Mr might-have-been

THE LOST PRIME MINISTER: A Life of Charles Dilke by David Nicholls The Hambledon Press pounds 25

SIR Charles Dilke, the late-19th-century Radical, once observed that "the art of biography consists solely in the reviving of forgotten scandals". The remark was apparently made without irony or prescience that his own reputation would be blighted by a salacious divorce case. The last biography of Dilke, by Roy Jenkins (1958), devoted two-fifths of its pages to the scandal. His disgrace has since inspired a novel, two television dramas and a West End play. Dilke believed that the private life of a public man was just that, and David Nicholls seems to agree with him: this book plays down the smut and plays up the serious career.

Nicholls' other motive is to rescue him from Joseph Chamberlain's shadow. But for the scandal, he argues, Dilke would have emerged as Gladstone's successor, and could have remodelled the Liberals into a progressive Radical party fit for the modern, almost-democratic era, thwarting the need for a separate Labour party.

These are big claims, but they provide a valuable perspective, putting Dilke instead of Chamberlain in the limelight. Of the two, Dilke was the younger but the first to arrive at Westminster. He had been born into a wealthy London family. His claim in old age that "I have known everyone worth knowing from 1850 to my death" was not that preposterous. He travelled extensively. In America and Australasia he saw democracy and a republic first-hand. He wrote a political travelogue which made his name.

When he became MP for Chelsea, aged 24, in 1868, several strands of his Radicalism were already in place: his belief in democracy, social, education and land reform, and his leanings towards republicanism. Less usual, for a Radical, were his Anglican roots and commitment to vigorous foreign policy. The alliance with Chamberlain took off in 1880, when, after a tussle with Gladstone (who at 71, they reckoned had not long to last), the pair joined his government. As under-secretary at the Foreign Office Dilke had the less prestigious job, but he did it impressively. And, through birth and tact, he was able to get on with Gladstone and the Whig grandees in a way that Chamberlain, the aggressive, self-made man from Birmingham, never could. The intense, ambitious nature of their friendship is well conveyed, with effective use made of letters and the grumbling, exasperated notes they passed in Cabinet.

Unlike Chamberlain, Dilke would have stood by Gladstone when the Liberals split in 1886 over Irish Home Rule, had he had the chance. But in 1885, Virginia Crawford - the sister of his brother's wife - named Dilke as co-respondent in her divorce case, and, though the adultery was unproven, he was obliged to withdraw from public life. The political result was a Liberal party more Radical than ever, still led by Gladstone, with both Chamberlain and Dilke outside it. 1886 was a truly terrible year for Dilke, as he experienced the destruction of his reputation, the rupture of his party, his defeat at Chelsea, and the end of his closest political friendship.

In 1892, Dilke returned to politics, as MP for the Forest of Dean until his death in 1911, and devoted himself to advancing social reform. He encouraged the growth of the Labour party, but remained an extreme Radical, not a Socialist. On some issues - women's suffrage, contraception - Dilke was years ahead of his time.

This biography achieves what it sets out to: it is a very full, considered account. But it is essentially a political life: Dilke's wives and son have bit-parts, and when it gets to the scandal, the cast is so unfamiliar you don't care who did what. The book rescues Dilke from a hoary old caricature, and gives him many serious dimensions, yet curiously - maybe aptly - it does not reveal the private man.

Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film Ridley Scott reveals truth behind casting decisions of Exodus
Arts and Entertainment
An unseen image of Kurt Cobain at home featured in the film 'Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck'
filmThe singers widow and former bandmates have approved project
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tv
Arts and Entertainment
George Mpanga has been shortlisted for the Critics’ Choice prize
music
Arts and Entertainment
Roisin, James and Sanjay in the boardroom
tvReview: This week's failing project manager had to go
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
TV
News
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
art
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
books
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

music
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
Arts and Entertainment
Look out: Broad shoulders take Idris Elba’s DCI John Luther a long way
tvIdris Elba will appear in two special episodes for the BBC next year
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
    There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

    In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

    The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

    It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit
    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
    The King's School is way ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology

    Staying connected: The King's School

    The school in Cambridgeshire is ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology. Richard Garner discovers how teachers and pupils stay connected
    Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

    Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

    Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up
    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition

    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund

    The Ox celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition
    Billy Joe Saunders vs Chris Eubank Jnr: When two worlds collide

    When two worlds collide

    Traveller Billy Joe Saunders did not have a pampered public-school upbringing - unlike Saturday’s opponent Chris Eubank Jnr
    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?