British Politicians' Addiction to Dueling

British Politicians' Addiction to Dueling

Former Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott joined Labour candidates and activists ahead of the Scottish Labour Party Conference on March 26, 2010, in Edinburgh, Scotland.

SourceJeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Why you should care

Because it beats fighting in a duel.

It was during a “clear the air” meeting between members of the U.K. Independence Party on October 6 this year that colleagues Steven Woolfe and Mike Hookem — both members of the European Parliament — bizarrely ended up settling their differences with a physical confrontation.

Woolfe, who was involved in a row over reports that he might leave UKIP and join the Conservative Party, told Hookem they should resolve their argument in an adjoining room. While the two men dispute what happened next, their “altercation” in Strasbourg concluded with Woolfe falling through an open door. What isn’t in doubt is the fact that things got a whole lot worse after the dust-up. A couple of hours later, Woolfe collapsed and was hospitalized. He was discharged three days later, having suffered no serious injuries, but the confrontation proved a major embarrassment, and Woolfe quit the UKIP.

I am lucky to be alive … lucky that Mr. Adam’s pistol was charged with government powder.

British politician Charles James Fox

But this duo weren’t the first British politicians to abandon verbal debate for more hazardous hostilities. Some of the country’s most powerful statesmen — including prime ministers — have even pulled a trigger on opponents in the past. One of the most controversial incidents took place in 1809 between senior government colleagues Lord Castlereagh and George Canning, when the former discovered the latter was plotting to get him fired. After agreeing to a duel with pistols one September morning, Canning was shot in the thigh. Despite coming away injured, he also suffered a bigger public backlash. Writing in his biography, Spencer Perceval: The Evangelical Prime Minister, author Denis Gray quotes Parliament member William Brodrick saying that Canning’s conduct had “exceeded in duplicity everything that I ever felt possible, even in a politician.”

The Duke of Wellington, meanwhile, is best remembered for his victory over Napoleon’s France at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. Much less celebrated is the duel he took part in while he was the country’s prime minister 14 years later. The “Iron Duke” had reacted angrily to accusations of betrayal from the Earl of Winchilsea following the granting of new rights to Catholics. After challenging Winchilsea to a duel, they met at Battersea Fields, in south London, where Wellington is said to have deliberately missed with his first shot before the Earl chose to fire into the air. Honor was “satisfied,” according to Neville Thompson’s Wellington After Waterloo, when the prime minister received a written apology from his opponent. Others were unimpressed. “Wellington was torn apart,” says James Landale, a BBC diplomatic correspondent and writer of the book Duel. “Political attitudes were changing … it was seen as absurd for a politician as senior as Wellington to behave in such a way.” His career survived the incident with Winchilsea, but Wellington was forced to resign the following year, in 1830, over his opposition to parliamentary reform. He returned as foreign secretary — and then briefly again as prime minister — four years later, before finally retiring from political life in 1846.

While a gun duel involving another prime minister, William Pitt the Younger, in 1798 also ended with the two men (his opponent was George Tierney) missing each other, Pitt’s famous political rival Charles James Fox had been shot in the chest 19 years earlier. After clashing with fellow politician William Adam over the quality of British gunpowder being used in the war with America, the two men met in London’s Hyde Park in November 1779. Fortunate to be only slightly wounded, Fox couldn’t resist making a cheeky political point: “I am lucky to be alive … lucky that Mr. Adam’s pistol was charged with government powder.”

The days of British politicians choosing to resolve their differences with dueling pistols are, of course, long gone. But that doesn’t mean the odd fist doesn’t occasionally fly. One punch landed Deputy Prime Minister Lord Prescott in big trouble in 2001. Struck by an egg when confronted by protesters during an election campaign visit to Wales, he reacted by hitting farm worker Craig Evans on the jaw. Colin Brown, author of the Prescott biography Fighting Talk, remembers how the incident divided opinion. “At that moment … the public either loved or hated him.” Some colleagues figured Prescott’s career was over, and many considered it outrageous that a “man holding historic office in government had been involved in fisticuffs,” says Brown. But Prescott, a boxer in his youth, survived after it was successfully argued he’d acted in “self-defense.”

Then again, Prescott’s pugilism seems mild compared to the actions of Eric Joyce. The former Labour member of Parliament made headlines in 2012 after punching and head-butting Conservative politicians — as well as lashing out at one of his own party colleagues — when drunk in a House of Commons bar. Spared jail after pleading guilty to assault, Joyce, an ex-army officer, was again arrested the following year when clashing with police during a “disturbance” at a karaoke night. He finally left the Commons in 2015.

So whether it’s left hooks or dueling pistols, grappling or headlocks, history seems to confirm that British politicians would always have been wiser to step back and count to 10 before putting their reputations — and sometimes even their lives — on the line. While fists and gunpowder have damaged and occasionally wrecked reputations, well-chosen words have proven the more effective political weapon.



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