April 11, 2013

Finest Hour 156, Autumn 2012

Page 50

A Great Deal of Substance and a Certain Amount of Spin

British Prime Ministers and Democracy: From Disraeli to Blair, by Roland Quinault. Continuum, hardbound, 302 pp., $120, Kindle edition $14.82.

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By William John Shepherd

Mr. Shepherd is an associate archivist at The Catholic University of America. Washington.

Professor Quinault has written widely on British politics and leaders, with sympathetic studies of Gladstone and Churchill. Here he examines the role of democracy in the governments of ten prominent prime ministers since the mid-19th century: five Tories (Disraeli, Salisbury, Baldwin, Churchill, Thatcher); two Liberals (Gladstone, Lloyd George); and three Labourites (MacDonald, Attlee, Blair).

Quinault says he selected premiers who had served at least five years and made significant contributions “to the evolution of modern British politics” (2). However, notable long-serving prime ministers such as Asquith, Macmillan, Wilson and Major are virtually ignored—Asquith most remarkably, given the major reforms of his Liberal governments. The ones the author does cover receive impressively long chapters and a tour de force analysis of their respective concepts of democracy. While most of them were influenced by the classic philosophers, Quinault explains, they were also affected by contemporary ideas produced by an expanding electorate. Topics range from “Tory Democracy” and proportional representation to legislative actions enfranchising women and ending plural voting rights for landowners and universities.

Quinault’s ultimate thesis gradually emerges through his use of the democratic credentials of the nine premiers, Disraeli to Thatcher, as a foil for a blistering attack on the tenth, Tony Blair. The last, he argues, was all spin and no substance, a non-intellectual whose achievements in the Northern Ireland Peace Agreement of 1998 and partial reform of the House of Lords were more than offset by his autocratic rule at home and bloody wars abroad. Blair is accused of subservience to President George W. Bush as they attempted to impose democracy on Iraq and Afghanistan, while ignoring the tyrannical aspects of friendly regimes elsewhere. Blair “took the name of democracy in vain and, by so doing, he devalued both his own reputation and that of democratic government” (220).

If only the array of unpalatable choices faced by modern leaders were always between right and wrong, rather than a variety of imperfect alternatives.

The chapter on Churchill (recycled from a 2001 article in the Transactions of the Royal Historical Society) contains minor errors: Churchill’s novel Savrola was published in 1899, not 1896 (144), his post-Great War ministries included Secretary of State for Air, not just War (143). Given the Blair attack, one wonders how the chapter on Thatcher could fail to condemn her similarly for her association with Ronald Reagan, with whom she famously cooperated over democracy movements in Eastern Europe while disagreeing over American actions in Grenada and, initially, toward the Falkland Islands. Although the book has excellent endnotes, there are no photographs or bibliography and the index is weak, with many listings for several individuals, and no entries for the major issues covered in the text, such as proportional representation and plural voting.

Quinault’s book is a useful overview of modern British political leadership despite the anti-Blair diatribe and minor errors and omissions. Its exorbitant price tag seems designed to force readers into the inexpensive Kindle edition.

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