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VINE VOICEon 13 December 2009
"Pistols at Dawn" is another excellent book from the great John Campbell, one of Britain's foremost political biographers. In a series of essays ranging from the 1780's to more or less the present day, Campbell provides fascinating and revealing insights into the competition between politicians to gain ascendancy over colleagues, party, Parliament or country. Anyone believing that competition in politics, backstairs intrigue, spin and acute personal rivalry are recent phenomena should read Campbell's book. Such features are as old as politics and in Britain particularly have been an intimate part of our parliamentary democracy for at least two hundred years.

These essays are thoroughly researched, sufficiently detailed to provide a good background to further reading, and often very funny. His judgements are reasonable, shrewd, generous and, so far as I am concerned, spot-on. While he clearly rates Lloyd George above Asquith - which will rile some readers - he is appropriately critical of the Welsh wizard. The chapter on the rivalry between Macmillan and Butler is exemplary: beautifully, indeed poignantly dramatised, informative and extraordinary - who'd have imagined that in the middle of the Twentieth century this country would have had the premiership given, finally, to a Fourteenth Earl who did not even have a seat in the House of Commons?

In his preface Campbell pays tribute to the work of fellow historians, including Richard Aldous - another great writer who is able to dramatise history without compromising accuracy and good judgement. "Pistols at Dawn" is a first-rate production which will make an ideal present for anyone interested in politics, history and people.
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on 6 November 2009
Pistols at Dawn is a fascinating book partly because of the outstanding characters from English history that are portrayed but also because of the author's illustration of the development from 18th century Statesmen of Herculean stature towards the seemingly inevitable descent towards smaller minds with a less altruistic philosophy. Not that even the great Pitt is shown to be above economy with the truth when it was most needed. It is a book that throws a new light on the history of each period and a useful reminder of the crises of the past such as the Napoleonic and Great Wars for those of us who left school several decades ago. An original approach on fascinating subjects and a thoroughly good read.
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on 5 September 2009
Master political biographer John Campbell traces some well known elements of British political history but also offers new and important insights on the subject areas he knows best: Asquith/Lloyd George, Bevan/Gaitskell and Heath/Thatcher. He also provides what is probably the first assessment by a professional historian of the Blair/Brown relationship which he sees as a kind of Faustian bargain that got them into power for a good long time but which ultimately blew up in their faces.
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on 19 April 2010
The actual subtitle of the book is `Two hundred years of political rivalry from Pitt & Fox to Blair & Brown'. It might equally be `A Study in Petulance'. At its highest, politics is about great things: the government of nations and empires, the clash of ideologies, the winning of wars or the betterment of societies. It is also, however, an inescapably human activity and the story of politics is just as much about personal ambition, jealousies, factionalism and clashing personalities. Pistols at Dawn is the story of eight such clashes.

The case studies are well chosen and provide a good range of rivalries. They span the whole period of more than 200 years; they include cross-party and intra-party rivalries; some have one man with the upper hand throughout, some are much more equal; some were rivals almost throughout their careers while others developed much later on; one even involves a 'rival' (Butler) who barely sees himself as such. Invariably, the contests involved contrasting characters as well as simply two people struggling for office or ascendancy.

This range prevents what could be a problem were the same story to effectively be told eight times. In fact, Campbell writes each one with all the fluency and drama of a novel, bringing out the characters of the fifteen men and one woman involved and the twists and turns of each story. Reducing the events of decades down to fifty or sixty pages in each case does mean the chapters become 'highlights packages' and cut out some of the depth but also allows the reader to compare more readily the different rivalries.

If the book's at its strongest relaying the narrative drive and the character clashes of the rivalries, it's weaker in the detail: there are simply too many errors and this undermines the reader's trust. For example, he describes Portland as "aged" when he formed his first government, when in fact he was 44; he states that Alec Douglas-Home served as Heath's Foreign Secretary in the Lords whereas he remained in the Commons; perhaps worst of all, he states in the chapter on the Heath-Thatcher rivalry that "Heath's fate remains unique" in that he was "ousted against his will with no pretence of age or ill health" - forgetting that Thatcher herself was.

Still, if these mistakes are irritating, they're more than made up for in the book's readability. If it can't be a definitive telling of the individual stories, it's nonetheless an enjoyable and interesting look at them and at the unchanging nature of the types of political animal.
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on 14 October 2009
The top of the greasy pole is well known as a lonely place. Our leaders might have different attitudes to marriage and domestic relationships, but it is astonishing how many of the are united in hatred. Well, maybe not hatred, just bitter and all-consuming rivalry. In many cases, I suspect that the rivalry may have preceded the hatred, but there is nothing more satisfying than seeing our supposed role models behaving with the spite and venom of cats at war. Very entertaining stuff well covered, if sometimes in a little too much detail for the events and not enough on the characters driving these legendary feuds.
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VINE VOICEon 27 July 2009
Pistols At Dawn is a description of personal rivalries in British politics over the past two hundred years. In practical terms only one the conflicts actually led to pistols at dawn when George Canning and Viscount Castlereagh swapped shots at Putney Heath in September 1809. Both were hit but neither were seriously injured. The other seven conflicts were characterised more by silent back stabbing rather than upfront gunfire.

The most recent example, that of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, at various times paralysed New Labour in government as conflicting ambitions produced open hostility. In September 2005 a frustrated Brown allegedly demanded of Blair, "When are you going to F off and give me a date (for your resignation)? I want the job now." Blair had already tried to undermine Brown by promoting Blairites such as Alan Milburn, Steven Byers, David Blunkett and Estelle Morris, all of whom failed, although only Morris was honest enough to admit she wasn't up to the job. Ultimately, Blair's presentation without substance and his ill-fated support for the Iraq war provided Brown with a poisoned chalice which the Scot promptly filled with more poison.

The conflict echoed the dispute between Aneurin Bevan and Hugh Gaitskell. Like Brown, Bevan grew up in the Labour Movement, Gaitksell, like Blair, chose it. There were differences. Gaitksell had some beliefs, Blair had none. Bevan, like Brown, had clear ideas of the kind of society he wanted but unlike the latter was unwilling to always remain within the fold to achieve his objectives. In this regard Bevan's conflict with Gaitskell was conducted mainly in opposition, although it started in government. Brown's conflict with Blair started in opposition and was conducted in government. Both Bevan and Brown were upstaged by public school educated people in a society in which image was more important than achievement.

Ironically, the conflict between Edward Heath and Margaret Thatcher (both of whom were upwardly mobile) was based on a conflict of ideas. Heath represented consensus politics, Thatcher the politics of conviction. Whereas Heath and his main colleagues were determined never to return to pre-war levels of unemployment, Thatcher, prompted by Sir Keith Joseph and others, latched on to monetarist theory. Heath made things difficult for himself by being unwilling to admit he ever made mistakes, losing the chance of returning to office under his unexpected successor by a mixture of pride and egotism. By failing to adapt to changing circumstances Heath allowed himself to become marginalised. Thatcher eventually followed him.

Probably the most tragic of the battles was the one between Harold Macmillan and R A (Rab) Butler. On two occasions the former prevented Butler from becoming Prime Minister. Macmillan, a sad and lonely man, was an astute and calculating politician, who never regarded Butler as Prime Ministerial material. Although Macmillan was a "One Nation" Tory he took pleasure at the widespread criticism of "Butskellism" - a term used to describe the apparent lack of differences between Conservative and Labour economic policies in the 1950's. Butler contributed to his own downfall with several poor decisions and a lack of political backbone. Whereas Macmillan knew he had no friends at the top Butler mistakenly thought he did. Instead of challenging the "Magic Circle" which brought Macmillan to power in 1957 by refusing to serve he quietly acquiesced. He did the same when Home was chosen to succeed Macmillan in 1963 where a refusal to serve could have brought the highest prize.

Vacillation also accounted for Asquith, allowing the untrustworthy Lloyd George to supplant him as Prime Minster in 1916. The result probably facilitated the subsequent military victory over Germany but it split the Liberal Party and condemned it to future oblivion. Like Heath, Asquith could not grasp the fact that his time had gone and - egged on by his mentally unstable wife - allowed personal considerations to overcome political advantage. Of course, this did not mean Lloyd George was any less underhand, untrustworthy, or disloyal, than he was later described.

The one constant feature of all eight political duels described in the book is the unchanging state of human nature. William Pitt brought down Charles James Fox by "skulduggery and downright lies", Canning relentlessly schemed against Castlereagh, while Disraeli and Gladstone openly loathed each other. Gladstone referred to the policies of Disraeli (by then Lord Beaconsfield) as Beaconfieldism while Disraeli regarded Gladstone as an "unprincipled maniac."

The recent expenses scandal may have highlighted the fundamental hypocrisy of politics but this book shows that such hypocrisy is not new. It also shows how integral personality is to politics and how ambition repeatedly undermines any concept of serving the common good. Castlereagh and Canning both proved to be outstanding Foreign Secretaries. The administrative skills of Bevan and Butler are widely acknowledged while Macmillan and Blair courted the media to the exclusion of the national interest. A solid and interesting read rather than an outstanding one. Five stars for historians only, others may have settled for less.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 28 December 2011
A great read for all those inserted in politics and history, but this book is much more than that. It is also a fascinating study of people and power - what enables some to rise to the top and to realise their ambitions, whilst others, sometimes more talented, fail to seize the moment, to communicate effectively, or to read the situation to their advantage, and so suffer relative failure.

The case studies are presented in chronological order; Fox and Pitt, Canning and Castlereagh, Asquith and Lloyd George, Butler and MacMillan, Gaitskell and Bevan, Heath and Thatcher, Blair and Brown, and covers the historical context which shaped each rivalry as well as the personalities of those involved.

Each of the 8 case studies is self contained , and is easily absorbed thanks to the quality of the writing and story telling. Unbiased and fair, the author concludes each case study with a review of who came out on top of the conflict, with a look at the consequences of the outcome for the political scene and the country.

This is good stuff - well worth buying.
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on 10 May 2010
A brilliant compilation of short stories describing eight bitter political rivalries that have occurred over the last two hundred years of English parliamentary history, beginning with Pitt vs. Fox and ending with Blair vs. Brown. Every one is an amazing story in its own right, revealing some of the ugliness of the power struggles that form the background to British history. Even if one is familiar with the periods of history covered by the eight chapters, Campbell's portrayal of each offers an unusual perspective by focusing on the relationships between the individual players and how this affected the outcome of much broader events. For this reader, who thought himself well versed in the history of the Blair years, there was much to be learned from Campbell's reading of the bitter rivalry between Blair and Brown and the devastatingly corrosive effect it had on both their premierships.

This was a book I couldn't put down. A delightful and informative read.
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on 10 March 2014
This volume consists of eight chapters of around 50 pages on the rivalries between British politicians over the last two centuries: between Charles Fox and William Pitt the Younger in the Eighteenth century, George Canning, Viscount Castlereagh, Benjamin "Dizzy" Disraeli and W.E. Gladstone, the "Grand Old Man" / the "Murderer of Gordon" in the Nineteenth, HH Asquith, RA Butler, Nye Bevan, Hugh Gaitskell, Edward Heath, David Lloyd George, Harold "Super Mac" Macmillan, and Margaret Thatcher covering the Twentieth, with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown used to represent the present century. John Campbell had already examined four of these protagonists, Bevan, Heath, Lloyd George, and Thatcher in full single tomes.

With the aid of other notable secondary sources: including William Hague on Pitt, Wendy Hinde on Canning and Castlereagh, Robert BlakeDisraeli and William Kuhn on Disraeli, Roy Jenkins, John Morley The Life of William Ewart Gladstone, Vol. 1 (of 3) 1809-1859, and Philip Magnus on Gladstone, Kenneth Morgan on Lloyd George, Michael Foot on Bevan, Philip Williams on Gaitskell, the author might claim to have trawled the best ideas from the past.

Not only does each chapter focus on the rivalries of each historical period, at the end of each narrative the author offers his opinion who might have been the winner at the time and who since in hindsight, before indicating when their work was finally completed and by whom.

Pitt, for instance, was remembered for laying the foundations of British trade, and paved the way for further administrative and financial reforms throughout the Nineteenth century by both Sir Robert Peel and Gladstone. First Castlereagh and later Canning, who had taken part in a duel in September 1809, had helped distance Britain from continental intervention, apart for the Crimean folly, for almost a century until 1914, while the moral passion of Gladstone's Midlothian campaign lived on among protesters in the peace movement in the 1920s, through the CND marchers in the 1950s, the Women's Movement at Greenham Common, in the 1980s, right up to opponents of the Iraq war in 2003.

The Labour leader, Neil Kinnock, might have been called the last Bevanite; he also made use of Gaitskell's methods to stamp out the Militant group within Labour in the 1980s, and despite being described as the "grandfather" of "New" Labour, it is doubtful that Hugh Gaitskell would have approved of Blair's debasement of socialism within the Labour Party.

For almost fifty years Asquith (known as Herbert by his first wife, and Henry by his more illustrious second spouse, Margot) preserved his reputation among Liberals against the "Welsh wizard" Lloyd George who had split the Liberal Party. But since AJP Taylor Lloyd George: Twelve Essays a reassessment has been made of Lloyd George, and today the Liberal Democrats no longer see Asquith in a saintly pious image as was presented by Jenkins Asquith in the early 1960s, but as a "snobbish" "Victorian amateur", preferring and forgiving the warts of the charismatic philanderer of Criccieth, and ranking him a close second behind the genius of Churchill, who might be described as another man of all parties / no party, but himself.

Pistols at Dawn might become the general readers and first year politics undergraduate cheap alternative to the brilliant scholarly Biographical Dictionary of British Prime Ministers Biographical Dictionary of British Prime Ministers, with nice nuggets of information - such as Canning's parent performed on the stage (as John Major and Blair), and led the shortest government for four months in 1827, after the longest by Lord Liverpool; Lord Derby's 1852 government was the least experienced prior to Macdonald's Labour government in 1924 and Blair's in 1997; that had Lloyd George joined Kitchener on the proposed voyage to Russia in June 1916 British political and military history would have followed a very different road; and that Disraeli brought back "peace with honour" from the Congress of Berlin, something which Neville Chamberlain claimed to have achieved sixty years later, in 1938, after the Munich settlement, as well as entertaining historical jokes - items which both young and tired experienced lecturers would be happy to make use of from time to time in their lectures.

They must realise, however, that since its publication, in early 2009, other notable volumes have hit the bookstands: Douglas Hurd, DR Thorpe, and Philip Ziegler's biographies on Peel, Macmillan, and Heath, as well as three major heavy weight volumes: Charles Moore's first of two volumes on Baroness Thatcher, and Blair and Mandelson's autobiographies: A Journey, and The Third Man, respectively, and the Brown government lasted for a further twelve months.

In the anniversary of the fall of the Conservative government much blamed on the Keeler scandal, it is surprising the author seemed to mention it just in passing, without adding the names of the chief protagonists. Unimportant, too embarrassing to give full importance, or indeed was it something which did not really affect the organization of Tory party at the time, much less the clubby rivalry at the top? Interesting at the time simply for is marginal hush hush place.

I am surprised the author did not pick up Gladstone and Thatcher's desire to continue indefinitely without making any provision for renovation and life in their parties after their departure. Perhaps they knew too well that their work could not be completed with the people around at the time, and this was the reason why they felt the could not leave the scene. When that arose it left a vacuum which their political opponents Lord Salisbury, Arthur Balfour, and Joseph Chamberlain, and unexpected rivals such as Major, took advantage.

After forty years as members of the EEC (now EU), I am surprised that the rivalry within Labour between Bevan and Gaitskell is still viewed in an insular fashion, without making any reference to parallel changes in ideology in sister socialist parties in countries not so far as West Germany.

Rivalry and opposition. Why not link the political rivalry in the late 1960s and 70s between the grammar school, "Sailor boy" Ted and the common lad from Huddersfield, Harold, as comedian Mike Yarwood used to on early Saturday night shows. It got laughs because like Rory Bremner years later with Major, Blair and Brown it sounded much too real. And why not bring in the rivalry of Ted and Enoch Powell? It was in fact Powell's economics which became the basis of Thatcherite monetarism. Was Ted annoyed with the arrival of a younger woman from the Lincolnshire sticks, or was it because he saw her as employing the ideas of another of his deadly political rivals, a former university professor, a Brigadier General, and most of all an anti-EEC Marketeer to boot?

Pistols at dawn hits a bull's eye. Well composed and argued, a delightful read, beautifully illustrated with portraits, photos and cartoons from Gilray to Steve Bell, and a useful tool for analysis. As each chapter is not over heavy, it leaves readers time to meditate and explore new ideas for the future. As above, I have enjoyed it because it has left small incidents to be ironed out. Only a clearly entertaining and well researched volume can allow that!
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on 15 January 2010
Pistols at Dawn by John Campbell is a very good book dealing with some of the great political rivalries in British history. It is very well-written, fast-paced and extremely interesting. It is also informative, analytical and opinionated (the author is not afraid to air his opinion on certain politcal leaders and their policies). However, if I have any criticism it is that perhaps the inclusion of Blair and Brown may be a little premature because facts and information are still emerging about the dysfuctional relationship between them and their time in government. Overall though a most enjoyable book.
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