Tuesday, January 01, 2008

The Lion and The Unicorn [Review]

Title: The Lion and The Unicorn

Author: Richard Aldous (his faculty page at the University College, Dublin)

Publication: 2007, W.W. Norton, New York

Genre: Non-fiction, biography

Length: 368 pages including reference notes, index

Summary: A quick scan of the Wikipedia articles on Gladstone and Disraeli notes the rivalry between the two men, both of whom held extraordinary power over politics and policy in Victorian England. Richard Aldous offers an entirely readable dual biography of these men, both of whom enjoyed great power in their social environment even as they fought against specific attitudes. Gladstone worked at a standard of behavior based on high Anglican ideals but consistently fell short in his own estimation. His particular strength was managing the Exchequer. Disraeli had a gift for rhetoric and a certain enjoyment of celebrity and notoriety. More worrisome in a political enviroment dependent upon building coalitions, he had a wicked streak of sarcasm as well as a easy charm in social situations. The two men were, to use a well-worn cliche, like oil and water. The Lion and the Unicorn offers an accessible account of how these two men managed and maneuvered domestic affairs in a period of transition for the British economy, thereby moving the British empire to prominence and prosperity.

Extract: Gladstone had been speaking for almost two hours by the time his intentions became clear. Midnight was approaching. The House, half-empty at the beginning, had quickly filled up as it became clear 'something' was happening. Disraeli was unsurpassed in an ability to mask his feelings in debate. But MPs on both sides of the House that night noticed an unusual discomfort in the Prime Minister. As he rose to answer Gladstone, he took a large slug from a glass of brownish liquid. Only minutes into his speech, a whisper ran around the chamber that the Prime Minister was drunk. 'Disraeli ambiguous and his manner labored' wrote John Bright afterwards, 'giving the idea that he was worse for the brandy and water he drank before he rose and during his speech'. From the Press Gallery, a New York Tribune reporter observed that Disraeli was 'blind drunk'. Sensing an opportunity, Gladstone mischievously popped up to inquire if the Prime Minister was toiling 'under the influence of [theatrical pause] of a heated imagination'. (page 193)

Also relevant: I found myself largely in sympathy with Gladstone throughout this book. He was a sober, serious man with high personal standards and he failed to meet his own expectations in meeting those standards. He seems to have worked hard at politics, with a certain amount of altruism in his outlook. Unfortunately, his restrained personality type was of the sort readily mocked by a personality such as Disraeli, who was perhaps more pragmatic in his view of human nature. Disraeli flouted to a certain extent the social proprieties of his age, but was Gladstone's match in understanding the political games in the British House of Commons. Disraeli had a sense of humor; Gladstone had little or none. While he and Gladstone would occasionally manage to bridge their differences, friction characterized most of their interactions. At the same time, between the two of them, they steered the course of Empire, each serving as prime minister of England during multiple terms at different points over approximately 30 years. One represented the Liberal Party, the other the Conservative Party; both were acknowledged as brilliant leaders with different styles.

Like the reviewer in the NY Times, I did find that I needed to refresh my memory of certain aspects of British history -- the Repeal of the Corn Laws, the Great Famine of Ireland, various Reform Bills, and other historical events. The book's primary focus is on the men and their political antics and Aldous doesn't go into depth of detail in presenting legislation.

What is familiar is the sense of working the system behind the scenes, finagling deals over drinks at one's club and in government halls. Watching the coverage leading up to this week's Iowa Caucuses, their political gaming tactics seemed more than a little familiar. One could make the case, as Aldous seems to do, that these two personalities created the mold for modern politicians.