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The Great Rivalry : Gladstone & Disraeli

A Dual Biography


Dick Leonard


London: I.B. Tauris, 2013

Hardcover. xi, 226 p. ISBN 978-1848859258. Ł22.50


Reviewed by Anthony Howe

University of East Anglia, Norwich




The stream of political biography by erstwhile politicians shows little sign of abating, with the latest contribution this ‘dual biography’ of Gladstone and Disraeli by Dick Leonard, a former Labour MP.

Neither Gladstone nor Disraeli is short of recent studies and Richard Aldous in 2007 also produced a similar joint biography, The Lion and the Unicorn : Gladstone vs Disraeli. Leonard benefits from this proliferation of recent literature (although oddly Angus Hawkins’ two-volume biography of the 14th Earl of Derby is omitted from the bibliography) and makes no great pretence to originality but presents a workmanlike, lucid, and pithy chronological account of the careers of the two politicians suitably set against the background of elections and party politics. As a result, this book does at times become as much a potted history of nineteenth-century party politics as a dual biography and we get little by way of aperçus into the intellectual background or indeed the popular politics of the period. Disraeli for the most part appears in a familiar guise as a master of opportunism, and Leonard’s lodestar here remains the classic biography by Robert Blake. Similarly, Gladstone for the most part is the man of principle, albeit qualified by a dose of scepticism inspired by Richard Shannon’s work. The narrative is nicely spiced with colourful quotations from the respective antagonists. Leonard also gives us some interesting reminders of points sometimes neglected, for example, that Disraeli was already contemplating retirement before he ultimately succeeded Derby as prime minister, and that it was only by a relatively small margin that Gladstone failed to get the first Irish Home Rule Bill through the House of Commons, both arguably the turning-points in the futures of their respective parties (and countries).

This is a well-written and mostly accurate account (one does however muse over the putative discussions in a Gladstone Cabinet in which Erskine Childers rather than, more prosaically, Hugh Childers, was a minister). However, given the fine vintage of recent Gladstone-Disraeli studies, the appeal of this book lies primarily in its instant readability rather than its lasting scholarly merits. Inevitably, Disraeli’s Mr Mountchesney comes to mind, ‘I rather like bad wine, one gets so fed up with good’.


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