To the British public in the second half of the 19th century, the feuding politicians Benjamin Disraeli and William Gladstone were celebrities in the modern sense of the word. Their battles in the House of Commons, occasionally spilling over into campaigns outside, attracted as much public attention as the divorce of a pop star or a footballer today. Richard Aldous's study of their rivalry, The Lion and the Unicorn, stresses their mutual loathing. Disraeli thought that Gladstone was increasingly mad as well as unscru pulous, while Gladstone attributed to "Beaconsfieldism" - a derisive reference to Disraeli, who became Earl of Beaconsfield in 1876 - the main blame for the superficiality and immorality he detested in politics.
Their rivalry did not spring from any fundamental difference of principle, or even policy. Certainly Gladstone became a passionate advocate of free trade, whereas Disraeli rallied the Tory forces against the repeal of the protectionist Corn Laws proposed by the Conservative prime minister Robert Peel in 1846. But Disraeli abandoned the protectionist cause as soon as it had done its work of destroying Peel, who resigned over the controversy.
The original difference between the two men lay in their attitudes to Peel. For Gladstone, Peel was the mentor he respected above all other politicians; to Disraeli, he was the man who denied him a job when forming the government in 1841, and who had betrayed his party. For Disraeli as prime minister, there was no question of restoring the Corn Laws, even when in 1879 a flood of American wheat finally began to overwhelm the British grain farmer.
The most bitter clashes between Disraeli and Gladstone came over foreign policy. The Midlothian campaign of 1880, a series of speeches in which Gladstone attacked British support for the Ottoman empire, is often described as the first modern political campaign. In it, Gladstone brought his extraordinary energy and anger to bear not just on the cruelty of the Turks in massacring their Bulgarian subjects, but on the fri volity of the Conservative government in failing to check or even notice such wickedness.
Disraeli's instincts in foreign affairs were those of the romantic showman. His character istic gestures were theatrical - to buy the Suez Canal shares, to deploy the British fleet towards the Dardanelles, to annexe Cyprus at the Congress of Berlin and to make the delighted Queen Victoria empress of India. But in the end, what people remembered when they came to vote after six years of Disraeli were the disastrous wars in Afghanistan and Zululand.
When Gladstone came to power, he found that his professions of an ethical foreign policy were easily contradicted by events: it was under Gladstone that the fleet bombarded Alexandria. Our present prime minister has combined Gladstone's earnestness and Disraeli's love of spin, with exceptionally disastrous results.
The long-running feud between Disraeli and Gladstone occupied the political space between the two passionate principled disputes of 19th-century politics - over the Corn Laws and over Irish home rule. Yet, for these two men, the rivalry was for power rather than a great cause. Their bitterness arose not out of differences of principle, but because the style of each man hugely irritated the other.
Aldous describes the different episodes of the rivalry with novelistic vividness, capturing the particular flavour of 19th-century political and social life. The Lion and the Unicorn crackles with fascinating anecdotes. In an age before antibiotics and paracetamol, both men were often ill, Gladstone with diarrhoea and toothache, Disraeli with gout. Gladstone liked Mrs Disraeli, finding in her the simplicity that was singularly lacking in her husband, and was genuinely sorry when she died. Gladstone was the superior in physical energy, but both men worked extremely hard - Gladstone parading the fact, Disraeli preferring to disguise it. It was this energy and style, more than any concrete achievements, which gave these men the mastery of their political scene and created a legend that is still alive today.
But it is a legend, not an example. The electorate no longer finds excitement in parliamentary jousting. Gladiators are out of fashion. So is Disraeli's dictum that it is the duty of an opposition to oppose. David Cameron has gone back to the principle of constructive opposition that Peel practised in the late 1830s. Political journalists like a good political battle regardless of content, but politicians have discovered that this is a trap to avoid. They would be wise to read about Disraeli and Gladstone for entertainment rather than instruction.