Thursday, October 22, 2009

Book Review

My vacation reading was Richard Aldous' The Lion and the Unicorn. The Lion and the Unicorn tells the story of the rivalry of Benjamin Disraeli and William Gladstone. These two men dominated British politics during the Victorian era. During the second half of the Nineteenth Century, these two alternated power and the office of Prime Minister. Stoking their rivalry is the fact that the men were complete opposites and personally detested each other.

I found it fascinating to reed how two people can dominate a political scene for so long. It is impossible for the American political scene to experience such a thing as the rivalry between Disraeli and Gladstone. The idea of the separation of powers and term limits for President mean that the most powerful person in the country never has a consistent rival and is off the political scene within a decade. Ronald Reagan and Tip O'Neil were the two most powerful rival politicans in the 1980's but they never faced off directly. All of their conflicts were indirectly through the press and through campaigns. Disraeli and Gladstone regularly faced each other in direct debate in the House of Commons. The closest American analogy that I can come up with is when Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, and John C. Calhoun dominated debates in the Senate during the Antebellum period. However none of the three 3 ever became President.

Gladstone and Disraeli debated every major issue in British politics. The clashed over budget issues and the role of religion in public life. The two debated electoral reform and the questions surrounding Ireland. In foreign affairs, Gladstone and Disraeli had some of their most explosive clashes over issues regarding Turkey and the Middle East, and relations between the great powers of Europe.

Spicing up the political rivalry between the two is the personal qualities of both protagonists. Disraeli was a flamboyant dandy who also wrote popular novels. On one trip to the Middle East, Disraeli came back with a "butler, a pirate outfit, and a case of the clap." Gladstone, on the other hand, was a stern, upright, and pious man. His only weakness was that he frequented some of London's most notorious red light districts searching for what he called "rescue cases."

The book is well written and easy to read. Unless you just be happen to be a geek about British politics and history like I am then you don't need to view this book as vacation reading. However, it is one of the best books on the subject of British political history that I have read.

Liturgygeek was concerned on finding out who was the lion and who was the unicorn. The title is an illusion to a scene in Lewis Carroll"s Through the Looking Glass. William Gladstone is the lion and Benjamin Disraeli is the unicorn.

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