- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 5, 2005



By William Hague

Knopf, $35, 576 pages, illus.


William Pitt the Younger stands out among the figures who defined modern British politics. Chancellor of the Exchequer at the age of 23 in 1783 and then prime minister 18 months later, Pitt’s rapid ascent eclipsed the memory of his father who had been the hero who won the Seven Years War. Only Sir Robert Walpole, the first prime minister, held power longer. Pitt dominated politics to his death in 1806 which left a vacuum in the midst of the Napoleonic Wars. He had brought stability to the confused politics brought by the American War in 1780s and developed an effective partnership with George III that his father had never enjoyed.

Pitt’s rivalry with Charles James Fox defined politics for a generation, laying the foundation for the emergence of the two-party system. While the young prodigy made his name as a financial reformer, he later gained fame as the “pilot who weathered the storm” brought by the French Revolution. James Gilray’s famous cartoon depicting Pitt and Napoleon carving up the world between them in 1805 captures his role in the great contest with France.

William Hague’s biography provides a welcome opportunity to reassess Pitt’s role. Like his subject, Mr. Hague entered politics as a prodigy of sorts after addressing the Tory Conference as a teenager, but he had the misfortune to gain prominence at an inopportune moment as his party’s fortunes slipped into rapid decline with Tony Blair’s election victory in 1997.

His effectiveness in debate failed to drive Mr. Blair from office, and Mr. Hague stepped down from the Tory leadership after the 2001 election. Having retired from frontbench politics, Mr. Hague has now adopted the path of Roy Jenkins who applied his parliamentary experience to interpret the lives of William Gladstone and Winston Churchill. Many scholars fail to appreciate how politics really works, and Mr. Hague’s biography brings his experience to bear on a figure who clearly shaped his own ambitions.

Pitt was marked for greatness from an early age. His father had been prime minister before quarreling with George III, and his mother’s family, the Grenvilles, led an important parliamentary faction. A precocious and serious boy, Pitt’s gravity drew the notice of Charles James Fox’s mother who remarked that the young Pitt would cause her slightly older and much less disciplined son no end of trouble. As a younger son, Pitt did not inherit his father’s earldom, but he had been trained for a political career and his formidable intellect benefited from wide reading and a classical education. He had the talent of presenting a case logically and distilling complex points into a clear argument. Applied to finance and public administration, the combination made Pitt a formidable parliamentarian.

His career began at a particularly fluid moment when the American war and the collapse of Lord North’s government threw politics into confusion. North’s alignment with Fox and Edmund Burke complicated matters further. The king would not accept Fox or Burke, and he saw North’s juncture with them as a betrayal, but without an alternative leadership that could manage business in the House of Commons he had little choice. Despite his youth, Pitt’s willingness to serve allowed George III to drive the Fox-North coalition from office.

Pitt held back at first, insisting on his own terms, and he faced a turbulent early period until March 1784. With a majority from the general election that spring, Pitt held a secure position that only grew stronger through the 1790s. He had solid backing from the king who relied upon him as a barrier to Fox and popular support in the country. Pitt and his political allies dominated British politics into the 1820s and cast the Foxite Whigs on to the margins.

Behind these events lies an interesting story that deserves further study. Mr. Hague and Pitt’s older scholarly biographers like John Ehrman describe him as an actor in the overthrow of the Fox-North coalition. Their view fits the old patriotic narrative depicting Pitt as the infant Hercules of politics and casts him as the Conservative party’s founder. Pitt always called himself an independent Whig, and like his father disparaged the view of party that Fox embraced and Burke created.

While Pitt held office on his own merits and determination, a strong case exists that he gained it from the maneuverings of others like George III’s friend Charles Jenkinson who understood political manipulation. They played a vital part in bringing Pitt to power and building a party to sustain him through the subsequent general election. These men did almost as much to lay the foundation for the Pittites supremacy of the early 19th century as Pitt himself.

Pitt’s relationship with his protgs laid the basis for the legend along with the start of what historians have called the second Tory party. Mr. Hague captures the contradictions in Pitt’s personality, and their impact on his life and career. Deeply reserved in public, Pitt nonetheless formed close bonds among a narrow circle of family and friends with whom he relaxed. Respect bolstered Pitt’s authority in parliament more than personal affection, but Mr. Hague recounts stories of boisterous fun and hard drinking with intimates that show a different side.

Pitt brought Canning, Castlereagh, and Jenkinson’s son the future Lord Liverpool to political prominence during the 1790s, and they repaid his friendship with deep loyalty that extended through a wider political connection after his death. The men who defeated Napoleon, reconstructed a stable European political order after Waterloo, and began to reform the 18th century institutional framework known as “Old Corruption” saw themselves as following Pitt’s lead.

What was that lead? No prime minister could survive without the ability to manage both public finance and the House of Commons, and Pitt applied these skills in the 1780s to reform the tax system and restructure government debt. His fiscal policies increased revenue and trade while reducing smuggling, and their success gave Britain the strength to resist French aggression from the 1793.

The American war, which spread globally after France and Spain intervened, had left Britain diplomatically isolated as well as burdened with debts and political turmoil at home. Pitt gradually rebuilt Britain’s position, taking a greater part in defining policy as the 1780s proceeded. He largely succeeded in promoting a favorable order in Europe, despite overreaching in his challenge to Russia over Turkey in 1792.

The upheaval brought by the French Revolution caught Pitt by surprise, and he proved less successful in war than peace. Part of the problem lay in Britain’s predicament as a maritime power unable to sustain a European coalition that could defeat France, and Pitt’s maritime strategy brought a deadlock with Britain ruling the seas and France controlling Europe. Napoleon’s victory at Austerlitz marked a final disappointment that hastened Pitt’s death.

Although his 1805 memorandum on British war aims shaped later policy, Napoleon’s defeat and the subsequent rebuilding of Europe fell to his political heirs. Mr. Hague presents a man whose biography can be read as both a triumph and tragedy. Pitt stands as the most effective British politician of his day, and he set in motion policies that shaped the transition from the 18th century system to global power.

His achievements helped weather the storms brought by social change at home along with war and revolution abroad, and Mr. Hague rightly credits him with strengthening Britain’s political institutions. But overwork, ill-health, and alcoholism took a bitter toll that brought an early death. Pitt lived a public life defined by achievement and service, and those very commitments drove him to the breaking point.

William Anthony Hay, an historian at Mississippi State University and Senior Fellow with the Foreign Policy Research Institute, is author of “The Whig Revival, 1808-1830” (Palgrave-Macmillan).

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