Pistols at Dawn

David Brooks on rivalries in parliament – and when they get out of hand

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Reviewed by: David Brooks
Author: John Campbell
Publisher: Jonathan Cape
Price (RRP): £20

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This is a most engaging and rewarding book. Pistols at Dawn: Two Hundred Years of Political Rivalry from Pitt & Fox to Blair & Brown is stylish, scholarly and notably perceptive about the internal dynamics as well as the leading personalities of modern British history.

Bitter rivalries, it is made clear – and John Campbell examines eight such cases from the late 18th century to the present day – have helped drive British history forward. Thus Pitt and Fox respectively gave formative substance to the positions of prime minister and leader of the opposition. Years later, the bitter feud between Asquith and Lloyd George did much to destroy Liberalism as a party of government.

Surprisingly perhaps, powerful antagonisms usually originate on the same side of the House of Commons, and it is personal animosity which often enough drives politicians to adopt distinct ideological positions. Here the classic case is of course that of Gladstone and Disraeli, who first met at a Conservative dinner party in 1835.

Campbell notes the recurrent importance of the generation gap, even perhaps in the case of Blair and Brown, with the latter entering university just before the youth revolution of the late 1960s. Almost invariably, except in 1957, it is the younger contestant who wins.

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In Pistols at Dawn the author also acknowledges the essential attribute of ruthlessness, which worked for Blair in 1994 as it had done for Thatcher in 1975 and Lloyd George in 1916. But he offers strictures on the self-destructive tendencies of Canning and of Bevan, and on Macmillan’s peculiarly shabby treatment of Butler; though in the end, he is pleased to note, Butler’s legacy could be considered the more substantial.