Finest Hour 156, Autumn 2012
Great Contemporaries – The Earl of Rosebery
By Winston S. Churchill
It might be said that Lord Rosebery1 outlived his future by ten years and his past by more than twenty. The brilliant prospects which had shone before him until he became Prime Minister in 1894 were dispersed by the break-up of his Government and the decisive defeat of the Liberal Party in 1895. The part he took as an Imperialist2 and a patriot in supporting, four years later, the South African War3 destroyed his hold upon the regard and confidence of a large section of the Radical masses.4 His resignation of the Leadership of the Liberal Party had already released them from their allegiance. By his definite declaration against Home Rule5 when Mr. Balfour’s fall in 19056 was approaching, he cut himself off deliberately and resolutely from all share in the impending Liberal triumph and long reign of power. He severed himself by purposeful action from his friends and followers. ‘Content to let occasion die,’7 he withdrew from all competition for leadership in the political arena; he erected barriers against his return which he meant to be insurmountable; he isolated himself in cool and unaffectedly disdainful detachment. It was known only too well that overtures would be useless. By 1905 his political career was closed for ever. It was only in 1929 that his long life ended.
Dwelling in his wide and beautiful estates, moving frequently from one delightful house and one capacious library to another, he lived to sustain the burden of an eightieth birthday, lighted by the refinements of profound and astonishingly wide-ranging literary knowledge, amused by the Turf,8 and cheered and companioned by his children and his grandchildren. The afflictions of old age fell successively with gathering weight upon him in his ever-deepening retirement; and when he died his name and actions had faded entirely from the public mind, and were only revived and presented to the eyes of a new generation by the obituary notices. But those actions, and still more the character and personality which lay behind them, are worthy of most careful study, not only for the sake of their high merit, but at least as much for their limitations.
Lord Rosebery was probably my father’s greatest friend. They were contemporaries at Eton and at Oxford.9 Although apparently divided by party, they moved in the same society, had many friends in common, and pursued the same pleasures and sports—of which racing was ever the sovereign. Their correspondence was sparkling and continuous, and their intimate personal relations were never affected by the fierce political struggles of the ‘eighties,10 or by any vicissitudes of fortune.
I inherited this friendship, or rather the possibility of renewing it in another generation. I was anxious to cultivate it for many reasons, of which the first was to learn more about my father from his contemporary, his equal and his companion. With some at least of those feelings of awe and attraction which led Boswell11 to Dr. Johnson,12 I sought occasions to develop the acquaintance of childhood into a grown-up friendship. At first he did not seem to approve of me: but after the South African War, when
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