Some time ago I mentioned that I was reading Dick Leonard's double biography (though for some reason he describes it as a "comparative biography") of Benjamin Disraeli and William Gladstone, a book that has turned out to be interesting and annoying in more or less equal measures.

The great rivalry itself, though it appears to dominate nineteenth century politics, took up less of it than we assume, though while it lasted it was vicious, not least because of the added personal animosity: Gladstone and Disraeli, as Dick Leonard shows, were so very different in their background, their thoughts, their attitudes.

There are eleven chapters in The Great Rivalry and it is not till chapter eight that we reach the moment when first Disraeli, then Gladstone, then Disraeli again actually rose to the premiership (in the case of Disraeli, the first government was actually led by Lord Derby with Dizzy at the head of the party in the Commons). By chapter ten it was all over with Gladstone towering above British politics on his own.

Yet there is no doubt that these two dominated the political life for several decades and, separately, laid down parts of the foundation for modern British politics inside and outside Parliament. It is possible to argue that the political structures the two giants created are now coming to a natural end with something new evolving, what with the membership of the European Union, the growth in power of extra-parliamentary bodies and the need to change many of those things. Mr Leonard's view (as that of several commentators) is that the reason matters seem unsatisfactory is that we no longer have politicians of the Disraeli-Gladstone calibre. To some extent his book is aimed at people who want to use it and the material in it to analyze and, perhaps, change modern politics. This seems to me to be unnecessary. Nineteenth century politics was very different and, even so, few politicians were of this calibre.

So much of what we do have (whether we want to preserve it or change it) is the outcome of those years and the political activity of the time, whether it is the spread of the vote through Reform Acts, the birth of mass politics with the Primrose League (a homage to Disraeli), the elevation of the Chancellor of the Exchequer to second position after the Prime Minister and of the annual Budget into the most important event of the political calendar (something that causes a good many problems these days), or a number of other developments.

Dick Leonard, though also an historian, was once a Labour MP and for a long time a journalist with The Economist and The Observer, concentrating on matters to do with the EU. (Yes, his son is the egregious Mark Leonard but people cannot be blamed for their offspring.) He has the good journalist's enviable ability to assimilate and digest complicated material and to reproduce it as a clear brief or historical analysis. The book is easy to read and the various complex political manoeuvres as well as the protagonists' private lives easy to follow.

The disadvantages of a journalistic text are also there. The style is really poor with strange neologisms popping up here and there. I really do not thing "heroisation" is a word. Nor do we need to be given a brief history of income tax in Britain three or four times or informed at least four times that Derby's first Ministry suffered from a paucity of talent in the House of Commons. Then there are the forced parallels with modern life and politics that jar so much. The expression "metropolitan elite" used about the politica classes of the mid-nineteenth century is celarly wrong. The elite's basis of power was outside London and a good many politicians understood life as it was lived by landowners, small or large. I suppose, one can describe various Victorian politicians as "big hitters" and, it is possible, that Mr Leonard does so with a knowing smirk but I doubt if that many readers would be impressed. One can go on enumerating infelicities of this kind for a long time and they do detract from one's enjoyment of the tale he tells, which simply cannot be made boring, however hard one might try.

The book is over-hyped by the publisher: this is hardly the first time that the two personalities have been studied together and in parallel. But they and the author were probably right in thinking that, probably, it was time to produce another account, based on previous biographies, histories and, of course, Gladstone's astonishing diaries, now available to all. The Great Rivalry may well encourage interest in two great political personalities, in all others around them and in the period that saw the invention of our modern political system.

Dick Leonard: The Great Rivalry
Gladstone and Disraeli - A Dual Biography

2013 I. B. Tauris, London


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