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.

By 1793, both Robespierre and Pitt were haunted by fears of the subversive plotting of each other’s ubiquitous agents. How far these secret agents actually existed is an unsolved and probably insoluble problem. Ehrman has nothing to say about British agents in France. If one can trust a single surviving letter from ‘Whitehall’ to the Swiss banker, Perregaux, the British Government was subsidising members of the Jacobin Club who advocated extremist policies. They may, of course, have been genuine radicals, or careerists who had put their money – or rather Pitt’s – on extremism and were grateful to be paid for what they would have done in any case. Whoever they were, they do not seem to have made much difference. Such French agents as may have operated in England seem to have been even more ineffectual. It was perhaps understandable, when British radicals were posing as ‘Jacobins’ and holding ‘Conventions’, that Pitt should have suspected them of being in league with France. Governments in wartime are always going to act on the principle of better safe than sorry. Pitt was certainly faced by a new kind of popular agitation very different from the more gentlemanly campaigns for Parliamentary reform that he had previously favoured. The most effective way of suppressing these people was to discredit them as French agents. He may have believed it, or suspected that it might be true, and once he had decided that they must be suppressed he had to go all the way. Hindsight is inclined to make liberals of us all and the examples of the Defence of the Realm Act and Regulation 18b, in wars where there was no serious ideological threat from the Continent, make Pitt’s over-reaction understandable. All the same, there is something rather comic in Pitt and Robespierre scaring each other as beings of a new and unknown species, like Papageno and Monostatos.

As he himself admits at the outset, Ehrman has an almost impossible task. ‘The central volume of a biography, it has been said, should be the keystone of an arch.’ Unfortunately, Pitt’s arch sags badly in the middle. During the period covered by this book, roughly from 1789 to 1797, nothing went right. This may not have been altogether Pitt’s fault, but if his life is presented as more or less synonymous with the actions of the government that he led, it makes a poor climax. To some extent, the defects of the architecture are the responsibility of the architect: biographies do not have to have a ‘central volume’ and three-deckers are as much out of fashion in the library as in the fleet. If he had not committed himself to a work on this scale, he could have hurried over the years of defeat and frustration. One has the impression, though, that the extensive dimensions are a necessary element in Ehrman’s approach to the writing of history. His concern is less to evaluate and synthesise than to present things as they appeared to the participants at the time. This may be unfashionable, but it is as valid a way of going about things as any other and it has its own strengths and weaknesses.

One of the strengths is that nothing is ever presented as a foregone conclusion. We know what was going to happen – and what was not going to happen – but contemporaries did not. To read history backwards means concentrating on that single one of all the potential outcomes that was eventually to materialise. This makes for clarity but it inclines towards determinism and teleological judgments. It gets in the way of an understanding of how things appeared to the men whose decisions determined what was going to happen, and the reason for those decisions. Of course, no historian can pretend to be wholly unaware of what he knows and contemporaries did not, but bringing in such evidence leaves him in, a dilemma: the material is generally so multitudinous and diverse that only rigorous pattern-making can force it to appear to point in any single direction. This is well illustrated by Ehrman’s excellent chapters on unrest in Britain in 1792. There was certainly plenty of it and it was both political and economic, backward and forward-looking, a product of old constraints and new problems. It was also a local business that derived its particular colouring from the complicated contours of a specific area. No one who has read Ehrman will feel quite easy about passing general judgments on the influence of Paine or the impact of the French or industrial revolutions.

His day-by-day approach is perhaps necessary if one is to explain either diplomatic or military history. People did things that made sense in view of what they knew at the time. When this knowledge changed they were sometimes able to adjust their policies and sometimes trapped in positions they would never have taken up if they had been better-informed abut the policies of a foreign court or the movements of an army. Following the game can be enjoyable in itself, even if neither side scores. It can also become something of a bore, and Ehrman’s readers are perhaps unlikely to share his enthusiasm for the minutiae of negotiations that produced no result, as in the Ochakov affair. It is his bad luck that, during this period, very little that the British did, in war or diplomacy, did them much good. They took Toulon but were unable to hold it. Their one naval battle, the ‘glorious’ first of June that Nelson damned as an ‘Earl Howe victory’, sent the noble lord himself scuttling back to England for a literally royal reception, while the huge convoy that he had been sent out to intercept made its slow and peaceful way into Brest. The British were driven out of the Low Countries and the émigré force they put ashore at Quiberon was massacred. Their allies made peace with France, one after the other; in the case of Spain, they actually changed sides. This could hardly make inspiring reading and Ehrman’s leisurely and inconclusive weighing of all the pros and cons produces no dramatic tension. He concludes a survey of the strategic prospects for 1795 with ‘We end therefore where we began’ and a reference back to his discussion of the strategic prospects in 1793. The excitement of reading history need not be proportionate to the excitement of the events and attitudes described, but he seems to have a positive preference for underemphasis and a reluctance to admit the emotional dimension to anything. Perhaps he has spent too long with the younger Pitt. He himself might reply that his biography is conceived on a symphonic scale and that this is his adagio.

Pitt acted as guardian to the future Lord Aberdeen, who always regarded him as his mentor. The protégé of Pitt was to lead a Cabinet that included Gladstone, who almost survived until the 20th century. Aberdeen’s career is a reminder that men’s lives and memories stretch well beyond the ‘periods’ to which historians consign them. He himself was an 18th-century man who had to come to terms with Victorian England. A more or less official Anglican, he was at heart more of a deist, with little sympathy for religious ‘enthusiasm’. Greece was his real love and he was a Classical scholar of some merit. In his Enquiry into the Principles of Beauty in Greek Architecture he challenged Burke’s distinction between the sublime and the beautiful. He championed the antiquity of the Parthenon freize when the critics were inclined to dismiss it as Hadrianic. He was a member of the Dilettanti, President of the Society of Antiquaries from 1812 to 1846, a trustee of the British Museum and a Fellow of the Royal Society.

It was typical of his unprofessional age that he should have emerged from private life, at only 29 and without any diplomatic experience beyond that provided by an aristocratic upbringing, to be put in charge of restoring diplomatic relations with Austria in 1813. He insisted that he should be free to come home whenever he chose and, when Castlereagh himself went to the Continent, Aberdeen returned to England and to private life. He took no active part in politics for another fifteen years, when he went straight into the Cabinet as Colonial Secretary. Within four months he was Foreign Minister. From then onwards he remained a major political figure until the débâcle of the Crimean War forced his resignation as Prime Minister, in 1855. By then he had played a decisive part in fusing Whigs and Peelites into what was to become the Gladstonian Liberal Party.

Aberdeen’s 18th-century formation and early experience shaped his lifelong attitude to politics. In domestic matters he was a pragmatic reformer who supported Catholic emancipation and he was more insistent than Russell on the need for an extension of the franchise, when the 1852 Election suggested that the first Reform Act had opened the door to corruption on an unprecedented scale. Abroad, he never forgot the twenty years of revolutionary warfare during which he had grown up. He had, after all, been invited to dinner by Napoleon when he was on his Grand Tour in 1802. Dedicated to the pursuit of peace as well as to the defence of British interests, he seems to have regarded the two as almost synonymous. He saw all Continental revolutions as a threat to both and had no time for Italian nationalists or Piedmontese expansionists. Not surprisingly, he got on well with Metternich and Guizot. For him, the Vienna settlement always remained a living reality as the guarantee of a stable and civilised European order. His qualities were those of a diplomat rather than a politician and his ability to see both sides to any question, even if it did mean that his policy papers were ‘essays’ rather than programmes for action, gave him a peculiarly non-insular view of European affairs which contrasted with that of most of his contemporaries. Even after the outbreak of the Crimean War he could present the Russian case to the House of Lords, which says more for his intellectual detachment than for his political judgment, in a country baying with war-fever. It was his tragedy, as leader of an uneasy coalition, with little support of his own in the Commons, to be pushed against his better judgment into hasty reactions that conflicted with his general policy of conciliation and, by confusing the Russians, perhaps helped to bring about an unnecessary war.

Dr Chamberlain draws a sympathetic portrait of a man whose warmth and humour in his private life, despite an endless succession of family tragedies, belied a public reputation for aloofness so pronounced that it even intimidated Gladstone before their first meeting. She is careful never to overdo her claims on Aberdeen’s behalf and she leaves the reader with the feeling that he was perhaps too good for politics. He was not naive and he was no pacifist; he was always prepared to resort to war in defence of British interests, but only as a last resort. Nonetheless, he seems somewhat out of his element in the world of Cavour and Napoleon III. Perhaps history is for the fanatical and the unscrupulous, which is a poor look-out for the rest of us.

Pitt had been Aberdeen’s guardian, Peel was his hero and Gladstone, to some extent, his disciple. There is a kind of progression here that transmitted some of the values of the 18th century into Victorian England, alongside quite a different pedigree that led from Canning to Palmerston and Disraeli. There were many others, too, that all went to make Victorian England a good deal more complicated than some of those who appear to its example perhaps understand. Ehrman, no doubt, would be happy in the contemplation of such diversities and contradictions. Dr Chamberlain had an easier job than his, in the sense that her subject was a more appealing man – and she was not saddled with the problems of a ‘central volume’. She has done it very well. Pitt needed no rehabilitation and Ehrman’s volume will add nothing to his reputation. Aberdeen did and it has been handsomely achieved. Posterity has made amends for the rather rough justice it had previously dispensed to him. He remains more of a technician than an inventor, but he looks a surer guide than Pitt in what will soon be 1984.