Review of 'William Pitt The Younger' by William Hague (2004)

Review by William W C Scott © 22nd August 2022.

Every thoughtful person should read this book.

Pitt is the ideal politician: the role model to be emulated. And might never be.

Pitt entered Parliament aged 21, refused the invitation to be Prime Minister, aged 23: because he could have no majority, p118. By then, he was already Chancellor of the Exchequer, p119. Again he refused the call from the King [George 3rd] p123. At the age of 24, in December 1783, invited again by the King, Pitt, at last, accepted, p132, 'on his own terms': Pitt was an independent, still with no majority, but at least the King needed him beyond any other.

How did this come about? Pitt's father had been the lone star of the House of Commons, beloved by many because of his honesty, integrity and ability [who, however, had made the mistake of becoming Earl of Chatham, thereby moving to the House of Lords, a somewhat less important chamber.] He himself brought up his son, assisted by tutors. The son did not go to school but studied hard as a child, often reading late at night. There was 'simultaneous translation': when the son would practise translating anything thrown at him [from Latin and Greek mainly; he later acquired French]. Oratory: fashioning a speech and declaiming it without preparation so that he became a rapid responder, and a formidable adversary in debate even before he went off to Pembroke College, Cambridge, aged 14, and occupied the rooms of the poet Gray, [of the Elegy, a few years before]. By then, Pitt 'could read into English six or seven pages of Thucydides (in Greek) without previous study and with hardly a mistake', p18. Mathematics was one of his strengths; and from it the powerful, persuasive, clarity of logic in everything he argued calmly, seriously, in the classical English of the time. Law also was studied. Called to the bar, in 1780, p46, he attended Lincoln's Inn aged 21 where, at a dinner, he met and confounded Edward Gibbon, author of The Decline and Fall..,p45, and bested him in public argument to the chagrin of the eminent historian. Elected to represent Appleby, [without ever going near it: landowners could tell their tenants how to vote] from the first, he took the House of Commons by storm and soon represented Cambridge University where he had taken a degree as a nobleman without examination, p28.

Pitt's performances in the Commons as a Chancellor had been masterly: the budget had never before been in such able and assured hands: a prodigy at statistics and instant computation, everything spontaneously available without notes. As First Lord of the Treasury (Prime Minister) it continued: one brilliant speech after another. Yet, at the beginning, the Fox-Lord North Coalition at first laughed at the youthful upstart now in charge. For months, Pitt lost vote after vote, [which meant he was head of a government unable to govern!] yet he refused to resign 'because he was performing a necessary duty to King and country', p159.

What marked out the Pitts, father and son, was integrity, loyalty to the country and ability more, arguably, than ever was seen before or since. In January 1784, The Clerkship of Pells fell vacant. That the P.M. had little money was well known and the sinecure would pay £3,000 a year. In those days when corruption was rife [An issue he was passionately eager to reform; another was catholic emancipation], he was expected to accept it himself, like everyone else. Not so! Like his father, he took no advantage of his position. Pitt awarded the sinecure to Colonel Barré, an MP and hero of Quebec, who also needed the money, p163. By this time in the nascent industrial revolution, the goings on at Parliament were being reported in newspapers. Soon, the opposition majorities were declining, petitions full of signatures of support were arriving from every city and town in the kingdom and Pitt received the Freedom of the City of London, when the carriage was taken over and drawn by voluble, excited supporters, who were then attacked by paid thugs of the opposition. In this way, Pitt became 'the hero of the people'. His honesty, integrity and ability were recognised. By now, he did have majorities and he was able to govern and the country was blessed by his administration for several years before the guillotine and war intervened.

The extent of Pitt's idealism can be estimated from the only attachment to a lady he ever made: Eleanor Eden, daughter of Lord Auckland. Their friendship had become obvious because of his many visits to her home Beckenham [close to his own country house, Holwood] and their mutual regard. Pitt could not go through with it. What his explanations to her father meant was probably: I am completely devoted to my job as head of the government and I cannot divide my time by marriage. My entire life is politics, even at leisure among my friends, trading classical allusions [he was leading tutorials all the time with his friends about the political issues current: his sole recreation]. Perhaps he was also worried, a little, by his debts which were mounting. How could he afford a wife? Yet, probably he never thought about his debts. At his death, his debts had swollen to £40,000. [£2 million today] p580. Pitt had been so busy running the country that his own debts were of no interest to him. He was severely cheated because of his absorption in the affairs of the nation. He often sent money to his mother and relatives, borrowing the money.

Once, the Exchequer was short of cash. He asked all his friends for immediate 'loyalty loans' to cover the shortfall. Some put in £100,000. He put in £10,000 himself which he did not have, borrowing it from Coutts, the banker and paid interest thereafter to the end of his life. £18 million was raised in 4 days; the position saved. Offered money by wealthy supporters, Pitt always refused. Independent and incorruptible to the last.

King George was hostile to both of Pitt's passions: reforming the rotten burghs, often MPs chosen by the landowner; equalising the number of seats [Cornwall had 14, Westminster 1]; preventing the buying pf votes with money and favours; and Catholic Emancipation: Pitt wanted to bring Ireland fully into the Union by appointing Irish peers to the Lords and Irish MPs to the Commons, opening trade both ways across the Irish Sea. Emancipation was the reason for Pitt's sudden resignation after seventeen years of brilliance at the head of government. Addington, his childhood friend, son of his doctor, the Speaker of the Commons, took the job at Pitt's insistence. But in a year or two, Pitt took back the job and died just short of twenty years in it.

What killed Pitt the Younger was over-work [with little assistance: he was doing the work of Foreign Secretary and Chancellor, as well as leading the country and the Commons] and, like his father, gout, for the belief of doctors then was that a bottle or two of port was good medicine [of course water would be often polluted]. That port and wine was causing gout was unknown. Many died of it. Leg joints are damaged by uric acid crystals.

In 1798, Pitt fought a duel, like Wellington in 1829; no harm done in either case. So he was in politics, body and soul. He was brave.

Pitt had a brilliant, accurate, inventive mind. The Sinking Fund into which large sums were paid every year to reduce the national debt (and the interest thereon) and income tax were his original ideas. His budgets were probably better than any ever. Always given without notes, made up spontaneously; his mastery of the nation's finances astonished everyone. The House of Commons was enthralled by his speeches and the classical allusions that often ended them. That the king was mistaken about Catholic Emancipation was correct. No one else would have seen that and, because of it, Britain was much more successful when it eventually took place. Pitt himself was responsible for the creation of a Royal Navy with a hundred ships of the line, greater by far, in every way, than any other navy afloat. From it came the vital victories of Jervis and Nelson at Cape St Vincent in 1797, Nelson at Copenhagen and the Nile, 1801, and Trafalgar 1805. After them, The Royal Navy was supreme for over a century with 600 ships. He tackled smuggling and solved it like almost everything else, acting nearly single-handed, as ever. His weaknesses? Procrastination, probably because he disliked approaches from people seeking honours, he who always refused them [gave the Order of the Garter, intended for himself, to his brother]. But he lived at a time when the idea of a secretariat hardly existed. He wrote instructions in longhand that could take a full year to reach their destination [eg Nootka Sound. Alaska, needed a ship to round the Horn and ascend the Pacific: S to N.] He took politics utterly seriously: it was his life, mapped out in childhood. He was calm in all difficulties, spoke clearly with great erudition but less approachable than many. His wit was in a class of his own but never caused hurt. His written language seems too extensive to a modern eye, used to an incisive, direct, style which gives great intensity. He was very sociable with his friends and a very good friend to them. He, it was, who suggested and encouraged Wilberforce to seek the abolition of the slave trade, a battle that took many years. When King George suffered his period of temporary insanity, and Fox sought to replace him with the young, dissolute George IVth, Pitt kept the wolves at bay and George 3rd eventually recovered. William Hague is one of a few who believe the younger Pitt told a lie to the Commons on one occasion.

Pitt ruled as PM for nearly twenty years with great skill in the most trying circumstances.

The Essence of Pitt? He saw what to do and did it accurately, rapidly and effectively. He was right every time. Eg Against all advice, he sent Nelson to the Mediterranean. The Battle of the Nile followed in which the French fleet was destroyed, its army cut off in Egypt.

William Hague has written an account of that life worthy of a starred first.

© William Scott, BA,BSc,MEd,FIMA,FSAScot