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In 1867 he refused to stand as a parliamentary candidate for Darlington (Co. Durham) because he had not committed himself to a political party at that stage. Six months later, in March 1868, his grandfather died and Rosebery succeeded to the earldom and to the concomitant estates in Scotland. In May he took his seat in the House of Lords. In 1870, he was elected a member of the Jockey Club. In 1878 he married Hannah de Rothschild and they had four children. She died from typhoid fever in 1890.
On 9 February 1871 Rosebery seconded the Address to the Queen following the state opening of parliament; he allied himself to the Liberals in parliament, working with Gladstone. Their first collaboration was over the Midlothian campaigns between November 1879 and March 1880. These seem to have been Rosebery's suggestion and the Liberals went on to win a decisive victory over Disraeli and the Conservatives in the general election of 1880. Rosebery then refused to accept the post of Undersecretary at the India Office because he thought that his help during the election campaign might be interpreted as self-interest rather than party political activity. However, he did become Undersecretary of State at the Home Office in August 1881, with special responsibility for Scottish affairs; the following year he complained to Gladstone that there was far too little time devoted in parliament to Scottish affairs. However, Gladstone was far too preoccupied with Irish affairs to take much notice of Rosebery, who resigned his post in June 1883. Shortly afterwards he left on a tour of the USA and Australia, where, on 18 January 1884, he made a speech in Adelaide in which he said:
Does this fact of your being a nation imply separation from the Empire? God forbid! There is no need for any nation, however great, leaving the Empire, because the Empire is a Commonwealth of Nations.
On his return to Britain, he found himself at odds with Gladstone's government over its Egyptian policy but after the fall of Khartoum he took office as the Commissioner of the Board of Works and Lord Privy Seal. In February 1886 he became Foreign Secretary in Gladstone's third ministry: the Queen said that it was the 'only really good appointment' in the Cabinet. Towards the end of the year, Rosebery visited India and saw among other things the Taj Mahal.
Rosebery published his book on Pitt the Younger in 1891 and again took office as Foreign Secretary in August 1892 in Gladstone's fourth and final ministry. He intervened in the coal strike in 1893 and was chairman of the Conference of Federated Coal Owners and the Miners' Federation. In 1894 he established a protectorate over Uganda, from which Gladstone had wished to withdraw all British influence. When Gladstone resigned in March 1894, Rosebery became PM and caused mayhem there when he made his first speech as Premier: he said that Home Rule for Ireland could only come about when England, the predominant member of the three Kingdoms' agreed to it. Home Rule had been one of Gladstone's key policies. Rosebery was responsible for the signing of the Anglo-Belgian Treaty that leased land in the Upper Nile to the King of the Belgians. Rosebery opposed the 'Little England' political group, believing that Britain should be more involved in world affairs. However, he had little support in parliament for his policies and in June 1895 he resigned from his post as PM and shortly afterwards resigned as leader of the Liberal Party. At that time, Gladstone made an assessment of Rosebery's character, saying,
I can say three things of him:
- He is one of the very ablest men I have ever known
- He is of the highest honour and probity
- I do not know whether he really has common sense
During the Boer War (1899-1902) Rosebery became estranged from most of the Liberal Party because of his enthusiasm for the British Empire; late in 1905, a few weeks before the Liberals returned to power, he completely broke with them by declaring his opposition to Irish Home Rule. He was determined not to return to active politics but in 1901 the Liberal Imperial Council was formed by his supporters; in 1902 he became President of the Liberal League. Its Vice-Presidents were Sir Edward Grey, HH Asquith and Sir Henry Fowler.
In 1910 Rosebery moved a motion proposing a reform of the House of Lords and spoke against the Parliament Bill although he later supported Asquith's Liberal government although he refused office in 1916 at a time when a power struggle between Asquith and Lloyd George was taking place over the conduct of the First World War. In November 1917, Rosebery's son, Neil, was killed in Gaza; the following year Rosebery suffered a stroke and was left partially crippled. He died at Epsom on 21 May 1929 at the age of 81.
Rosebery maintained that the only two people of whom he was afraid were Queen Victoria and Count Otto von Bismarck. He did gamble heavily when he was a young man but as he got older his extravagance shifted to collecting books, pictures and old silver and to keeping racehorses.
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