Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels offer many fascinating parallels with today’s political scene, none more so than the fifth novel in the sequence, The Prime Minister. Nicholas Shrimpton, of Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, will be editing the new edition of the novel for Oxford World’s Classics (out next year). His profile of Trollope’s fictional hero, Plantagenet Palliser, finds some uncanny resemblances between fiction and reality.
What sort of person do we want as our Prime Minister?
Anthony Trollope’s example, in his novel The Prime Minister (1875-6), is an introverted, socially awkward technocrat whose ideal job was as Chancellor of the Exchequer – where he spent his time happily, but indecisively, pondering the mathematical problems of the introduction of decimal currency.
He takes over as premier from a more charismatic member of his own party, without a general election to confirm his mandate, and gets on badly with the cabinet ministers who are not members of his own small circle of friends and admirers. Much less good at PR than his talented wife, he is very quick to lose his temper: ‘I think, sir, that your proposition is the most unbecoming and the most impertinent that ever was addressed to me’ is his over-the-top response when the silly but harmless Major Pountney approaches him in search of a seat in parliament. With a high sense of his own dignity, and an inflexible belief in the correctness of his moral compass, he presides over three years of government in which not a single ‘large measure’ is carried. As his struggles to smile and be pleasant suggest, he doesn’t enjoy the role of Prime Minister in the least. But when it looks as though he will have to give it up, he can’t bear the thought of yielding authority to anybody else.
Does this, perhaps, remind you of somebody?