Saturday, 30 April 2011

A House of Cards: Members of Parliament, Politics, and Games of Chance

Politics is all the talk of Canadian news at the moment; we have a general election approaching May 2nd, but there is, as always, a feeling that the candidates fall far short of being inspirational. I was recently thinking about how we do not expect much from our politicians, but in some respects we expect a great deal. We are hardly surprised when their misdeeds and gaffes are made known -- we revel in the characterization of politicians as crooks and exclaim that we saw it coming all along. It is difficult to now imagine the outrage produced by an event like Watergate. "Outrage" is now largely based on skewed partisan realities in which "facts" are rather unnecessary distractions. In the matter of the political candidate's private life, however, we expect complete probity. Affairs of the heart are still certainly enough to sink a political career (in the anglo-saxon world at least), and gambling, alcoholism and other vices are certainly off-limits for the aspiring politico. We remain uncertain of what we can really expect from our leaders, but the knowledge that one had lost bundles at the casino on the weekend would do nothing to inspire our confidence.

It was, of course, not always so. British and Canadian history is replete with alcoholic and inveterate gamblers in high political life. Sir John A. MacDonald, the first Prime Minister of Canada, was openly inebriated in the Commons many times but, perhaps, like Winston Churchill he managed it to his advantage more often than not. As the classic Churchillism on the subject of drink had it: "All I can say is that I have taken more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me."

Gambling was a major vice of gentleman politicians, and its heyday was the late 18th and early 19th centuries, a time generally known for the licentiousness of the upper classes. As Venetia Murray has written in An Elegant Madness: High Society in Regency England:
[The club] White's was described as 'the bane of half the English nobility', because of the fortunes lost at play... It was quite true that whole estates could change hands in a single evening, Admiral Harvey, as a young man, lost £100,000 playing at White's, and offered to sell his estate in payment. Fortunately his opponent was an Irish gamester with a conscience, who refused to accept more than £10,000 and suggested they play again for the other ninety. They did so, Harvey won, saved his estate, and went on to serve under Nelson at Trafalgar. (p. 162)
Charles James Fox, the most eminent Whig politician of his era, and leader of the "Foxite Whig" faction, was one of the most legendary gamblers in English history. Charles Fox, and his elder brother Stephen, held extraordinary gambling sessions throughout their lifetimes, often at the club Brooks's which -- along with White's and Boodle's -- was the club of choice for aristocrats, gentlemen, dandies, and roués. His father, Henry Fox, was forced to make good on £120,000 worth of gambling debts, around £11 million in today's money. A typical account of Fox's schedule was penned by his contemporary Horace Walpole:
He had sat up playing at Hazard at Almacks, from Tuesday evening 4th. An hour before he had recovered £12,000 that he had lost, and by dinner, which was at five o’clock, he had ended losing £11,000. On the Thursday he spoke in the debate; went to dinner at past eleven that night; from thence to White’s, where he drank till seven the next morning; thence to Almack’s, where he won £6,000; and between three and four in the afternoon he set out for New market. His brother Stephen lost £11,000 two nights after, and Charles £10,000 more on the 13th; so that in three nights, the two brothers, the eldest not twenty-five, lost £32,000.

Gambling at Brooks's

Life in Victorian Britain was a bit more sedate, although something of the habit of gambling continued, in a more muted sense, well into the twentieth century for upper-class politicians. The introduction of full-time salaries for Members of Parliament, and the rise of the Labour Party, meant that politics was no longer entirely the preserve of the gentleman's club set (though they still held most of the positions of power). It was, at the very least, no longer possible to maintain the schedule of a Charles James Fox and simultaneously retain the respect of one's colleagues. Gambling sessions were perhaps a bit more furtive and shameful. The bon vivant, writer, diplomat and Conservative MP Duff Cooper's racy diaries are replete with bouts of winning and losing at glamorous roulette and chemin de fer tables, in places such as Deauville and Monte Carlo, but also at elite gaming clubs in London.
The Cover of the Recently Re-Issued Duff Cooper Diaries

"I began playing and rapidly lost some £40 or £50... [after a reversal of fortune]... I was very lucky and was at one time winning over £500. The party broke up about 3 -- I won £155 on the evening." (March 1, 1919) Heavy losses could leave him desolate. On one trip to Deauville in August 1921, Cooper was down £400 with his gambling adventures, so much so that his wife Daisy had to take the losses "bravely." He was often forced to write extra newspaper columns, or write columns in the name of his popular socialite wife (The "It Girl" of her day), to fortify their income. On the other hand, winnings could leave him feeling buoyant, even if he just barely made good on past losses and debts. On another trip to Deauville he had to borrow money from two friends and his wife but was nevertheless delighted when "I won back everything, paid all debts and all expenses and came away about £100 to the good -- a great performance." (August 9, 1920)

It is interesting to think of the variety of brilliant men (all men at the time) who would be virtually "unelectable" in modern-day politics due to their habits of drinking and gambling. It is not that we would wish to encourage self-destroying behaviour, but perhaps such excesses are somehow balanced by a daring vision, a willingness to take chances and buck the tide of current opinion or the opposition of naysayers. The Idle Historian has made this point before, and so shall not belabour it, but it is certainly an intriguing thought. Then again, perhaps politics itself is enough of a gamble: knowing when to hold 'em, fold 'em, and knowing the correct time at which to call your opponent's bluff.

Read more reflections on history, idleness, and the art of living from the Idle Historian in To The Idler The Spoils 


Lucy said...

I feel awfully out of things, reading this post. I was wondering if alcohol abuse is still acceptable with British politicians and realised I don't know. Which is bad. I think it is - but I might be out of date.

Gambling probably leaves one open to threats and blackmail but if one is to drink to excess and still play a useful role in the running of the country, I would guess one needs a good team to take up the slack and head off the crises.


IdleHistorian said...

Thanks for your comment Lucy! Being a Canadian I can only claim partial familiarity with modern British politics. However, I'm remembering the case of the Lib-Dem leader Charles Kennedy who supposedly resigned due (at least in part) to suspected alcoholism. (Perhaps the expectations are more stringent if you are actually party leader.) I don't know what the case is for backbench MPs.

And, yes, probably the problem with gambling would be more the possible association with "unsavory sorts" than the actual losing of money.

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