Arthur Conan Doyle's election campaign

I'm a great fan of Arthur Conan Doyle. He was a curiously modern figure, both transatlantic in his business interests and spiritualism, and a Liberal Unionist, a sort of neoconservative of his day. Doyle was a little fairer and less malicious than that group in his politics (perhaps because of the Jesuit education that would have taught him the inutility of malice), and of course also involved himself in legal campaigns like those of George Edalji and Oscar Slater, amongst others.

He is remembered as the inventor of Sherlock Holmes, of course--a character he came to hate, and which he saw as undermining his ambitions to be a serious, Walter-Scott style of author. What a lot of people don't know though, is that Conan Doyle actually once stood for a seat in the House of Commons.

In 1900, England was in the grip of 'khaki fever'. A war against Boer insurgents in South Africa had apparently led to their imminent defeat by the forces of the Crown and their unstoppable military capacity; 'mission accomplished' was on the verge of being declared. The British Empire was moving almost as many goods by volume around the world as the global market would in the late 1990s, and immigration, productivity, and the Balkans were dwelling on the minds of voters.

Conan Doyle, finding himself 41 and about to be eclipsed by the likes of the young Winston Churchill, with whom he shared a speaking platform on at least one occasion, wanted to be in the thick of things. Both Churchill and he had served in South Africa, and this was to be their first electoral competition.

So, after military service in the war, he went to stand in central Edinburgh. It was a Radical fortress which he believed, with a message of modern patriotism, campaigning zeal, support for the war and agreement with his opponent on social reform, that he could overcome. The air about him was of a McCain-style strategist who had a genuine chance. He gave ten speeches a day and then shook hands at factories in the night and in the early morning until they hurt.

I think that those who hold themselves out as social commentators and authors should get into the arena. It helps people to understand what politicians go through, and gives a gauge of what is courageous and what merely pretentious that many who hold forth on politics lack.

Overcoming heckling and trying to convince an audience of your points is also a great way to develop a healthy respect for the wisdom of groups and crowds. Groups of people are sometimes more reliable than individuals. They often make broadly the most rational decision in the circumstances, but they sometimes have to be challenged. The mark of a great politician, I suppose, is that he or she recognises which moment is which.

Conan Doyle benefited as much as Norman Mailer later did from his campaign, though ACD was a bigger man. A more uncharitable observation is that Doyle and Churchill did serve many times in wars too, which many of those who now support war and military action at most turns never did. That must have brought a certain clarity.

Of course, by 1900, Conan Doyle had many friends. In his campaign, he didn't draw on national and international figures, but instead took his old mentor Joseph Bell (admittedly a very big name in Edinburgh) onto the stage with him to campaign in an eve-of-election rally.

What did for him, because he lost, was religion. Britain--Scotland, England and Wales-- has a very long tradition of anticatholicism. It is in some ways the most persistent prejudice of these islands, and often an odd mix of middle-class observation and popular determination.

Conan Doyle was branded by the anonymous Protestant Defence Organisation a 'Papist, Jesuit and Antichrist', and was done for as surely as Hillary must wish Obama could be by the story her supporters and journalists keep repeating of him eating turkey sausage and not bacon in Mississippi. However, a quick trip to the funny 'stuff educated black people like' website will soon put a stop to that sort of thing.

Sir Arthur lost, in the end, by 569 votes. Near-victories are much worse than definitive defeats, and often threaten to eat at the soul in my experience. They certainly did with Richard Nixon, and I would be amazed if they had not done with Al Gore. Indeed, it is one of the remarkable things about Winston Churchill that his multiple and frequent defeats never seemed to have much impact. There's a lesson there of course; people never allow defeats to define their view of a person and always remember a comeback.

Doyle recovered by returning to writing and to extra-parliamentary activity, which helped, along with the Florence Maybrick case, in the creation of the Court of Appeal. For the rest of his life, he saw politics as a 'mud bath'--messy, but sometimes necessary and refreshing.

It was a lucky escape. Wouldn't it be good if all our writers with political opinions got their hands dirty like that, and weren't condemned for it? Hitchens v Hitchens--now that would be a contest!


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