Come Back, Trollope

Westminster's current inhabitants are perfect fodder for a great political satirist, if only we had one

Could the return of coalition politics herald a revival of the political novel? The remarkable fluidity of Victorian and Edwardian party politics proved the perfect conditions in which that characteristically British literary genre could flourish. From Peel to Chamberlain, from Gladstone to Churchill, the allegiances of leading statesmen constantly shifted as the two-party system of Whigs and Tories that had endured since the late 17th century was tested to destruction. 

The creative tension between aristocratic patronage and democratic suffrage, combined with the incontrovertible fact that the House of Commons was the most important parliamentary chamber in the world, meant that political novelists from Disraeli to Trollope quite naturally chose Westminster as the arena in which to spin their webs of intrigue and stage their conflicts of conscience.

How easy it is to picture David Cameron as the Plantagenet Palliser of our time, rising to become Prime Minister of a coalition government. His wife Samantha, too, would make a very passable Lady Glencora. Of course, it takes a stretch of the imagination today to see a man who is Earl of Silverbridge and Duke of Omnium holding the highest office. Under the new dispensation, however, all constitutional conventions are up for grabs. We are used to seeing past prime ministers take their places in the Lords. (It is true that the last three — John Major, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown — have so far declined to accept peerages, though all three would be adornments to the Upper House.) But why should not a future prime minister sit in a newly reformed House of Lords? The “Third Man”, for one, would surely agree. Indeed, the title of Duke of Omnium might have been invented for Baron Mandelson of Hartlepool, the former First Secretary of State, Lord President of the Council and European Commissioner, among many other offices.

Political theatre, too, should be the beneficiary of coalition politics. Today’s cast of characters is every bit as colourful as any of those who peopled past political dramas such as Danton’s Death, now on at the National Theatre (and reviewed by Minette Marrin on page 69). Oh for a Georg Büchner — or indeed a Shakespeare — to depict the Dantons and Robespierres of our day. The audience at the Olivier might be forgiven for mistaking the sanguinary demagogues of the Jacobin club for Labour’s leadership candidates — except that, rather than tumbril and guillotine, the losers have nothing worse to fear than their memoirs being remaindered or an afterlife of ghostly appearances arranged by friends at the BBC. After enjoying Toby Stephens’s execution in the title role, the historian Andrew Roberts told me with grim satisfaction: “Lippy lefties getting the chop — that’s just what I like to see.”

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