For more than thirty years, at the height of its strength in the country, Lord Granville led the Victorian Liberal Party in the House of Lords, where it was in a perpetual minority. His diplomatic skills contributed significantly to its legislative achievements and to preserving the unity of a party always threatening to splinter. Granville George Leveson-Gower (2nd Earl Granville) was born in Westminster in 1815. He was the grandson of the Marquess of Stafford, which connected him to the Sutherlands, while his mother, Lady Harriet Cavendish, linked him to the Duke of Devonshire placing Granville at the heart of the aristocratic Whig cousinhood. After a short period in parliament, his father became a diplomat, serving as Ambassador to St Petersburg during the Napoleonic wars, though forced to leave when the Tsar changed sides in the Treaty of Tilsit. Resuming his career after Waterloo, he served first in Holland and later as Ambassador to France He was raised to the peerage as Viscount Granville in 1815 and Earl Granville in 1833.
Following a traditional Eton and Oxford education, Granville served for a short period at the Paris embassy, under his father, before becoming MP for Morpeth in 1836 and later for Lichfield. In 1840 he married Lady Acton, the widowed mother of the historian Lord Acton, and in 1846 he succeeded to the earldom.
An ardent free trader, he was initially appointed to the royal household in Lord John Russell’s 1846 government. Later, as a junior minister, he helped promote the 1851 Great Exhibition under Prince Albert, developing a politically valuable friendship with the royal family. It was in this role that he first met Gladstone, for whom he acted effectively as deputy and chief supporter.
When Russell sacked Palmerston as Foreign Secretary, Granville succeeded him, initiating a more conciliatory tone to foreign policy. However, he was only in post two months before Palmerston’s tit-for-tat ensured the government’s defeat in February 1852, leading to a short-lived Tory minority administration. This in turn was superseded by the Aberdeen coalition, where Granville became Lord President of the Council. When the Crimean War required more vigorous leadership, Palmerston took over appointing Granville Leader of the Lords. Except for a short period, when Earl Russell was premier from October 1865 to June 1866, Granville continued as the Liberal leader in the Lords until the end of his career, combining it with departmental duties whenever the Liberals were in power.
The 1850s were a period of considerable political instability occasioned in part by the squabble between Palmerston and Russell. When Queen Victoria sought to avoid appointing either of those two dreadful old men in 1859, she approached Granville to form a government. For tactical reasons, Palmerston agreed to serve but Russell would not and the attempt failed, leaving to Palmerston the honour of leading the first true Liberal government. Granville returned to the Lord Presidency.
In 1860, Granville’s wife died in her late forties. He was married for a second time in 1865, to Castalia Campbell, some thirty years his junior, by whom he had two sons and three daughters. A new wife allowed Granville to partially fill the gap in Liberal political entertaining left by the death of Palmerston in 1865.
In Gladstone’s first Government (1868-74), Granville was Colonial Secretary. He ensured that the Crown took over the Canadian territories of the Hudson’s Bay Company and persuaded New Zealand and Canada to assume responsibility for their own defence costs. One of the government’s most significant achievements was the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland. The passage of this legislation through the Lords required all the tact and feline diplomacy, which earned Granville the nickname Pussy. Of his role in the Irish Church disestablishment, the Dictionary of National Biography wrote: ‘He was no orator, and inspired no enthusiasm; but he was an excellent man of business, practical and tactful, lucid in exposition, and imperturbably good-humoured.’ On Clarendon’s death in 1870, he became Foreign Secretary, unsuccessfully offering to mediate in the Franco-Prussian war but upholding British interests by securing Belgian neutrality.
After the 1874 election defeat, Gladstone tendered his resignation to Granville in 1875. It says much for his diplomacy that he was able to work well with Lord Hartington, who assumed the leadership of the Liberal opposition in the Commons, as there was no clarity as to which of them was in overall command. Foreign affairs were the principal source of contention between the parties and while his oratory might not have inspired, Granville’s satirical criticism of Disraeli’s policy was often effective, though his opposition to proposals making Victoria Empress of India undermined his standing with the Queen. Arthur Godley, who had been secretary to both Granville and Gladstone, characterised Granville as one who certainly did not seem to work very hard but nevertheless invariably did what he had to do, did it well, knew his brief, and, in the House of Lords and elsewhere, was exceedingly able to take care of himself .
Neither Granville nor Hartington opposed Disraeli’s policy towards the Bulgarian atrocities vigorously enough for Gladstone, who resumed active politics after 1876 and became the key force in the 1880 general election. Neither was willing to stand in the way of his resumption of the premiership, and Granville returned to the Foreign Office.
Contemporaries criticised Granville for his handling of foreign policy during Gladstone’s second government and his poor work habits. Godley reported that Granville had once said to him: ‘People think I am a very idle man. I am sorry to say it is quite true.’ Godley added: ‘He opened all his letters himself and found by experience that most of them, if left alone, would answer themselves.’ Gladstone and Granville adhered to the old idea of the Concert of Europe and were prepared to sacrifice national interests to promote the peaceful negotiation of international disputes. In consequence they appeared outmanoeuvred by Bismarck in Europe, insufficiently competitive in the imperial competition for Africa and embarrassed when Britain occupied Egypt and the Sudan. The death of Gordon in the Sudan was a devastating blow to government credibility and an initial step towards the break-up of the party over Ireland.
When Gladstone formed his home rule government at the beginning of 1886, Granville was one of the minority of Liberal peers who stood by him. Unacceptable to the Queen as Foreign Secretary, Granville was appointed Colonial Secretary. The government failed to carry its Irish legislation and lost the ensuing general election. Granville never held office again. In financial difficulties and increasingly troubled by gout, he died on 31 March 1891.
The Life of Lord Granville 1815-1891 by Lord Edmund Fitzmaurice (2 vols, 1905) is the only substantial life available, though the four volumes of correspondence between Gladstone and Granville, published under the editorship of Agatha Ramm, give an insight into their relationship and the part Granville played in government.