Four shots and decades of rivalry

Pistols at Dawn: Two Hundred Years of Political Rivalry from Pitt & Fox to Blair & Brown
By John Campbell
(Jonathan Cape, £20)

Politics, says John Campbell, is inescapably about power. “Ideas prosper only through the flawed men and women who champion them.” The British system has been rich in vivid enmities, as this study of 200 years of political rivalries from Charles James Fox v William Pitt to Tony Blair v Gordon Brown amply demonstrates.

If the idea seems a bit of gimmick for such a distinguished biographer, Campbell pulls it off by bringing to it the astute character analysis and narrative flair that marked his earlier biographies of Margaret Thatcher, Edward Heath and others.

The duel described in the title took place at 6am in September 1809 on London’s Putney Heath between Lord Castlereagh and George Canning – remarkable for the fact that they were respectively secretary of state for war and foreign secretary, responsible for the conduct of the war against Napoleon. Castlereagh issued his challenge after discovering that his rival was plotting to have him kicked out of the government, the latest twist in a saga of machinations.

Four shots were fired and Canning was slightly wounded. Both resigned but later returned to high office. Duelling went out of fashion, and none of these other feuds was settled in such a manner. But it is the verbal and psychological battles – particularly those involving great figures such as Gladstone v Disraeli and Asquith v Lloyd George – that provide the fascination of this book.

The backdrop to it is the decline of the House of Commons from the cockpit of political theatre to near irrelevance as the media and the internet have usurped its function. Today’s feuds are conducted in television studios or through poisonous unattributable briefings. Human nature has not changed, however.

It is not simply a matter of an adversarial system throwing up opposing champions of ideas. Six of the eight pairings depicted here were colleagues from the same party (the exceptions are Fox v Pitt and Gladstone v Disraeli, and in both cases they started off on the same side). In most of these examples, they started off as good colleagues jostling for the same prize, but their rivalry sharpened as they frustrated each other’s ambitions. That in turn shaped their ideologies and the course of history.

One of the book’s strengths is in analysing what time has done to the protagonists’ reputations. Pitt easily won the political duel with Fox in their lifetimes. Prime minister for 19 years, he embodied the national resolve to beat Napoleon, enacted free trade principles and pointed the way to a less venal approach to public life. Fox, a lovable sensualist who reflected the hedonism of an earlier age, was condemned to opposition for most of his career and achieved little.

Yet, in his eloquent support for lost causes such as religious toleration, freedom of speech and parliamentary reform, Fox posthumously became a hero of Victorian liberalism. Now the wheel has come full circle, with William Hague’s best-selling biography having raised Pitt again to a hero of our times. But is that the end of the matter?

William Gladstone, says Campbell, was a greater prime minister than Benjamin Disraeli and won two of the three elections they fought. He was the embodiment of Victorian financial orthodoxy, which lasted well into the 20th century. Yet Disraeli’s “shrewd fusion of working-class patriotism with ‘One-Nation’ paternalism made the Tories the natural party of government for decades to come”.

For years historical judgment favoured H. H. Asquith over David Lloyd George, but these days Asquith seems a “snobbish, post-Victorian amateur” while the Welshman “ranks second only to Churchill as a vivid charismatic leader touched with genius”. Hugh Gaitskell trounced Aneurin Bevan in their lifetimes but Bevan’s name lives on as the founder of the National Health Service. Harold Macmillan ran rings around R. A. Butler but is remembered as a “seedy conjuror”, while Rab is honoured for his educational reforms and reshaping the Tory party in the late 1940s.

Campbell surely goes too far, though, in suggesting that Ted Heath “may yet have the last laugh” over Margaret Thatcher, because his taking Britain into Europe in 1973 will turn out as important as her transformation of the economy in 1979-80.

What about Blair and Brown? Blair won the duel by beating his friend to the Labour leadership in 1994 but, as Campbell rightly argues, the deal they made then “to try to share the spoils was a devil’s pact which ultimately did neither of them – nor the country – much good”.

The writer, the FT’s UK business and employment editor, was formerly political editor

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