The fallen mighty

The Lost Prime Minister
August 18, 1995

In the study of British history, social history has held the field for the past few decades. The old political and diplomatic narratives have been largely taken to have been satisfactorily covered and most of the original and innovative work has been done in other fields. Whether through the natural swing of the pendulum, or because of the manifest inadequacy of traditional political structures to accommodate the problems of modern society, there seems now to be something of a return to the study of political history and the history of political ideas and institutions.

A turn away from the music hall and the fish and chip shop towards the centres of power and control is of course in many ways to be welcomed, not least by those who take social history seriously. A new approach to political history must, however, take account of the insights which social history has provided. If the old social history was "history with the politics left out", we must not return to "history with society left out". David Nicholls's new life of Sir Charles Dilke (1843-1911) is, alas, remarkable for its lack of subtlety at both the social and political levels.

The book contains a good deal of old-fashioned economic determinism. Dilke's ideas and behaviour are attributed to his position as a representative member of the "upper middle class" of his period. But although the programmes that he advocated were directed towards a non-aristocratic and non-landowning consciousness among the electorate and the organs of opinion, it is doubtful whether Dilke saw himself as quite such an unreconstructed bourgeois. He was a baronet who prided himself on gentry ancestry, and who may well have considered himself to be heir to the aristocratic Whigs of the early 19th century rather than to the city and Manchester men who were moving into the mainstream of Liberal politics in his day. Older liberal politicians preferred him to his friend and colleague Chamberlain, almost entirely it would seem on grounds of his social acceptability. Edward Hamilton, while considering that "there is more in Chamberlain's little finger than in the whole of Dilke", nevertheless considered that Dilke would win the race for the leadership of the radical liberals. History has come down firmly in support of the first part of this judgement, the latter was never put to the test. It is however, Nicholls's contention that only the comparatively accidental circumstances of the sexual scandal for which he is now mainly remembered prevented him from leading the Liberals and of moulding the party into one which could have won the working-class electorate and prevented the rise of a labour party.

Dilke has been pretty well done by in the field of biography. The two-volume Tuckwell work, although subject to the inherent hagiographic tendency of such works, is a mine of information. The area of silence in it - the fatal divorce case and the subsequent misguided attempt to clear his name in the law courts - were well tackled in the lively book by Roy Jenkins published in 1958.

The justification for another heavyweight biography has to be new material or a fresh interpretation. There is some new material here, but the picture is not radically changed, while the new interpretation rests on an unconvincing guess which takes little account of the country and the society in which the political minutiae which are so lengthily described, take place. Could any party have contained the cotton employers and the Manningham Mills strikers for long, whoever was in the driving seat? What were the changes in the climate of opinion which made Dilke's comparatively minor peccadillos so crushing in a century in which prime ministerial adultery had been a fact of life? There is no mention of the campaigns for purity which had gone on for the decade before Dilke's fall, or of voices like that of Hugh Price Hughes in 1885 - "Hitherto it had been held that a man's public life had no connection with his private life, though the latter might be that of a fornicator . . . In this reform they must begin by cleansing the House of Commons."

These views were to be heard not only in the Methodist pulpit and the Nonconformist journals, but in the most influential organs of opinion including The Times and the Manchester Guardian. Dilke's downfall was very much a matter of context and the new context was the emergent puritan crusades and the increasing power of the press, neither of which is looked at here. Two other elements in Dilke's career could do with some re-examination. It may well be that his republicanism was a temporary aberration - perhaps the misreading of the essentials of modernisation, for Dilke was certainly a moderniser, but a more detailed study of the way in which Queen Victoria used her influence to limit his political career could throw more light on the interesting question of her actual political power in her last years; the context could also have been more firmly established by an account of extra-parliamentary republicanism - that espoused by the former Chartist W. E. Adams who attacked the expense-based critique of the monarchy - "What was the worth of that paltry cry about the Cost of the Crown, raised by Sir Charles Dilke before his own tremendous lapse?" Such an account might have illuminated both their campaign and the wider questions raised by it - could the Dilke/Chamberlain exercise have actually held back the development of a principled republican movement in the country? And finally there is no real examination of the relationship between Dilke and his final constituency, the Forest of Dean. Perhaps his support from the miners was one of the last examples of pure deference politics - support for a gentleman radical who visited them for three short visits each year and rewarded them by supporting a few mildly interventionist issues. A closer look at the consituency and of his relations with the voters might well have added a little depth to what is basically a one-dimensional study.

Dorothy Thompson is the author of Queen Victoria: Gender and Power.

The Lost Prime Minister: A Life of Sir Charles Dilke

Author - David Nicholls
ISBN - 1 85285 125 2
Publisher - Hambledon
Price - £25.00
Pages - 386

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