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Boy Premier

From the August 15 / August 22, 2005 issue: A life of the youngest man ever to inhabit 10 Downing Street.

Aug 15, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 45 • By MAX BOOT
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William Pitt the Younger

by William Hague

Knopf, 556 pp., $35

THE GREAT PARADOX OF LIBERAL democracies is that they seldom do a very good job of preparing for war but, once it arrives, they usually prove to be much more resilient and much less "decadent" than their illiberal enemies had expected. Even with the winds of war gathering, free countries are often led by such feckless leaders as James Buchanan, Aristide Briand, Edouard Daladier, H.H. Asquith, or Neville Chamberlain. Yet when all seems lost they almost invariably summon forth a lion to save them--a George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, or Franklin Roosevelt, a Georges Clemenceau or a Charles de Gaulle, a David Lloyd George or a Winston Churchill.

Two great exceptions--the only major wars lost by Britain and the United States in modern times--show how important it is to have such a leader. Under the inept leadership of Frederick Lord North, England failed to defeat the American bid for independence, while under the equally inept leadership of Lyndon Johnson, the United States failed to defeat North Vietnamese aggression.

William Pitt, father and son, were no LBJ or Lord North. (In fact, both of them were at political loggerheads with North.) They were more in the Churchill mold. Pitt the Elder (later the Earl of Chatham) guided Britain to victory over France, Austria, Russia, Saxony, and Sweden in the Seven Years' war (1756-1763). His son, Pitt the Younger, was not so fortunate, dying in 1806, nine years before Napoleon was finally vanquished. But he nevertheless provided indomitable and indispensable leadership during the darkest days of the struggle against revolutionary France.

In the pantheon of wartime greats, Pitt the Younger was one of the odder ducks. A political prodigy, he entered Cambridge at 14 and Parliament at 21, where he immediately established a reputation as one of the greatest orators in an age of great oratory. (After his maiden speech, Edmund Burke proclaimed that Pitt "was not merely a chip off the old 'block' but the old block itself.") By 23, having audaciously rejected offers of lesser office, he was chancellor of the exchequer and, a year later, the youngest prime minister in British history.

He would go on to hold the top office, with only one brief interruption, for a total of almost 19 years, much longer than Churchill, William Gladstone, or Margaret Thatcher. His tenure ranks in longevity behind only one man, Sir Robert Walpole, who served from 1721 to 1742.

Notwithstanding his peerless pedigree and invaluable connections, there was nothing inevitable about Pitt's rise, certainly not at such a ridiculously young age. For a politician, he was remarkably uninterested in cultivating other politicians. Outside of a circle of close friends, which he made no attempt to expand, he was, in the words of a contemporary political diarist, "cold, stiff, and without suavity or amenity." A lifelong bachelor, he was in all likelihood Britain's only virgin prime minister. Despite innuendo linking him to his protégé (and future prime minister) George Canning, there is no record of a sexual liaison with anyone, male or female.

"I am the shyest man alive," he once confessed--hardly an ideal qualification for a lifetime in politics.

Pitt was sickly, bookish, and intellectual, enjoying nothing more than to read classical texts in the original or to work out abstruse algebraic equations. (His ability to pull out Latin aphorisms at the drop of a cocked hat impressed his fellow members of Parliament.) His direct knowledge of foreign countries was limited to one short trip to France. He knew even less of military affairs. Though he came of age during the American War of Independence, it apparently never crossed his mind to don a red coat, nor did anyone expect him to do so. He disarmingly confessed, "I distrust extremely any Ideas of my own on Military Subjects."

The mystery of how, despite it all, Pitt became Britain's longest-serving war leader is ably explained in this biography. William Hague, who first gained national prominence when he addressed a Conservative party convention at age 16, and who assumed the party leadership in 1997 when he was just 36, seems perfectly placed to chronicle the fortunes of an earlier prodigy. He now has the leisure to write because he was not quite as successful as his hero. After losing in a landslide to Tony Blair in 2001, Hague resigned the party leadership. He continues to sit in parliament, but as a backbencher, which leaves him time for other pursuits.