In Iolanthe, it was the contemplative guardsman on sentry duty who discerned that every boy and every girl that is born into this world alive is either a little Liberal or else a little Conservative. Similarly, in matters of character, most of us feel an instinctive affinity either for W E Gladstone, the stern, principled statesman, or for his rival, the whimsical and exotic pragmatist, Benjamin Disraeli. A specialist knowledge of Victorian history is not a prerequisite for declaring admiration for one or the other any more than it is the preserve of accredited tennis coaches to admit favouritism between Borg and McEnroe.
Partly, it is a matter of style. Gladstone was one of the great public speakers of the age. During his whirlwind 1879 ‘Midlothian Campaign’ he addressed crowds of 20,000 and more. ‘People were continually handed out over heads who had fainted and were as if dead,’ he noted afterwards, perhaps