Centre-Stage

Ian Gilmour

  • The Younger Pitt: The Consuming Struggle by John Ehrman
    Constable, 911 pp, £35.00, May 1996, ISBN 0 09 475540 X

In A.P. Herbert’s enjoyable parody of Shakespeare, Two Gentlemen of Soho, there is, I think – unfortunately I no longer possess a copy but had a small part in it at school – the passage: ‘Man, like a pebble on a glacier, moves imperceptibly but always down.’ A.P. Herbert was not being serious, of course, but his words apply to some, perhaps most, of us, mentally, morally and physically as we grow older. Where, however, they are most obviously untrue is of people’s careers. The typical politician, for instance, begins near the bottom before moving to a peak, or more usually a series of mountains or molehills, before going into decline. William Pitt the Younger is the great exception. Because of his parentage and abnormal abilities he began at the top.

Entering the House of Commons at the age of 21, which was by law the minimum age, although Charles James Fox had earlier been ‘elected’ when 19, Pitt immediately made a profound impression with his maiden speech. Instead of being the usual over-rehearsed address bearing little relation to what had been said by previous speakers, it was delivered impromptu and was a direct debating reply ‘to matters that had fallen out in the course of the debate’. A little over two years later he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, and then became Prime Minister at the age of 24. Except for a short interval of three years from 1801 to 1804 he remained the King’s first minister for the rest of his life.

So Pitt moved, imperceptibly ... down’ not in the offices he held, only in his achievements in the highest office and in health. As minister he was best in the 1780s, when he presided over Britain’s recovery from the American War; he was good for much of the 1790s, when he initially took a calm view of the French Revolution and coped well with the tribulations invariably suffered by British politicians and generals at the onset of major wars; unlike his father, however, war was not his métier. In the 1800s he was poor, mishandling the issue of Catholic Emancipation, which led to his resignation (a matter he also mishandled); and on his return to office three years later he decided not to defy George III by insisting on the admission of Fox into a strong coalition government; instead, he formed a weak, untalented administration

John Ehrman’s final volume deals with the years from 1797 to Pitt’s death early in 1806. His biography is on a scale which might be called ‘Victorian’ except that most of the great biographies of Victorian politicians appeared in this century. According to my unreliable calculations, Ehrman’s three-volume biography is much longer, if footnotes are included, than John Morley’s Life of Gladstone and at least as long as Money penny and Buckle’s six volumes on Disraeli. Furthermore, the great ‘Victorian’ biographies are filled out with long extracts from their subjects’ letters and speeches. Pitt in contrast was a bad correspondent. Most of the letters he did send were those he could not escape writing: they concerned politics, not his life outside politics, in so far as he had one. And some of his best speeches went, for one reason or another, largely unreported. In any case, Ehrman is sparing in his quotations from both letters and speeches. The reason for the generous scale of his book, therefore, is that it effectively comprises the diplomatic and political history of Britain from 1784 to 1805.

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