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No room at the top

Pistols at Dawn, by John Campbell

17 June 2009

12:00 AM

17 June 2009

12:00 AM

Pistols at Dawn John Campbell

Cape, pp.453, 20

Political feuds have always been at the heart of politics. The most public of these have occurred when the adversaries were confronting each other across the floor of the House, leaders of different parties bound by their roles to oppose each other on every occasion even when they had scant belief in the superior merits of their cause. Quite as protracted and often still more embittered were the feuds between two politicians who were in theory colleagues but in practice were locked in ferocious rivalry. Campbell describes only two of the first category — Fox and Pitt and Gladstone and Disraeli — but six of the second — Castlereagh and Canning, Asquith and Lloyd George, Bevan and Gaitskell, Macmillan and Butler, Heath and Thatcher and Blair and Brown. It is perhaps a sign of the way politics have changed that five out of the six feuds between colleagues occurred in the 20th century. Pitt and Fox and Gladstone and Disraeli, however, started in the same party: it was personal rivalry as much as principled conviction which drove them into opposing camps.

None of the protagonists in these feuds is a minnow: Gladstone and Disraeli are the titans. ‘They are unquestionably’, writes Campbell, ‘the two most remarkable personalities who have ever illumined British politics’. One might question the ‘unquestionably’ but certainly their long-drawn-out duel was the most dramatic and — coming as it did at a time when Britain was the world’s greatest power — the most politically significant. And yet they were relatively amicable at first, and even after Disraeli had destroyed Gladstone’s leader, Peel, he still hoped to bring him back into the Conservative fold under Lord Derby. There were issues of principle which divided them, but it was conflicting ambitions and personal animosity which set the two so starkly apart.

Who won? Gladstone, says Campbell; he was ‘clearly the greater Prime Minister, and he beat Disraeli in two of the three elections they fought against each other; in that sense he can be said to have “won” their lifelong duel’. He was also five years younger, and in most of these confrontations it is the younger of the two who outlasts the older. Macmillan was an exception in that he was eight years older than Butler, but he sealed his victory by not only becoming Prime Minister when Butler seemed Eden’s logical successor but, six years later, by contriving that Butler was once more passed over in favour of the unfancied Douglas-Home. No serious issue of principle divided them: it was first ambition and then rancorous contempt which impelled Macmillan to destroy his rival’s chances.

Heath was uniquely remarkable in that the chapter pitting him against Margaret Thatcher could as well have been on Heath and Wilson. Heath hated Wilson (Wilson merely disliked Heath) because he believed him to be unprincipled and dishonest but also because he repeatedly outmanoeuvred him in the House of Commons. Wilson’s sudden retirement lent a fresh zest to the Heath-Thatcher feud. Until that moment the two Conservatives were at least united in hostility to the Labour leader; with Wilson gone and the affable Callaghan installed, Heath had nothing to distract him from his protracted sulk. Undoubtedly in this battle Thatcher was the winner. Yet the whirligig of time brought in his revenges. Heath was asked whether, on hearing of Thatcher’s defeat, he had really phoned his office and bade them ‘Rejoice! Rejoice!’ ‘No,’ said Heath, after some deliberation. ‘I said “Rejoice! Rejoice! Rejoice!” ’

When Campbell comes to Blair and Brown there is inevitably much more speculation and less hard fact. His thesis is regrettably convincing, however. ‘For ten years,’ he writes, ‘they formed, on paper, the most enduring and successful partnership of Prime Minister and Chancellor in modern politics.’ Yet that ‘on paper’ covers a wilderness of qualifications. It is painfully clear from Campbell’s narrative that this potentially most profitable association was diminished if not destroyed by mutual bitterness: resentment at being kept from supreme power on one side, at being prematurely harried from office on the other. Far more than the other couples, Blair and Brown had grown up together in conspicuous amity and with shared ideals. Their falling-out was all the more tragically wasteful.

John Campbell is best known for his formidably substantial biographies of Heath and Thatcher. In this book he shows that he is as much a master of the essay. These eight studies are lively, penetrating, intelligent and, like all Campbell’s work, exceptionally well written. They make distressing reading. Only Castlereagh and Canning actually had recourse to pistols, but if duelling had not gone out of fashion Brown might well have challenged Blair, and Heath, who had little respect for women, would have relished taking a pot-shot at Margaret Thatcher. The sobering conclusion is that such confrontations are endemic in contemporary politics. Cameron and who?

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