Policy Review Banner

Britain’s Pugnacious Politicos

Thursday, April 1, 2010

John Campbell. Pistols at Dawn. Jonathan Cape Ltd. 453 Pages. £25.

For students of British cutthroat politics, few things were more fascinating to watch than the long-running battle between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown: For years, the two neighbors in 10 and 11 Downing Street were leaking compulsively against each other, reaching a point where their mutual loathing became impossible to suppress. And who could avoid being thrilled by the antics of the supporting cast: Cherie Blair doing her Lady Macbeth turn; the intimidation tactics practiced by Blair’s abrasive press spokesman, Alastair Campbell; and the subtle machinations of Peter Mandelson, the designated Prince of Darkness in British politics, whose manner has been described as that of “a snake sliding through velvet.”

At the heart of the Blair-Brown quarrel lay a disagreement over the exact nature of the deal the two had cut at the Islington restaurant Granita on May 31, 1994. In return for Brown refraining to stand against him in the leadership contest of the Labor party, Blair had been forced to surrender vast areas of domestic policy to Brown in a future Labor government and, as important, to commit himself to stepping down at the halfway mark of a second term, allowing Brown his turn at the helm.

Or so Brown thought, until it became clear that Blair did not feel at all like stepping down at this point, but wanted to fight a third election. Brown went apoplectic: “There is nothing you could ever say to me now that I could ever believe,” he reportedly shouted at Blair, and his staff spoke of Blair having pulled “an African coup.”

Already, well before this incident, Brown had okayed the publication of an authorized biography which portrayed Blair as a honey-tongued lightweight without real ties to the Labor party, while Brown came out as the solid statesman and the very heart and soul of the party.

In response, an anonymous source in the prime minister’s office had suggested that everything was not quite right in Brown’s head: “You know Gordon, he feels vulnerable and insecure. He has these psychological flaws.” Ever since, the press has had a field day writing about Brown’s paranoia and his constant explosions, his need for total control, his clumsiness and his “rictus grin,” the latter a terrifying experience, one gathers, for those unfortunate enough to experience it.

The Blair-Brown faceoff in all its gory detail forms the final chapter in John Campbell’s superb Pistols at Dawn, which examines eight of the great political rivalries in British politics, starting with William Pitt and Charles James Fox. One pair, Viscount Castlereagh and George Canning, even fought a duel over their differences during the Napoleonic wars; the others stuck to verbal assaults, but the intensity of their clashes certainly warrants the title.

In the book, Campbell demonstrates how ideology and personality become all entangled, and how as often as not, rivalry makes people adopt opposing ideas and positions, rather than the other way round. Thus, many of the battles described are fought not between leaders of opposing parties, but between colleagues of the same party. “In the House of Commons, your real enemies are not on the benches opposite, but beside and behind you,” he writes. And personal spite will make politicians do things that are highly injurious both to themselves and their party.

The protagonists, Campbell notes, tend to fall into classic molds, pitting the liberal against the conservative, the romantic against the realist, the man of passion against the man of reason, hot against cool. If one were a betting man, it would generally pay to put one’s money on cool, and this holds true even before the television age. Too much passion and too much ambition too nakedly displayed have always been off-putting.

The book’s opening contest between Pitt and Fox is described by Campbell as the start of modern politics in Britain. While they had both started out as opposition Whigs, Pitt joined the Tories and defined the role as the first modern prime minister, while Fox became the prototype of the leader of the opposition. Their clashes in the House of Commons established the model for the following centuries, with recurring themes and arguments echoing down the ages.  

As personalities, they were direct opposites. Fox was the greatest rake of his time, whose nightly exploits in the brothels and at the gaming tables often kept him going till early in the morning. Campbell quotes Gibbon: “Let him do what he will, I must love the dog. Perhaps no human being was ever more exempt from the taint of malevolence, vanity, or falsehood.” Fox was a formidable debater, delighting audiences with his verbal pyrotechnics. George III, however, detested him, both for his views and for his corrupting influence on the Prince of Wales.

By contrast, Pitt was skinny, cool, conscientious, and disciplined — his only vice was the bottle. As a speaker, he would drill his opponents with deadly accuracy, which Fox freely acknowledged. “I am never at a loss for a word,” he said. “Pitt is never at a loss for the word.”

Of all their disputes, none was more intense than that over the French Revolution. As Campbell notes, political change in France had first been welcomed across the Channel, but as the revolution spun out of control, Britain under Pitt’s leadership became its most resourceful enemy: He set about forming alliances abroad, and he suspended habeas corpus at home. He realized that in its universalist aspirations, France was the implacable foe of the established order in Europe.

Outrageously, Fox claimed to see no difference between Pitt’s measures and those of the Committee for Public Safety, and thundering against going to war in “the cause of Kings,” he went completely over the top, accusing Pitt’s government of having “destroyed more of God’s creatures and spilt more human blood, than any Prince, Emperor, or Despotic Tyrant in the annals of history.”

Such views could easily have gotten him arrested, but unwilling to make a martyr out of him, Pitt only had Fox expelled from the Privy Council, where, according to the London Times, “the King with his own hand ran his pen through Mr. Fox’s name.” Cartoonists like Gillray delighted in portraying Fox as a French sans culotte, swarthy and unshaven. Predictably, as Bonaparte hijacked the revolution, Fox constantly found excuses for him, while Pitt recognized him for what he was, a man of unlimited ambition.

As Campbell notes, history proved Pitt right: Pitt died shortly after having received the news of the rout of his European allies at Austerlitz, but the course he had committed Britain to proved victorious in the end.

“Pitt came to embody all the attributes later associated with the ‘right’ — allegiance to the crown and empire, strong defense, economy, and law and order,” Campbell writes. Fox, on the other hand, has come to be seen as the archetype of the naïve liberal, nattering on about human rights and the will of the people, but always ready to believe the words of tyrants. “The facts of life are perceived to be Tory,” Campbell notes.

Between george Canning, a self-made man with a burning ambition and a talent for mocking verse, who saw himself as Pitt’s natural successor, and Viscount Castlereagh, a man of more gentlemanly nature, it was strictly personal. While serving as foreign secretary in the Duke of Portland’s cabinet, Canning had been doing his level best to undermine Secretary of War Castlereagh, and when the latter found out, the normally calm Castlereagh saw no other honorable way to remedy the situation than to call Canning out to a duel.

The duel took place on Putney Heath on September 21, 1807. Both missed on their first shots, but on the second round Castlereagh hit Canning in the thigh. Dueling was of course forbidden and the King was furious that his ministers had engaged in it. But as Canning’s scheming ways were common knowledge, he got most of the blame, while Castlereagh went on to become foreign secretary.

However, under the Regency, Canning was offered a return to the cabinet. Castlereagh even offered to hand over the Foreign Ministry to him, and take the Exchequer himself, which Canning later admitted was “perhaps the handsomest offer that was ever made to an individual.” But such was his loathing of Castlereagh that he also demanded the leadership of the House of Commons from Castlereagh, thereby ruining the deal.

The result was that all the glory of cobbling together the final coalition that defeated Napoleon, and of deciding the future map of Europe at the Vienna Congress, fell to Castlereagh, while Canning was left twiddling his thumbs. “I am alive to the sense of conscious ridicule, having refused the management of the mighty scheme of politics which this country has ever engaged . . . from a miserable point of etiquette, one absolutely unintelligible at a distance of more than sixty miles from Palace Yard,” Canning wrote afterwards.

Canning got lucky a decade later when Castlereagh suddenly developed mental illness and committed suicide, and Canning took over the job. (He even became prime minister, but died after only four months in office.) The policies conducted by Canning proved to be a continuation of those of his predecessor, writes Campbell, further strengthening the framework for Britain’s triumphs as an imperial power. So this was all about ego, and mainly Canning’s.

Both very different personalities and very real differences in political outlook, one reinforcing the other, were involved in the mighty clashes of the Victorian age between William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli, stretching over three decades, first as chancellors, then as prime ministers. Gladstone was educated at Eton and Oxford and considered becoming a churchman, but switched to politics, which for him, Campbell notes, constituted “a form of practical religion.” Finding the Tory Party too narrow to contain both Disraeli and himself, he joined the Liberals. As an orator, Gladstone “combined a command of detail with moral earnestness and torrential eloquence.” His drawback was his temper.

Disraeli was Jewish, a self-made novelist with a preference for dandyish clothes. His languid and sardonic manner, which he assiduously cultivated, would set off Gladstone almost to the point of verbal violence. One account tells how “Disraeli cuts up a minister with as much sang-froid as an anatomist cuts up a frog,” reducing Gladstone to “a white passion and almost choked with words, frequently pausing to select the harshest word that could be found.”

Gladstone, writes Campbell, saw Disraeli “as the embodiment of evil in public life, whom it was his God-inspired mission to combat.” But, as the self-righteous often do, Gladstone would claim that it wasn’t personal. To Disraeli, Gladstone was just a sanctimonious hypocrite.

Following Disraeli’s short spell as prime minister from February through December of 1868, Gladstone had the first long innings as prime minister. Targeting artisans and small businessmen in the industrial centers, he passed a raft of reforms which included universal education, voting by secret ballot, and Irish land reform. In foreign policy, he stood for free trade and preachy internationalism.

But as events abroad — such as the Paris Commune, German unification, and the stirrings of Russian expansionism — had made voters uneasy, it again became Disraeli’s turn, from 1874 to 1880. As a “one nation” conservative, Disraeli, too, passed significant reforms affecting the trade unions, food and drugs, and artisan’s dwellings, and combined this with a muscular foreign policy.

Having ignored Gladstone’s passionate appeals issued from his retirement in Hawarden to intervene against Turkish cruelties in the Balkans, Disraeli instead asserted the British interest by dispatching the Navy through the Dardanelles to discourage the Russians in their war against the Turks. Gladstone, for whom such traditional British assertiveness, according to Campbell, now appeared “irredeemably wicked,” at once denounced this as an immoral act of war, but was left looking foolish when the Russians eased off and agreed to an armistice. In the ensuing congress in Berlin, Dizzy dominated the proceedings, impressing Bismarck, a man not easily impressed.

But Gladstone hit back a few years later in 1879, when Disraeli’s foreign policy ran into trouble in Afghanistan and South Africa, condemning what he called the “most wanton invasion of Afghanistan.” The Liberals racked up a 100-seat majority in 1880 and asked Gladstone to take on his second stint as pm. Thus on Disraeli’s death in 1881, the unpleasant task of having to say something nice about him fell to Gladstone and cost him “three weeks of sleepless nights and diarrhea.” Gladstone went on to head two more short-lived governments before retiring in 1894, this time for good.

As for their legacies, in addition to his emphasis on free trade and balanced budgets, Campbell traces a direct line from Gladstone’s high-toned moralizing up through the anti-imperialist and anti-militaristic leanings of the Edwardian Liberals, the pacifism of the 1920s and 1930s, and the campaign for nuclear disarmament of the 1950s.

The influence of Disraeli reaches further, notes Campbell: His brand of benevolent paternalism mixed with an appeal to working class patriotism established the Tories as the natural party of government. On a more personal level, a witty man like Disraeli will always have admirers, while there is something odd about a pm who goes out at night to rescue prostitutes.

With the outbreak of World War I, the choices facing Britain and its governing Liberal Party became particularly stark, between cherished notions of freedom and the need for the nation to survive. Up till then, in Edwardian England, Herbert Henry Asquith and David Lloyd George had formed what Campbell deems “the most successful partnership between Prime Minister and Chancellor in the whole 20th century.” Asquith was educated at Balliol College, Oxford, where he originated the phrase “effortless superiority,” no doubt meant to be self-descriptive. Lloyd George was a self-educated Welsh solicitor, brimming with dynamism. As a peacetime duo, they complemented each other perfectly, notes Campbell.

The war rudely broke up the harmony. Having dispatched a small expeditionary corps of six divisions to France, Asquith still hoped that that Britain’s role would be mainly financial and could rely on a traditional naval strategy, and that business and government could go on pretty much as usual. The secretary for war, Lord Kitchener, told him this was an illusion and that 70 divisions would be needed. Asquith reluctantly agreed, but resisted the notion of conscription, considering it to be alien to the Liberal emphasis on voluntarism. In his view, this would mean resorting to the methods of the regime he was trying to defeat. As Campbell points out, his was an amateur’s view of war, still stuck in old notions of limited war.

By contrast, Lloyd George immediately realized that this was a new kind of war which would affect all aspects of society: The economy had to be put on a war footing with whole sections of industry geared towards war production. Conscription was necessary, he argued, as only by using Prussian methods could Britain hope to win. Stubbornly, Asquith would only agree to a limited conscription. In her diary, Lloyd George’s secretary notes. “D. says that if he (Asquith) were in the pay of the Germans, he could not be of more use to them.”

With the battlefield news uniformly grim, with the battle of the Somme swallowing up men by the hecatomb, and with 100,000 tons of shipping lost every month to German U-boats, radical measures were clearly called for. Lloyd George saw no other way than to force Asquith’s resignation and form a national unity government with the Tories — with himself as prime minister, but with the Tories holding the majority of Cabinet posts. He offered Asquith the chancellorship, but Asquith declined.

Among Lloyd George’s innovations, Campbell lists his forcing the admiralty to adopt a convoy system to protect the merchantmen (they would rather fight glamorous naval actions) and ramming through a unified command structure under General Foch, a Frenchman (!); he also he created a cabinet secretariat to coordinate War Cabinet decisions. His dispositions and the American contingent saved the war effort in the nick of time.

In this case, hot beat cool. And one should not underestimate the bitterness of “effortlessly superior” men. Asquith retaliated after the war by refusing to take Lloyd George back into the inner circle of the Liberal party. Thus it took the Liberals a mere ten years to go from boom to bust, notes Campbell, which allowed the Labor Party to take over the role as the alternative to the Tories.

The rivalries of the post-World War II era have all been strictly intraparty affairs, starting with a battle within the Labor Party. As Campbell notes, the party consists of an alliance between middle-class academic socialists and the working-class trade unions, supplying brains and votes respectively, and the two strands were represented in the Atlee administration by Hugh Gaitskell, the chancellor, and Aneurin Bevan, the minister of health, whom Atlee, back in 1945, had charged with setting up the new National Health Service.

Gaitskell was an Oxford-trained Keynesian, a “born public servant” who rose from parliamentary secretary to junior minister to chancellor with impressive speed, while Bevan’s background in a Welsh mining community had left him with a permanent chip on his shoulder against well-meaning bourgeois academics hijacking his party; Bevan was expert at delivering the sort of stem-winders that so fire up the already committed and make everybody else head for the hills, but he was regarded as a skillful minister.  

The real fight for the soul of the Conservative Party came in the 1970s in the showdown between Edward Heath and Margaret Thatcher, both of whom came from modest middle-class backgrounds.

Their falling out was inevitable when Gaitskell, as newly appointed chancellor in 1950, sought to impose a measure of discipline on Bevan’s lavishly spending ministry. With Atlee ill in the hospital and unable to soothe tempers, a furious Bevan resigned, denouncing Gaitskell’s budget as “the arithmetic of Bedlam.” Their fight and Bevan’s intemperate rhetoric — in the previous campaign, he had referred to the Conservatives as “worse than vermin” — greatly contributed to the Atlee government losing the 1951 election.

On Atlee’s retirement after another defeat in 1955, Gaitskell won the leadership contest, much to Bevan’s disgust. Despite surface reconciliation, fundamental differences remained: The Gaitskell wing wanted to ditch Clause Four of the party’s program, which called for the state to take over the “commanding heights of the economy.” To the left, Clause Four was sacrosanct, the socialist covenant. After Labor lost, yet again, in the 1959 election, Gaitskell was set on getting rid of this troublesome commitment once and for all, but he died suddenly in early 1963. It wasn’t until Tony Blair came along that Clause Four was removed, but in this sense, says Campbell, Hugh Gaitskell is the godfather of New Labor.

On the other side of the aisle, among the Conservatives, according to Campbell, there were no comparable ideological disputes in the 1950s and 1960s: Here it was more a question of personalities. The contest to succeed Anthony Eden after his nervous breakdown over Suez stood between R.A. Butler, the chancellor, known as “Rab,” and Harold Macmillan, the foreign minister. As a former guards officer in the trenches of World War I, Macmillan despised Butler for having been a Chamberlain man in the run-up to World War II — “the most cringing of the Munichites,” he called him.

As chancellor under Churchill and Eden, Butler had continued the kind of Keynesian policies that Gaitskell had introduced under Labor, a phenomenon dubbed “Butskellism” by the Economist. To secure the leadership, Macmillan, whom Campbell describes as a ruthless operator underneath that faded Edwardian charm, had pretended to be to the right of Butler on economic policy, only to revert to pure Butskellism as pm.

Such was his contempt for Butler, that when Macmillan was laid low by prostate trouble in 1963, he could not bear the thought of Butler succeeding him — “Rab simply does not have it in him to be Prime Minister,” he had once remarked — and instead engineered the choice of Alex Douglas Home as party leader and prime minister. Home was a grouse-shooting aristo who confessed he had to resort to matchsticks to figure out economics. With promises of the “white heat” of a technological revolution, Labor’s Harold Wilson won narrowly in 1964. Had it not been for Macmillan’s ill will, Campbell argues, Butler might well have won for the Conservatives.

The real fight for the soul of the Conservative Party came in the 1970s in the showdown between Edward Heath and Margaret Thatcher, both of whom came from modest middle-class backgrounds. As secretary of education in Heath’s cabinet, Mrs. T. had been his token woman. As her voice grated on his ear, Campbell writes, at cabinet meetings, he made sure she was placed far down and on the same side of the table as himself, so he would not have to look at her.

Domestically, Heath stood for corporatism, and abroad he was a glowing supporter of the European Common Market, into which he gained entry for Britain in 1973. With this followed a downgrading of relations with America: Heath made a point of needing to consult with his European allies beforehand on even the smallest matters “to avoid any whiff of American collusion,” as related in Kissinger’s memoirs.

After Heath had been humiliated by strikes and gone down to defeat in the 1974 election, in the so-called “peasants’ revolt” Thatcher challenged him as party leader with the support of restless backbenchers, sending Heath into what became known as “the longest sulk in history.” And over the following years, she redefined her own party, which to her mind had in effect become a socialist party, continuing Labor policies that had long ago proved unworkable. She wanted an end to corporatism. Instead of incomes policy, she called for a return to free collective bargaining. On foreign policy, she felt that Britain’s links with America should be strengthened, rather than depend on fainthearted continentals.

And she delivered: As pm, she broke the stranglehold of the miners and got the economy going again. Her close relations with Ronald Reagan paid off during the Falklands war and ensured that Britain was punching above its weight internationally. But as Campbell notes, Mrs. Thatcher needed Heath, and then Labor’s Callaghan, to fail first, in order to finally convince the British voters that a different tack was needed.

But no politician triumphs forever, not even Mrs. T. with her three election victories. Heath gave a final proof of what a sore loser he was by ordering his office staff to break out the champagne when the timid men of her own party deposed Thatcher in 1990.

Campbell ends with the Blair-Brown relationship. What made this split particularly bitter was that they had been such firm friends and colleagues, “joined at the hip,” as they were described in their early days as newly elected members in the class of 1984. Their party having suffered four consecutive defeats, both had agreed that Labor needed reform if it were ever to regain power. New Labor was the result, a pragmatic party devoted to “what works,” in Blair’s words, rather than old ideological truths. But as time proved, this was always more Blair’s project than Brown’s.

The curious point is that at key moments in his career, for all his ambition, Campbell notes that Brown failed to show the required ruthlessness, first by failing to stand against John Smith for the party leadership, and, on Smith’s death in 1994, by spending his time writing obituaries while Blair was busy lining up support for his own bid.

Once he did gain power, Brown seemed at a loss as to what to do with it, beset with general indecision and timidity, and lacking a vision. He failed to call an early election which he could have won, and everything he touched seemed to go wrong. Having to weather constant plots to replace him, he has lately resorted to traditional Labor class warfare, attacking David Cameron for his Eton background. Without Blair, New Labor has grown old very quickly.