Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg discusses his new book, The Victorians, which explores the lives of a selection of 19th-century figures who he believes were crucial in creating modern Britain
Full transcript of the interview:
The first question, really, is what prompted you to write this book about the Victorians?
Partly the current state of politics: that people always complain that the politicians of the modern age are not of the stature of those of previous times, and that the great figures have gone. I thought it was interesting to see if there really were the great figures. And then, by chance, re-reading Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians, and thinking how extraordinarily unfair it was and that we simply have a wrong image of the Victorians who created the world we live to such an extraordinary extent.
Your book follows the lives of 12 specific people, and you say that it’s reasonable to complain that the selection is somewhat arbitrary.
Not only reasonable to complain, it’s sensible to complain. It is arbitrary. I chose people who I find interesting and compelling, and I haven’t tried to do a focus group as to who people might want to hear about or tried to balance it for politically-correct reasons. I’ve focussed on people who have some excitement about them. So, WG Grace may not be everybody’s choice, and Gordon may not be everybody’s choice, but I thought they were interesting people to put in.
Were there any people that came close to inclusion but that you had to rule out?
Oh, the difficulty was excluding people. Isambard Kingdom Brunel was a figure I was going to include who would be very easy to include but, ultimately there has to be some limit. It would be very, very easy to have 20 people, probably 100 people, in such a book, but there’s a question of how much you can write on each one.
I’d argue there’s a 13th person you have just mentioned which is Lytton Strachey. He, I think, turns up in four of the chapter introductions. Why is he such a constant presence in this book and who was he?
Who was Lytton Strachey? Lytton Strachey was part of the Bloomsbury set and he wrote a book in the early 20th century going through Victorian heroes and saying how useless they all were. And why do I think that’s important? I think because his view of the Victorians has become and remains the predominant view, and that’s in spite of many distinguished historians writing to the contrary and trying to rebalance. But actually, if you ask people about the Victorians, I think the general consensus is a Strachey-ish view of them. And so that’s why he’s important and [it’s] important to try and answer what he was saying and his criticisms in his book were very unfair.
What were his criticisms?
What were his criticisms? Well, his criticisms – what he did was he focussed on everybody’s flaws without considering the good that they were doing. So with Cardinal Manning – who I didn’t include in this book, but easily could have done – he spends most of his time focussing on the disagreements between Cardinal Manning and Cardinal Newman and were they jealous of each other and all sorts of peripheral ecclesiastical gossip, rather than the fact that Manning was an incredibly important force within Catholicism but also in labour relations in London in the late 19th century, and the great good that he did in helping dock workers and representing people who didn’t otherwise have a voice.
If his views were so peripheral, why do you think they have proved so long-lasting?
Oh, because I think it’s in the nature of one generation to think that the previous generation didn’t get everything right and there’s a strange dichotomy in this sense, isn’t there? Because I was saying earlier that we look back and say we don’t have such good figures but we also like to think that the immediately preceding period was less good than our period.
So if you want to pick a decade that was particularly useless in the United Kingdom, everybody focusses on the 1970s and may well continue doing so for a long time, even though there were big figures like Denis Healey and Margaret Thatcher who were coming to the fore. And I think that that’s partly in the nature of society: that you want to think that the immediate predecessors got things wrong. And of course, after 1914 – 1918, the Great War, people wanted to feel that there wasn’t this brilliant era that they’d just thrown away, they had to have some self-justification for where they had got to.
Your first chapter is on Robert Peel, who you say is arguably our greatest male prime minister. What were his achievements to earn him that possible title?
Well, the fascinating thing about Peel is how long-lasting what he did became. So if you take the establishment of the police force and the Metropolitan Police, they are still called ‘bobbies’ in memory of Peel. And once he had set up the police force, nobody thought, “Well, we’d better get rid of it.” Whereas before it had been set up, there were great arguments as to whether it was the right thing to do. With the repeal of the Corn Laws and Peel’s banking act, he set the financial framework for how the country achieved prosperity really up until 1914, basically being, with arguments, a free-trading nation but also a nation of sound money, incredibly important Tory principles.
But he was a figure who also split the Tory party, kept the Tories out of office for 28 years, and he is an inconsistent figure because he takes very strong views on things and then changes his mind to hold the completely opposite view. And he does this over Catholic emancipation, he does it over reform and he does it over the Corn Laws. And he gets things right but only having got them very wrong to start with, so he’s a very interesting figure in that regard.
And, as you say, he was key in forming the modern Conservative Party, which you also say was key in protecting Britain from some of the changes that caused destruction elsewhere. Why do you think it was so important?
Well, and I think Disraeli’s very important in this. I think that they come to understand democracy – Palmerston’s important in this too. Palmerston’s not in favour of extending the franchise, but he feels that those who have the franchise have a duty to represent those who don’t have the franchise, so not just the Members of Parliament, but each individual voter is representing those who don’t have a vote and has a responsibility to society to do that.
And you see in Europe during the mid-19th century, particularly in 1848, the overthrowing of regimes that haven’t been able to adapt. And Peel, what’s he doing? With respect to this, he has the Tamworth manifesto, the first time there is a manifesto issued for an election. It’s not just an address to the local electors, it’s a national address. This is understanding that there is a broader political community that needs to be kept happy, not just the elite and the mob.
Do you think the Conservative Party of this period that we’re talking about is any way recognisable as that of today?
The answer to that is yes and no. You can work out, and I quite like working out, how the Tory party basically starts in the Civil War and you can trace a lineage through, but the issues they were dealing with at those times were very different from the ones that come up today. But there is one basic underlying principle, and that is that the Conservative Party believes that society’s built from the bottom up rather than ordered from the top down – and that therefore you have a community that you are trying to help individually to do what they want, to improve in Disraeli’s terms, improve the condition of the people. That is a thread running through rather than the idea that the collective can do things for people and make them happier that way.
Are there any values from the Victorian period that the Conservative Party embodied that you’d like to see perhaps strengthened or reintroduced?
Well, I think sound money is one of them, and I also believe in free trade, though the Tory Party has split over free trade before and is quite divided over it at the moment.
I was intrigued by that qualifier that he was the best male peacetime leader, was he bettered by any female?
Well, Margaret Thatcher is one my great heroes and had she been a Victorian, would unquestionably have got a large section in the book. Margaret Thatcher, again, is a prime minister who does things that have long-lasting effects that essentially changes the terms of trade of politics that continue to this day, that Tony Blair adopted a lot of Thatcherism when he became prime minister. And I think that’s very important in judging a prime minister historically; does their work continue?
Two of the other leaders you talk about are Gladstone and Disraeli. To what extent was their contribution defined by their relationship with each other?
Well, they loathed each other. One of the worst bits of Gladstone is his very antisemitic comments that he makes about Disraeli, and that were to modern ears deeply shocking, but I think even to Victorian ears were going much further than most people went. They really, really disliked each other and Disraeli accuses Gladstone of being a shoplifter in an election speech and the Times gets frightfully sniffy about this and says this isn’t the way to carry out election campaigns, which does happen in modern times too, that people say things and the newspapers get frightfully upset.
The argument Roy Jenkins makes about the 1867 Reform Bill is that Disraeli basically does everything that Gladstone doesn’t want and therefore we get a much bigger reform than we would have otherwise achieved. I think this is very special pleading for Gladstone. Actually, I think, if you read Disraeli’s novels, you see that he was in favour of widening the franchise quite early on and he very skilfully manages to carry a Tory Party that wasn’t so keen to widen the franchise to a much wider franchise than it was expecting. But that he uses his opposition to Gladstone to get these things through.
And I think Gladstone is an incredible figure but he’s not a very subtle one. Disraeli, on the other hand, is incredibly subtle and history looks back and it admires the certainty of Gladstone, the uprightness of Gladstone and it thinks that Disraeli’s a bit of a chancer. Actually, Disraeli does much more to improve people’s lives, to get what he wanted to done than Gladstone did.
I started the book, doing work for the book thinking that Gladstone was the greater figure than Disraeli, in spite of my political bias, and I ended the book absolutely convinced that Disraeli’s the much greater political figure. Most of what Gladstone tried to do didn’t, in the end, work, and most of what Disraeli tried to do did work.
That’s interesting then. So you’re not saying that these 12 figures are in any way unblemished or unflawed, they have their flaws, yet they still have something about them to contribute to modern society, is that right?
And understanding the power of human nature. Yes, they’re all flawed, so are we all, you know, that’s always been true, that’s part of the human condition. And Gordon of Khartoum is unquestionably flawed but he’s quite brilliant too and his leadership skills are extraordinary and his charitable view of the world quite remarkable. He goes into a battle in the Chinese Wars just carrying a swagger stick and he’s at the front and leading and he wins.
And people can’t believe his courage, he’s completely unafraid of death, he is religious, bordering on religious mania. He writes letters to his sister saying, you know, “I’ve run out of money but I‘m sure God will provide some for me,” and duly he seems to have enough money to get through. He gives away most of his money, he’s incredibly generous. He gets a gold medal from the Emperor of China for his service and he hammers off his name, so that nobody knows who it is, and sells it to give money to the poor.
He was a very good man but he won’t be told what to do by Gladstone; he is not going to allow slave traders in the Sudan to take Khartoum, that’s his aim and he does his best to stop them and, of course, dies very heroically in the process. So it’s recognising that people who do great things and exciting still have flaws. But Strachey concentrated entirely on the flaws and didn’t look at the great things that they were able to do.
These political figures are really interesting in their own right, do you see any of them as being closest to your political stance or you as a political figure or… I suppose what I’m saying is who would be the Victorian Jacob Rees-Mogg?
Oh, gosh, that I hadn’t thought about. I don’t think I’m bold enough, arrogant enough to say that I am like one of these figures. The figures that I find very attractive, of the politicians, I mean, I would love to be WG Grace, who wouldn’t? But I’d never achieve a millionth of that. Palmerston is fantastic because Palmerston understands what people want, the popular mood. He’s very good at delivering it and he stands up for the nation in foreign affairs and I think Palmerston is very impressive, a much under-rated prime minister.
How would you, and I suppose other politicians today, fit in with the politics of the Victorian period?
Oh, I think most political skills are transferable through the generations. I always think it’s interesting, when you look at the prime minister’s PPS… parliamentary private secretary. So, the Prime Minister and other ministers have a fellow MP, who’s not a minister but who is their conduit to MPs and a constant presence at their side. Now, the power of presence in modern politics is enormous because you’re the person there when the prime minister is saying, “Should I do X or should I do Y?” And without having any specific authority, you’re there and you say, “Well, I think X sounds like a good idea.” And that has a much greater influence, potentially, than the secretary of state who isn’t on hand, who is writing a learned paper on X or Y but you don’t get it till you’ve made your mind up. In medieval courts, the person who is most influencing the monarch is the person who has access. It’s why the post of Groom of the Stool is so important because you’re there, and this carries on. So I think politics has long-run continuities.
Disraeli and Gladstone are obviously quite famous figures, people might have heard of them, some of the other people in the book are now less well-known. Charles Napier is one of them. What were his achievements? Why is he in this book?
Napier, indeed you’re right, because there’s a statue to Napier in Trafalgar Square and, as I mention in the book, Ken Livingstone said, “Why do we have a statue to Napier, who nobody’s ever heard of?” And Napier was enormously famous and very popular, he was a national hero and champion. Napier’s a surprisingly misunderstood figure, everyone thinks of him as an empire grabber because of the Punch joke – ‘peccavi’, I have sinned – and he was told not to take the province of Sindh and he took the province of Sindh. And therefore he’s seen as being arch empire-builder of the Cecil Rhodes mould.
He’s absolutely not; he’s much more a Blairite believer that those who have power should use it to the good of other peoples. And one of the reasons he seeks to take Sindh is because he believes the rulers are so corrupt. And, fascinatingly, in spite of this appearance as an empire grabber, he’s a very liberal figure: he’s a cousin of Charles James Fox, but during the Chartist troubles, as a general, he’s incredibly sympathetic to the Chartists and recognises that they have some justice in what they’re saying and is therefore very keen to maintain law and order, as much as to protect the Chartists from danger from others as to protect the factory owners who he doesn’t much like, from risk from the Chartists.
So he’s a much more nuanced figure than I think he’s currently remembered as. And he’s not a success and his taking of Sindh does not lead to better government for Sindh but he’s highly principled. There’s this great comment about suttee [the practice of a widow being burned on a funeral pyre soon after her husband has died]. He says, “You have a custom in your country of burning widows, we have a custom in our country of hanging people who burn women, let us both follow our customs.” And it is a very interesting thing to say, he is in favour what you might call liberal values and he believes that there is sort of right and wrong and it is wrong to burn widows and he should bring right. But he doesn’t achieve it in the end and this is a bit like Tony Blair in Iraq, that the motivation is a pure one, it’s to protect people, it’s to help people, but actually it’s very, very difficult to make people change the way that they want to live and they’re used living from on high, you have to build it up from the bottom.
Is it not the case though that he extended his military adventures far beyond the point which he should have stopped or that he was even instructed to stop?
He goes well beyond his instructions but he does so because he believes the rulers are so bad.
But doesn’t he cause massacres and all kinds of horrific things?
No, he doesn’t, no, that’s not true. The accusations of massacres and of rapes are entirely false and historians have established that, that’s not just pro-imperial propaganda.
Or that he was motivated by money. He writes about how money was a big important factor for him in doing these things.
I think money is clearly a secondary factor to him. You are still at the end of the age of bounty but he wins a battle and is given all the ceremonial swords and so on, jewelled swords, and he gives them all back, presents them back. So he’s not a rapacious empire builder. He’s not as uninterested in money as Gordon, but Gordon is truly exceptional.
You mentioned there Ken Livingstone’s comments about the statue in Trafalgar Square. Do you have any sympathy to the idea that statues that have become culturally redundant, should be, that their time has passed, we should put other people who are more kind of reflective of the present day in their place?
No, I think you should add to the collection of statues. I’m no admirer of Oliver Cromwell, I think that a disastrous figure, particularly terrible in Ireland, but I’m not campaigning for the removal of his statue outside the Houses of Parliament. I think because he’s the one man who sent troops into Parliament to determine division lobbies, it wasn’t the right place to put it – but it’s there and it’s part of our history. And Napier is part of our history. Moving his statue doesn’t take the history away, and what about Gordon, whose statue is not only in London, just behind the Ministry of Defence, but also in Melbourne? I mean, he was a hero across the empire. Should he be taken down across the empire or is it just an interesting historic fact that there he is and how important he once was and of course how forgotten he now is?
So it’s about broadening our historical understanding, not replacing the existing historical understanding, is that right?
I think that’s right. I mean, you do get, I suppose, to the position we’re in in Parliament Square that there isn’t much room for any other statues and indeed in the Houses of Parliament itself. So do you say, “Well, these people now unheard of, we’ll move them into storage,” and I think probably not, I think you find new places for the statues to go.
We have mentioned them in passing, there’s two military figures, Sleeman and Gordon, who you say that you read about when you were 14, is that right? And that’s why they’re included here?
That’s right, Jan Morris’s wonderful book Heaven’s Command, and I remember being very struck by what Sleeman achieved. Moral relativism is a very powerful force in the modern world; Sleeman was not a moral relativist. He saw that people were being murdered as they were travelling, built up the evidence about it and did something about it and stopped it. Quite an extraordinary achievement and it’s an achievement by filing cabinet really, that he does the detailed work. He travels everywhere with his wife, he works incredibly hard doing it, and he stops this very dangerous, nasty practice that made travel in India very risky by good, solid, administrative efficiency. Now, he’s early for a Victorian, he just goes into the beginning of Victoria’s reign, most of his work has already been done but, none the less, he seems an almost archetypal Victorian in making things work through being efficient, through engineering the system.
You mentioned moral relativism there, which is something that kind of recurs throughout the book as being a downside to the modern world. Are there not dangers, in the imperial project of this period, of this sort of extreme, heightened moral certainty that lots of these figures seem to exhibit, that they know that they are in the right, come what may. Does that not cause problems in the empire? Is that not a flaw of the empire?
You’re absolutely right and that’s why Napier is so interesting because we are all morally certain that suttee is wrong, it is evil, as was he. And, yet his involvement in the Sindh probably didn’t help people’s lives. So he had moral certainty, and over the certainty we are equally certain, but his loathing of the rulers of Sindh didn’t actually make people’s lives better. You can say the same of Gordon: Gordon was absolutely determined to put down the slave trade but did what he tried work? Well, no, in the end – well, in the end it did, but in the interim it didn’t. Moral certainty is important and you should stand up for your moral certainty. You shouldn’t say, oh, suttee is right but on the other hand, you may find that imposing your morals doesn’t work. So I think you can learn from that.
I think in writing a book about the Victorians, or any previous age, it’s important to recognise that one can learn from them rather than just imitate them, and recognise that they will get things wrong as well as get things right.
We should talk about, there has been some criticism that there’s only one woman in this book. What would you say to people who say if we’re going to apply some of these lessons to the modern world, we need to make sure that we applying them across the spectrum of people who now exist, who now have, kind of, power?
I think it’s a completely daft criticism because in Victorian England, the place was run by men. And therefore, if you were to have had even numbers, it would have been pure tokenism and that I don’t think is at all interesting. There are some women who definitely could have qualified but what new could I say about Florence Nightingale?
But you do write about Victoria.
Because she’s the queen.
Of whom many books have been written.
But she’s the queen, she’s the top figure in all of this. And also she, her reputation is not at the highest. Again, I think that Queen Victoria is very important in how the monarchy exists today: Vernon Bogdanor, a very distinguished constitutional historian, has pointed out that basically the constitutional monarchy left by Victoria is the one we’ve still got. It’s quite something 100 years later.
But I don’t think I could have evened up the numbers of women without it being tokenistic. It was a male society, women didn’t have the vote, there were no women prime ministers, there were no women cabinet ministers, there were no women governors general. So unless I was to spread my net much wider – and then how do you keep the numbers down to 12? I think it would have been political correctness for its own sake.
I suppose the discomfort possibly comes in the fact that we’re applying the values of a society which was different in its make-up, to a society today that is vastly different in many ways, including this gender, sort of, make-up.
Yes, but as I was saying earlier on, you can learn from them but you don’t have to imitate them and you can learn from where they were successful. But of course, we live in a society where everybody has the vote. Bear in mind the 1832 Reform Bill took the vote from a very small number of women. It’s only in 1832 that the limitation on the franchise is brought in. Now, the circumstances of having the vote as a woman in 1832 were very narrow but they were possible. After 1832, there is a specific ban on women having the vote.
So, there are people who will say that including a cricketer is a strange choice, when you’ve only got 12 people to write about and one of them being a cricketer, that’s a little weird. What would you say to that?
Well, I’m partly guilty as charged, m’lud. Yes, WG Grace is a different type of character, and I was heavily influenced by my eldest son who was very keen that WG Grace should be included.
But actually, having initially thought that I was going out on a limb with Grace, Grace is quite remarkable. He has a degree of celebrity: one of his biographies adds up all the press cuttings for Grace, as opposed to Sarah Bernhardt, who was the great and famous actress of the time. Grace has more press cuttings. Grace is, in a sense, the biggest celebrity other than Queen Victoria, and he does this through cricket. And he creates modern cricket. His ability is just so much greater than everybody else’s.
I think, in the time it takes him, this is in the book, to score 50 centuries, the other 50 centuries are scored by 13 different batsmen. He is head and shoulders above everybody else. The averages, against modern averages, don’t really show that because he was playing on wickets where the sheep had been taken off the night before because they weren’t using lawnmowers. Lords was still having sheep keep the outfield down until the 1860s if I remember rightly, if people want to check it exactly, it’s in the book, but it’s around then. So the wickets are terrible and yet he has this incredible ability.
But he’s completely commercial. We had this idea, and this is one of the things about the Victorians, we think they’re a bit po-faced, a bit dull and very, very proper. Well, Grace is completely mercenary. Test cricket starts because he wants to make money. He plays 11 against 22 because it will draw a crowd in and if it doesn’t draw a crowd in, he won’t do it. The crowd doubles at events he goes to, the entrance fee can be put up because he draws in the punters. And we think that test cricket has come about because it is the pure form of cricket. No, it doesn’t, it comes about because Grace saw that it could fill the stadiums, and that, I think, is fascinating because people can be very pompous about changes in cricket and Twenty20 and all these new developments. My bet is that Grace would have been for all and every one of those as long as they got people into the cricket grounds, and that’s not, I think, what most people would expect me to have been saying about Grace.
Do you see this as quite a radical era, generally?
I think they had a very good understanding of change, they saw the benefits of change. They were very driven, they wanted to succeed but they also liked the continuity with the past. So the Victorians have swallowed the Whig interpretation of history, they think that the whole of English history has led to the perfection of the Victorian era.
But equally, everything around them is changing and developing. You get the extension of franchise, you get the extension of the newspapers, you get the extension of travel, I have a brief mention of Thomas Cook, who started temperance tours, I think the first one went to Loughborough and you could go to a temperance meeting on a train that he’d especially booked. Really exciting stuff. But they were developing and innovating. It’s why Brunel was such a strong contender because the spread of the railways is so important. But so, actually, was WH Smith because it required the railways to allow newspapers and newspapers then transformed the political scene because people felt they had an involvement. So there’s a huge period of change that they embraced as well as feeling that it fitted in with their historic context.
Are there themes or traits you admire across these 12 people? Can we sketch themes or patterns across this cast of characters?
Well, I think they all had a considerable self-confidence, an inner belief, and they believed that it was possible, through their efforts to do good and important things. I don’t think they had any interest in the management of decline, which I think is the great failing of the early 21st century, that people feel that we can never get any better or even be as good as we once were, we just have to accept that we’re drifting down. I don’t think any of my 12 figures would have believed that that was right.
And something else that I think emerges which is interesting, is this idea of patriotism, of believing in your nation. Do you think that animated these people on a personal level?
I think that they had, I mean, they had a pre-First World War view of patriotism which the First World War destroyed and has never come back. They believed that the United Kingdom – which a lot of them call England regardless, Palmerston and Disraeli hardly ever say anything other than England – but they believe that the United Kingdom is a force for good in the world, and in the development of humanity and that is something to be proud of. And that it can be done by this country on its own, it can help others in the same way, it’s not going to be done by a collective of other nations. They almost all believe in the power of the nation state.
Although this is obviously a period of empire. How does that fit in our view of Britain as a nation state but also one that had, what is now quite often seen as quite a problematic kind of relationship with the rest of its empire?
Well, I think they thought of the empire as a force for good, they saw themselves as spreading civilisation. Sometimes this worked, as in putting down Thuggee, and sometimes it didn’t, as in Napier taking Sindh. It never worked in Afghanistan: if there’s one lesson we can always learn is never get involved in Afghanistan, it’s never worked. It didn’t work for Alexander the Great, it didn’t work in the 19th century and it didn’t work in the 21st century.
So they believe in the empire as a force for good and the best of them absolutely see, from Queen Victoria down, the equal validity of every single member of the empire. Queen Victoria is not inline with customary thinking: possibly she thinks she’s the queen and everyone else is beneath her but they’re all equally beneath her, that it doesn’t matter whether it is somebody from the Indian empire or it is the greatest Duke, they are all individual people of validity. And she gets very cross with her household when they’re causing difficulties about one of her favourites and won’t put up with that.
The same is true for Gordon and indeed of Napier. They both believe that all life is sacred, not just an Englishman’s life. And that, again, is not something people necessarily realise about the empire, how many of the imperial figures weren’t racist at all. And Sleeman, of course, he’s stopping Indians being murdered. He’s not stopping British administrators being murdered. And he thinks this is crucially important life work. So there is a nobility in this feeling that you can spread good to the world because you value everybody equally.
We’re talking now, at the end of May, with Brexit still lurking over the horizon. One of the figures in this book seems to be important to you because of the way in which he established some of the mechanisms we have today. Is that the case and who is he?
Dicey is fascinating because Dicey uses his academic career to explain how our constitution works and how parliament works. He’s also an early advocate of the referendum. And his constitutional understanding is the constitutional understanding that most of us have today of how the British constitution works and how an act of Parliament is the highest form of law and cannot be overruled by any other form of law – and in spite of European law, this has remained the case, that various judgements that yes, European law was superior unless and until the British Parliament said that it wasn’t, that it was in the gift of the British Parliament to reverse that decision which it’s now passed the law to do but it hasn’t yet been implemented.
And Dicey provides the intellectual framework for how our constitution works. Before him, it still worked that way but nobody had set out how it did. And he believed in the referendum because he came to the conclusion that the House of Lords no longer functioned, that he thought the job of the House of Lords had been to block things until there was a general election and then the people could give their view and they could go ahead if the general election went a different way. But that the Lords had such an overwhelming Conservative majority post the unionist split amongst the liberals, that this had ceased to be a balancing effect, it had gone too far and so he thought the referendum was the answer.
On the subject of Brexit, are there lessons here that we can draw on, do you think, for a post-Brexit Britain?
Oh, absolutely, I mean, partly that we should be looking outwards to the world, we shouldn’t be focused narrowly on Europe. If you look at what was Palmerston doing, he’s intimately involved in discussions about the American Civil War, he’s not just looking at either an imperial focus or a European focus, he’s looking genuinely globally, and I think that is an important thing for us to remember.
I think there is the issue of free trade which increases prosperity, it makes people better off. Disraeli and Palmerston both felt very strongly that it was their job to improve the condition of the people, make it possible for people to improve their own condition. I think that’s something we should learn from the Victorians.
Was the Victorian period, do you think, a high point in British history and have we regressed since?
No, we haven’t regressed since. The thing to remember about the Victorian period is life expectancy was, although growing – and it grows rapidly because, as much as anything, public health steps that are taken, so the greater availability of clean water. Still, life expectancy is low, the death of women in childbirth and of children is still extremely high, they don’t have all the modern conveniences and, most crucially, medical techniques that we have, so no, it wasn’t a high point that we’ve never got back to. Actually we’ve continued to make progress, but I think we could have made more progress, we could have been more confident about ourselves and improved things at a better rate.
Can you trace a point, historically, where we stopped doing that? Was it before Margaret Thatcher, do you think it was after?
Oh, I think we begin to lose confidence in ourselves, understandably, after the First World War. And then after the Second World War, managing decline is not a completely stupid thing to want to do because we’re bust and we’re in the process of disentangling from empire.
Margaret Thatcher then says we can do better than that and that we don’t have to carry on managing decline and that lasts for her period of office. But I think we’ve then got back to it subsequently and Europe is part of that. It’s a feeling that we can’t do things for ourselves so we must tie ourselves into a bigger organisation that will protect us from the from the chill winds of competition that blow from the rest of the world. And, so it’s 1914, is I suppose the key point, though there may have been some elements of it coming shortly before.
What were the main flaws of the Victorian period and their mindset, I suppose?
What were the flaws? That they weren’t democratic in the way we are. So we mentioned why don’t I include women? They don’t include women and that is a flaw, they’re not using the talents of half the population most of the time. Things are improving but you have pretty awful conditions in workhouses and in factories, and so for people who aren’t succeeding in Victorian Britain, life is pretty difficult and they don’t have any sort of safety – well, they do have safety nets, but they’re so much less than we now have. And they, but people who don’t get on in Victorian England, Victorian Great Britain, the United Kingdom, are essentially left to sink and they don’t have the structures to help, even if they’ve got the will. So if you look at the Irish potato famine, they clearly wanted to help but the state did not have the structures in place to be able to help. So there were, there were failings by the nature of the age as to what they could do, the limitations of what they could do.
One thing that emerges is how much you admire strong political leadership and you say that’s a quality of many people in this book. Why do you think this period produced so many strong, good leaders?
It’s fascinating, isn’t it? Because the Lord John Russells and the Lord Aberdeens, we don’t need to spend a lot of time discussing that they were there but they weren’t really. And the Peel, Disraeli, Gladstone and Palmerston are really dominant figures and you could add on Lord Salisbury at the end of the period, who could easily have been part of the book.
Why did they produce them and why don’t we? Because however you look at it, we haven’t managed, in the 20th and early 21st century, figures of this dominance. It’s unlikely that a lot of our, you know, peacetime prime ministers will be having people writing much about them in 200 years from the birth of Elizabeth I.
So why did they do it? It may partly have been that things were going well, that England was a dominant force in the world. It may partly have been their education: they are very, very highly educated, and Peel takes his exams in public and it is drawing great crowds, or drew great crowds to come and listen to him when he was taking his undergraduate exams. Quite extraordinary, what a sheer force of intellect he had and education, I suppose, that encouraged that. But perhaps it’s simply that, at the right time, you find the right people and that they are there, you’ve just got to look for them.
So it’s somewhat chance?
I think for a large degree it ends up being chance and that Disraeli could very easily never have happened. That is to say, if his father hadn’t fallen out with the local synagogue when Disraeli was, how old exactly was he? He’s 11ish, he may be 13, maybe 13, anyway, again, it’s in the book. If he hadn’t done that, Disraeli could not have become prime minister because he couldn’t have gone into parliament, as the Rothschild who kept on standing for parliament, couldn’t take his seat. And so it’s amazing, the thin threads which lead to great figures emerging.
So, as far as these men were able to shape the destiny of themselves and of their country, they were still bound up with fate and chance and all these others?
Oh, very much so, very much so. There was a lot of good luck that led to it happening. Victoria herself becoming queen was extremely unlikely to have happened, if it hadn’t been for the idiotic Royal Marriages Act, it almost certainly wouldn’t have happened. And the Royal Marriages Act is perhaps one of the silliest acts ever passed by parliament. I mean, it makes the Dangerous Dogs Act look the height of intelligence and thoughtfulness.
Why was it so?
Why was it so silly? Because it cut the pool that they could marry into very significantly but it was also riddled with loopholes so that at a certain age, if you had a relationship previously with a foreign royal house, you were exempt, so it ended up, had it been properly used before it was repealed in 2011 and replaced by a new Marriages Act, it ended up affecting a very small number of rather obscure people and not actually applying to the main line of the Royal family, who through at least Princess Alexandria, were exempt.
Finally then, you write that there’s never been a century more resented for its success than the 19th. Why do you think that is and how would you like this book to change people’s view of it?
I think we have a very have a very romantic view of what the 18th century was like: we think that there were lots of happy people in the rural idyll and gathering in the crops and having happy, contented lives, sitting out in the sun and drinking cider. And we forget that actually subsistence existence in rural England in the 18th century was pretty tough, and that you would have periods of the year when you would have shortages of food, you were working, children were working on farms because you needed their labour.
And then you have this image of the dark satanic mills, the factories and all of that. We ignore the fact that because you not longer need so many agricultural workers and you have factory workers, you’re producing consumer goods that people begin to buy, you begin to have holidays and leisure time and I’ve already mentioned Thomas Cook. But I think it’s the image of industrial Britain against rural Britain.
Now, living in north-east Somerset in the rolling hills just below the Mendips, it’s easy to be tempted by this romantic view of the beautiful rural idyll. But, actually, life was pretty tough in the 18th century for people in that condition, and what happened in the 19th century led to the opportunities that we now have and the improvements in everybody’s standard of living. But it’s urban and it’s industrial and that’s less pretty than the 18th century.
If you were to write about another period, if you were to find the time to write about another period of British history, which would you choose? Do you have any?
No, having just completed this book, I’m not thinking of writing another for some time, I think. It’s been quite, it’s quite hard work writing a book so I think this will do for the moment.