal with Tony Blair, which allows for 91 hereditary peers to remain in the House of Lords until stage two is completed, follows this principle. It enraged William Hague. The Tory leader has accused him of party disobedience, not to say disloyalty, and yet his behaviour was pure Cecil. Despite being the opposition leader of the Lords, Lord Cranborne’s concern was not to maintain the Tory majority – he conceded that quite quickly – but to preserve as much of the Upper House as possible. Call it arrogant, perhaps even misguided; nevertheless he was willing to sacrifice his career for the sake of his political ideals.

Few people in the political world live according to their ideals nowadays, unless one counts the staring-eyed variety of the eco-warriors and animal rights fanatics. In our cynical age it is hard to imagine anyone in public life being motivated by a sense of noblesse oblige, let alone simple patriotism. It is this lack of faith in our leaders’ motives that makes political reform so necessary. The Cecils may trust themselves to behave properly and govern wisely, but sadly the country no longer shares their belief. Tradition does not count for much in the 1990s. However, it is probably comforting to the unemployed Lord Cranborne to know that he has been faithful to his own – after all, what really matters is not the opinion of today but the outcome of tomorrow. Acting to safeguard the future is what the Cecils have always done best. Even if, on many occasions throughout the centuries, this meant that they acted with a deviousness that would have put the serpentine Edmund Blackadder to shame.

In 1485 a local farmer on the Welsh borders, one David Cyssell, decided that life under the despotic Richard III was a life not worth living. It so happened that young Henry, Earl of Richmond was marching through Wales at the time, with an army that grew as men flocked to the banner of the red dragon. Cyssell joined the column and shortly afterwards found himself camped out on a freezing, muddy field as preparations for battle took place around him. Fortunately, bad dreams and a missing horse would prove to be King Richard’s undoing. The Battle of Bosworth brought the Middle Ages to a close and heralded the dawn of the Tudor period. It also heralded the dawn of the Cyssells, or Cecils as they thenceforth chose to style themselves.

David Cecil was content to become a yeoman of the King’s Guard under Henry VII. He dabbled in politics, bought himself an attractive estate closer to London, and encouraged his son, Richard, to consider the lucrative possibilities in serving the Crown. If David was prepared to sacrifice his life to support the King, Richard was prepared to sacrifice the Church. The Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII required men to redistribute the land, and what better man than the ambitious Richard Cecil? But he was an efficient administrator rather than a politician. The Cecil genius for politics did not emerge until the third generation, in William Cecil.

By now the Cecils were respectable English folk, rather than Welsh. William was the first in his family to attend Cambridge University. His grandfather and father had already established the family’s political credentials and he did not have to pick up a sword or strip down a priory to attract the King’s notice. William just made sure that Henry VIII heard him argue against the supremacy of the Pope, and a job was his.

Critics of William Cecil say that he had an unshakable loyalty to whomever was in power. On one level that is certainly true. But this is to miss the point. William Cecil, like his descendants, never confused the person with the power. This enlightened self-interest enabled him to serve first Henry VIII, then the Lord Protector the Earl of Somerset, and then Somerset’s rival the Duke of Northumberland. It should come as no surprise that Sir William, as he now was, spent a small fortune in obtaining an obscure book by a disgraced Italian official – the Discourses by Niccolo Machiavelli. The welfare of the State, claims Machiavelli, is the supreme and only test by which political action may be judged. This principle remains no less true for the present Lord Cranborne than it did for Sir William.

Judging that no good would come out of an association with Queen Mary, William remained discreetly out of the way, all the while cultivating the future Queen Elizabeth. He was 39 when she became Queen and he spent the next 40 years in continuous employment, mostly as Lord Treasurer. By the end he was Baron Burghley and considerably richer. Elizabeth called him the Pater Pacis Patriae, the father of the country’s peace. But William was more than that; he was the father of the Secret Service and one of the first clear exponents of free trade. “A realm can never be rich that hath not intercourse in trade and merchandise with other nations,” he argued wisely.

This clear-headed understanding of English interests occasionally put him at odds with the rest of the country. While everyone around him, including the Queen, encouraged Sir Francis Drake into more exploits of derring-do against the Spanish, William was tearing out his hair with worry at what the dashing buccaneer was doing to maritime trade. He even went so far as to infiltrate an agent on to the Golden Hind with instructions to obstruct Drake at every turn. The poor man performed so well that the exasperated Drake briefly interrupted his plundering to execute him for mutiny and insubordination.

William was the only member of Court who did not rejoice when the Golden Hind returned home in 1580, loaded with booty. His fears proved prescient: eight years later the Spanish Armada threatened to invade the English coast. It may have been the wind which blew the ships off course, but it was William, Lord Burghley who negotiated an £800,000 loan at 10 per cent to pay for an army to meet them in case they landed.

William inculcated the habit of taking the long view into his favourite son, Robert. He gave him this piece of advice and much else besides. Indeed, compare William’s letter of instruction to Robert with Polonius’s famous speech, written by Shakespeare a few years later, and the two show remarkable similarities. “Be with thy equal familiar yet respectful’, wrote William. “Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar,” cautioned Polonius.

Robert was never familiar with anybody. His physical deformities – an over-sized head on top of a hunch-backed body – made him the butt of people’s jokes and a lonely, isolated figure. He succeeded his father as Queen Elizabeth’s advisor but he never inspired the same love or respect. This was partly because he took the Cecil principle of loyalty to the State to its extreme conclusion. Even as Elizabeth lay dying, Robert was secretly negotiating the smooth transition of James VI of Scotland to James I of England. Once again, the Cecil practice of enlightened self-interest brought high rewards, this time the Earldom of Salisbury, while benefiting the country as a whole.

Secrecy was a particular trait of the first earl’s. Robert had a nasty habit of dabbling in plots and conspiracies for reasons of realpolitik rather than any burning desire to protect the King. He betrayed his friend Sir Walter Raleigh by allowing him to be falsely implicated in the Bye Plot because he feared that Raleigh’s bellicose policy against Spain would provoke another war. Some historians even claim that he knowingly allowed the gunpowder plotters to proceed as far as they did in order to make their discovery all the more spectacular.

Robert did not particularly approve of James as a person nor did he accept the Stuart belief of the divine right of Kings, but his Cecil upbringing made him inured to personal feeling. Robert’s sense of duty was so strong that he refused to accept Christmas presents from non-family in case they were considered bribes. He was also an outspoken defender of the rights of Parliament. “There is no jesting with a Court of Parliament,” he told the Commons, “neither dares any man (for my part I dare not so) mock and abuse all the states of this kingdom”. He meant it, and generations of later Cecils took his words very much to heart.

Although there were no more great politicians after Robert, his son William had the foresight to choose Cromwell’s side during the Civil War and later, to switch to Charles II just before it was too late. For this reason, while other families like the Derbys lost their estates, the Cecils emerged entirely unscathed and settled down to over a century of prosperous inactivity. During the 18th century, the earls of Salisbury showed little of the political acumen or ruthlessness which had characterized their ancestors. The seventh earl had just enough ambition to be seen to be supporting George III at all times, for which he received a marquesette.

His wife, on the other hand, Lady Mary Amelia, was one of the great Tory hostesses of her age. She was one of only two women who dared to oppose Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire’s canvass for Charles James Fox in the 1784 Westminster Election. Although unsuccessful, she managed to avoid the calumny which followed Georgiana for becoming too friendly with the lower orders. By the mid-19th century, over 400 years since David Cyssell had taken up arms against his King, the Cecils had become High Tories. They were staunch supporters of the establishment and fervent adherents of the kind of high Anglicanism which forbade cards or drink on a Sunday.

The difference between a reactionary and a High Tory is the acceptance that change is inevitable. A High Tory will not only adapt to change but will even initiate it when necessary, while keeping in mind the lessons of history and their application to modern circumstances. Robert, the 3rd Marquis of Salisbury, the three-time Prime Minister to Queen Victoria, remains the living embodiment of this political attitude.

He also, without a doubt, followed the Cecil way throughout his career. First and foremost, he extolled the virtues of trade and worked assiduously to keep Britain out of war. He was prepared to go to considerable lengths to keep Britain at peace with her neighbours. Winston Churchill said of him, “No one was more ready to sacrifice his opinion to get his way.”

In person, Lord Salisbury was tall and awkward, and oppressed with more than the usual allowance of Cecil shyness. Standing behind the throne at a Court ceremony one day, he noticed a pleasant young man smiling at him. “And who is our young friend?” he whispered to his neighbour. “Your eldest son,” came the reply.

Yet this vagueness disappeared when he was engaged in politics. As a young politician, Lord Salisbury was castigated for being opposed to everything. He opposed allowing Jews in Parliament, he opposed the building of the Thames Embankment, he opposed the Second Reform Act of 1867, he even opposed the plan for a new museum in South Kensington. But his dislike of alteration belied his equally strong sense of British interests. During his tenure the first universal primary education was established, local government was reformed and over 600 million square miles were added to the British empire.

Lord Salisbury bequeathed a flexibility that was short-lived. His nephew Arthur Balfour, whose miraculous rise in politics inspired the quip “Bob’s your uncle’, had half the Cecil blood and half the talent. Balfour had little understanding of the kind of long view which has characterised the Cecil approach. “It is the duty of every Englishman,” Lord Salisbury proclaimed, “and of every English party to accept a political defeat cordially and to lend their best endeavors to secure the success, or to neutralize the evil of the principles to which they have been forced to succumb.”

What Balfour ignored to his cost, the later 5th Marquis put into practice with the institution known as the Salisbury Convention. Whereas Arthur Balfour used the Tory majority in the Lords to destroy Lloyd George’s budget, the 5th Marquis established the convention that the Lords would never oppose any policy that was written out in the winning party’s manifesto. The Tories under Balfour lost two elections and the Lords had their right to delay legislation shortened to two years. Thanks in part to the wise stewardship of the 5th Marquis, the Tories under Winston Churchill did not lose their political credibility, the Lords escaped with only minor changes, and the party returned to power in 1951.

Against a five centuries-old backdrop the recent actions of Lord Cranborne, the future 7th Marquis of Salisbury, seem not only reasonable but even look inevitable. Of course Cranbo, as he is known to his friends, would negotiate a deal which preserved the institution of the hereditary peerage rather than any individuals within it. This is what the Cecils do, they are fixers and preservers. It may be that after Lord Cranborne the Cecils will again recede into quietude for another 100 years or so. After all, there were long stretches between Robert, 1st Earl of Salisbury, Robert, 3rd Marquis of Salisbury, and Robert, future 7th Marquis of Salisbury.

But time is on the Cecils’ side. The legacy of their contribution to British politics continues to flow from generation to generation. Lord Cranborne’s impact on public life illustrates something which the philosopher George Steiner, no friend to the aristocracy, once described as the phenomenon of shared remembrance.

A cultivation of trained, shared remembrance,” Steiner wrote, “sets a society in natural touch with its own past. What matters even more, it safeguards the core of individuality. What is committed to memory and susceptible of recall constitutes the ballast of the self. The pressures of political exaction, the detergent tide of social conformity, cannot tear it from us.”

The Cecils, whether people like them or not, remain central to this country’s sense of its past. They are part of our historical memory and as such they regard themselves as natural guardians of the constitution.

For the time being Lord Cranborne will resist the detergent tide of social conformity with every ounce of his strength.

Copyright© 1998