Until 1885 he was a devoted adherent of Mr Gladstone, particularly in finance and foreign affairs. In 1880 he was under-secretary of state for the home department, in 1881 for the colonies, and in 1882 secretary to the treasury; but he was always a stubborn fighter for principle, and upon finding that the government's Reform Bill in 1884 contained no recognition of the scheme for proportional representation, to which he was deeply committed, he resigned office. He refused to support Mr Gladstone's Home Rule Bill in 1885, and was one of those who chiefly contributed to its rejection, and whose reputation for unbending integrity and intellectual eminence gave solidity to the Liberal Unionist party. In 1886 he was elected chairman of committees in the House of Commons, and his efficiency in this office seemed to mark him out for the speakership in 1895. A Liberal Unionist, however, could only be elected by Conservative votes, and he had made himself objectionable to a large section of the party by his independent attitude on various questions, on which his Liberalism outweighed his party loyalty. He would in any case have been incapacitated by an affection of the eyesight, which for a while threatened to withdraw him from public life altogether.
After 1895 Mr Courtney's divergences from the Unionist party on questions other than Irish politics became gradually more marked. He became known in the House of Commons principally for his candid criticism of the measures introduced by his nominal leaders, and he was rather to be ranked among the Opposition than as a Ministerialist; and when the crisis with the Transvaal came in 1899, Mr Courtney's views, which remained substantially what they were when he supported the settlement after Majuba in 1881, had plainly become incompatible with his position even as a nominal follower of Lord Salisbury and Mr Chamberlain. He gradually reverted to formal membership of the Liberal party, and in January 1906 unsuccessfully contested a division of Edinburgh as a supporter of Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman at the general election. Among the birthday honours of 1906 he was elevated to the peerage as Baron Courtney of Penwith (Cornwall).
Lord Courtney, who in 1883 married Miss Catherine Potter (an elder sister of Mrs Sidney Webb), was a prominent supporter of the women's movement. In earlier years he was a regular contributor to The Times, and he wrote numerous essays in the principal reviews on political and economic subjects. In 1901 he published a book on The Working Constitution of the United Kingdom. Two of his brothers, John Mortimer Courtney (b. 1838), and William Prideaux Courtney (b. 1845), also attained public distinction, the former in the government service in Canada (from 1869, retiring in 1906), rising to be deputy-minister of finance, and the latter in the British civil service (1865-1892), and as a prominent man of letters and bibliographer.
Portrait from Cornish Granite: Extracts from the Writings and Speeches of Lord Courtney of Penrith, London: Leonard Parsons 1925. Another portrait can be found as portrait ref. NPG x126751 in the National Portrait Gallery.
British Library of Political and Economic Science Holdings on Lord Courtney
Based on 11th Edition Encyclopedia Britannica
Revised 11 November 2007