Hywel Williams: History or bunk ... Politicians who write biographies should be careful which lessons they draw from the past

Roundup: Talking About History

When politicians turn into historians it's natural they should opt for biography as a good way into the past. (The list of top summer reading for MPs includes William Hague's life of Wilberforce and Tom Bower's biography of Gordon Brown.) The day-to-day business of democratic politics revolves around personalities - especially in Britain and America, where questions of character are never far away. New Labour was inseparable from Tony Blair's character, and an assessment of its shifting sands was also a judgment on its leader's chameleon power. George Bush's conversion to evangelical Christianity was a personal affair, but one that had momentous consequences for the Middle East. The Tories' ideological uncertainties mirror their emerging perplexity about David Cameron's personality.

Douglas Hurd's new biography of Robert Peel and Gordon Brown's Courage: Eight Portraits show the appeal of the ethically minded biography to the political mind. Both authors have a high sense of public duty, and the moral sense that comes alive on their pages revolves around the drama of choices that have to be made, of issues that need resolving. Hurd's prose has the equipoise of the moderate Anglican - a type of judiciousness that has almost disappeared from intellectual life. He's particularly good on Peel's religious faith and the premier's awareness of an inscrutable providence shaping human fortunes. Brown's words evoke the intensity of the Presbyterian conscience as it plots its path through life.

Both books and authors are thoroughly Protestant in their seriousness about the assessment of character and are inconceivable without the deep influence of the Reformation on the people of Britain. Social forces and economic trends pale into insignificance compared to the high drama of individual nobility, which is what really engages Hurd and Brown. Peel's stiffness of manner and dry personality makes him an unpromising candidate for this approach. But Hurd turns him into a prophet, the prime minister who really understood what the 19th century meant for Britain - free trade and economic vigour, but also moral buoyancy and optimism about reform....

comments powered by Disqus