The son of the 1st Earl, he was educated at Winchester and University College, Oxford, where he took a first class in history. In 1883, while still Viscount Wolmer, he married Lady Beatrix Cecil, third daughter of the 3rd Marquess of Salisbury. He served a political apprenticeship as assistant private secretary to the chancellor of the exchequer (Hugh Childers) from 1882 to 1885, when he was elected Liberal member of parliament for East Hampshire. Like his father, he became a Liberal Unionist when in 1886 Gladstone proposed Irish Home Rule, and he retained his seat till 1892, when he was elected for West Edinburgh. From 1895 to 1900 he was under-secretary for the colonies, under Joseph Chamberlain, and during the difficult period before the outbreak of the Boer War he progressed rapidly.
In 1900 he entered the cabinet as First Lord of the Admiralty, and held this office till 1905, when he succeeded Lord Milner as high commissioner for South Africa and governor of the Transvaal and Orange River colonies. He assumed office at Pretoria in May of that year. He had gone out with the intention of guiding the destinies of South Africa during a period when the ex-Boer republics would be in a transitional state between crown colony government and self-government, and letters patent were issued granting the Transvaal representative institutions.
But the Liberal party came into office in Britain the following December, before the new constitution had been established, and, the decision was now taken to give both the Transvaal and Orange River colonies self-government without delay. Lord Selborne accepted the changed situation, and the experiment proved successful. He ceased to be governor of the Orange River Colony on its assumption of self-government in June 1907, but retained his other posts until May 1910, retiring on the eve of the establishment of the Union of South Africa.
The despatch, dated January 7, 1907, in which he reviewed the situation in its economic and political aspects, was a masterly and comprehensive statement of the dangers inherent in the existing system and of the advantages likely to attend union. The force of its appeal had a marked influence on the course of events, while the loyalty with which Lord Selborne co-operated with the Botha administration was an additional factor in. reconciling the Dutch and British communities.
He returned to England with his reputation as a statesman enhanced by the respect of all parties, and with a practical experience, second only to that of Lord Milner, of British imperialism in successful operation. This experience made him a valuable ally in the movement among the Unionist party at home for Tariff Reform and Colonial Preference, to which he could now give his whole-hearted support.