Pistols at Dawn [ePub]

by John Campbell

Most people interested in Parliamentary history will have come across the names of the 16 protagonists of John Campbell's marvellous survey of great political rivalries. From Pitt to Blair, via Gladstone, Bevan and Thatcher these personalities are well known. John Campbell's achievement is not to re-chronicle their extraordinary careers, but bring to life a vivid and often exhilarating sequence of contests that have shaped British politics over the past two centuries.

Campbell's scholarship is thorough, and this makes all the difference as he draws on a wide array of sources, often from the subjects themselves to describe rivalries that spanned decades.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the earliest chapters, particularly covering Fox vs Pitt, Disraeli vs Gladstone and Asquith vs Lloyd George, are the best. Campbell is able to articulate the momentous ebbs and flows of these contests, as well as the wider events that intersected and interjected, from the Corn Laws to the Iraq war. As a brief survey of those periods of British political history, it's not at all a bad primer.

Some of the contests covered are not as compelling, and the inclusion of a chapter on Heath vs Thatcher is highly questionable. Indeed, it somewhat dignifies the term "rivalry" to include in it Thatcher's efficient defenestration of her Leader, at which point he vanished without return into relative obscurity while she became one of the most notable Prime Ministers of the 20th century. Likewise his disdain for modern politics - made clear in the introduction - colours his chapter on Blair and Brown to such an extent that he renders them unworthy of comparison to earlier political giants.

But that does not spoil the overall effect, which is to remind us how the force of personality and the accident of association have driven our governments to a much greater extent that ideology or policy.

05.06.2016

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