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Last Updated: Friday, 2 June 2006, 14:10 GMT 15:10 UK
Trollope and the way we live now
Veteran Conservative politician Lord Hurd explains what happened when he got together with John Major, Roy Hattersley, journalists Max Hastings and Quentin Letts, historian Andrew Roberts and the best-selling novelist PD James to talk about the political works of Anthony Trollope.

Two politicians, two journalists, a historian and a best-selling novelist gave me their views on Anthony Trollope.

His political novels are the best of their kind. We enjoyed discussing these novels because Trollope enjoyed writing them. He got the balance right.

Douglas Hurd
The former foreign secretary led a discussion on Trollope
He himself tried to get into Parliament for the Yorkshire constituency of Beverley. There was still a lot of corruption around, and he failed.

But he did not let personal disappointment sour his judgement. He laughed at lots of things in politics and was scornful of others.

Yet he still believed that the highest aim of an Englishman should be to serve his country in Parliament.

Why has that changed? Why are people now so cynical about politics and politicians?

Several threads lead from the politics of Trollope's day to the political scene we find around us.

We found ourselves following these threads one by one.

We spent a lot of time on the relations between politicians and the press.

Trollope sketches two very different portraits of journalists. There is Tom Towers, lofty editor of The Jupiter, who believes that he is the most powerful man in Europe.

We thought that few editors would claim that power today, though many try their best.

'Slash at politicians'

Max Hastings, who once edited the Daily Telegraph, is suspicious of editors who want to sit at the controls and says:

"It is not the job of journalists to make or unmake governments. Today the media is such an enormous organisation that they sometimes hunt in packs, but I always feel a sneaking pleasure when one of those being pursued gets away from the pack, because it seems a good thing for democracy."

Trollope's other journalist is Quintus Slide, editor of the People's Banner. He thinks that it his job to slash at politicians and pull them down, whether or not the accusations against them are true.

John Major
John Major was Conservative prime minister
Quentin Letts of the Daily Mail has some sympathy with this line of thought: "Slide sees it as his great function in life to protect the people of England from politicians, and he just wants to cause chaos and turmoil. I think he would have made fantastic editor of a middle-market newspaper today."

It was not surprising that John Major disagreed. He thought that public figures learnt from experience how to cope with this kind of pressure, but that for other people it could be "absolutely intolerable".

He said: "There is a line to be drawn between the freedom of the press, which is a legitimate and important democratic safeguard, and licence by the press, which goes beyond freedom and can often produce stories that cause immense hardship and difficulty.

"The time may come when someone has to make sure that freedom remains secure but that the licence of the press is reined back."

Rivalries

In Trollope's time, as now, villains could find their way into Parliament.

Melmotte, in Trollope's most bitter novel, The Way We Live Now, is weirdly similar to Robert Maxwell in real 20th Century life.

Nor is there anything new about rivalries within parties and indeed between prime ministers and chancellors; the historian Andrew Roberts believes that these are fiercer now than in Trollope's time:

"In Victorian times, the chancellor was not automatically the second most powerful person, because finances weren't automatically the most important thing that was going on, so I think that in this case Trollope was being extraordinarily prescient."

Sometimes the rivalry is about policy - what a government should do. Sometimes it is just about power - who holds office and distributes the fruits of office.

In Trollope's time, the emphasis was on the fruits of office - the "gongs and garters".

His prime minister, Plantagenet Palliser, is interested in only one policy - decimal coinage - and even that is not taken seriously.

Now we talk more about new policies and new laws, but gongs and garters are not forgotten. Trollope would have relished the present row about party finance and peerages.

'Magnifying mirror'

Trollope's prime minister made a hash of choosing the right moment to go. Why do so many distinguished leaders stay on beyond their sell-by date?

Gladstone, Churchill, Thatcher and now Blair all fell into the same ditch.

Max Hastings thought that the flow of privileged information was the attraction which made them cling to office. Leaders could not bear to feel that they were no longer in the know.

John Major liked the American rule that eight years at the top was enough.

But most of our talk was about human nature, as shown then and now in the character of politicians.

Few of Trollope's characters are wholly good or wholly bad. In different ways, they are moved by personal ambition, but they also, in John Major's phrase "think about whether what they are doing is right".

The political scene is a magnifying mirror held up to human nature.

PD James summed it up when she said that Trollope's novels "help the heart of man to know itself".




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