Parliamentary Men, Then and Now
William Hague, one of the only leaders of Britain’s Conservative party in the twentieth century never to have become his nation’s Prime Minister, once half-jokingly declared that he had been born two centuries too late. “Actually, I do hanker after those days. In part because Parliament mattered more. There were no television or newspaper interviews and no national election campaigns. I feel vastly more comfortable expressing myself in the Commons than anywhere else.” The political world he longed for was that of William Pitt the younger (1759–1806), eighteenth-century Britain’s most consequential politician and the subject of Hague’s first book. The similarities between author and subject are striking: both were political prodigies with first-rate intellects, silver tongues, and a taste for the grape.
What distinguished them was the power each held. While Pitt was the youngest Prime Minister in British history, coming to office at the ripe old age of twenty-four and holding that office longer than anyone since, Hague, though leader of the Conservatives by the age of thirty-six, never won a general election for his party. Where Pitt helped steer the nation successfully in a war for its survival against the French, Hague’s four-year term as leader of the Conservatives was generally reckoned to have been an unmitigated failure. Thankfully for its readers, this book is neither an exercise in hero-worship nor in elegy: it is, instead, a solid, reliable, and at times even insightful study of late eighteenth-century British political life and the person who dominated it. For the general reader it is perhaps the best one-volume treatment we have of Pitt the younger’s life.
Pitt’s father, William Pitt the elder, the earl of Chatham, groomed his second son from birth for politics. Educated at by private tutors and at Pembroke College, Cambridge, the younger Pitt early on mastered the ability to speak clearly, extemporaneously, and with evident authority. These skills held him in good stead throughout his career in the House of Commons. Pitt entered parliament in 1781, quickly making his mark as an able parliamentary debater. The early 1780s was a time of national political crisis in Britain: the war with the American colonies was going horribly, the Gordon Riots had put paid to the idea that religious bigotry was no longer the flammable stuff of politics, and many across the nation clamoured loudly for political, economical, and religious reform. It was a propitious time for someone with Pitt’s political lineage, talents, and ambitions, and within two years of becoming a member of parliament, he was given hold of the reins of government by George III, who was by this time desperate for someone whom he could trust to lead the government. While most expected his ministry quickly to collapse, Pitt served as prime minister continuously until his resignation in 1801; he made a political comeback in 1804, serving as prime minister for the last two years of his life. What kept him in power was immense political talent, a ferocious ambition, a willingness to make his work his life, the unwavering support of the king, and the ineptitude and unpopularity of his opponents.
The first six years of his ministry were given over to relatively modest domestic and political reforms and to dealing with the political fallout that arose from George III’s increasingly fragile mental health. The French Revolution changed everything, and though even until 1792 he professed himself determined to keep Britain out of continental warfare, Pitt was forced to lead a nation which found itself in a war with France that lasted until 1815. Britain would eventually emerge victorious, but that was not always evident. During Pitt’s lifetime, the war was inconclusive, and he died broken and exhausted from overwork in 1806, with Napoleon’s victory at Austerlitz fresh in his memory. Nonetheless, Pitt had done a masterful job directing the war effort, and the young political talent in his ministry that he had scouted and succoured would lead the country to victory within a decade of Pitt’s death. He died a national hero, and William Hague concludes his book positively awestruck by his subject, reckoning that Pitt’s “dedication to public service [was] so intense as to be rare even in the annals of Prime Ministers . . . [F]rom his early childhood to the hour of death, he so aligned himself with the fate of his country that at no moment of his existence could he separate himself from it.”
Hague is not an historian-pioneer, going boldly where none have gone before. In a frank admission at the book’s outset, he acknowledges that he could not have written this biography of Pitt so quickly but for the path-clearing done in John Ehrman’s definitive trilogy, The Younger Pitt. Hague is, instead, a politician-biographer in the vein of the late Sir Roy Jenkins, and is in this way akin to a first-rate travel writer, describing in interesting and colorful ways already familiar lands and peoples. His knowledge of his subject has depth and is grounded firmly in the archives (particularly manuscript correspondence in the British Library) and in the relevant printed primary sources concerning late eighteenth-century British political life. What distinguishes Hague’s biography of Pitt from others is not any new discoveries, but the insights that arise from the depth of sympathy and understanding one working politician has for another. For Hague, it seems, there are natural laws of politics, and much of the book is spent observing and elucidating them. Pitt, for instance, “showed the cool ruthlessness which characterises those politicians who are capable of seizing power and keeping it.” Elsewhere, we learn that “Pitt had not the slightest interest in monitoring his own finances while he was in office. This is a common fault among politicians many of whom to this day barely trouble to look at their bank balance until they are out of power.” One senses that Hague himself learned the hard way that “Colleagues at the top of a government are generally thrown together by some mixture of duty, conviction and circumstances; hardly every by friendship, as usually becomes apparent whenever one of them runs into trouble.” Hague’s biography of Pitt brims over with present-minded observations like these.
The insistence on drawing connections between the past and the present is at once the book’s greatest strength and its most debilitating weakness. Certainly there are some immutable laws of nature in politics, and it forces us to consider anew both the past and the present political situation in Britain when they are so clearly illumined. Yet there is the danger of reading too much of the present into the past. So, for instance, we encounter this clunker early on in the book: “Just as the collapse of the Soviet Union two centuries later led to changes in political attitudes in the countries that had stood guard against it, so the collapse of the Jacobite threat after 1745 led to a steady breaking down of the political and religious battle lines in the late eighteenth century.” This comparison tells us practically nothing about the nature of the Jacobite “threat” to the Hanoverian monarchs who led Britain. Much more seriously vitiating than the inapposite comparisons that pop up occasionally, is the undue weight given to parliament in Hague’s reading of British politics in the late eighteenth century. Hague’s descriptions of Pitt the younger’s parliamentary speeches are written with the loving care of someone who truly appreciates the art form and are easily the best parts of the book. But it is simply not the case that the House of Commons was the driving force in national politics in the late eighteenth century. For during this period “public opinion” became a significant, and at times the dominant, force in the nation’s politics, a recognition that would have only enriched Hague’s treatment of Pitt the politician.
Yet this is perhaps to cavil, for Hague promised nothing more than to give us a readable biography of a politician whom he admired. This he has done. His biography of Pitt the younger is a work suffused with its author’s enthusiasm for his subject, and we can earnestly hope that Hague will soon deliver on another promise, a biography of Pitt’s debauched political rival, Charles James Fox.
Robert G. Ingram is Assistant Professor of History at Ohio University.
Posted: March 19, 2007
Did you see this one?
A Placid Portrait of the Enlightenment
Christopher O. Blum
Volume 44, Number 2 (Winter 2006)