The birth of the modern Liberal Party in 1859 brought together three disparate elements, Whigs, Peelites and Radicals. Hartington, as he was known for most of his political life, epitomised the Whig contribution to government – rich, aristocratic but driven by noblesse oblige to take public office. When he broke with Gladstone in the 1880s it symbolised the end of Whig government and marked the drift of the landed classes into the Tory camp.
Hartington is probably the only political leader who was thrice offered the premiership and thrice rejected it. George Goschen described him as ‘a moderate man, a violently moderate man’. His position in the party and the country was built not on brilliance but on his obvious integrity.
Born on 23 July 1833 at Holker Hall, Lancashire, he was the eldest son of William Cavendish and his wife, Blanche Georgiana, daughter of the sixth Earl of Carlisle. She died in April 1840, leaving three sons and a daughter. The children were educated at home, largely by their father.
The eldest son, known initially as Lord Cavendish, gained an MA from Trinity College, Cambridge in 1854. During the following three years he led the life of a young man of high social position, hunted a good deal and was an officer in the militia.
In 1857, Cavendish was elected for North Lancashire as a Liberal and supporter of Palmerston. In January 1858, his father became seventh Duke of Devonshire and he became Marquess of Hartington. After the 1859 general election, Palmerston displaced Lord Derby’s government, using Hartington to move the motion of no confidence carried on 10 June. Hartington was appointed junior Lord of the Admiralty and later, Under-Secretary at the War Office. In February 1866 he became Secretary of State for War in Lord John Russell’s government, entering the Cabinet at thirty-four.
In April 1868 he supported Gladstone’s resolutions for the disestablishment of the Irish church. This policy, unpopular in Lancashire, cost Hartington and Gladstone their seats at the December general election. Three months later, however, he obtained a new seat, Radnor Boroughs. Gladstone offered Hartington the post of Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. He declined but accepted a Cabinet seat as Postmaster-General, where he was responsible for the nationalisation of the telegraphs. He also took charge of the 1872 secret ballot act. At the end of 1870 he had unwillingly become Chief Secretary for Ireland, passing a Coercion Bill suspending habeas corpus for areas disturbed by agrarian violence. Hartington was unsympathetic to Gladstone’s unsuccessful 1873 Irish University scheme.
The Liberals lost to Disraeli in 1874 and early in 1876 Gladstone resigned the leadership. At the party meeting presided over by John Bright in the Reform Club on 3 February 1876, Hartington reluctantly filled the vacant place. He felt no great objection to Disraeli’s chief accomplishments – purchasing the Suez Canal shares and making Queen Victoria Empress of India – and his speeches were limited to moderate criticism. But the Eastern Question was key to the later 1870s and Gladstone came out of retirement with a series of violent speeches denouncing Turkish atrocities in Bulgaria and Disraeli’s fumbling response.
Following Disraeli’s defeat in April 1880 the Queen sent for Hartington to form a government, but he stepped aside for Gladstone, who had refused to serve under him. As Secretary of State for India, Hartington resolved the Afghan crisis, reversing Conservative plans to partition the country. Gladstone’s second administration was an unhappy affair. Hartington clashed repeatedly with Dilke’s and Chamberlain’s more radical ideas and disagreed with policy on Ireland, the dominant theme. Then, as now, the argument was between those willing to engage the Irish with offers of reform and those who, like Hartington, felt violence must be suppressed before grievances could be met. Gladstone’s fertile mind always reached for new administrative solutions. In 1882 Irish rebels assassinated Hartington’s younger brother, Lord Frederick Cavendish, newly appointed Chief Secretary for Ireland, a personal tragedy which reinforced his resistance to Irish demands. Yet it is to Hartington’s conciliatory skills and integrity that the 1880-85 government owes its major achievement, negotiating to overcome Conservative resistance to the Third Reform Act of 1884.
In December 1882 Hartington transferred to the War Office, overseeing the occupation of Egypt and sharing responsibility for sending General Gordon to evacuate Sudan. Gordon instead remained at Khartoum and, despite pressure from Hartington, the government delayed sending relief until too late. Gordon’s death in January 1885 dealt a heavy blow to Gladstone’s faltering government, which fell in June 1885, to be succeeded by that of the high Tory Lord Salisbury.
The resulting general election produced a hung parliament. Failing to persuade the Conservatives to introduce a measure to satisfy the Irish, Gladstone initially held the Liberals together by vague promises of Irish land and constitutional reform. Hartington, sitting for Rossendale in Lancashire, remained outside the government. Gladstone’s balancing act faltered when he formalised his Home Rule proposals, losing not just the Whigs but also many of Chamberlain’s radicals. Hartington moved the rejection of the second reading of the Home Rule Bill in a strong speech and was supported by over ninety Liberals. In June 1886 the Bill was defeated by a majority of thirty.
Despite their antipathy – Chamberlain once described Hartington as a drag on the wheel of progress – Hartington and Chamberlain combined to form the Liberal Unionist party, agreeing an electoral pact with the Conservatives for the ensuing campaign and winning seventy-eight seats. For the second time Hartington was offered the premiership, in a Conservative/Liberal Unionist coalition. He refused, in the hope of reuniting the Liberal Party, but lent his support to a Salisbury government. Salisbury renewed the proposal in January 1887, after the sudden resignation of Lord Randolph Churchill, Chancellor of the Exchequer, but Hartington again declined. On 21 December 1891 Lord Hartington, aged fifty-eight, became eighth Duke of Devonshire on his father’s death, leaving the Commons after thirty-four years.
The 1892 election produced a Liberal/Irish majority of forty. Gladstone’s second Home Rule Bill passed its third reading in the Commons on 29 July 1893 but the Duke moved its rejection in the Lords where it was thrown out by 419 to 41, illustrating the scale of aristocratic desertion from the Liberals. Rosebery succeeded Gladstone in 1894, but his unsuccessful government fell in June 1895. Salisbury’s new administration was formed in coalition with the Liberal Unionists and Devonshire became Lord President of the Council, responsible for state education, but also for the Cabinet’s defence committee.
Devonshire remained President of the Council under Balfour and succeeded Salisbury as leader in the Lords, but when Chamberlain adopted protectionism the Duke fought for free trade. Balfour’s manoeuvres to conciliate his colleagues led only to a disastrous split. Devonshire resigned from the Cabinet in October 1903, and from the Liberal Unionist leadership in May 1904. The Liberals won the ensuing election overwhelmingly, ending the Duke’s public career. He died on 24 March 1908 after illnesses induced by heart weakness.
Outside politics Devonshire’s main interest was horse racing, though, unlike Rosebery, he never won the Derby. The family owned extensive estates, including Chatsworth and Devonshire Houses and were responsible for much of the development of Eastbourne and Barrow. In 1892 he married the widowed Duchess of Manchester, a long-time friend, but they had no children and he was succeeded by his nephew Victor Cavendish.
The Life of the Eighth Duke of Devonshire by Bernard Holland, published in 1911, remains the main biography of Hartington. The Last of the Whigs by Patrick Jackson (1994) focuses almost entirely on politics. but the balance is partly redressed in Henry Vane, Affair of State, A Biography of the 8th Duke & Duchess of Devonshire (2004). The main source of family papers is Chatsworth.
Tony Little is a pension fund manager and has been a student of Victorian politics for more than thirty years. He is Chairman of the Liberal Democrat History Group and former leader of the Liberal Group on Hillingdon Council.