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"On Trial" The Dilke Case (1960)

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What "Love" Cost a Political Leader

Author: theowinthrop from United States
5 November 2007

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Still another of the episodes of the series ON TRIAL, which I have never seen - but which I can describe the story of from British Criminal History.

You don't know his name today: Sir Charles Dilke, member of Parliament from the Chelsea section of London. Yet he came close to being the leading contender in the Liberal Party to succeed William Ewart Gladstone as Prime Minister of Great Britain. Dilke was, at that time, Chancellor of Exchequer - which is the second highest position in the Cabinet. Gladstone certainly felt he had the talent for highest office. There were some voices of dissent. A decade earlier a disgusted Dilke openly led a campaign set up a republic. This was due to Queen Victoria's withdrawal from public life after the death of Prince Albert. The Queen had since resumed her duties, but she never forgave Dilke.

There were other enemies - silent ones who may have been rivals. Two in particular...but I'm getting ahead.

Sir Charles had one weakness - although apparently happily married, like many wealthy Victorian males he had his little affairs. And here the problem began. Dilke found himself under suspicion of having committed adultery with Mrs. Virginia Crawford. He kept denying this, and yet the young, attractive woman gave detailed accounts of trysts with Sir Charles - trysts in his house in London. As a result he was sued as the correspondent in a divorce case.

Dilke fought it, and despite able counsel (the Attorney General Sir Charles Russell defended him), he was unable to convince the jury that Mrs. Crawford was lying. This despite proving she did not know what his private rooms in his home looked like. It is rather reminiscent to the paternity case involving Charlie Chaplin in 1943, where blood tests showed he could not be the father of the little girl that a woman claimed he was responsible for - but the jury believed the woman and not the scientific proof! Having lost that case there was also a perjury against Sir Charles, which he lost as well.

It finished him. Rumors of previous affairs came out - Jennie Jerome Churchill (mother of Sir Winston, and wife of Lord Randolph Churchill) openly spoke of how Dilke had once approached her for a liaison (she did not like Dilke). Others spoke up. Gladstone dropped him from further consideration of being his successor. This was unfortunate because Gladstone (approaching 80) would return to Downing Street as Prime Minister two times more (in 1886 and in 1892-94). Had the elderly Gladstone not led the government but let the younger Dilke handle it, the Tory Party might not have dominated the British Government for most of the time from 1885 to 1905.

He made a good target. Besides women like Lady Churchill, supposedly Liberal newspapermen like William Stead came out against Dilke because of his moral lapses. Stead never could understand that if he really supported the Liberal Party platform he could not attack it's leaders or allies (he'd later do a similar attack on Charles Stewart Parnell when his love affair with the married Kitty O'Shea became a matter of public attention).

Dilke survived though. His neighbors in Chelsea kept sending him back to Parliament until his death in 1911. But he never came close to a leadership position again.

Oh, did Mrs. Crawford tell the truth? Actually most historians, like Roy Jenkins in his study of the case THE RIGHT HONORABLE GENTLEMAN, conclude that she was a convincing but total liar. The failure of her testimony, however her insistence on Dilke's unwanted attentions, of describing his house prove she was lying. But the question is why she went after Dilke. Jenkins follows two possible solutions dealing with Dilke's two leading rivals in Liberal Party politics. They were Archibald Primrose, Lord Rosebery, the head of the London County Council in 1885 (but a close adviser to Gladstone ever since he handled the latter's return to power in 1880), and the then Liberal leader Joseph Chamberlain. Both were aiming at being Prime Minister, and both knew Dilke was in the way. Jenkins concludes there is not enough evidence against Rosebery, but due to later behavior patterns plenty against Chamberlain. Joe Chamberlain was a brilliant politician, but utterly unscrupulous about rivals and governments. A believer in creating an imperial trade group, he condemned Gladstone's support of Irish Home Rule and left the Liberals in 1885 (after Dilke's disgrace began). He allied with the Tories, although Lord Salisbury never liked or trusted him. In 1890 Chamberlain would help gather information against Parnell, the leader of the Home Rule Irish party, in the O'Shea Divorce, destroying that leader and weakening Home Rule and the Liberals. He would serve as Colonial Secretary under Salisbury, in time to help plan the illegal Jameson Raid into the Transvaal with Cecil Rhodes in 1896 - a step that helped lead to the Second Boer War. He would become Foreign Secretary in time to try to convince Wilhelmine Germany to ally with Britain (only to find the Germans demanded a sizable and embarrassing bribe for their acquiescence - had they asked for a little less he probably would have agreed). Salisbury retired in 1902, and his nephew Arthur Balfour became Prime Minister. Within three years Chamberlain stabbed the Tory Government in the back (as he had done to Gladstone two decades before), weakening it in time for a tremendous defeat by the Liberal Party under Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman. It is apparent that Chamberlain hoped to take over the Tories, and force his way into Downing Street. But a series of physical strokes ended that chance. His death in 1914 (with hardly anyone showing respect to him anymore) was a fairly good comeuppance. Jenkins certainly makes a good case that Chamberlain could have manipulated Mrs. Crawford into destroying Dilke's reputation and career.

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