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.

For Ehrman to have thus enlarged his biography with a full-scale history is fully defensible, if not mandatory. Pitt probably had little private life, and even less is known about it. He was at the centre of British politics, which he dominated for virtually the whole of his political career. Pitt’s life was politics, and British politics were Pittite. Yet in this biography he is not submerged beneath the history. The theatre is crowded, the action is continuous, there are many actors, and even the audience is not neglected, but Pitt is never up-staged, just as he always remained centre-stage throughout his political life.

Ehrman’s knowledge is encyclopedic; everything that has been written on the Pittite era has been read and absorbed. Yet his vast knowledge does not lead him to fierce condemnation or obtrusive criticism. When he does state an opinion, it tends to be generous. Once or twice his caution verges on self-parody, as in his summary of the causes of the naval mutinies in 1798: ‘But when all has been said – when much has been discounted – it would seem only natural that, given developments at home and the pattern of distribution through the fleets, the Irish dimension, while not decisive, should not be ignored.’ As a rule, however, his reluctance to criticise or condemn adds verisimilitude to his book. Ehrman has discovered what happened, and he tells us. Everything is seen in the conditions of the day; hindsight is largely absent. So, too, is error. The nearest I came to spotting mistakes was, first, the ascription to Hazlitt rather than Blake of the lines, ‘To defend the Bible in this year 1798 would cost a man his life. The Beast and the Whore rule without control’; and, secondly, the statement that ‘a sovereign Belgium’ came into existence in 1815, although here he is in distinguished company: Byron refers to ‘Belgium’s capital’ in the third canto of Childe Harold.

If Pitt’s career during the last eight years of his life was in decline, he remained the master of the House of Commons. When he sat down in November 1797 after what a contemporary called ‘a most spirited speech to rally opinion’, the whole House rose to sing ‘Britons, Strike Home’. Nowadays a song or two would be a more interesting reaction to a good speech in the Commons than the current mindless waving of order papers, a habit which looks particularly silly on television. A singing House of Commons might even help to restore flagging public confidence in politicians and the political process. On the other hand it might not.

Nor were these years devoid of more substantial successes. In 1798, Pitt introduced income tax. This was not a strikingly original conception. Two years earlier Thomas Love Peacock, aged 11, had written that while he did not wish ‘Mr Pitt’s removal from his exalted station’, he thought Pitt ‘would have acted more in conformity with the wishes of the People had he taxed everyone according to their income’. Nevertheless, to raise taxes to pay for the war rather than rely on further loans, as advocated by the Foxite opposition, was brave; by doing so, Pitt preserved the British economy and financial system, which would have been jeopardised by the more popular Foxite policy. It was also fair, as the young Peacock had realised, since the poor were excluded from the tax. Pitt’s social attitudes were civilised. Earlier, he had recognised that those who ‘enriched their country with a number of children’ had a ‘claim upon its assistance for their support’. When, therefore, income tax was introduced, child tax allowances were also inaugurated.

Some of the poor needed more than exemption from income tax. Because of disastrous harvests in 1799 and 1800 real wages reached their lowest point for 250 years. The people were nearly ‘starving for want of food’, the President of the Board of Trade, the first Lord Liverpool, told the Cabinet in 1800, and in the coming winter were ‘likely to starve also for want of raiment’. Liverpool, who favoured strongly interventionist measures, thought it absurd to follow Adam Smith, who had ‘pushed his principles to an extravagant length and in some respects had erred’. Yet, as usual, the disciples were more dogmatic than their master. Smith had recognised that on food as on religion government had to yield to the ‘prejudices’ of the people ‘in order to preserve the public tranquillity’. In contrast, Pitt’s Foreign Secretary, Grenville, accepted the ‘almost mathematical certainty’ of Smith’s doctrine and thought interference with the market ‘impious and heretical’.

Pitt himself was nearer to Liverpool than to Grenville. It was unsafe, he told the House of Commons, ‘to adhere to any theory ... which excludes from its view those particular details, those unexpected situations, which must render the scheme of the philosophic politician in the closet inapplicable to the actual circumstances of human affairs.’ The actual circumstances were that food riots were widespread; by early 1801 government had virtually broken down in the South-West. Nevertheless, the Government’s relief measures, ‘impious and heretical’ though they were, together with private charitable giving and swarms of troops, prevented both anarchy and mass starvation.

The closing years of the century also saw the passing of the Combination Acts, which at first sight seems out of tune with Pitt’s normal conduct. Yet, eight years before, the French Revolutionaries had similarly prohibited all combinations of workmen, and in Britain most combinations were already illegal. For once Pitt was not on top of events. As Ehrman says, he was ‘vague on the subject’. Sheridan remarked that Pitt was ‘wholly ignorant’ of the bill, and a year later Pitt could not remember its details. Similarly, after the Combination Acts were repealed in 1824, the Prime Minister, the second Lord Liverpool, said that he had not been aware of ‘the extent’ of the 1824 Act and until it came into operation did not ‘know its provisions’.

Such ignorance was much more characteristic of Liverpool than Pitt. But however surefooted were Pitt and his cabinet at home, they were indecisive in their conduct of the war. George III justifiably deplored their too many ‘orders and counter-orders’. This ineptitude for war did not spring from squeamishness Pitt could be ruthless when required. He and other ministers were involved in the attempts to assassinate Napoleon in Paris in 1800 and, almost certainly, similarly involved in the successful assassination of the Tsar Paul in 1801. Yet Pitt lacked a grasp of strategy and made little effort to acquire one.

It was not, however, the war but Ireland, or rather George III, which brought his resignation. Burke had earlier complained that the English were not interested in Irish affairs. Remarkably, this dearth of interest even extended to Pitt himself. Initially, he and the Cabinet accepted the principle of union with Ireland on ‘a Protestant basis’. But when Catholic support seemed necessary to get union accepted in Ireland, ministers changed their minds and favoured Catholic Emancipation. Unfortunately, George III, who always found it difficult to change his mind, was convinced that for him to consent to Catholic Emancipation would be to break his coronation oath, clinging to this belief even though Kenyon, the Lord Chief Justice, had a few years before advised him in guarded terms to the contrary.

For once Ehrman does not provide a full discussion of the question. At his coronation George III had sworn

to maintain and preserve inviolately the settlement of the Church of England and Ireland and the doctrine, worship, discipline and government thereof as by law established within the kingdoms of England and Ireland ... and to preserve unto the bishops and clergy of England, and to the Churches there committed to their charge, all such rights and privileges as by law door shall appertain unto them or any of them.

On the face of it, therefore, George III had a good case. He did seem to have sworn not to allow such outlandish innovations as destroying the Anglican monopoly of the highest offices. Yet it was inherently improbable that the Parliament of 1689, which was legalising the removal of one king for having exceeded his powers, would have intended to give them back to his successors and, in Macaulay’s words, to ‘exact from [them] a promise that he will put a Veto on laws which [they] may hereafter think necessary to the wellbeing of the country’. In fact, the debates of the Convention Parliament show that the politicians of the day were seeking to fetter the King in his executive capacity – that is to say, to prevent him behaving like James II – and not in his legislative capacity.

Such niceties were beyond George III, who was in any case about to undergo another of his spells of porphyria or madness. Pitt knew that the King believed that ‘no country can be governed where there is more than one established religion’ and had misinterpreted his coronation oath to impose on him a duty to preserve that one establishment, Yet Pitt allowed the situation to drift out of control. He did little to line up the Cabinet behind him and nothing to disabuse the King of his misunderstanding of his oath or even tell him anything of what he himself had in mind. Instead, he allowed the King’s misunderstanding to be strengthened by one of his ministers. Loughborough, the Lord Chancellor, of whom Junius thirty years before had said that even treachery could not trust him, had earlier given an opinion different from Kenyon’s and now fed the King’s suspicions of Pitt’s intentions. Pitt’s delay in conveying these to his sovereign proved disastrous, for at a levée the King said in a loud voice that he would look on any man who proposed Catholic Emancipation to him as his ‘personal enemy’. A few days later Pitt resigned in favour of Addington and then made matters worse by promising never to bring forward the Catholic question again. Without emancipation. Cornwallis, the Viceroy of Ireland, had warned Pitt, England would be making a union ‘with a party in Ireland’ instead of with ‘the Irish nation’. Catholic Emancipation was fatally postponed for 28 years; George III had wrecked any chance of Britain uniting with ‘the Irish nation’.

Later on, Addington was an inadequate home secretary, perhaps the worst until very modern times, but he proved a much better first minister than almost anybody expected. George III’ verdict on him was that there was one thing wanting in him as a minister, and that was talents. The public verdict was even harsher. Addington was widely derided, yet the performance of his ministry was respectable. Nevertheless, if Pitt was to return to office, which he and most of the political world desired, he did not see how ‘under any circumstances’ he could join a government without being at the head of it. From anybody else such an ultimatum would have seemed intolerably arrogant, but from Pitt it seemed a sober statement of fact. Pitt, said Lord Moira in 1804, ‘can never be subordinate in any “Cabinet”’.

That was still the general view even after several years of decline. Almost throughout the period covered by this volume, Pitt’s health was deteriorating, and so were his political powers, although his oratory remained as powerful as ever. Neither his formation in 1804 of a dull, second-rate government, the consequence of his bowing to George III’s obstinacy in refusing to allow Fox to enter the ministry, nor its generally inept performance dented his reputation. When Pitt died in January 1806, having declined the last sacrament – he was unusual in observing not even the outward forms of religion – the public and private grief were genuine. His going was considered to have left a void. Even Fox found ‘something missing in the world – a chasm or blank that can not be supplied’.

Pitt’s life lasted only 46 years. John Ehrman has spent almost as long researching the three majestic volumes of his biography. Vast stamina has been needed as well as an unrivalled understanding of Pitt, great literary skill, historical sympathy and limitless erudition – a combination of qualities which has produced the major political biography of the last half-century.