For the first time since Winston Churchill, Britain is governed by a master of language.
There have been few such in Downing Street history; most of those who become prime minister have devoted their entire life-effort to climbing “the greasy pole.” Of the partial exceptions, George Canning, in 1797 a co-founder of the Anti-Jacobin, was a gifted versifier to whom we owe this description of a type still very much active today:
A steady patriot of the world alone,
The friend of every country but his own.
Ill-health cut Prime Minister Canning down after just five months, the shortest spell in Britain’s highest office. Also of note is Robert Cecil, who made his name with some fierce commentaries on foreign policy in the press, but wrote nothing of substance during his three terms in office during the cusp of 19th and 20th centuries.
The writing abilities of ex-premiers have often been channelled into their political memoirs, but not to lasting literary fame. There is only one exception in the 19th century: Benjamin Disraeli. He was an accomplished and highly successful novelist, whose trilogy of Coningsby (1844), Sybil (1845), and Tancred (1847) were state-of-England novels much esteemed for their social insight. Sybil is still cited, somewhat implausibly, as the inspiration of the socialistic one-nation...