British Politicians

Norman Hampson

  • The Younger Pitt: The Reluctant Transition by John Ehrman
    Constable, 689 pp, £20.00, June 1983, ISBN 0 09 464930 8
  • Lord Aberdeen: A Political Biography by Muriel Chamberlain
    Longman, 583 pp, £25.00, May 1983, ISBN 0 582 50462 7

If Robespierre could have read the second volume of John Ehrman’s massive biography of Pitt it would have saved him a good deal of worry. The two men had more in common than might appear at first sight, or than either of them would have cared to admit. Each was a decidedly cold fish, a bachelor of that alarming species that lives only for politics. This presents their biographers with insoluble problems since it is impossible either to delineate their personalities or to detach them at any point from the political history of their period, which was not so much the context as the content of their lives. Even so, Ehrman rather overdoes this side of things in his book, where Pitt himself is liable to disappear for fifty pages at a time. Both Robespierre and Pitt seem to have been convinced of their own infallibility. The latter had already written in 1785, ‘I cannot allow myself to doubt,’ which at least suggests that he had considered a possibility that probably never occurred to the Incorruptible, who had Rousseau to persuade him that he incarnated both vertu and the general will. Pitt was at least addicted to the bottle, whereas Robespierre preferred oranges. Each took the total rightness of the political values he personified so much for granted that he was incapable of even beginning to understand those of his adversary. For Pitt, Robespierre was probably no more than the worst of a bunch of criminal lunatics: Robespierre saw Pitt as the deist equivalent of Antichrist. Each thought of himself as a reformer and was indeed, at least to begin with, a man of vision, enlightenment and humanity. It was the tragedy of the times that the conflict that came to dominate their lives drove them to cruel and repressive expedients which frustrated the original objects of their political ambitions. There is a nasty parallel between the Treasonable Practices Act and the law of 22 Prairial, both designed to ensure that the courts could not rescue those whom the government was resolved to destroy. Pitt, moving in a familiar and traditional world, was less afflicted by apocalyptic delusions than either Robespierre or Burke. He had not their imagination.

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