A lost leader

Posted by Tory Historian Monday, September 29, 2008 , ,

Tory Historian found another interesting mini-exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, this time a collection of drawings and prints by Richard George Mathews. In the introduction to the exhibition there is an unnecessarily snide comment about the pictures being of idle Edwardians who seemed to find a great deal of pleasure in just travelling.

As the drawings are of writers like Kipling, Hardy and Jerome K. Jerome, of the Manager of the Times newspaper, Charles Moberley Bell and of various actor-managers, idleness is not quite the word that immediately springs to mind.

The most interesting of the portraits is of Henry Algernon George Percy, Earl Percy (1871 – 1909), a man so well-known in his time, that in 1908 when the drawing was published in The Bystander, the title of it was “A Future Tory Leader”. A year later he was dead and how many people have even heard of him today?

Ever curious about past grandees, Tory Historian looked around, found a very inadequate piece on Wikipedia, which did, however, refer to the intriguing story of death being the result of a duel, and turned to the Oxford Dictionary of Biography and the Dictionary of National Biography.

True or otherwise, the official story of Earl Percy catching a chill in Paris and dying of it does irresistibly remind one of the unfortunate end of Ernest Worthing, Jack Worthing's mythical and wicked younger brother, in Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest”. In actual fact, Earl Percy was, if anything, more like the main character of “An Ideal Husband” without the unfortunate secret in the past.

Henry Percy was the eldest son of the 7th Duke of Northumberland but died too young to inherit the title. He seems to have done extraordinarily well at school and university, winning the 1892 Newdigate Prize for English Verse at Oxford. The slightly unusual subject he chose was St Francis of Assisi.

In 1895 he won a by-election at South Kensington and continued to represent that constituency until his death. Another important event of that year was his first visit to Turkey and the Near East. He went back in 1897 and published “Notes of a Diary in Asiatic Turkey” the following year.

His 1899 visit produced “The Highlands of Asiatic Turkey” in 1901. Earl Percy became known as an expert on the Near East and was made Parliamentary Under-Secretary for India in 1902 but really came into his own and Under-Secretary to Lord Lansdowne, the Foreign Secretary, in 1903. He specialized in matters to do with Turkey and often took an independent line from his superior and the government in general.

For instance, Earl Percy promoted the idea of an Anglo-German alliance that would stabilize Turkey and stem growing Russian influence. One can’t help wondering how the twentieth century would have developed if that idea had been followed instead of the later, liberal Entente Cordiale of 1904 and Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907.

Earl Percy was accused of having “perhaps excessive sympathy for Turkey”, an unpopular point of view by the time of the early twentieth century, though it might have been better received by Disraeli. He also showed himself to be rather concerned with the political position of Muslims in India as the discussions on possible reforms progressed in 1906 – 1907.

Another of his important political achievements was the renewal and strengthening of the Anglo-Japanese alliance of 1905.

One can quite see why in an age when foreign policy mattered a great deal to a government, a man like Earl Percy would have been seen as a potential leader. An untimely death meant not just the end of his career (which would be obvious) but his disappearance from the history of the Conservative Party. One cannot help wanting to know about more “lost leaders” like Earl Percy.


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