British Conservative Politician
Robert Gascoyne-Cecil was the Member of Parliament for Dorset South from 1979 to 1987, who later served as the Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the House of Lords between 1994 and 1997 under John Major. Apparently known as James during his childhood, he adopted his preferred christian name of Robert on his twenty-first birthday in 1967. Five years later in 1972 (after his father succeeded as the 6th Marquess) he adopted the courtesy title of the Viscount Cranborne and therefore became known as the Lord Cranborne or Robert Cranborne, although his friends called him 'Cranbo'.
Robert Michael James Gascoyne-Cecil was born on the 30 September 1946 being the eldest of the seven children of Robert Edward Gascoyne-Cecil and Marjorie or Mollie Olein Wyndham-Quin, and the grandson of Robert Arthur James Gascoyne-Cecil, 5th Marquess of Salisbury. Educated at Eton College and Christ Church, Oxford, it was perhaps inevitable that he would seek some kind of career in politics. The 3rd Marquess of Salisbury served as Prime Minister on three occasions at the end of the nineteenth century, whilst both the 4th and 5th Marquesses were also Conservative politicians of some note in the following century.
Selected as the Conservative PPC for Dorset South in 1976, Robert was duly elected at the General Election of 1979, at which point he was regarded as being a member of the 'Blue Chip' group of left leaning but well connected MPs such as William Waldegrave and Chris Patten. He was also however a keen anti-communist; at one point he offered his services to the mujahedin in Afghanistan, and found himself hunkering down in a shallow trench as the Russian bombed the position. He later decided to stand down from the House of Commons at the 1987 General Election; some said this was because he did not find Parliamentary life insufficiently stimulating after the excitement of Afghanistan, others because of his principled opposition to the Anglo-Irish Agreement.
This did not however prove to be the end of his political career, thanks to the friendship he had earlier developed with John Major, who to the surprise of many actually won the 1992 General Election. Major was keen to obtain the services of his friend and so used the ancient device of the writ of acceleration, by which Robert was called up to the House of Lords using one of his father's subsidiary titles as the 13th Baron Cecil of Essendon, although he continued to be generally known as the Viscount Cranborne. Appointed as the Parliamentary Under-Secretary at the Ministry of Defence in 1992, he later came to prominence during the so called 'spam-fritter row' over the celebrations planned in June 1994 for the 50th anniversary of D-Day. Called on to take over the running of the celebrations, he was regarded as having been so successful in this role that he was promoted to the status of Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the House of Lords later that year, and also put in charge of the larger VE and VJ Day anniversary events scheduled for the following summer. Having demonstrated his organisational skills in this manner, he was the natural choice to run Major's campaign when he decided to re-submit himself for election as Leader of the Conservative Party in 1995 in a bid to silence his critics.
After the Conservative defeat in the general election of 1997, he continued as the opposition Leader of the House of Lords, at which time he was faced with the issue of the new Labour government's enthusiasm to proceed with reform of the House of Lords, which from their point of view meant the removal of the hereditary element. Anxious to reach some kind of compromise on the issue, Robert entered into secret negotiations with Tony Blair without telling the party leader William Hague and continued to do so even after the Conservative Shadow Cabinet decided that it would not make any kind of deal with Labour. Therefore when it became known that Robert had indeed struck a deal with Blair, by which ninety or so hereditary peers would retain their seats in the Lords, he was unceremoniously sacked on the 2nd December 2008. As it turned out Robert didn't object to this treatment and readily admitted that he had behaved like an "ill trained spaniel" and that having "behaved quite outrageously" Hague was quite right to sack him. However he also justified his actions by claiming that his first loyalty was to the House of Lords not the Conservative Party, that he would do the same again, and that the deal offered a chance of surviving to at least some of the hereditary peers. Indeed although Hague's decision was supported by MPs, the majority of Conservative peers continued to back Robert. What's more, although Hague formally rejected the deal made by Robert, this made no difference to the outcome, and the arrangements included in the House of Lords Act 1999 for the retention of hereditary peers was to all intents and purposes exactly those that he had first agreed with Blair.
As one of the working hereditary peers Robert was granted a life peerage as the Baron Gascoyne-Cecil in 1999 which enabled him to continue in the House without going through the rigmarole of becoming one of the elected hereditaries. He remained active in the House until June 2001 when it was decided to adopt a new code of conduct governing the members of the House of Lords which included a compulsory register of interests. Robert regarded these requirements as "so onerous that I could not possibly accept them" and took a 'leave of absence' from the Lords on the 1st November 2001, although he also told the Daily Telegraph that "power has now moved away from the House of Commons and the House of Lords to the courts and Brussels that parliament has become a feeble shadow of itself". In any event he hasn't been back since despite succeeding his father as 7th Marquess of Salisbury on 11th July 2003.
Robert married Hannah Ann, elder daughter of Lieutenant-Colonel William Joseph Stirling of Keir, although his family did not approve of the match given that she (or at least her family) was Roman Catholic. Together they have two sons, Edward William or Ned Gascoyne-Cecil, and James Richard, as well as three daughters named Elizabeth, Georgiana and Katherine. The Marquess is President of the Prayer Book Society and has been Patron of Politeia (the 'Forum for political and economic thinking') since its inception in 1995. He features in the Sunday Times Rich List 2007, with an estimated wealth of £250m although much of this consists of his two stately homes and art collection.
- Anthony Seldon, The Saturday Profile Viscount Cranborne, The last Conservative Peer, The Independent, Nov 21, 1998
- Tory crisis over Lords as Hague fires Cranborne, 3 December 1998
- George Jones, Ex-leader of the Tory peers says Hague was right to dismiss him, 3 December 1998
- Andrew Sparrow, Cranborne ends 500-year family link and leaves Lords 02/11/2001
- Nicholas Watt, Angry Cranborne quits 'enfeebled' Lords, The Guardian, November 3 2001
- The entry for CECIL OF ESSENDON from Burke's Peerage and Baronetage 107th Edition
- The Marquess of Salisbury