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Traditionally, studies of late-Victorian politics have been preoccupied with William Gladstone and his Liberal legions, perhaps rightfully so since the Liberal agenda dominated at the parliamentary level from the 1830s to the mid 1880s. Yet it was the Tory party, the "stupid party," that inherited the future, with 1886 inaugurating more than a century of remarkably durable electoral success. In The Age of Salisbury Richard Shannon dissects the origins of this achievement in the two Salisburian decades 1881-1902. This marvelous sixth and final installment in the authoritative Longman history of the Conservative party - begun in 1978 with the publication of Robert Stewart's brilliant Foundation of the Conservative Party and John Ramsden's Age of Balfour and Baldwin - can stake a claim as the pivotal volume of the whole enterprise, bridging the gap, as it does, between a nineteenth century of party disappointments and a twentieth century of triumph.
Prospects for the Conservative party certainly appeared inauspicious following Benjamin Disraeli's death in 1881. With the leadership divided between Salisbury in the Lords and a colorless Sir Stafford Northcote in the Commons, morale sagged among a demoralized parliamentary party, and what little cohesion and unity of purpose survived wilted under the heated rhetorical assaults of the Fourth Party upon the "Old Gang." Meanwhile, the Liberal vise grip on the Celtic fringe loomed as a permanent obstacle to any hopes of future electoral majorities. Conservatism had to be retaught to view itself as the natural party of governance. But was Lord Salisbury the necessary and sufficient tonic for these afflictions?
Shannon's answer is both complex and persuasive. His Salisbury is a jumble of contradictions: a clever and adventurous tactician who recognized and exploited the contours of the modern politics of class, yet also a pessimistic defender of aristocratic oligarchy who neither prescribed nor expected anything more for his party in the face of chronic Gladstonian legislative …