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October 11, 2006

David Womersley asks, do Blair, Brown or Cameron live up to Trollope's expectations of a Prime Minister? The Prime Minister - Anthony Trollope

Posted by David Womersley

The Prime Minister
by Anthony Trollope
first published 1876
Pp. xxxiv + 820 Oxford: Oxford World Classic, 1982
Paperback, £8.99

David Womersley - Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford - explores how a 130-year old book, Trollope's The Prime Minister, has once more become topical.

It sometimes happens that circumstances conspire to make a book topical. The convulsions of New Labour as it tries to negotiate the transition from the Blair era to whatever will follow it, and the establishment of David Cameron as leader of the Tories, have made salient a series of questions about political leadership.

Has Blair been a good prime minister, or has his period in office been marred by calamitous errors of judgement? Would Cameron be any better, or is he just the Tories' attempt to "do a New Labour" and ditch the policies which (however good or bad they may be in themselves, however right or wrong in principle) don't appear to be popular with the centre ground of the electorate? Would Brown make a good prime minister, or is he, on grounds of personality and nationality, so repugnant to an English electorate that, even if he manages to persuade his party to elect him as Blair's successor, he will find it impossible to win a General Election? In short, what makes a good prime minister?

One hundred and thirty years ago, in The Prime Minister, Trollope put the following definition of the qualities of an ideal political leader into the mouth of the Duke of St. Bungay, his Melbourne-like embodiment of practical, unideological, shrewdness (vol. 2, p. 4):

One wants in a Prime Minister a good many things, but not very great things. He should be clever but need not be a genius; he should be conscientious but by no means strait-laced; he should be cautious but never timid, bold but never venturesome; he should have a good digestion, genial manners, and, above all, a thick skin. These are the gifts we want, but we can't always get them, and have to do without them.

This is quite a good fit for Blair (though there may be a question mark beside his tendency to venturesomeness); it may prove to be a good fit for Cameron, but he is so untried that it is hard to say (for instance, he doesn't look especially thick-skinned to me); but everyone would have to agree that Brown - petulant, over-sensitive, rancorous, nail-biting, resentful, brittle, puritanical Brown - does very badly when measured against this yardstick.

Later in the novel Trollope gives in his own voice his understanding of the personal qualities which are vital if a political leader is to survive a crisis (vol. 2, p. 315):

But the man who can be all things to all men, who has ever a kind word to speak, a pleasant joke to crack, who can forgive all sins, who is ever prepared for friend or foe but never very bitter to the latter, who forgets not menís names, and is always ready with little words, Ė he is the man who will be supported at a crisis . . .
Not even Brown's most loyal allies could pretend that, in these words, they saw a portrait of our graceless, louring Chancellor. The Duchess comments bitterly on the consequences of holding supreme political office (vol. 2, p. 300):
Certainly, if a man wants to quarrel with all his friends, and to double the hatred of all his enemies, he had better become Prime Minister
This is an achievement, however, which the sublimely untalented and overpraised Brown has managed without putting himself to the trouble of yet becoming prime minister.

The Prime Minister (1876) is a novel about, not how power is gained - that happens almost off-stage before the narrative begins - but of how it is lost, and of how the possession of power changes those who wield it. Plantagenet Palliser, the Duke of Omnium, is called on to lead a coalition ministry. He agrees, but predictably it proves difficult for such a ministry to agree on, let alone pass into law, a legislative programme.

His ministry is fatally weakened, however, by the consequences of an act of imprudence on the part of his impetuous wife (shades, perhaps, of the Caplin affair?). The Duchess of Omnium decides to promote Ferdinand Lopez, a shady financial operator who gives every appearance of wealth, but the sources of whose wealth nobody knows: he turns out, of course, to be a pure adventurer. The Duchess encourages Lopez to stand in a bye-election at the Duke's local seat of Silverbridge. Lopez loses, but feels that the Duke's announcement that he personally favoured neither candidate above the other had sabotaged his campaign. He demands repayment of his expenses from the Duke (having already had them paid by his father-in-law). The Duke complies, in what Trollope presents as an act of super-erogatory nobility and protectiveness of his wife rather than weakness or misjudgement. News of the repayment gets out, and the popular press set up a hue and cry - improper tampering in a parliamentary election by a member of the House of Lords! Support falls away from the coalition, and Palliser is eventually obliged to resign (although he does not do so willingly, despite having been from the first a reluctant prime minister). As Trollope says (vol. 2, p. 301):

it is, no doubt, hard for a Prime Minister to find an excuse for going.
This a perennial truth of which we are, at present, reminded every day.

Trollope is not one of the great artists of allusion, but nevertheless he studs the narrative of The Prime Minister with reminiscences of Macbeth. For instance, to choose an obvious example, the Duchess proclaims herself to be (vol. 1, p. 96):

a Lady Macbeth, prepared for the murder of any Duncan . . . who may stand in my lord's way.
These recollections of Shakespeare begin in playfulness and deliberate exaggeration, but gradually become more substantial and more sombre. Even the mild and principled Plantagenet Palliser finds his character altered by the possession of power. He succumbs to what Trollope calls (vol. 2, p. 240):
the gradual love of power created by the exercise of power.
Trollope is no more a hyper-subtle psychologist than he is an exponent of allusion, but here, in his typically low-key manner, he has surely put his finger on a timeless truth of politics. It is the intersection of power with human personality which, like the bias in a bowl, is always drawing political life away from its true course. The Duke of St. Bungay utters a sentiment of complete sanity when he says that (vol. 1, p. 252):
the making of new laws is too often but an unfortunate necessity laid on us by the impatience of the people. A lengthened period of quiet and therefore good government with the minimum of new laws would be the greatest benefit the country could receive.
"Quiet and therefore good government" - golden words which should be engraved over the entrance to the Houses of Parliament. Trollope understands the value of this ideal. But he also sees very clearly the ineradicable elements in human nature which will always thwart its realisation.

David Womersley is Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford. His previous reviews for the Social Affairs Unit can be read here.

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Petulant, over-sensitive, rancorous, nail-biting, resentful, brittle, puritanical Brown
What a brilliant summary of Gordon Brown. Posted by: Jonathan at October 11, 2006 07:32 PM
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