Pistols at Dawn is an unfashionable book. Its author boldly takes the view that in politics, it is ‘the leaders who define their age’. While most historians now concentrate on detailing the mundane lives of the many, John Campbell is happy to make claims for the colourful lives of the few, the very few. Pistols at Dawn gives an account of British history since the late eighteenth century in terms of the rivalries of eight pairs of antagonists.
Only one rivalry, that between Canning and Castlereagh, actually led to an exchange of shots. Sadly, the outlawing of the duel no longer makes it possible for modern politicians to settle their differences on Putney Heath. Only in the imagination can one think of Margaret Thatcher taking aim at Ted Heath, or Asquith sizing up Lloyd George as a target. Instead, there can merely be recourse to bitter words and a little backstabbing. Yet the contest is no less meaningful. According to Campbell, personal antagonism drives politics more powerfully than opposing ideas: ‘It is rivalry which drives individuals to take up opposing causes, rather than opposed beliefs which makes them rivals.’