06 Jun Politics (and Society) Today Could Do With a Return to the Culture of Dueling
I have often thought that not only is dueling an unfairly maligned tradition but one whose application today could stiffen the spine of an estrogen-laden society and put more of a “point” to affairs of honor. I can think of several instances in my own life where this would have resolved a difficulty. Manners are the lubricant of civilization and alas, they are quickly perishing in America with the resultant coarseness, rudeness and cultural illiteracy that pervades the country today. Part of this is a result of the loss of classical education, a complete lack of historical knowledge and the increasing prevalence of women of both sexes held high as the enviable male paradigm. We are a nation with a surfeit of males but fewer men. Men know what they are about and have an idea of their measure under arduous or dangerous circumstances.
Some have served in the military, some participate in adventure sports and some in dangerous professions (like firefighters not cops). Being a cop is one of the safest occupations in America outside of the self-induced pathologies of over-eating, alcoholism and suicide. Check the FBI statistics.
The concept of honor is a dying creed so I expect very few adherents will step forward to advocate for the renewal of dueling as a dispute resolution mechanism. Honor would be a necessary preamble to even champion dueling. Guns or swords? Let’s make both available as a choice for consenting combatants. I would again commend your attention to the excellent book – “The Compleat Gentleman” by Brad Miner. While you are at it, take a look at the dozens of sword-fighting texts available from the Renaissance era in Europe during the high era of fighting salons. The pity is there are hundreds more which have yet to be translated from the Latin, Italian, German or French into English. -BB
Charles Moore reviews ‘Pistols at Dawn’ by John Campbell.
This book gives an entertaining account of eight famous political feuds, starting with Fox and Pitt and ending with Blair and Brown. Other reviewers have compared one rivalry with another. I want to concentrate on the idea raised by the book’s title, that of the duel.
In only one of the eight stories (which also include Gladstone vs Disraeli and Heath vs Thatcher) were “pistols at dawn” literally employed. Exactly 200 years ago, in the middle of the Napoleonic wars, Britain launched a military and naval expedition to Walcheren in Holland. It failed. George Canning, the foreign secretary, sought covertly to blame his rival, Lord Castlereagh, and to have him removed from the War Office.
When Castlereagh discovered what was going on, he wrote to Canning: “You continued to sit in the same Cabinet with me, and to leave me not only in the persuasion that I possessed your confidence and support as a colleague, but you allowed me to… proceed in the Execution of a new Enterprise of the most arduous and important nature, with your apparent concurrence… You were fully aware that if my situation in the government had been disclosed to me, I could not have submitted to remain one moment in office, without the entire abandonment of my private honour and public duty. You knew I was deceived, and you continued to deceive me.” Castlereagh demanded “satisfaction”, by which he meant a duel. The two men met on Putney Heath. Both missed with their first shots, but Castlereagh insisted on a second round and wounded Canning in the thigh, without doing him serious injury.
There was a public scandal: duelling was against the law. Both men resigned, but both later returned to high office: Castlereagh’s career, which had been expiring, revived, while Canning ultimately, though briefly, became prime minister.
In the autumn of 2004, Tony Blair announced his intention to fight the next election as prime minister and, if victorious, to serve the whole of the subsequent term. Gordon Brown, who thought he had been told the opposite the day before, felt betrayed. The “understanding” that the two had sealed at the Granita restaurant in 1994 – that Brown would succeed Blair – had, he thought, been broken. “There is nothing that you could say to me now that I could ever believe,” the chancellor told the prime minister.
So for Mr Brown, as for Castlereagh, it was a matter of honour. But of course it did not occur to Mr Brown to challenge Mr Blair to a duel. Instead, the modern equivalents of the duellists’ “seconds” were the rival armies of spin doctors, and so the contest was carried on, at public expense, through the media.
The feud continued, despite a truce during the general election campaign, in which the two were filmed eating ice creams together. It resulted in a parliamentary coup against Mr Blair in the autumn of 2006 which, strictly speaking, failed, but which persuaded the prime minister (luckily, as it turned out, for him) to bring forward his date of departure.
John Campbell considers the Granita deal about the succession a “devil’s bargain”. He quotes the view of Thomas Grenville, in 1812: “When two men ride a horse, one must ride behind.” He is surely right, but the Brown/Blair story does illustrate the difficulties with which politics is saddled if there is no accepted code of honour.
The form of the duel – with its pointless deaths, inherent injustice and absurd pride – seems to us against reason and morality. But it did answer a problem that always confronts human society: how can one settle a dispute between essentially equal parties?