Incompetence at the War Office

Simon Jenkins

  • The Duel: Castlereagh, Canning and Deadly Cabinet Rivalry by Giles Hunt
    Tauris, 214 pp, £20.00, January 2008, ISBN 978 1 84511 593 7

At five o’clock in the morning on 21 September 1809, two men set out from London in two carriages and headed for Putney Heath. They brought two seconds, two sets of pistols, two hatreds and a total misunderstanding about what had recently passed between them. They then fought a duel. One was unscathed and the other received a flesh wound to his thigh, narrowly avoiding an artery. One was His Majesty’s foreign secretary and the other His Majesty’s secretary for war.

That ministers sometimes do not get on is nothing new. No one reading Giles Hunt’s account of the duel between Lord Castlereagh and George Canning can drive from their imagination the more recent feud between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, accounts of which made me thankful there are no firearms stored (within easy reach) at Downing Street. Duels are now fought with shouting matches, spin doctors and snide public allusions to ‘the bloke next door’.

The toxic mix of power, ambition and exhaustion is a recipe for rivalries: Churchill and Chamberlain, Morrison and Bevan, Heath and Thatcher. It is astonishing that the convention of collective responsibility – of ‘we hang together or we hang apart’ – just about prevents cabinet government from morphing into one-man rule. Politics is not a profession that attracts easy-going personalities; hence the need for such enforced parliamentary decencies as addressing one another as ‘honourable member’ and not calling liars liars.

Britain’s rulers had often died violently, but not since the Middle Ages had they set out to kill each other. Both Fox and Pitt had been involved in duels, and the Duke of Wellington was challenged in 1829, his seconds agreeing only if both parties fired into the air. That Canning and Castlereagh, two senior ministers, did not get on was not sufficient cause for them to resort to murder. While duelling was not illegal, killing people was. The presumed outcome of a duel was that one person would die of a bullet, the other of a noose, or be forced into exile.

The Castlereagh and Canning duel, conducted at the height of the Napoleonic Wars, appalled British opinion, and delighted the French. It would, the Morning Chronicle said, ‘scarcely be credited by posterity, that [they] should so far forget the duty that they owed to their sovereign and the example they ought to give to the country in obedience to its laws, to fight a duel’. The editorial lamented that affairs of state should be entrusted by the king ‘to persons whose intemperate passions were so little under the control of reason’.

So it proved. Canning recovered from his wound but both men had to resign public office. No glamour or romance attached to the incident, which was regarded as scandalous. But it was more than scandalous; as Hunt argues, it was baffling, the more so as both later returned to high office, one as foreign secretary, the other as prime minister. The Duel is an attempt to explain how the encounter came about and what effect it had, if any, on the conduct of the war and on its aftermath in the new European order.

Hunt goes to inordinate lengths to set up the fight. He paints the scene in the politics of an England recovering from the trauma of losing America and wrestling with the domestic and foreign impact of the French Revolution. The franchise was still rotten and the king’s opinion still a factor in the composition of cabinets and decisions of government. Fox and Pitt were both gone; the era of reform had not yet begun. Britain was ruled largely from the House of Lords by an aristocratic ascendancy.

Castlereagh and Canning were ideally cast to play the roles the duel assigned them. The former was the ‘beau ideal of an English aristocrat – tall, handsome, cultivated’ and a natural Tory. The latter was a self-made man in a world almost entirely without them, ‘brilliant but with a reputation of being ruthlessly ambitious, unreliable and too clever by half’. Both had links to Ireland, and both had disrupted upbringings.

Castlereagh was educated at Cambridge and had a swift passage into a political career. His father agreed to pay his election expenses of £60,000 (about £2 million today), so that he was able to enter the Commons before he was 21. He was a polished and assured man, though not a good speaker, and a youthful and competent secretary of state for Ireland.

Canning was the son of a destitute actress, and was brought up by an uncle. Yet he made his way to Eton and, by his remarkable wits, to Christ Church and the Bar. Upward mobility was available to a young man of talent, who soon ingratiated himself with the star of the day, William Pitt. Though he was an instinctive Whig, Canning’s ambition and admiration for Pitt took him over to the Tory side, and eventually into rivalry with Castlereagh.

A reader could easily get lost as Hunt delves into the tedious politics of the age with only a woeful index (as in ‘Castlereagh, passim’) and without so much as a chronology or table of ministries. But the scene for the dénouement is set as the foreign adventures of Napoleon, Nelson and Wellington appal and exhilarate the nation and thud against the wall of Westminster politics. That Britain lost America is no mystery; that it won the French war is a miracle.

By 1809, with the war going badly, the perceptive Canning, at the Foreign Office, was exasperated by what he saw as the incompetence of Castlereagh at the War Office. Castlereagh was in fact afflicted by bouts of illness, contributing to the dispatch and defeat of a British force at Coruña under Sir John Moore. Canning genuinely believed that the war would be lost unless Castlereagh was removed. He was generally supported in this view but was balked by the indecisiveness of the prime minister, the 71-year-old Duke of Portland, a favourite of George III. This Trollopian character had achieved a dukedom at the age of 24 and was that most disastrous type in British government, a safe pair of hands. The seeds of breakdown were sown: if foreign secretary and war secretary were not as one, a breach was inevitable.

Hunt tries hard to allocate blame between the two protagonists. He’s eager to exculpate Canning, to whose impetuous ambition history has attributed the duel, even if it was Castlereagh who threw down the gauntlet. In particular, Castlereagh is usually given credit for sending the future Duke of Wellington, General Sir Arthur Wellesley, to the Peninsula. In reality, it was he who hesitated over Wellesley and Canning who insisted. Castlereagh was more concerned with the disastrous Walcheren expedition to Holland. Canning’s fury was well founded.

A final fiasco, when the Duke of York was found to be selling army commissions to friends of his mistress, drove Canning to the brink. A failed war and sleaze at home, as ever, rendered the British government combustible. Canning demanded that Portland resign, that the government be reshuffled and that Castlereagh be moved to another position. Portland was inclined to agree but again dithered.

Portland did offer his resignation to the king in the end, but it was refused. Canning, pleading a government ‘sunk in public esteem’, said in that case he would resign alone. Portland, whom Canning rather liked, dithered some more, muttering about sending Castlereagh to India, and promising to ask Camden, the lord chancellor, to tell Castlereagh as much. Over the course of May and June 1809, as machinations continued, nobody told Castlereagh, who was preoccupied with illness and with the war.

The king did not like Canning, as Hunt puts it, because he was not ‘one of us’: ‘the only member of the cabinet who was neither a lord nor the son of a lord’, he was ‘too useful to lose’ but ‘needed to be kept in his place’. His resignation was refused but in September he resigned anyway and Portland had a stroke. Only when Castlereagh asked why Canning wasn’t at a cabinet meeting was he told what had been going on behind his back. Infuriated, he wrote to Canning demanding ‘satisfaction from you’.

Duels were certainly uncommon by this time but not unknown. Castlereagh’s challenge took the form of an interminable, whingeing letter complaining about deceit ‘at the expense of my honour and reputation’ and ending: ‘I have the honour to be, sir, your obedient, and humble, Servant.’ This was extraordinary as it can’t have been written in the heat of the moment: Castlereagh waited nine days from hearing of Canning’s behaviour before writing it.

As everyone now accepts, Canning had genuinely thought that colleagues had told Castlereagh of a possible reshuffle. Castlereagh’s pride might have been hurt, but it’s odd that no intermediary should have stepped in to resolve the misunderstanding. Perhaps Canning had too many enemies. At any rate, he replied that ‘the Tone and Purport of your Lordship’s letter . . . preclude any other answer, on my part, to the Misapprehension and Misrepresentations with which it abounds, than that I will cheerfully give to your Lordship the satisfaction.’

Castlereagh was reputedly a practised pistol shooter, while Canning had never fired a shot in his life. Clearly expecting to be killed, Canning wrote a farewell letter to his wife the night before, one of the more poignant documents he produced. The details of what happened on the heath were much spun afterwards. Hunt concludes that Castlereagh, probably knowing that he could kill Canning, shot wide. Canning, assuming his opponent meant to kill him, shot but missed. Enraged, Castlereagh demanded a second shot against the pleadings of the seconds. This time Canning shot wide but Castlereagh aimed at his leg, the shot passing straight through his flesh.

Hunt claims a blessed outcome to the duel. Castlereagh returned to power in 1812 to capitalise on his strengths as foreign secretary and became the ‘principal architect of a peace settlement that kept Europe free from any major war for a hundred years’. His demeanour charmed the tsar into an agreement which might have eluded the abrasive Canning. But in 1822 Castlereagh committed suicide in a bout of madness, possibly caused by the syphilis he contracted at Cambridge, a condition that might have been responsible for his impetuous challenge. Canning then became foreign secretary and later a reforming prime minister, just when one was needed. All in all, Hunt concludes with unnecessary banality, Castlereagh’s ‘youthful undergraduate indiscretion was providential’.

Does all this matter? Yes, but in ways Hunt doesn’t explore. The relations between those at the apex of cabinet government are critical to the way it reaches decisions. As Tocqueville was soon to remark, power in Britain was based on the concept of ‘the club not the mob’. The evolution of club rules over the course of the 19th century led to democratic reform and to an accountable form of government that served Britain well into the next century. Elites were open to new talents such as Canning, yet sufficiently coherent to yield (reasonably) decisive rule. Only in the late 20th century did this begin to break down. Modern media-led democracies demand qualities of charisma and personal authority far removed from the social intercourse of the club. Government tends to presidentialism. This is probably a good thing. The public now subjects the character of its leaders to trial by media ordeal, often unfair but always fierce. It is ruthless towards those who parade their disunity in public, as Blair found to his cost.

Nothing will prevent those at the top forming often bitter rivalries. Any government is vulnerable to them; witness the feud between Rumsfeld and Powell in the preliminaries to the war in Iraq, a feud that might, for the good of millions, have been better resolved on Putney Heath. Since such antagonism in the corridors of power will never be eradicated, Hunt performs a service in rooting it deep in the processes of government and thus helping us understand what can otherwise seem merely the petty jealousies of foolish men.