The Primrose Path 161

Rishi Sunak’s career reminds me of another spoiled child of fortune who became UK Prime Minister without having to fight an election, Archibald Primrose, the only previous PM almost as rich as Rishi.

Primrose, Lord Rosebery, became Prime Minister in 1894 when William Ewart Gladstone, old and now blind, retired after his fourth (non-consecutive) term in office. Primrose had stood by Gladstone in support of Irish Home Rule, but was well to the right of the Liberal Party and really had nothing relevant to offer in a new democratic and urbanised society. He retired from politics permanently after losing the subsequent general election in 1895.

I strongly expect Sunak will follow a very similar political path.

Sunak attended Winchester College, a private school where fees are currently £46,000 per year. From there it was easy to get into Oxford. 32% of Oxford admissions are from private schools (known as public schools in England) and only 68% from state schools. But only 6% of the population attend private schools whereas 94% attend state schools.

So private school pupils are over five times more likely to get into Oxford than state school pupils.

Elite networking is far more important as the social advantage of attending the “right” school and university, than anything learnt in class. With his Winchester and Oxford background it was a matter of the right contacts for Sunak to get into Goldman Sachs and earn his first millions in investment banking, and then move on and up into the world of hedge funds and private wealth management, with money sticking to him like… use your own analogy.

Marriage to the daughter of a billionaire was only natural. Sunak’s path has been gilded. The notion that his elevation is some sort of victory for equality is the reductio ad absurdum of identity politics.

Like Rishi Rich, Archibald Primrose had started life from a position of great privilege, as heir to the coal rich Rosebery estates around Edinburgh. He went to Eton and Oxford. He too held a variety of ministerial offices and enhanced his wealth spectacularly by marrying a great heiress – Hannah Rothschild, who had the advantage of being an only child.

Dalmeny House, family seat of Archibald Primrose Lord Rosebery

We will have plenty of time to talk about Sunak, so I want to concentrate today on Archibald Primrose, Lord Rosebery. As a historian, it always fascinates me which parts of history have entered national consciousness and which have not, and indeed which are explored by historians and which ignored.

Rosebery acquired Mentmore Towers on marrying Hanna Rothschild

Most people know something of Oscar Wilde’s affair with “Bosie”, Lord Alfred Douglas, son of the Marquis of Queensberry, which ultimately led to the trials that destroyed Wilde. Far less well known is what was widely believed to be the related affair between Archibald Primrose, Lord Rosebery and Lord Alfred Douglas’ elder brother, Lord Francis Douglas.

The Marquis of Queensberry followed Rosebery to the spa at Bad Homburg to confront him over what Queensberry believed to be the sexual relationship with his son, and in a remarkable scene was only restrained from attacking Rosebery by the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VII).

40 Piccadilly, Rosebery’s London home

Rosebery’s name cropped up from time to time in the Wilde trial, which fact was reported in continental newspapers but not in British ones. Rosebery was Prime Minister at the time of Wilde’s trial in the election year of 1895 and had wanted to help Wilde, both financially and possibly in giving evidence, but was warned by Arthur Balfour “if you do, you will lose the election”. Rosebery refrained from helping Wilde, but lost the election anyway.

Villa Rosebery, his Italian home, now the country palace of the President of Italy.

Rosebery when Foreign Secretary had installed Francis Douglas as his Private Secretary, and as Prime Minister arranged Douglas’s elevation to join him in the House of Lords as Baron Kellhead. Rosebery also created him a Lord in Waiting to Queen Victoria, which made it possible for Francis Douglas to be at royal venues when Rosebery was present. It also elevated Francis above his father, whose Scottish title of Marquis of Queensberry did not carry a seat in the Lords.

Lord Francis Douglas then had been shot to death in a “hunting accident” at Quantock Lodge in Somerset a few months before Wilde’s trial began. Rosebery was Prime Minister at the time.

It was almost certainly not an accident. Francis may well have committed suicide. It also must be possible that he was murdered to avert a massive gay scandal (homosexuality was highly illegal) involving the British Prime Minister.

The incident is almost entirely unexplored by historians – I have on my shelves Robert Rhodes James’ life of Lord Rosebery which does not mention his being gay at all. You can find bits and pieces in lives of Oscar Wilde; much of this comes from that by Richard Ellman. Ellman notes that the prosecutor decided to retry Wilde after the original jury came to a hung verdict, telling Solicitor General Lockwood “I would not, but for the horrible rumours against Rosebery”.

The events of 1894/5 – Francis Douglas’ suicide, the Bad Homburg incident, Wilde’s trial and then general election defeat – completely unnerved Rosebery. He had a breakdown and retired from public life aged only 48. He was a reclusive depressive the rest of his life.

History simply drew a veil. Few people today know Britain’s wealthiest Prime Minister ever existed.

One small foonote on Primrose/Rosebery. He had stuck with Gladstone in the disastrous split of the Liberal Party over Irish Home Rule, and Rosebery also advocated for a degree of Home Rule for Scotland. Rosebery had campaigned strenuously for the creation of the post of Secretary of State for Scotland, and introduced a Bill to do so in 1885. This fell with that Gladstone administration but Rosevery’s bill was reintroduced by the succeeding Conservative government and passed into law.

Modern nationalists rightly see the post of Secretary of State for Scotland as an instrument of alien rule, but this was the first political acknowledgement for nearly two centuries of any kind of separate Scottish political administration.

Together with the independence supporting Marquis of Bute and others in an aristocratic circle in the late nineteenth century, Rosebery contributed to the revival of the idea of Scotland as a separate political identity and helped lay the foundations of the future nationalist movement.

On the surface, Archibald Primrose was a hugely successful figure – wealthy beyond imagining, Prime Minister at 45 years old. Yet his career is always presented, when remembered at all, as one of failure – almost of Liz Truss dimensions. Sunak will probably be a similar one time PM who never wins an election.

I am drawing Sunak/Primrose parallels with respect to extreme wealth, an easy life and unelected one term PMs. I am absolutely not drawing any parallels on the sexual front.

Yet the failure of history and collective memory to this day to come to terms with the anti-gay prejudice that destroyed Primrose is really interesting. Primrose knew Wilde personally, was Prime Minister during his trial, had to be dissuaded from helping him, like Wilde had been threatened with physical assault by Queensberry, after having an extremely close relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas’ brother which many, including Queensberry, believed was sexual. Yet even the great many books and films on Wilde’s downfall barely begin to explore it.

This is a strangely deferential country.


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161 thoughts on “The Primrose Path

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  • Sarge

    I don’t think British historians (and journalists, broadcasters and filmmakers) are quite as shameless as their American counterparts in presenting a fantasy impression of their nation’s history. I do see in TV history however a deliberate effort to falsify the past, glorifying monarchy and making everything the British elite has done appear noble and right. I fear this tendency will harden and accelerate under the administration of someone like Sunak. He is a fanatical Brexiteer, no matter how much the liberal commentariat want to airbrush it away. He will be eager, to a greater extent even than Obama I think, to reassure the racists. He has already endorsed Braverman and Badenoch’s nonwhite pride in the British Empire and said in his losing leadership campaign that he wanted to criminalise “hating Britain”. The security-state man Starmer has the same authoritarian, poppy-shagging disposition so either way you can bet there is going to be much less tolerance and funding for honest research into Britain’s past, part of a wider fascistic crackdown on dissent.

    • Jeff

      This Sunak guy is the one who said he didn’t see much point in keeping Scotland in the union….until he became chancellor and they showed him the books of course…..

    • Vivian O’Blivion

      Why attempt to mitigate the propaganda status of British broadcasting in relative terms? What matters is apparent in the absolute.
      In the run-up to Indy Ref I, the BBC gave former British spook, Rory Stewart free reign to evangelise his pet hypothesis that there are no real differences between the Scots and the northern English. This was turned into a two part documentary, Border Country; The Story of Britain’s Lost Middle land.
      But Stewart isn’t even a historian. He started studying Medieval history at Oxford but switched to PPE (a sensible career choice). Why give an amateur an expensive commission to air his uninformed witterings?
      Stewart’s thesis was that Scotland and England were “created” by the Romans when they built Hadrian’s wall. In this narrative, there were no fundamental, cultural differences in Iron Age Britain north and south of the Tweed / Solway divide. We were all northern Celtic tribes tied to our Brythonic language and culture.
      This admittedly superficially attractive orthodox myth is exploded by Dr Ronan Toolis in 2021 with his; Revealing the prehistoric origins of Scotland.
      The most compelling example of architectural variance in archaeology that Toolis offers is the crannog. A common dwelling in Scotland, Wales and Ireland, the crannog is absent in England. The Tweed / Solway line marks a boundary for crannog building. Even in the geographically local and topographically suitable Lake District, the crannog is missing.
      Will the BBC commission Dr Toolis to correct Rory the spook’s earlier twaddle? A widnae haud yer breath.

      • Fwl

        1) who says history has to be written by professional academics – see for eg works by Craig Murray and Julian Copeland.

        2) Cumbria was very obviously inhabited by Welsh.

        • Vivian O’Blivion

          Craig Murray is a historian. Modern history, University of Dundee.
          The inhabitants of Cumbria spoke proto-Welsh (as presumably did everyone else south of Pictland (the Picktish culture still being uncertain)). Speaking Welsh and being Welsh are not necessarily inclusive. There are subtle differences in the DNA sequences between the Welsh and the English, predating any supposed invasion of England (which were likely successive waves of acculturation rather than wholesale population replacement). The DNA of modern Cumbrians is characteristic of modern English rather than Welsh.
          Any consideration of DNA sequencing fails to incorporate Epigenetics.

          • Alf Baird

            Yes, if it wasn’t for the Dalriada Scots of Argyll (arriving from Scotia/Ireland and bringing the Gaelic language with them) and their subsequent ‘merger’ with the Picts who inhabited most of Scotland at the time, to form what we now know as Scotland during the 800s, Scotland would still be known today as Pictland, and us ‘Scots’ as Picts, which was evidently the case during the earlier Roman period. Which implies that many if not most Scots are actually Picts.

          • Lapsed Agnostic

            There would have been very few genetic differences between the inhabitants of the British Isles in pre-Roman times, Father, with the menfolk belonging almost exclusively to the R-M269 haplogroup. Even today with large amounts of immigration, both ancient and modern, that’s still by far the most common Y-chromosome haplogroup in the UK and Rep. of Ireland, with a preponderance of 92% in Wales, 82% in Ireland, 70% in Scotland & 60-65% in England. Epigenetics has nothing to do with genetic inheritances, being concerned with the effect of environmental stimuli on gene expression.


            Anyway, with recent events in mind, I would advise residents of Scotland voting in any future referendum on Scottish Independence not to base their choice on what haplogroups were present in Scotland 2000 years ago or what languages were being spoken there 1000 years ago, but instead on whether it represents an opportunity to remove HMNB Clyde (i.e. Faslane) & RNAD Coulport from Scottish soil, in case they end up on the receiving end of a couple of 800 kiloton warhead groundbursts, resulting in (universally fatal without substantial protection) radiation levels of 1000-plus rems per hour being deposited all over the Central Belt, Perthshire, Tayside etc.

          • Squeeth

            Hardly anything on the telly called history adds dignity to the term and reading a script doesn’t require a history degree. Treat CommercialPrivateEquitybbc with the contempt it deserves and spend your money on dvds. The Great War (1964) is the best documentary ever made, The World at War (1973) is a travesty, anything by David Attenborough after 1979 explains why his nickname is “whispering” and now history programmes are the equivalent of colouring books without the utility.

        • Vivian O’Blivion

          Rory Stewart has a political agenda (as indeed do we all). Stewart’s agenda is however bought and paid for by the British state. Stewart’s family biography is akin to higher level royal retainers or functionaries of the Empire. For the BBC to portray Stewart as a historian is disingenuous. Stewart continues his poorly disguised activities as a spook, working amongst others with the deep state front, the British Project.

          • Squeeth

            He’s the frontman of a naff tribute band, which is the definition of CommercialPrivateEquitybbc.

        • Lapsed Agnostic

          I think you may be confusing Julian Cope (formerly of The Teardrop Explodes and author of ‘The Modern Antiquarian’) with Stewart Copeland (formerly sticksman with The Police, and third son of CIA agent Miles Copeland Jr and Scottish archaeologist Lorraine Adie), Fwl. Easy mistake to make.

          • Laguerre

            Great the idea of being a punk historian. The wonderful thing about prehistoric archaeology (his works ‘The Modern Antiquarian’ and ‘The Megalithic European’) is that if you don’t have any texts to keep you in check, you can say whatever you like about the monuments, and nobody can say you’re right or wrong. If it sells well, that’s just fine. If somebody says the opposite next year, nobody can gainsay you. I suspect that’s what’s meant by a ‘punk historian’.

      • Johnny Conspiranoid

        Hadrian’s Wall does not run along the scottish border. Gododdin, a post roman british kingdom, ran across S.E. Scotland and N.E. England but all that was displaced by the Anglo-Saxons.

        • Maglocunos

          Not just Gododdin but also all the other kingdoms of the ‘Hen Ogledd’ (the Old North) including Elmet, Gododdin, Rheged, and Ystrad Clud (Strathclyde).
          Smaller kingdoms or districts included Aeron, Calchfynydd, Eidyn, Lleuddiniawn, and Manaw Gododdin; the last three were parts of Gododdin.
          The Angle kingdoms of Deira and Bernicia both had Brittonic-derived names, suggesting they may have been Brittonic kingdoms in origin.
          All the kingdoms of the Hen Ogledd except Strathclyde were conquered by Anglo-Saxons and Picts by about 800; Strathclyde was incorporated into the rising Middle Irish-speaking Kingdom of Scotland in the 11th century.

          Not enough people know this.


    • Antonym

      Pankaj Mishra as no other recognizes a coconut as he himself is one. Brown on the outside, lily white on the inside makes him a staple at the New Yorker, Bloomberg or the Guardian. Hates Hinduism and Narendra Modi, loves Western wokism with its “all inclusiveness”.

      Why do people still read the Fraudian?

      • Reza

        Mishra is one of the most insightful critics of Western liberalism, going back to the 19th century and beyond. You are just parading your ignorance.

      • Laguerre

        Anybody sensible would hate the lunatic Hinduist Narendra Modi, who encourages extremist attacks on Muslims, and notably their ancient mosques, very much in the Trump Jan 6th style.

  • Simon Hewitt

    As a football-loving Scot, Craig, I am surprised you do not mention, at least in passing, that Rosebery was President of the Scottish F.A. and that Scotland wore eye-curdling pink-and-primrose hooped shirts (Rosebery’s racing colours) in his honour at least nine times between 1881 and 1951, notably when thumping England 4-1 at Parkhead in 1900 and during the 1-1 draw with England watched by a then world-record 121,452 at Hampden in 1908. A shirt based on the ghastly colours was used during Scotland’s Euro 2016 qualifying campaign and it would have been interesting, given Qatar’s LGBT stance, to see Scoland wearing it had they qualified for the upcoming World Cup.

  • KC

    Lord Rosebery allegedly retired from politics in 1895, only to use his inherited N.M. Rothschild money to become the chief political protector and funder of the British South Africa Company for Cecil Rhodes, Lord Milner, John Buchan, Lord Rothschild (his in-law cousin), Churchill , Balfour , Mond, Lord Pirbright (Rothschild), Henry Wellcome, Gilbert Parker and the other Babylonian demons that formed the Pilgrims Society in 1902. See his keynote speech at the First Imperial Press Conference, 1909 where he articulated the new strategy of Empire–the one being carried out today.

  • Maglocunos

    ‘ 32% of Oxford admissions are from private schools (known as public schools in England) and only 68% from state schools.’

    If only …

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